The Social Process of Activist Media in Mexico

Atenco Lives: Filmmaking and Popular Struggle in Mexico, by Livia K. Stone (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2019).

reviewed by Naomi Schiller, Brooklyn College, CUNY

Livia K. Stone’s Atenco Lives! Filmmaking and Popular Struggle in Mexico is an ethnography of  activist film making production and distribution. Stone argues that filmmaking is a tool to advance social change, but not in the ways mainstream technophilic fantasies prime us to expect. Activists use the process of media production, exchange, and distribution as a means to practice the kinds of ethical and  nonhierarchical social relations they want to enact more broadly. Forgoing efforts to change or upend state structures, which they experience as hopelessly unjust, these activists instead aim to transform themselves and their communities into ethical collective political subjects. In documenting and analyzing how people use and understand media production as a political tool, Atenco Lives! uncovers how popular activists in Mexico in the first decade of the twentieth century imagined, negotiated, and sought to build nonhierarchical collective power.

The Frente de Pueblos en Defensa de a la Tierra, or the People’s Front in Defense of the Land—Frente, for short—is a social movement based in San Salvador Atenco, a farming community on the outskirts of Mexico City. The Frente engaged in a successful battle, beginning in 2001, to stop then President Vicente Fox from constructing an airport on communal lands. The Frente later endured violent repression in 2006, and the state’s renewed efforts to build the airport. But the story Stone tells involves much more than local resistance to an airport. She explains that the Frente and their use of media practices emerged out of the Zapatista movement and a broader struggle against neoliberal capitalism, surveillance, and hundreds of years of violence and dispossession. Stone argues that media production and distribution became a significant aspect of a collective effort to enact local forms of ethical political practice, horizontality, and sovereignty.

Stone builds on the key insight first developed in the early 1990s by anthropologists Faye Ginsburg, Terence Turner, and others that media is a social practice. Activists create and circulate media in ways that make and remake individual subjectivities, collectivities, and power hierarchies. The processes of production, circulation, and distribution are often far more important than the content of media. Yet, even while this argument is firmly established in anthropology, the mainstream repetition of claims about the horrific or redemptive power of media technology makes it clear that an anthropological perspective on media as a social practice bears reiterating and renewing, as Stone does to great effect.

Stone’s careful ethnography is a much-needed rejoinder to persistent efforts to grant technology agency rather than the people and social relations that produce media, make it move, and endow it with meaning. Stone illuminates why film footage, as documentary evidence, is not a guaranteed means to hold people accountable for their actions; rather, she argues that the context of power and social relations in which film circulates shapes whether or not visible evidence of violence can be successfully mobilized to seek justice. Efforts to use film footage to hold state agents accountable in Mexico have, in fact, been only minimally successful. Stone draws useful parallels with recent conversations in the United States about if and how film footage (captured by body cameras or on cell phones) can produce police accountability for violence against black people.

Frente activists attempt to produce egalitarian relations in part by condemning behavior that they consider to show protagonismo, by which they mean selfishness and personal ambition. Stone draws on rich interviews to explore the ways that fellow activists use accusations of protagonismo to discourage hierarchy within their collective, and ultimately to counter antidemocratic authoritarianism more broadly. It is remarkable that during this same period, for activists elsewhere in Latin America, protagonismo signified a diametrically opposed sense of collective decision-making; in Argentina and Venezuela, for example, protagonistic democracy connotes the leadership and self-determination of the poor. Stone’s research prompts questions about how social movements across the region did or did not communicate or share a vision about how to bring about social transformation, even as they shared similar approaches to media-making.

Stone notes that Frente activists had “no clear political alternative to liberal (or neoliberal) democracy” (p. 108). Indeed, she finds that “the critique of protagonismo does not have a particular social order in mind” (p. 92). Whereas elsewhere in Latin America at this time, social movement actors working under leftist governments were embracing a language of socialism and, to different degrees, the work of trying to remake state institutions, for Frente activists in neoliberal Mexico the liberal democratic practice of citizenship and the formal institutions of the state alike seemed irredeemable.

For Atenco’s Frente, media-making becomes a way to enact the alternative social relations and collective rights they want to bring into being throughout the polity. Stone’s view, and that of her interlocutors, is that “compañerismo,” or the everyday moral practice of a substantive citizenship and of a more egalitarian political culture, can itself subsume oppressive political leaders and officials (p. 105). The Frente hones this practice in part through their nonhiearachical and anti-capitalist approach to filmmaking. Stone does not focus enough attention, perhaps, on how activists struggled day-to-day with internal hierarchies as they sought to cultivate “non-neoliberal individual and collective selves” (p. 165). Some analysis of these internal contradictions would advance our understanding of the depth of the challenge confronted by those who want to create egalitarian relations within a broader capitalist, racist, and patriarchal social order.

Stone cautions us to resist cynicism about the Frente’s approach to remaking the world by building local nonhierarchical social relations. Yet she suggests that their dedication to horizontalism becomes a barrier to enacting larger structural change. My research on how Venezuelan media activists used community television as a tool to access and remake state power makes clear that approaches that forgo horizontalism also confront enormous barriers and problems in enacting structural transformation. Yet, this should not lead us to the bleak conclusion that neither a prefigurative compañerismo politics nor an embrace of state-making can ultimately be an effective means to transform the world. The task is to understand the dialectical struggle between formal constituted state power and the constituent power of movements like the Frente. Alongside this, we need broad global analyses of states, social movements, and capital accumulation.

Mexico’s Frente, under Stone’s ethnographic lens, grants understanding of the challenges inherent in any social movement’s effort to change the world by changing everyday social relations—and the crucial and somewhat counterintuitive role of media in this process. This richly textured book takes its place as part of a larger discussion of how to change the world and what role the social practice of media can play in this urgent endeavor.

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