Mexicans add modern tool to ancient art of protest: Facebook

[2 September 2008]

By Oscar Avila

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

MEXICO CITY - The protest is an art form in Mexico. Load up a bus by offering a meal or a few pesos as an incentive, arm the troops with signs and bullhorns, and find a strategic plaza or street for maximum attention or disruption.

But with outrage bubbling after the kidnapping and murder of a teenage boy, a 27-year-old teacher has found a new way to rally Mexicans, a modern tool known here by its English name: Facebook.

On a whim, America Aleman organized an anti-crime march on her Facebook page, the same one she uses to send party invitations to her 1,000 “friends.” In just two weeks, her event page added tens of thousands of supporters on the social-networking site, and Aleman became a regular on Mexico’s largest media outlets.

The Mexico City powerbrokers behind a competing march were so impressed by Aleman’s cyber-organizing that they asked to combine efforts and installed her on the steering committee for a candlelight march Saturday that drew more than 100,000 in Mexico City.

Although only a fraction joined via Facebook, Aleman’s efforts show how similar sites such as MySpace can hold sway in developing democracies. Earlier this year, those sites fueled “One Million Voices Against the FARC,” a series of marches against the leftist Colombian rebel group.

Some scholars worry that the Internet, rather than promoting democracy, can end up placing power in the hands of elites with online access. The majority of Latin Americans would find themselves shut out.

Only about 1 in 10 Mexican households, for example, has Internet access compared with about 55 percent of households in the United States, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the U.S. Census Bureau.

But in Mexico City, Aleman said she was moved to act after 14-year-old Fernando Marti, the son of a retail magnate, was abducted on his way to school. Marti was found weeks later, stuffed in a car’s trunk.

Much of the initial grief came from other young Mexicans, posting videos on YouTube and sending messages through Hi5, a Web site popular in Latin America.

Armed with her pink Apple laptop, Aleman told her Facebook friends: We have to do something. Aleman, who had once been assaulted at gunpoint, created a page touting a nationwide mobilization planned for Sunday.

With Facebook, users get word when their “friends” join an organization or plan to attend an event. If they are curious, they can access the event page and sign up themselves. With one click, they can spread the message to their own contacts.

Her march eventually merged with this past Saturday’s event, but the Facebook page became a multimedia forum for dialogue. Participants have posted videos, photos and news articles, including one showing that Mexico is the most vulnerable nation for kidnapping.

“That is unacceptable,” one participant lamented.

The news is supplemented by Aleman’s e-mails to participants, in which she urges them to attend. “Porfa,” she says, a casual way of saying por favor, or please.

“I don’t want to get this message out in the ‘formal’ way. We want to do in the way we young people talk, the slang, etc. That way, it comes off as real,” she said. “We need to get the youth to be part of it because we are the most cynical of all Mexicans.”

But the Internet mobilization has reinforced the undertones of class behind the march, which specifically responds to a spike in kidnappings in Mexico City. Those kidnappings often target rich Mexicans who can afford to pay ransom.

“We have poor women dying in 1/8the border city of3/8 Ciudad Juarez, but we don’t see national protests for them,” said Arturo Alvarado, a sociologist at the College of Mexico who specializes in security and democratic development. “This protest, and this issue, originates from the middle class and bourgeois, the ones affected by kidnappings.”

Luis Gomez, a political scientist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, added: “Every individual, in terms of human rights, has the same value. Nevertheless, in this country we are used to seeing more pressure when this happens to an elite.”

And then there is the question whether Internet protests are an empowering tool or yet another way to exclude those Latin Americans. For every Mexican contemplating an iPhone purchase, like Aleman, many more are trying to find their next meal.

In Venezuela, for example, President Hugo Chavez played the class card when university students organized a series of protests, relying heavily on chat rooms and text messages. They were nothing but spoiled little rich kids, he said.

But in Colombia, blogger Juliana Rincon said Facebook played an empowering role in the anti-FARC effort because opponents of the rebel group were given space to debate the issue and post links defending their positions. The movement also gained strength as it added support from abroad, including a simultaneous protest in downtown Chicago.

Still, Rincon was realistic about the potential and limitations of the Internet.

“I’m not sure how ‘democratic’ it really was,” Rincon said by phone from the Colombian city of Medellin. “Yes, anyone can register their opinion but, for someone living in the countryside, they generally don’t have the tools or knowledge to fully participate.”

Aleman defended Facebook organizing, and said Internet cafes were making the messages more accessible to the general public. She said the Internet can complement the activists who are passing out fliers at subway stations.

“I thought if I could go out there to protest, with one more person, that it would be fine,” Aleman said. “Thankfully, that ‘one other person’ has become thousands more.”

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