From Tehuacán, Mexico, the cradle of corn, to Manila and the bittersweet sugarcane fields, sowing peace and harvesting justice: Solidarity in Performance Art


The Filipino people are like a long-lost family that I did not know I had. We have so much in common as people and share a common history. Both the Philippines and Mexico survived the Spanish invasion in the 16th century. In fact, it was the Manila-Acapulco galleon trade that paved the way for the Spanish invasion of the Philippines.

My coming to the Philippines and meeting its people has been a voyage of reconnecting with a past and getting to know parts of myself. This voyage has made me understand the value of Madre Tierra – Mother Earth. The indigenous peoples of Mexico, the Nahua, were brought to the Philippines as slaves. Many Nahuatl words were adopted and popularized in the Philippines. This is why both countries have words such as chocolate, maize (corn), cacahuate (peanuts), and metate (grinding stone).

Knowing the Philippines has been like learning another version of the same story and history, and finding a path for rediscovering myself and my identity. The Filipino and Mexican peoples, despite having been invaded, looted and raped by the then colonizer, have both survived. In the midst of all the sufferings and pain, we have not lost our smiles and hopes of being happy. We are still singing, just like Victor Heredia in his song.

And to sing and dream is not easy, as there are now new types of invasions – mines, hydroelectric dams, pipelines – that displace our people, destroy Mother Earth and create divisions in the villages. Land and freedom are still the main demands of our people. Wealth is still in the hands of a select few, and there are many issues of injustice still to be resolved. And so it is that our pains and losses are fraternalized, but so are our hopes and the daily resistance that give birth to struggle, organizing and poetry.


The role of art and the artist

In this context, what is the role of art and the artist? How can we as performance artists contribute to create a society that is more just, and where human rights are respected? And if nothing that is human should be strange or foreign to us, this is all the more true for artists. As artists, we should be connected with what surrounds us and with the sorrows and love of the people. But in many cases, art unfortunately becomes a privilege, when it should be a human right. Art as a right and as an inherent act for every human being is relevant in our towns. It helps build citizens who are not only critical of their reality, but are also able to build a better world.


Celebrating the Solidarity In Performance Art (SIPA) project

The objective of Solidarity In Performance Art (SIPA) is to bring together performance artists from different parts of the world. The artists who participated this year in the Philippines came to share their poems with peace in mind – peace that means more than the mere absence of arms and confrontation, and that is based on social justice. The importance of holding this event is timely, as the Philippines are in a process of dialogue for peace between the Philippine government and the leftist group, the National Democratic Front of the Philippines.

During ten intensive days, the SIPA participants were able to get to know the Philippines and its realities, as well as exchange and learn from each other about what’s happening in their respective countries of origin. It was ten days of learning each other’s poetry and other forms of expression through the shared experience of the arts.

We performed in several cities in the Philippines. The first one was at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines (PUP) in Manila where we held over 20 performances on the main campus. Our visit to the University allowed us to meet with art students and many artists and cultural groups from the city of Manila. We also had the opportunity to meet members of the International League of People’s Struggle (ILPS), a global alliance of anti-imperialist organizations and mass movements. Members gave us a presentation on the current world political context.

Performing at PUP is a humbling experience as it has a long history of student activism. PUP is a national public university founded in 1904. We were told that most of the universities in the Philippines are private and therefore not accessible to the majority of people.

In Manila, we witnessed the vibrant milieu of performance art and artists thriving in the city. Personally, as a visitor coming from so far away, it was very interesting to see how a network of performance artists has been constructed in Asia and how easy it is to travel to participate in festivals and build strong ties.

Our group also made a short visit to Lipa City in the province of Batangas (south of Manila). The organizations that we met received us with generosity, warmth and amazingly good food! Some local performance artists from Lipa joined us in presenting artistic creations. It was a very moving moment, sharing our art and understanding the world. We were also invited to listen and get a better understanding of the local people’s agenda for the peace negotiations between the National Democratic Front and the Philippine government. The performances and the exchange created a perfect space for discussions on the role of the arts and artists for peace.

In Bacolod City (Negros Occidental) we proceeded to the University of Saint La Salle and had a very interesting visit at the Museo Negrense de La Salle and the Jose Garcia Montelibano Textile Arts Center, the biggest international folk textile collection in the Philippines. In the Textile Arts Center, it was like taking thin threads that crisscross the seas, and we felt and saw the similarities in the embroidery from different parts of the world. We also learned the importance of the sugarcane industry in the region as the main economic motor, and how the lives of the workers are defined by it. At the Textile Center we also learned about the Maskara Festival that is held every third weekend of October in Bacolod City. The festival first began in 1980 during a period of crisis. The province relied on sugarcane as its primary agricultural crop, and the price of sugar was at an all-time low. This was the first Maskara Festival during a time of tragedy. In the midst of these events, the city’s artists, local government and civic groups decided to hold the Festival of Smiles because the city at that time was also known as the City of Smiles. Nonetheless, the colours of the festival hid the real colour of exploitation, as the sugarcane workers lived on a day-to-day basis. We SIPA participants were given an open space in the University to motivate the students with our diverse performances. We had a rich exchange with the art students and it was very gratifying to see their interest and how our performances touched them.

