On a warm, summer day, graffiti artists Mayki Graff Ortega and Suam Fonseca sit along a busy street in northeastern Tegucigalpa, Honduras’ capital. Their 2015 mural of the Mirabal sisters on a nearby apartment building provides a colorful backdrop.
The sisters from the Dominican Republic — Patria, Minerva Mirabal Reyes and María Teresa — are spray-painted in warm tones with black hair and blue streaks for shine. Colorful butterflies flutter around the women, a nod to their collective nickname, Las Mariposas ("The Butterflies").
The three Mirabal sisters were assassinated on Nov. 25, 1960, because of their opposition to the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo. After death, they became symbols of feminist resistance. (Decades later, the United Nations General Assembly designated Nov. 25 as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.) For Graff, 23, and Fonseca, 20, the sisters' activism made a lasting impression, and they wanted to pay tribute.
"They were very important women in the Dominican Republic's history and women we should admire and recognize," said Graff. "Even though it wasn't something that happened in Honduras, it challenges us to fight for the rights of all women."
That's what they're trying to do together as Dolls Clan — and they claim to be Honduras' first feminist graffiti artist duo. The two women formed Dolls Clan in September 2014 in Tegucigalpa after Graff invited Fonseca to a graffiti art workshop. Since then, the pair has used their art to tirelessly promote gender equality in the Central American country known for its high rates of femicide and strict laws on reproductive rights. Their murals speak to female empowerment and reproductive rights.
Similarly, the name, Dolls Clan, references a frequent catcall in the country — muñeca (in English, "doll"). They combined it with clan, tying it to ancient tribes led by women. Clan is also a word in Spanish that means a social group. It's a name that has resonance as they are poised in front of the Mirabal sisters mural — which they painted in collaboration with the Centro de Derechos de Mujeres (Women's Rights Center) — as motorists honk at the women, and several men catcall them.
It's experiences like this that compelled them to team up. “We created [Dolls Clan] because, in Honduras, there’s always a lot of machismo in the culture. You see it in the femicide figures,” said Graff, who is also a hip-hop artist. “Being a woman in Honduras is very difficult because, from the moment we step out into the streets, we deal with all kinds of harassment. We go out in fear.”
In fact, during the first six months of 2017, 190 women in Honduras were killed, almost one per day, according to the last bulletin of the Observatory of Violence of the National Autonomous University of Honduras (UNAH). There were 1,429 reported cases of sexual violence on women: One-third of the survivors were between 10 and 19 years old and, in 76 percent of the cases, the aggressor was a family member, partner or ex-partner or an acquaintance.
“Violence is a message of possession written on women’s bodies,” said Migdonia Ayestas, director of the Observatory of Violence. “We need more education to propitiate equality between women and men.”
Dolls Clan fights back through art. “Being a woman graffiti artist is like a blow to the system to a society permeated by machismo,” Graff said. “It’s a way to demonstrate that women can also fit in a place where there are only men and show our art — in the same way or even better.”
One of Dolls Clan's pieces says in bold letters, “La decision es mía” (“The decision is mine”). It focuses on a woman’s right to make decisions for her body and to use birth control. The emergency contraceptive pill is prohibited in Honduras, but can be bought illegally in some pharmacies or pulperías (small grocery stores) for an average of 200 lempiras ($8). That work, which features a woman with long, colorful tresses, was done for the 150th anniversary of the Canadian Embassy in Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Honduras.
In the same theme, Graff in 2016 contributed to a Porque amo eligir ("Because I love to choose") campaign, which pushed for the legalization of the PAE, an acronym for the emergency contraceptive pill in Honduras. That piece features a topless, tattooed woman in lingerie with the campaign words scrawled across her stomach.
Dolls Clan has also pushed forward Ni Una Menos, a famous rallying cry against femicide that translates to “not one woman less.”
“I’ve dealt with the message 'ni una menos' directly in my rap music, in social work presentations and university spaces,” Graff said. “In other works, we’ve focused on stopping femicide and violence against women. In my rap music, I mention the strength and power of women, making us the owners of our own bodies.”
Las Mariposas, the Mirabal sisters, are also protagonists of a rap Graff composed to remember them. The sisters' story is intertwined with the conditions that Honduran women endure daily. In early 2018, there were 35 reported femicides in Honduras, according to the Observatory of Violence of the National Autonomous University of Honduras (UNAH).
Here is an excerpt of Graff's rap: En un país donde te matan, solo por ser mujer/En donde sus derechos nunca se hacen valer/Hermana, ni en la calle puedes caminar tranquila/Porque la seguridad seguro que te asesinan.
It translates to: In a country where you’re killed, just for being a woman/Where your rights are never valued/Sister, not even in the streets can you walk in peace/Because the security will ensure that you’re killed.
More recently, Dolls Clan in May participated in a project called Voices Against Violence, a program led by Vital Voices, an organization that partners with women leaders and helps make their vision a reality. The duo hosted a graffiti workshop with different organizations and spoke about their way of combating gender violence through graffiti art and how they, too, have been victims of violence within this space.
Graff said Dolls Clan’s impact has been positive on both a national and international scale. Six years ago, Graff said, she was the only woman graffiti artist in the country. She now knows of five in Tegucigalpa, and Fonseca can name 15 across Honduras.
“It’s been revolutionary,” Fonseca said of their role as women graffiti artists. “Here in Honduras, there is graffiti [art] but it’s mostly done by men. Graffiti’s roots here are male, so it’s this taboo that a woman comes in and you see her painting in the streets ... it’s cost us a lot to get to where we are. Day by day, we are pushing ahead and, because of that, we are seeing the fruits of our labor.”
“Every project, workshop, interview, travel gives us the opportunity to show the capacity of women in the arts and also support one another. We also bring to light social problems that we must fight in this machista society. If we don’t fight ourselves for our interests, no one will,” Graff said. “Women, youth, and girls and boys have seen through graffiti what we can do — girls and women are empowered and youth and boys learn more and also learn to live in a shared society and not a patriarchal one, giving us our own spaces.”
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Feminist protesters took to the streets of Tegucigalpa on March 8 for International Women’s Day, which commemorates the movement for women’s rights. Protesters also raised their voices over the 2016 assassination of Berta Cáceres, a Honduran environmental activist. Local authorities arrested David Castillo Mejía, an ex-former military officer and executive president of a company building the dam that Cáceres campaigned against. "Berta Vive" was another message that came through the walls, so to speak.
Dolls Clan worked on a mural to claim justice for the environmentalist. They painted it in Tegucigalpa on March 4, in honor of what would have been Cáceres’ 46th birthday.
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Dolls Clan’s fight against machismo in Honduras, and for women’s rights, is also very personal.
“I think my personal goal — both our goals — is, through our art, is that we inspire more girls to continue, and get involved themselves more in graffiti,” Graff said. “That they can see that woman are capable of achieving whatever we set our mind to.”
Graff and Fonseca hope to this year mentor young girls aspiring to become graffiti artists themselves in an all-female festival called Guerreras del Hip Hop (in English, “Hip-hop Female Warriors”). The festival is set to take place in Tegucigalpa at the end of the year.
The International Women’s Media Foundation supported the reporting of Monica Pelliccia and Amaris Castillo from Honduras as part of the Adelante Latin America Reporting Initiative.