Red, Free and Naked

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HOUSTON — Retailers get customers’ attention by putting up signs with red lettering. The formula is sure to get a response if it also says FREE, like “Buy two and get one FREE.”

But when ordinary people want to register a protest message that sells, what do they do? Lately, we have seen catchy slogans in strong bright colors, and scary ones, too. But there’s nothing like the retailers’ formula. However, maybe there’s one that could catch on.

It’s going nude.

In early April, flight attendants in Madrid, who were owed up to nine months of back wages and weary of having their protestations ignored, posed provocatively in their birthday suits for a calendar to air their complaint.

Air Comet, their bankrupt employer, had operated budget flights on the Spain-to-South-America corridor, but succumbed to the global recession.

“We are just demanding our rights to receive what is ours,” said Adriana Ricardo, the employees’ spokeswoman, who appears in the calendar.

Nudity to register a complaint makes a certain degree of sense. First, it is attention-grabbing. By their nature, these are non-violent protesters. And there is little to confuse the message. It is just what it is: a Godiva-like complaint seeking a remedy. When protesters strip, the issue and the message are the focus because it is hard to get around the bare essence of the matter.

About three years ago, I was on assignment in Mexico City. On the first day out, near the Eje Central in the business district, I came upon a noisy demonstration, with about a hundred men down to their skivvies, some in loin cloths or a sheath over the front and no back portion. Many wore baseball caps or hats to keep the sun out of their eyes. Some wore sensible sneakers or work boots.

Back on the Paseo de la Reforma, near El Ángel de la Independencia monument, with hundreds of thousands of cars driving past, was the encampment where women, also in the buff, awaited the men’s return and held up protest signs.

They were the so-called peasant and campesino demonstrators of the "400 Pueblos" whose protest began in 2003 over the confiscation of their lands in Veracruz state.

They continued their daily vigils — disrupting traffic and shocking tourists for five years. When I was there, I went into their ranks to take photos of their naked leaders in front of fully clothed police in riot gear. Some young farmers beat an annoying drum.

I’m not sure what exactly provoked the police. Perhaps it was the drum, or maybe the demonstration was getting uncomfortably close to the legislative building. The grenadiers began moving on them. The naked campesinos scattered, with me in the middle, running down the street.

The protests carried on for five years.

Their economic, political and humane quest is now memorialized in a book by Victor Allen, “The Movement of the 400 Pueblos of Veracruz: When Your Body is Your Only Weapon.” They are remembered for courage and fortitude and confronting what appeared to be impossible odds, refusing to back down to intransigent policy and officials in the rain and cold. They finally prevailed in 2008 and recovered their land.

This demonstration was serious, disciplined, determined and based on a reality that affected them, their families and their communities. It seems the naked demonstrators of the 400 pueblos would serve as role models for others who are really determined.

Today’s Tea Partiers are more like those grenadiers who made the serious demonstrators scatter. They take pleasure in shouting down fellow citizens and scoffing at disabled members of our community who depend on government solutions to their health problems. They welcome in their midst bullies who have a fetish for fire power.

They are more about making noise than confronting serious public issues and should just butt out.

[José de la Isla writes a weekly commentary for Hispanic Link News Service. His 2009 digital book, sponsored by The Ford Foundation, is available free at He is author of The Rise of Hispanic Political Power (2003). E-mail him at]