Our last stop was in Escalante City, also in Negros. In Spanish, Escalante is a play of words – La escala antes – the lay-over before our return back home.

I would say that the most emotional part of our journey was in Escalante City. We were welcomed by the Teatro Obrero (workers’ theatre), with performances of political skits, songs and workshops in haciendas and hamlets. The artists integrated us wonderfully in their artistic work and in the communities they’re involved in.

When we arrived we were told the story of the Escalante massacre of September 20, 1985, when 20 people were murdered by the Filipino army during a rally against the wave of human rights violations occurring under martial law imposed by then dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Every year for the past 31 years, local people along with various organizations and cultural workers have performed a re-enactment of the Escalante massacre in the exact place where it happened in the streets of Escalante. An important theatre festival is also organized in Escalante.

Teatro Obrero and SIPA delegates were also encouraged to join in a community immersion initiative to find out more about how the people from the community live and witness the exploitative conditions in sugar production. The participants also attended other activities commemorating the massacre of Escalante, such as the “night walk” with torches as well as rallies and cultural events joined by people from several neighbourhoods of Escalante.

After a full day of activities, we were brought to the exact place where the massacre had occurred. It is an area steeped in tears. Pain and history are written all over it, and its scars are still wide open to see and feel. As a group, we decided to perform at this place and use our intuition by listening and being receptive, to let ourselves be inspired. Little by little, people arrived to see our performance and then later joined us to share a creative moment.

In the nearby city of Toboso, some members of the SIPA group did a performance to welcome the sugar workers and the people who participated in the rally and other commemoration activities.

Back in Escalante, SIPA participants also had the opportunity to present a collective performance at the Escalante City Coliseum as part of the Community Theatre Festival. Our performance lasted 30 minutes, and we intertwined our different actions in the play with far greater intensity and depth of feeling than what we had initially worked on. For this performance we incorporated important elements of the community, in a literal or metaphorical way: carabao (water buffalo), sweat, sugar, sugarcane, work, sounds, time, corn, education, invisibility. The performance ended with the public interacting and joining us to form the symbol of peace in the ground. We stated, “Peace is a collective process, it includes the creation of memory to avoid more massacres and injustices. It is built step by step with every person, and everyone is responsible to make it last.”

Teatro Obrero led the different groups participating in the 1st Community Theatre Festival for the Massacre Re-enactment. The day of activities started with a rally. From the start, it was a difficult experience to participate in, even in the rehearsals, as it brought back many memories for those from the community who were now participants but had either lived through it or had heard of what had happened thirty-one years ago. To rekindle this event is like constantly reopening a wound. After the re-enactment, the actors and the community members stood next to the monument of the murdered people, screaming, whispering and thinking: “we don’t forget you, we are here!”

We concluded the SIPA tour by singing this:
Despite everything… we still sing…
We still sing the carabao dreams
Between the sugarcane stalks we sing
and the sun is burning our faces, but still we sing
so that the sugarcane will not be bitter.
And the land becomes ours again
between the sugarcane stalks, just like the carabao
we trace the rows sowing dreams and
harvesting justice.
because when we sing, we are fighting
because when we sing, we are also fighting
and the land is ours, our land, she smiles at us
and offers us maize, casava, lanzones and rambutans
Between the sugarcane seedlings,
we organize the resistance
and we dream of peace,
just like the carabao dreams of cooling down his body.
And the sugarcane is a spear
and my sweat is blood
that has not run in vain
because this land is our land.

Inti Barrios describes herself as a storyteller who mixes performance, narration and formal theatre. She was born in Tehuacán, Puebla, Mexico. Barrios studied classical to contemporary theatre arts at Ibero University and in CasAzul in México. In 2006, she founded the theatre group Costureras de Sueños and wrote The maquila monologues, which is about the conditions of sweatshop workers. The group travelled throughout different sweatshops in México, Nicaragua, Honduras and Canada (Montréal), bringing the play to factory workers on their own terrain. Barrios decided to remain in Canada, and lived for five years in Montréal. She has been involved with human rights and civil society organizations. She travelled to the Philippines in 2016 as part of the Solidarity in Performance Art (SIPA) project. She is also a member and artistic advisor of Le bloc d’artistes of the Immigrant Workers Centre in Montréal, a creative space for immigrant cultural workers whose situation is precarious. Through her art as a storyteller, she hopes to raise awareness around feminism and social movements, and create the energy and intensity of feelings to promote change.

Joyce Valbuena is a member of the Centre d’appui aux Philippines/Centre for Philippine Concerns (CAP-CPC), a Montréal-based solidarity group of Filipinos and non-Filipinos in Québec who are concerned to end the situation of repression and exploitation in the Philippines. CAP-CPC is a member of the International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines, and the International League of Peoples’ Struggle.