In Mexico, where corruption is now rampant among state officials and organized crime is taking hold in local- and state-level government, homicides are frequently met with inaction and impunity. Al Jazeera reported in January that violence in Mexico reached unprecedented levels, with over 31,000 homicides in 2019. During the time that former President Enrique Peña Nieto was in office (2012-2018), violent acts against activists, and journalists in particular, increased substantially, often resulting in their disappearance or murder. At a time when the safety of individual human rights defenders is in constant jeopardy, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights has responded with an effective, but oft-forgotten form of protest and civic activism: theater.
On International Human Rights Day, December 10, 2019, an all-new production of Speak Truth to Power debuted in Mexico City. Based on the 2000 book of the same name, by RFK Human Rights president Kerry Kennedy, the play tells the stories of world-renowned heroes like South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. The updated version features four additional narratives from: María Herrera, founder of Familiares en Búsqueda (Families in Search); Idelfonso Zamora, a defender of the Great Water Forest in Mexico state; Miroslava Breach, a journalist who was assassinated in 2017 following the publication of her investigative work in La Sierra de Chihuahua; and Valentina Rosendo Cantú, an activist involved with Breaking the Silence: All Together Against Sexual Torture.
“I wish that we lived in a world where the figures of human rights defenders were not necessary,” Rosendo Cantú said in Spanish, during the evening’s presentation. Cantú, who is of Me’phaa descent and a survivor of sexual torture, continued, “It would be a utopia.”
Diego Luna (Y Tu Mamá También; Rogue One: A Star Wars Story), one of the many Mexican actors who graced the stage that night, declared, “To trust that the world can change, we have to make it change!” Following the performance, Luna said, “Thanks to the human rights defenders who are here. This is by and for you, so that you know that what you do is important to us.”
In a video celebrating the production, Ixchel Cisneros, director of El Día Después, also praised the defenders. “Because their work makes some uncomfortable, it’s reminding those in power that they are there to uphold the human rights of everyone,” Cisneros said.
Performance as protest has a long legacy. In taking to the stage, artists, activists, and actors continue to empower as change-makers who shape the destiny of their communities and gather people to challenge the dominant tide of the state and society. The powerful messages of theatrical productions, like Speak Truth to Power, can reach public officials and inspire broader political dialogue. They also have the potential to engage perhaps the most powerful demographic of all — the next generation.
Amalia Schiff, a theater teacher at the Bronx School for Law, Government and Justice, a public school that serves grades six through 12, is a staunch proponent of using theater to engage her students in human rights education and encourage them to become change-makers themselves. “Performing Speak Truth to Power has been a phenomenal way to introduce my students to the stories of inspirational human rights defenders from around the world,” Schiff said. “As they learn more about the characters they’re portraying, real men and women who refused to back down in the face of injustice, it’s inspired and emboldened them to be champions of equal justice in their everyday lives.”