“Vieques is our home”: 24 years of the Vieques Women’s Alliance

“Vieques is our home”: 24 years of the Vieques Women’s Alliance

The alliance is revitalized with a series of activities that seek to attract and train young women on political organizing to promote the human rights of the people of Vieques.

By: Laura M. Quintero y Camille Padilla Dalmau

The artist is an 11-year-old Sophia Paola Rivera Rodríguez; her ‘workshop’, a classroom at María Simmons School in northern Vieques. There are about 30 women gathered, and Sophia has been given the complicated task of expressing the social problems that affect the women of Vieques: the lack of secure roofs, domestic violence, as well as the need for food security, housing, mental and reproductive health. Sophia reflects, along with others, on the impact and meaning found within each of these issues. She picks up her sponge and paintbrush, and pours her ideas onto the bodies of other young Viequenses.

Five women, between the ages of 7 and 24, pose as living statues, the name given to this instrument of political protest. They are painted —from neck to toes— in different colors: green, yellow, purple, red and pink. These women literally use their bodies as a means of protest. They reject the idea of the body as a mere object of desire. Instead, they prefer to speak of liberated, empowered bodies; those that appropriate public spaces and occupy their land and resources.

Living statues at Jornada de Mujeres Viequense 2023 Photo by Camille Padilla Dalmau
The goal of the Jornada de la Mujer Viequense 2023, organized by the Viequense Women’s Alliance from May 4 to 7, is to empower women’s leadership. This initiative is part of a series of meetings and talks, which the women have been holding since December 2022, to train young leaders in community organizing and defend the human rights of the Viequense people. Their meetings have also sought to join the efforts of the different organizations.

“We are celebrating 24 years of this organization that has served to give a space and an opportunity to women in Vieques, so they can empower themselves and go out to the streets and claim what they justly deserve,” said Judith Conde Pacheco, co-founder of the alliance, in an interview with 9 Millones.

The alliance was founded on May 14, 1999, after the murder of David Sanes, a guard who died as a result of the Navy’s bombing of the Cerro Matias observation post. The mobilization and human rights campaign, since then, has carried the slogan “Vieques is our Home.”

"Our backyard was used for military exercises. Today, the threat to our home is that we are being displaced... It is no longer the military force. It is other individuals —foreign capital—  different forces. It is interesting because, against the military corps, we had like that gate  —a reference point, perhaps—  where we knew we could bring our protest or complaints. Now , it is an investor that lives who knows where," Conde Pacheco explained.

From 2014 to 2020, 15% of all housing units in Vieques were designated for short-term rental purposes. During the same period, short-term rental units accounted for 75% of the rental housing market, according to an analysis by the Center for the New Economy. Twenty years after the United States Navy ceased its bombing in Vieques, which was commemorated on May 1, 2023, the women have once again taken on the task of rescuing their land, explained Conde Pacheco, along with some of the young members of the alliance.
Living statue painted in purple with letters saying "freedom" represents domestic violence. Photo by Camille Padilla Dalmau

“We understand that displacement manifests itself in different ways: not having a birthing center is a way of displacement,”
reflected Andrea Malavé Bonilla, a 24-year-old member of the alliance.

The delivery room of the Centro de Diagnóstico y Tratamiento (CDT) Susana Centeno, located in the island municipality, closed eight years ago due to problems with its structure and its ventilation system. The construction of a hospital in Vieques, financed with Hurricane Maria recovery funds, has continued to be delayed.

“We can see the displacement from the investors buying and spending thousands of dollars, but also from the government when it eliminates essential services,” she added.

Malavé Bonilla explained that a high incidence of early pregnancy has been reported in Vieques. A gynecologist visits Isla Nena only once a week. Currently, there is no obstetrician treating Vieques women. Among the youth, there is little sexual education about contraceptive methods; alternatives to terminate pregnancies are not even available. Moreover, there are hardly any psychological services for the Viequense population, she added.

These social problems and others, which were captured in the living statues, were seen in the results of a survey of needs distributed among the women of Vieques. This will be the focus of their next actions, Malavé Bonilla said. “We are holding meetings, dialogues, workshops and education initiatives… We want more women to know about the alliance. We are in the stage of integrating young women into this (organizing) process,” she said.

Passing the baton

Although the alliance lost their physical space in Vieques’ town in 2010, the women remained involved in their respective communities and organizations, said the alliance’s co-founder. 

In 2021, the young activists faced challenges in mobilizing citizens to demand efficient maritime public transportation. It was then that they asked the alliance members to share the knowledge they gained in their efforts against the Navy. 

Andrea del Mar Malavé Bonilla, Judith Conde Pacheco and Katherine Martínez Medina Photos by Ana María Abruña Reyes / Todas / todaspr.com

They began meeting at the end of 2022, said Malavé Bonilla. There, the Alliance saw the birth of a new concept, duplas —pairing a young woman with a more experienced mentor—, that would help organize different activities.

“I never realized how innovative what they were doing was: fighting against a patriarchal system that was within the movement as well. Apart from taking out the Navy, there were multiple aspects of this effort, like ‘we are going to empower these women’, we are going to help them recognize sexual health, to work socially on what is happening within their homes,” summarized 33-year-old Karib Mar González Rivera. Karib is one of the young women who grew up with the alliance and is now taking on a leadership role.

About the Jornada de la Mujer Viequense, she described: “We are bringing the women together. We are going to bring them back! We’re going to take all that knowledge of the women who were there before and we’re going to pass the baton. That’s what we’re doing here: we’re learning from them. Maybe the younger ones teach the older ones about technology; the older ones teach us from their own experiences. The younger ones tell them, ‘Look, this is the social context now. We are going to update ourselves. These are our concerns,’ and we are bringing those new concerns, (and the) ones we inherited (because) they are problems that the Navy left behind.”

 Conde Pacheco expressed her gratitude for the support they received from collectives based throughout the Puerto Rican archipelago. Through shared knowledge, she stated that they have been able to strengthen the strategies implemented in Vieques: “We are all part of an archipelago, so we learned together many things that we are putting into practice for a new generation.”

Although vulnerability has been the driving force of the Vieques struggle, the presence of women, for decades, has been crucial in the community wins on Isla Nena:

“It’s sad because, unfortunately, (Viequense women) take action because they are in a position that forces them to take action. Since we are born, we are like ‘okay, let’s defend ourselves from this, from that,’ and we are always in it. And right now, in Vieques, the ones who are standing up for Vieques, precisely, are women,” González Rivera said.

Despite the challenges, the members of the Vieques Women’s Alliance have been empowered through the community they have created and their achievements.

“It’s very inspiring, and I’d say it’s a great triumph. Really, it’s a grand achievement, a great joy, and I just need to say that this is a legacy that we’re creating for this community, and those who are no longer here are loving it,” the community leader acknowledged.

La periodista Camille Padilla Dalmau dirigió el video reportaje y reportaje sonoro copublicado en La Sala de Todas. Laura Quintero adaptó la obra a versión escrita. El periodista Luis Alfaro Pérez colaboró con la corrección y redacción de este artículo.

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