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September 8, 2019 by Matthew Belcher |

Mad Pride Rises in Mexico

On a sunny Saturday afternoon in late July, in the bustling heart of Mexico City, a group of activists gathered at the steps of the Angel of Independence monument, the city’s traditional site of collective celebration. Numbering around 40 or 50, they were a small presence, barely a blip in the life of one of the most populous cities in the Americas. Around them traffic rolled briskly by, drivers oblivious to the gathering. Nearby, a group of teenage girls in quinceñeara dresses were snapping photos of one another, their smartphone fusillades unaffected by their neighbors’ activity. Unknown to the drivers in their cars and the girls in their dresses, an event unprecedented in Mexico’s history was taking place beside them. Mexico’s first Mad Pride march was about to get underway.

Most of those gathered around the monument identified in some way as mad—as neurodivergent, as survivors of psychiatry, as users of psychiatric services—the rest were friends, family, and allies of those who did. Many belonged to activist groups. Most were young, and most were local, though some came from other parts of Mexico.

Around 3 o’clock the marchers set out. The mood was festive, celebratory. Waving colorful placards and sheets bearing brightly-scrawled slogans—“Nothing about us without us,” “We are not against the system the system is against us”—they headed west along the Paseo De La Reforma, a wide tree-lined boulevard, and one of the city’s most important thoroughfares. The road hadn’t been closed to traffic, so they kept to the sidewalks.

As they made their way down La Reforma, people stopped to watch them go by. “Some people supported us,” says Iván Maceda Mejías, a member of Sin Colectivo. “It was mostly positive. We were just a few persons but they were smiling. Some people didn’t know what to think.”

A little less than an hour after setting out, the marchers reached their destination, another monument to Mexican independence, the Estela de Luz. There, beneath the soaring structure of glass and steel, a 14-point manifesto prepared by members of Sin Colectivo was read out loud, in which the dignity and rights of people with psychosocial disabilities was asserted, and ill treatment at the hands of Mexico’s mental health system was denounced. Afterwards a band played a few songs, at which point, about two and a half hours after it started, the march came to an end.

Of the march and the marchers, Víctor Lizama, an activist with the human rights organization Documenta and member of Sin Colectivo, had this to say: “All were mad, but they were powerful. Forty or fifty people. In a city with 20 million persons, nothing, but it was the first time this has been done.”

The first Mad Pride march took place in Toronto in 1993. Organized in response to stigma and discrimination faced by those with psychosocial disabilities, the march was the beginning of a movement that sought to reclaim for their own use words like “mad” and “madness,” terms commonly used to disparage and dismiss people who have received a diagnosis of mental illness or disorder. Since that first march, the movement has given rise to numerous other events around the world—in the U.K., Brazil, Portugal, Spain, France, South Africa, the United States—all taking place under the banner of “Mad Pride.”

In Mexico, where mental health has traditionally been allowed little space in the public consciousness, and garnered even less support from the public coffers, the voices of those deemed mad are seldom permitted to be heard. With only around 2% of the health budget invested in mental health and the vast majority of that allocated to constructing and maintaining the infrastructure of psychiatric hospitals, the priorities of those in power with regard to mental health care are evident.

For the participants in Mad Pride Mexico, the march down La Reforma was a way for a group of people long neglected and subject to discrimination to situate themselves at the center of a conversation that other people—psychiatrists, politicians, even other activists and allies—have been having about them; a way of making their presence felt and their voices heard, not by concealing but by embracing their differences; a way of announcing to society at large that they are people who are able and entitled to speak for themselves. For them, madness must become accepted as part of a public identity, not continue to be, as it is today, a word to be avoided, a condition to be suppressed.

“The word madness is an expression that makes visible that there’s no normality, we use it against stigmatization,” says Maceda, another member of Sin Colectivo.

One of those who read from the manifesto at the Estele de Luz was Gabriela Aragón Zamorano. An actress and member of Sin Colectivo, she received a diagnosis of bipolar disorder at a private clinic in Mexico.

“After this doctor told me I was bipolar I consumed lithium for a year and a half which I didn’t need, then I got with this other psychologist, she did thousands of tests, interviews, and she said no, you do not have bipolar, you have to work, you have to go to therapy, because you were the victim of a lot of things.”

Aragón was fortunate that she could afford another diagnosis. Those without means are not as lucky. “Being mad in the clinical way and surviving is a matter of privilege,” Aragón says. “There are a lot of people on the street that can’t afford treatment, neither private nor public.”

For Aragón, mental health is therefore an issue of equality and justice, an issue for all people, not only those who’ve received a diagnosis.

“Equality is a very big topic that transcends everything. So that most of the time I think that our real agenda right now is to set the basis to say this needs to be not a privilege. This is a right, these are human rights.”

The date chosen for the march, July 27, is significant in the history of mental health in Mexico. It was on this day in 1968 that the Mancomio General “La Castañeda” was demolished. La Castañeda was Mexico’s largest and most infamous psychiatric hospital. Built in 1918, intended to serve as the centerpiece of a new, modernized health care system, by the time it came down it had become notorious for its degrading and inhumane conditions.

The end of La Castañeda, however, far from ushering in a new era of mental health care in Mexico, meant little more than more of the same. Half a century later and, the odd gesture in the direction of reform notwithstanding, the psychiatric hospital still looms at the center of Mexico’s mental health system. While by far the greater part of a scant mental health budget is devoted to the maintenance and expansion of psychiatric institutions, community-based and alternative approaches go almost entirely neglected.

