What The Hands Do | A Film About How Climbing Can Change the World

Born in Mexico and residing in the US, Mariana Mendoza and Miguel Casar are passionate climbers. But as lifelong social justice advocates, they are also using climbing as a tool to reshape the world, by building community, connections and care for others.

28th March 2024 | Words by Matt Jones @ WildBounds HQ | Pictures and video courtesy of Patagonia

Politics is entwined in modern American society. It’s impossible to ignore, as anyone who has spent much time in the US will know. Mariana Mendoza and Miguel Casar are two Mexican climbers who have been in the US for more than ten years, mostly through student visas. Inevitably, living in the country as immigrants meant that the move was a politicisation moment for the couple. Witnessing harm and oppression, they started to challenge prevailing cultural norms through a combination of study, relationship-building and protest.

From anti-war demonstrations to campaigning for migrant justice, they have fought for societal change for most of their decade-long life in America.

As a university lecturer, Miguel sees education as key. “It’s a place where we can reclaim schools as a place of community and ask, ‘who controls the story, who controls policy making?’ For example, if you want to democratise policy, we need to be paying attention to and listening to the voices of young people”.

It’s been a long journey, and they’re still on it. “Changing culture is so abstract,” says Mariana. “And even thinking about changing a political policy may take ten years, only for the change to be revoked the next year”.

That’s why climbing remains the other cornerstone of their lives. In comparison to effecting social change, climbing is much more concrete. After all, climbing builds strength, teaching your body new ways to adapt to different challenges. It’s a journey of continual improvement and positive progress. And for many climbers, it’s also a form of release, an escape from the daily grind.

Initially, the pair felt the same. But they soon realised that the division between their work and their climbing was an artificial and somewhat arbitrary distinction. Mariana says: “We were doing work around indigenous people’s rights. But at the same time, we were visiting people’s ancestral lands without asking if climbing there was ok. So that’s been the tension. Like, how do we navigate those contradictions and practice the values that we have?”

Mariana Mendoza and Miguel Casar

Of course, the world of climbing is hardly a utopia either. In fact, there are certain elements of the climbing world that make them both decidedly uneasy. In her earlier years, Mariana competed at a high level. Later, they both sought out climbing sponsorships with big brands. But the path of high-performance climbing soon started to feel sticky and uncomfortable.

So too did their experiences in the climbing gyms of Los Angeles, where they were living. “One of the first times that we went with [our friends] Carizma and Luis, we would get to the gym and it would go silent and people were looking at them, because they were not the status quo of the gym”, explains Mariana.

“It’s almost like people have assumptions about who has earned the right to have access… And people are really into talking about inclusion or talking about diversifying. But I think it's not about, like, who takes who climbing. It’s about the pace at which wealth and power are beginning to fracture people’s relationships with each other and the world. You know, climbing in the gym is expensive. But also having the privilege to take a weekend off and have a car and buy gear is something that is unfortunately limited to a very small number of people”.

These are uncomfortable realities for many people who love to climb, whether in the gym or outdoors, or both. And it’s an issue that is becoming ever more evident as the popularity of the sport continues to snowball.

“I don't think we can continue to pretend that climbing is sort of like, 'we love nature and we're all hippies and we love the world'. Like, what is the cost of climbing, right? What is the impact? What is required for this sport to continue to exist?” Miguel Casar

Mariana adds: “The dominant ideology of climbing is focused on how hard, how tall, how fast you climb. There’s a very competitive aspect of climbing because now it’s in the Olympics. There are all these different dimensions of what climbing has been and what it's becoming that exist in tension with who we are as people and who we are as climbers”.

But the couple are attempting to find answers to these difficult questions. The starting point is that people should have access to joy. So, for them, it’s about cultivating spaces and creating opportunities for joy and community within climbing. In short, it’s about new ways to share this thing that they love.

Mariana Mendoza and Miguel Casar

Miguel sums it up in a very personal way. “For a long time, I couldn’t think of being a climber and having a space in climbing that felt right with who I was outside of climbing. And I think part of my own growth has been to own a responsibility to shape the future and the story of climbing. And I think that is not, like, an endpoint, but a process. And it’s a process that can be collective”.

This ties in with their work in the social justice movement. There’s a saying that comes from social movements: what the hands do, the heart learns. “Something I've learned from friends in the movement is this idea of transition”, says Miguel. “Like, what does it mean to transition to another type of world where we're sharing, where we are taking care of one another, where we are asking our relatives, our community, the land we visit, what does it mean to be in a right relationship with one another?”.

Their experiences have taught them that climbing can be a powerful tool. “The spaces I’ve been part of and people I’ve known [within climbing] have helped me feel more empowered”, says Mariana. “So, I feel like if we cooperate and support ourselves and care for one another, climbing can help us create a world that we thought was not possible”.

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