“Don’t say GO VEGAN. Respond to the local context and challenges of your people.”
Queer, indigenous anti-speciesist activist Gerardo (Wotko) Tristan speaks to PAL about the intersectional approach to vegan activism, the need for women of colour to take centre stage, and his solidarity with the Palestinian Animal League and people of Palestine.
One day in the 1970s, a child was crying in Monterrey, Mexico. This child had raised his family’s pigs almost single-handedly, and just found out that they were being sold for slaughter.
“I threw rocks at the men who came to take the pigs. Everyone knew I attacked them and that I cried ‘like a girl’. People bullied me from then on, they thought I was crazy.”
Wotko learned that it was safer for him to hide certain important aspects of his identity. Racism against indigenous people was frequent – at school indigenous children were separated from wealthier, white children – so Wotko perfected his Spanish in order to better fit in. Growing up in a place where “queer kids were killed” also meant his sexual identity had to remain secret.
“From age 8, to age 27, I performed. I made myself more masculine, more tough, more Spanish.”
A new opportunity for hope opened up with the Zapatista uprising of 1994. This event challenged the dominant attitudes towards indigenous communities: “The EZLN were saying very important stuff for indigenous people, that we should be proud. This is when I started to move away from performing.”
Wotko travelled to Chiapas to support the EZLN, and met a young Zapatista mother who had lost her home and village to a fire. She told Wotko: “I’m happy because we contained the fire, and it didn’t reach the part of the jungle where the precious birds live.”
He had never heard anyone talk about animals the way she talked about those birds. Her words rekindled the interest in non-human animals that had been stifled in Wotko as a child.
Wotko has been an anti-speciesist activist for 13 years now. Three years ago he founded FaunAcción, an anti-speciesist organisation working to empower people in Mexico – especially women, people of colour, indigenous people, workers and trans people – with relevant tools for activism. They have already organised three conference in Mexico, focused on issues of food justice, reclamation and autonomy.
Colonisation is about making people hate themselves, including through their food
Traditional Mexican food is largely plant-based, made up of corn, beans and cactus. But traditional indigenous meals have become stigmatised in the process of colonisation.
“In Mexico we have thousands of plant-based meals, but are taught to hate these foods. We are told our food is lesser. The project of colonisation is about making people hate themselves, including through their food – making them hate what they grow, and cook.” He uses the racist slur frijolero (beaner) as an example.
International people often assume that Mexican food is full of meat and cheese, when in reality it is largely plant-based. Wotko was invited to speak in Berlin, and the hosts proudly informed him there were 10 completely vegan eateries in the city. There are over 45 completely plant-based eateries in Monterrey – but Berlin and other vegan-friendly cities are benchmarked as the vegan capitals of the world.
What’s more, in recent years US activists have been travelling to Mexico to promote vegan mock-meats and mayonnaise, without considering how promoting these alternatives as integral to veganism not only presents veganism as elitist but also as contradictory with traditional cuisines of Mexico.
This is making FaunAcción’s work harder: it’s making Mexican people think that veganism is not for them. Wotko said: “the AR movement is moving more and more towards consumerism, and we need to tackle that now.” “In the Molcajete (a food van project ran by FaunAcción) we travel around, especially in poor neighbourhoods, to share and talk about food. Our materials don’t say “Go Vegan” – they are about the defence of the corn, against Monsanto, and telling people we love their food: old, indigenous recipes. We want people to get over the shame of their traditional food.”
I can’t afford to be a single-issue vegan
I asked Wotko what he thought about single-issue veganism – fighting only for justice for animals.
“Systems of oppression in my life aren’t experienced as separate. They are part of my daily fight to survive. I don’t think I can afford to be just a single issue vegan. I always say that I’m queer, and indigenous, and anti-speciesist. We can’t just pick veganism to talk about, because we can only do that because of our privilege. It’s so important to challenge white men who are very privileged and not even seeing that.”
“We need to be a movement that really responds to the local context because I feel that AR activism has always been developed in centres of power, and people that have influence and power are saying “this is the way we should do things, and these are the programmes/projects/priorities.” It would be much more beneficial for humans and non-humans to have work where you start from the context and respond to the challenges of your people.”
When Wotko emigrated to the US he could embrace his indigenous, sexual and anti-speciesist identity – although he still faced problems associated with being an undocumented immigrant. He joined an animal rights group, but there were many barriers to participation.
In the group people cared about animals – but not his identity. He would be given pre-written speeches to read to crowds of Mexicans in the US. Not only was this dangerous as someone without papers – it was also content written for completely the wrong audience. Wotko knew the speeches would not speak culturally to crowds of Mexicans, so he spoke instead about dismantling systems of oppression, for the benefit of everyone.
The AR movement has become a story of white men
“The AR movement, its leaders and representation, has become a story of white men. People keep asking me why I’m in this movement, saying the animal rights movement is racist, it’s just white people and they hate us, they’ve been doing all these bad things to indigenous people.”
“The majority of the world’s population is not white people, it’s people of colour, and lots of these people have distrust of white men. White men are reaching certain pockets of the population that are privileged, whether in Israel, Europe, Australia, or the US, but the majority of people isn’t touched. The white man is not an effective spokesperson, image, or face of the movement. That’s why we’re stuck, that’s why other movements aren’t taking us seriously.”
“Making these spaces more inclusive is a priority. It’s why we’re doing this tour, saying we exist as people of colour. It’s our responsibility to have these conversations and reimagine a different movement, and make a roadmap to creating this.”
“When I talk to people of colour, in radical spaces, they are surprised that an indigenous queer man is doing this. They are blown away that I am vegan. We need to be visible: people of colour, women, trans people, queer people, people with different disabilities. Bring these people to the forefront, they should be speaking up.”
Wotko said that if we don’t place emphasis on bringing women of colour to the forefront: “we’re going to be missing the train, we’re going to be so irrelevant, we’re going to be a joke. It’s the right thing to do to challenge power systems. In the long run, it’s the right thing for the animals.”
My deep love, admiration and solidarity with PAL, and the Palestinian people
“I’m in solidarity with Palestine, with their fight, and I feel they have a lot of similarities with indigenous people. I am always supporting the fight of our brothers and sisters in Palestine. I would love to learn more, even dreaming to go there and meet the Palestinian Animal League and see their work. Our movement in Mexico is so young and we have a lot to learn. I have words of admiration for their work.”
“PAL have my respects and admiration because they work under tremendous circumstances, under occupation, and still extend compassion to non-human animals. I would love PAL to come to Mexico and talk to us about their work. On this tour we are having the same conversation over again about how to empower leaders of colour, so the AR movement can one day become truly diverse. I would love for PAL to come to talk and share their work because that would be so powerful. We have so much to learn. My deep love, admiration and solidarity with PAL, and with Palestinian people too.”
Wotko left me with some final words. “Whether you define yourself as vegan, or as anti-speciesist like me, we are not floating in a vacuum. We are people, we have a history, and a responsibility to see how our history comes with particular privileges.”
Visit the FaunAcción website.