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A woman will likely be Mexico's next president


Maria Verza
Associated Press

PLAN DE AYALA, Mexico — At 4:30 a.m., the girls and women begin to appear in the dark streets of this rural village of Tojolabal people in southern Mexico. They walk in silence. Some are headed to grind corn to make their family’s tortillas. Others fetch firewood to carry home, on their backs or with the help of a donkey. The youngest hurry to finish chores before running to school.

Hours later, it’s still morning, and it’s time to talk. A group of young women and men gathers in a classroom at the Plan de Ayala high school. They’ve come to discuss gender equality and reflect on the role of women in this remote Indigenous community in Chiapas, Mexico’s poorest state.

Jeydi Hernández, 17, wants to be a veterinarian and play basketball, though her first attempt to form a team failed: “There were 12 of us, but my friends got married, and there were only four of us left.” Madaí Gómez, 18, complains that she can’t express opinions in her town: “They think women don’t know anything.”

Two Indigenous women lead the workshop, and dozens attend. Years ago, such an initiative would not have been so well-received, they say. But change is coming — albeit slowly.

Seventy years ago, Mexican women won the right to vote, and today the country is on the verge of electing its first woman president. Yet some of the Indigenous women who will vote in Sunday’s national election still don’t have a voice in their own homes and communities.

In Plan de Ayala and other corners of Mexico, women can’t participate in local government. Men set priorities. They decide how to spend resources: repair the school or the park? Plan de Ayala’s women aren’t even registered residents, even though they are on voter rolls, so its 1,200 men can only guess at the true population.

With no official data, it’s unclear how many communities operate this way. But it’s one of many contradictions for a part of the Mexican population that for centuries has been marginalized. Now, Indigenous women are pushing for change — little by little — with the younger generation often leading the charge.

PATH TO ACTIVISM

Of more than 23 million Indigenous people in Mexico — nearly 20% of the population — well over half live in poverty, according to government data from 2022. And women face the worst of it, with the lowest rates of literacy in their communities and little, if any, rights to own land.

Neither of the two women candidates for president — Claudia Sheinbaum for the governing Morena party and the opposition’s Xóchitl Gálvez — have spoken much about Indigenous issues. Still, women in this region can’t hide some hope that a woman president could better address some of their most pressing needs: health care and education access, and protection from domestic violence.

The status of Mexico’s Indigenous peoples leaped onto the international stage in 1994 in Chiapas, when Zapatista guerrilla fighters declared war against the government. They aimed not to take power, but demanded that the government address racism and marginalization suffered by Indigenous peoples. The movement had unusually high participation from women.

Twelve days of fighting and years of negotiation culminated in 2001 with a constitutional amendment that recognized the right of Indigenous people to autonomous government; to preserve their languages, land and cultural identity; and to have access to basic rights such as health care and education.

This allowed many small Indigenous communities to govern themselves and choose their leaders without national political influence. It also meant that the federal government frequently looked the other way when those local customs contradicted basic rights like gender equality.

After the uprising, Indigenous women felt encouraged to fight for their rights in their communities. In some places they succeeded. But poverty and inequality persist in many Indigenous communities.

Juana Cruz, 51, is one of the women on a crusade to bring change. She grew up listening to stories of the abuses suffered by four generations of her family forced to work on an estate where they had to speak Spanish rather than their native Tojolabal, a Mayan-family language. She remembers being beaten in school for not speaking Spanish well.

Today she is one of the most veteran social activists in Las Margaritas, the municipality that includes Plan de Ayala, and director of Tzome Ixuk, which means “organized woman” in Tojolabal. Her collective accompanies victims of domestic violence to report crimes, organizes talks to hear communities’ needs, hosts workshops for men and women about gender rights, and teaches children Tojolabal. Political parties have approached her, she said, but she rejected their recruitment efforts — she wants to focus on organizing and educating in a politically independent environment.

“The ability that we have to decide is because we are not (affiliated) with any authority,” Cruz said.

Six years ago, the Zapatistas and other Indigenous groups elected María de Jesus Patricio, better known as Marichuy, to run for president as their first independent candidate. She faced intense racism and didn’t make it onto the ballot. “But she gave us strength,” Cruz said.

Cruz’s own activism stretches back to the Zapatista uprising, when she first heard about “organizing” for rights. In the mid-1990s, she demanded water, electricity, sewer and schools for an Indigenous neighborhood in Las Margaritas — demands that prompted dozens of men to attack her, she said.