Meanwhile, as documented in a 2010 report published by Disability Rights International and Comisión Méxicana de Defensa y Promoción de los Derechos Humanos, abuse in mental health facilities is widespread, with this and other reports describing squalid conditions, long-term restraint of inmates amounting to torture, even the use of lobotomies and psychosurgeries on patients for whom the usual course of psychotropics are deemed insufficient.

Inmates of such facilities, in many cases admitted against their will, who lack personal means and have no family willing or able to care for them, are termed abandonados, and their prospects are dim. Many, according to the DRI-CMPDH report, will end up languishing in such facilities for a lifetime, in effect stripped of all legal rights.

“The majority of people who have psychosocial disabilities don’t know they have rights, the right to justice,” says Lizama.

Complicating matters is the fact that, alongside public institutions, a growing number of private facilities have sprung up to fill the gaps left by a public system starved of funds. Such facilities, however, lack government oversight, and their inner workings are often opaque to outsiders. In many cases, as described in testimony last year at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, these so-called alternatives to the public system simply replicate the problems of that system.

The central place of the psychiatric institution in Mexican mental health policy has had a decisive effect on the way mental health is understood and responded to in Mexico. Debate over mental health practices has remained largely absent from public discourse, and the institutional approach to care, in which the biomedical model of psychiatry has long prevailed, dominates policy decisions.

Says Lizama, “We in the collective are fortunate. We are supported by our families. But we know this is not the reality in Mexico. They have their freedom taken from them. They are institutionalized.”

Excluded from social, political, and legal spheres, people with psychosocial disabilities have had little say in those policy decisions, decisions that stand to affect them most of all. Those with psychiatric histories have been largely absent from the discussion, and it’s this absence, according to its organizers, that the Mad Pride march was intended to address.

Sin Colectivo, the group behind Mad Pride Mexico, are a collective of eight activists, four men and four women based in Mexico City, dedicated to improving the lives of Mexicans with psychosocial disabilities. Artists, activists, academics, professionals, they hail from diverse backgrounds, but they have in common a lived experience with madness, with psychosocial disability, with neurodivergence. With his or her own approach to how to live with their condition differently, the members are united in the belief that those whom Mexican society has deemed mad deserve a voice, and deserve to have their voices heard.

Moreover, just as each member has chosen how they will relate to their madness—whether they take medication, what mental health services they use, for example—they advocate for all people, in Mexico and elsewhere, to be given the dignity of choice, of choosing how they will relate to their madness, and more fundamentally of how they will live. Their name—meaning Without Collective—alludes to this conviction.

Says Aragón, “I think that is very significant, we are not trying to name ourselves, we are trying to name every single person, this is not just a collective, this is Iván, this is Víctor, this is Gabriela, we highlight the singularities within the collective, and this is very special…The main aim of Sin Colectivo is to open spaces where people are seen as people and to improve the quality of everybody’s life.”

Once Sin Colectivo came together, two events were quickly proposed. One was the Mad Pride Mexico march. The other was a forum where people with psychosocial disabilities could speak out about issues important to them. Billed as the ‘Experts by Experience In Mental Health’ forum, the event was held at the National Library the day before the march.

Explains Lizama, “We invited psychologists, but we wanted to make the protagonists the people with psychosocial disabilities.” While the march itself was conceived as an act of “subversion,” according to Lizama, a way of placing the idea of madness in the public square, the forum served more as a demonstration of the idea embodied in the slogan “Nada de nosotras y nosotros sin nosotras y nosotros”—“Nothing about us without us.”

Says Lizama, “They make decisions in the political sphere, but they don’t take into account our opinion. We want our voices heard, because we are the ones who know what we need.”

Featured speakers were therefore those with firsthand experience—people with psychosocial disabilities, the neurodivergent, survivors of psychiatry, users of psychiatric services—“experts by experience,” in other words, who refuse to remain objects of discussion and judgment.

“The people who came to talk to share their experiences, they were very giving, we had people coming not just from Mexico City but other parts of Mexico,” Aragón says.

Financed almost entirely by members of Sin Colectivo, with some assistance from the National Human Rights Commission, and facilitated by volunteers, the forum addressed a wide range of issues affecting those with psychosocial disabilities in Mexico. Through a series of lectures (“Women, Madness, And Jail: An Intervention Experience”), discussions (“New Approaches to Mental Health and the Right to Life in the Community”), workshops (“Photography and the Construction of Reality from Psychosocial Disability”), and performances, these issues were explored from the perspective of people with actual firsthand experience of them.

“So many people at that forum had these experiences with psychosocial disabilities, with madness,” said Lizama. “It was an exchange of ideas that gave us a wider vision of mental health. It made us realize that there were alternatives.”

Members of Sin Colectivo are already preparing for the coming year, with both a second forum and a second march on the agenda. In the meantime, they are working to strengthen their connections with other activist groups around Mexico as well as international groups in other parts of Latin America.

Looking back on the events of July, members of Sin Colectivo say that in spite of their small scale both the forum and the march exceeded expectations. For Sin Colectivo, Mad Pride Mexico would have been counted as an achievement simply for having taken place at all, but with this year’s success and positive attention in the Mexican press to build on, they believe they can afford to think bigger and now look forward to growing the movement in the years ahead.

Says Aragón, “This year it was small. Next year maybe it will be bigger. We understand that there is a lot of taboo and stigma, and that people are very afraid, but we are trying to make people more comfortable to join us. We need to do this because otherwise people will feel like they are alone.”


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