Mexico, ready to have a female president… but indigenous women cannot govern in their villages.


Magdalena Hernández cuts branches with a machete before planting corn in Plan de Ayala, a village located in Las Margaritas, Chiapas

From four-thirty in the morning, the trickle of women, some of them girls, begins through the streets of a Tojolabal indigenous village in southeastern Mexico, still in darkness. They walk in silence. Some go to grind corn to later prepare breakfast tortillas and continue working at home. Others go to collect firewood that they bring on donkeys. Some hurry to finish their tasks to arrive punctually at school.

Hours later, it’s time to speak. A group of girls and boys settle into a classroom at the Plan de Ayala high school to reflect on their future, gender equality, and the role of women in this remote indigenous community in the state of Chiapas, the poorest in Mexico.

Jeydi Hernández, 17 years old, wants to be a veterinarian and play basketball, although her first attempt to form a team failed. “There were 12 of us, but my teammates got married, and only four of us remained.” Madaí Gómez, 18, complains about not being able to express her opinion in her own village. “They think women don’t know.”

Two indigenous women lead the discussion, attended by dozens of young people. Years ago, such an initiative would not have been so well received, say the educators. Change is coming, albeit slowly.

Seventy years ago, Mexican women gained the right to vote, and the country is preparing to elect its first female president. However, some indigenous women who will vote on June 2 still lack a voice in their own homes or communities.

In Plan de Ayala, like in other corners of Mexico, women cannot hold positions of authority. Men set the priorities. They decide how to allocate resources: repair the school or the park? They have a record of the 1,200 adult men in the community, but they can only speculate about the number of women, even though their names appear in the electoral census.

It is unclear how many communities in Mexico operate this way; there is no data on the subject. But it is one of the many contradictions faced by a marginalized part of the Mexican population for centuries.

However, more and more indigenous women are working to change this situation, little by little, thanks to the drive of the new generations.

Will Mexico’s next female president improve the living conditions of indigenous women?

Mexico has over 23 million indigenous people, nearly 20 percent of the population, and 65 percent of them live in poverty, according to official data from 2022. Women bear the brunt of this. Illiteracy among speakers of indigenous languages is 26 percent, compared to 4 percent among women who speak Spanish. The right to land ownership—which entails other communal rights—remains pending in much of the country.

Although neither of the two candidates, the ruling party’s Claudia Sheinbaum (the favorite) nor the opposition’s Xóchitl Gálvez, an indigenous woman, has spoken much about indigenous issues, women in this region do not hide their hope that a female president will address their most urgent needs related to health, education, and preventing gender-based violence.

The situation of indigenous peoples burst onto the international political scene from Chiapas in 1994, when the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) declared war on the state. The Zapatista movement, which had an unusual participation of women, did not seek to seize power but rather to compel the government to take concrete actions to reduce racism, marginalization, and the neglect in which millions of people lived as the 21st century approached.

Twelve days of war and years of negotiation and political discussion—during which a Zapatista woman even spoke from the Congress podium—culminated in the 2001 constitutional reform that recognized the right of indigenous peoples to decide their internal forms of organization, preserve their language, land, and cultural identity, and improve access to basic rights such as healthcare and education.

This allowed many small indigenous communities to self-govern and opened the possibility for them to choose their leaders without national political influence. However, it also led the federal government to often turn a blind eye when local customs contradicted basic rights, such as gender equality.

After the Zapatista uprising, indigenous women felt encouraged to fight for their rights in their communities, and in some places—such as many towns in the state of Oaxaca—they succeeded. But poverty and inequality persist in many indigenous communities.

Source: El Financiero