She described politicians finding her demands unacceptable — they believed Indigenous people didn’t need such things.

‘GENERATION OF CHANGE’

Since Cruz and others made those basic demands, there’s been progress in places like Las Margaritas, a sprawling township of some 140,000 people spread across about 400 mostly Indigenous communities, including Plan de Ayala. Some people here were born on hugemassive estates where Indigenous workers were treated like slaves. Today, many get by with money sent from relatives who’ve made it to the United States.

Unwritten rules still govern much of life in the villages. Mexican law prohibits marriage until age 18, but many teens leave home years earlier and live as couples until they can legally wed. The community considers them married.

For some girls, it’s the only way to escape abusive homes — one 15-year-old described to The Associated Press how a relative beat her almost daily.

“I wanted to get married as soon as I could,” she said, even though she knew it meant giving up her dreams of continued education. “I would love to study again, but I still can’t because that’s the way the rules are here.”

“When you marry, you leave school, you leave everything that you have,” said the girl, whose name AP is withholding because she’s a victim of abuse.

Increasingly, girls and young women are rejecting such norms. That’s part of what’s discussed in the workshops at Plan de Ayala high school.

About a third of those gathered said they would like to continue studying, according to María Leticia Santiz, 28, and Liz Vázquez, 33, who lead the discussion.

“You all have the ability to make decisions in your communities, in your schools, in your families,” Vázquez tells the group. “You are a generation of change.” Santiz translates to Tojolabal.

A buzz spreads through the group. Using the native language generates confidence and shows the youths they can be proud of it, Santiz said: “There are still young people, women who are ashamed of the language, of being Indigenous.”

Vázquez and Santiz are from a collective called Ch’ieltik, which means “we are those who grow” in the Indigenous language Tseltal. The group’s goal is to encourage conversation and reflection among young people in some of Chiapas’ most closed communities, learn the realities of people there, and provide tools to improve their lives.

Santiz says that in Plan de Ayala, where women have never held positions of authority, some women do want to participate in local civic life.

But “they don’t dare because they feel they are going to be punished,” Santiz said. “The social compacts that the people have sown in them are very ingrained.”

LOOKING AHEAD

In Plan de Ayala, like most rural corners of Las Margaritas, there is little evidence of the coming national election. Posters of Sheinbaum are seen in some places. The face of Gálvez — who has Indigenous roots, with an Otomi father — is not.

Vázquez says that personally, she has not connected with either candidate. But in the workshop, she tells the group that a woman becoming president proves nothing is impossible.

Santiz is wary of politicians. “I haven’t seen a change, attention toward the Indigenous,” she said.

She said she wishes politicians would be authentic in their outreach to Indigenous communities and not simply use their people to sell an inclusive image: “Being Indigenous isn’t just coming from an Indigenous community,” she said. “It’s returning and doing things for your community.”

Experts say politicians have long looked down on Indigenous people and have wrongly explained away chauvinistic behavior as the carrying on of ancestral practices. Examples of Indigenous women rising to power — for example, in leading the fight against controversial infrastructure projects like dams — have been minimized.

The campaigns of the two leading female presidential candidates are notable for what’s lacking: any prioritization of gender issues or detailed plans to address issues in Indigenous communities.

Sheinbaum insists she will try to reach agreements to compensate for past injustices against some Indigenous peoples. Gálvez has only gone so far as to remind voters of projects she pushed when she was in charge of Indigenous development under a previous administration, two decades ago.

In Plan de Ayala, Vázquez and Santiz leave the workshop at the high school encouraged. The young men seemed receptive to speaking about equality, and they see signs of change: fathers supporting their daughters’ dreams, young women carving out spaces for themselves.

After the workshop, Madaí Gómez, the 18-year-old, heads home to finish helping her mother. She’s not yet sure about continuing school — she wants to be economically independent and considers herself a strong woman who doesn’t take “no” for an answer. Maybe she’ll stay here and find work. Maybe she’ll try making it to the U.S.

That afternoon, she puts on her soccer uniform and heads to the local field, optimistic that more girls want to join. On the dirt track, teens pass older women wearing traditional embroidered blouses and shiny satin skirts returning from the fields, their bodies stooped by huge bundles of grass hoisted on their backs.

Gómez said she believes in the potential of women in her community and thinks Mexico’s first woman president could show they can do more even than men.

“I want gender equality to come, for them to give us that chance to raise our voices, for our voice to be valued the same as a man’s,” she said.



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