Activists form a ribbon with their bodies at a Spanish fort in Puerto Rico.

Six hundred participants for a Ribbon of Love Against Sexist Violence in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on March 8, 2024.

(Photo: Julie Matthaei)

A Ribbon of Love Against Sexist Violence

On International Women’s Day in San Juan, Puerto Rico, 600 people came together to take a stand against violence against women and to call for education, not the penal system, as the primary way to eradicate it.

On March 8, the 50th anniversary of International Women’s Day, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, I participated in the Lazo de Amor Contra la Violencia Machista—the Ribbon of Love Against Sexist Violence. Six hundred people came together to take a loving stand against violence against women and against all forms of violence based in the traditional “machista” masculine gender role. Together, we called for the promotion of education, not the penal system, as the primary way to eradicate it.

The demonstration was organized by a team of seasoned activists, and sponsored by the Teachers’ Association of Puerto Rico (AMPR), the main teachers’ union. It took place on the grounds of the historic El Morro fort, symbol of Spanish colonization. We listened to a series of impassioned speeches from educators, activists, and students, decrying the epidemic of sexist violence in all its forms; calling out the failures of the penal system to rehabilitate offenders and to address the roots of violence; and calling on educators, the school system, and each of us, to take up the challenge of ending sexist violence.

Then we donned purple Lazo de Amor T-shirts, provided by the organizers, and formed the shape of a bow, similar to the ribbons people wear to represent commitment to a cause like AIDS awareness, MIA’s, and cancer survivors. We were photographed from the sky, taking our stand together. The organizers’ announced goal, represented by the Lazo, was to create an ongoing campaign for educating against sexist violence in the schools, to be expressed in yearly demonstrations.

The demonstration provided one of a multitude of potential answers to the core question that we progressive activists face as we work to shift the paradigm from fear to love: How can we use the power of love to transform our violent, fear-based practices and institutions?

Participating in the Lazo was a powerful experience for me. As an elder anti-racist, leftist feminist who has attended many demonstrations organized by many types of progressive movement over the past 50 years, I found it to be unusually empowering, uplifting, and inspiring. A demonstration against violence on the grounds of an historic colonial fort. The act of actually taking a stand together and being photographed doing felt like a work of political art. The presence of many men, also taking a stand against sexist violence. The sponsorship by a teachers’ union and preponderance of teachers and students, embodying the process being advocated for. And the naming, and calling on, of love as the true antidote to violence—rather than the greater violence of the state and the penal system. Fifty years after the declaration of the first International Women’s Day, feminism had come a long way from demonstrations where we marched in the streets to take back the night—without feminist men at our sides as our allies, and calling on the police as the main solution.

I was particularly excited by the naming of our ribbon as a ribbon of love. I am a retired professor of economics whose research has focused on the emergence, alongside of and within capitalism, of the solidarity economy—economic practices and institutions centered in cooperation, equity, democracy, sustainability, and pluralism. These new institutions are part of and require the emergence of a new paradigm of social life which is based on mutuality, unity amidst diversity, and love, within a crisis-ridden, dying paradigm based on competition, separation, violence, and fear.

So many of the metaphors and memes we use on the left to describe our work are conceptualized as a process of fighting against something, a violent activity that brings to mind traditional, macho masculinity. The naming of love as a powerful force, embodied in a purple ribbon against violence, captured my imagination, representing as it did the power of the strong feminine. Women and feminist men standing up for themselves and for others, against all forms of violence, using the power of love, caring, education, good mothering and fathering. The demonstration provided one of a multitude of potential answers to the core question that we progressive activists face as we work to shift the paradigm from fear to love: How can we use the power of love to transform our violent, fear-based practices and institutions?

I was extremely impressed by the ability of a small team of lead organizers to manifest this demonstration very quickly and beautifully. The Lazo de Amor was the brainchild of my friend Margarita Ostolaza Bey, a retired women’s studies professor and former senator, and her friend Gretchen Coll-Marti, a retired appellate judge and former executive director of Legal Services of Puerto Rico. On Valentine’s Day, only three weeks before, the two had the idea to create a Lazo de Amor Contra la Violencia Machista on International Women’s Day. Gretchen had created an AIDS Awareness Ribbon campaign during the 1990s. Held annually for eight years, it grew from 500 people to a campaign organized in all of the island’s schools that brought together 8,000 men, women, and children. The idea was to use the same method to mobilize energies to fight sexist violence.

Margarita and her wife, Ivelisse Rivera Almodovar, a retired public relations director, presented the proposal for the Lazo de Amor Contra la Violencia Machista to Professor Victor Bonilla Sanchez, the president of the Association of Teachers of Puerto Rico. He immediately and enthusiastically committed to the project. Ivelisse took on the huge task of quickly coordinating permits, sponsorships, media announcements, and the participation of spokespersons in radio, press, television, and social networks, along with the design of the ribbon. Essentially these three women came up with the idea, engaged the head of the teachers’ association, and started a campaign for feminist education against sexist violence which they hope to be ongoing and growing yearly, like Gretchen’s AIDS Awareness campaign, in the space of three weeks. Their story makes me wonder what other kinds of campaigns could be created to help bring the paradigm shift we all need.

Another interesting aspect of the Lazo de Amor Contra la Violencia Machista that I would like to flag is the involvement of corporate sponsors. In my experience, left and progressive circles have tended to avoid funding from for-profit businesses, focusing instead on non-profits. But for-profit firms inhabit a spectrum of positions on the value scale from “low-road,” narrowly profit-motivated firms—union-busting, polluting, price-gouging, etc.—to high-road businesses that embody the triple bottom line of people, planet, and profits. Students from the School at the University of Puerto Rico designed the Lazo, but Goya de Puerto Rico stepped up to provide financial support, and El Nuevo Dia, the main newspaper on the island; Channel 2 TV; and Radio Isla all provided free air time to promote it. We need to remember that progressive, for-profit businesses and social enterprises can be valuable allies in the paradigm shift, even though they are capitalist, and can and should be called upon for support.

One question you may be asking—how did this demonstration relate to the political parties of the island, and to the question of the island’s political status? Puerto Rico’s people have been deeply divided into political parties based on the issue of how to relate to the U.S.: the pro-statehood New Progressive Party (PNP), aligned with the U.S. Republican Party); the pro-Commonwealth Popular Democratic Party (PPD), aligned with the U.S. Democratic Party; the pro-independence Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP), aligned loosely with the left in the U.S.; or the new Citizens’ Victory Movement (MVC) party. This demonstration attempted to bridge these political divides and was not affiliated with any political party.

There were other demonstrations across the island commemorating International Women’s Day’s 50th anniversary. A coalition of left feminist groups, the Coalition of the 8th of March, put on a press conference. One of their members, the Colectiva Feminista en Construcción (Feminist Collective Under Construction), held a demonstration and blocked a highway, protesting against a wide range of oppressions, including the occupation of Palestine, Puerto Rico’s colonial status, and racism, along with sexism, violence against women, and anti-trans violence. Is there a place in our feminist imaginations and strategizing both for this show of force and courage, and for the Lazo de Amor? What are the strengths and weaknesses of each in terms of shifting the paradigm?

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