She’s popped like a new cartoon superhero in Mexico, with fan art showing her surrounded by phrases like “me cuidan mis amigas, nunca la policía” (my friends care for me, never the police); “sin miedo” (fearless); “si tocan a una, respondemos todos”: (touch one, touch all).
But their inspiration is from real life: a 28-year-old woman named Hellen — who also goes by the name Lila Cizas online — who was thrust into the national spotlight a fortnight ago.
A video of Hellen went viral on TikTok after the International Women’s Day march in Mexico City turned into a confrontation with police.
The video shows Hellen diving for a tear gas canister that had been thrown from behind the police barricade surrounding the National Palace. She picked up the smoking piece of metal, runs towards the barricade and throws it back to where it came from as fellow protesters yell, “Eso, hermana!” (that’s it, sister!).
Hellen, who has kept her surname out of media coverage to protect her privacy, was quickly dubbed La Reinota as the footage went viral on social networks and continues to be covered in national mainstream media.
She says she is “overwhelmed, also content and excited” by the “La Reinota” effect.
“I was actually just focused on helping, on taking care of those around me,” she says.
Mexico’s violence problem
The video of Hellen has struck a chord in the country where women’s rights are a major concern and government, police and security systems very rarely, if ever, succeed in stopping violence against women.
Indeed, while Mexico has been devastated by COVID-19, the epidemic of violence against women has only grown — for example, emergency calls related to violence against women rose more than 30 per cent in 2020.
Thousands of Mexican women have left the workforce due to job cuts and they’ve also seen an increase in unpaid duties at home.
Protests of this deadly inequality, and the laws, policies and culture enabling it, are significant and continue to grow.
‘Rompe el pacto patriarchal’
A rallying cry for the current feminist movement in Mexico is “rompe el pacto patriarchal” — a call for men, especially men with political and cultural power to “break the patriarchal pact” of men closing ranks to protect each other from accountability for sexual assault and other forms of gendered violence and discrimination.’
Last year’s IWD march in Mexico City saw one of the biggest protests in the capital city’s history. The following day, tens of thousands participated in a historic first women-only labour strike across the country.
This year — despite the coronavirus risk — protesters marched again in cities throughout the country.
One target of the protesters was Félix Salgado Macedonio, a former senator who is running for governor of the state of Guerrero in July’s election for MORENA, the county’s ruling party headed by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (known as AMLO). Salgado has been accused of rape by at least two women.
Former diplomat and well-known public intellectual Andrés Roemer was another — he is facing at least 60 accusations of sexual violence.
Machismo, or male domination, puts us all in “a box, a mould, like the perfect Barbie doll”, Hellen says. “You have to have a certain attitude, talk a certain way. Your legs have to be this long, your eyes have to be this clear.
“I’m happy to have broken out of the mould of the ideal wife or girlfriend or daughter or sister.
“I cannot be the ideal person because I am human.”
Disappointed by AMLO
One of the millions who voted for AMLO to become president in the historic election of July 2018, Hellen says she is as shocked as she is “disappointed” by AMLO’s regular dismissal of his country’s feminist movement.
For example, Mexico’s President said recently that he had needed Beatriz Gutiérrez Müller, his wife, to explain what “the patriarchal pact” referred to, while he has stood by Félix Salgado Macedonio as a gubernatorial candidate. AMLO has previously claimed that 90 per cent of the increased number of emergency calls related to violence in the home six months into the pandemic were false alarms and that “the Mexican family” is a superior source of safety and welfare for women.
He also endorsed the city building a police barricade around the National Palace of Government ahead of International Women’s Day, saying that its purpose was to protect national patrimony against any possible vandalism from protesters.
The wall went up on March 6. On March 7, feminist activists took to the barricade with paint and flowers, crowding it with the names of victims of femicides and transforming the 3-metre-high wall of steel into a memorial to the millions of women killed.
Protesters on March 8 were met with tear gas as well as rocks, paintball bullets and flares.
“We were getting sprayed with tear gas when we are asking for our rights, raising our voices, and fed up with being quiet,” Hellen says.
Of her now-infamous throw of the tear gas canister, she adds, “I shouldn’t have had such a thing in my hands because it shouldn’t have been thrown in the first instance.”
‘Kids just see the action’
The extent of support for La Reinota is hard to ignore to ignore.
“I had 400 followers on Instagram and now I have nearly 53,000,” Hellen says, plus another 72,000 on Twitter.
But Hellen has received considerable amounts of online hate too, such as comments about her appearance and suggestions that she is neglecting her duties to men.
She largely ignores this and noted that the hate is far outweighed by “overwhelming” messages of support and admiration “not just from within Mexico but all over Latin America and also from people in the US and Europe”.
Of the sudden spotlight she has found herself in, Hellen said it’s the drawings of her made by children and young people that she finds the most meaningful.
Unlike the hateful comments that she has received, many of which are fat-phobic, “these kids just see the action” that she took in the plaza last Monday and present it with admiration.
“My little brother drew this picture of La Reinota”, tweeted journalist Norma Montiel. “He’s 14”.