Human Rights

Mexican Shelter Supports Young Mothers, Indigenous Culture Rejects Them

 

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María Gómez López (left), a member of the Hogar Comunitario Yach’il Antzetic, leads a workshop on creating macramé, a textile made by knotting cords or thick threads. The Hogar Comunitario is a community home in San Cristóbal de las Casas, a city in Mexico’s southernmost state of Chiapas. The home provides shelter and care to young mothers and pregnant women, as well as workshops to teach skills. Adriana Alcázar González, GPJ Mexico
Mexico

Many of the pregnant girls and women who seek help at a community home in Chiapas are indigenous and have been ostracized by their families. At the home, classes in preparing for birth, along with vocational skills workshops, empower the women emotionally and economically.

SAN CRISTÓBAL DE LAS CASAS, MEXICO ─ A baby’s crying breaks the room’s silence.

“It’s a girl! Your baby was just born, it’s a beautiful girl,” María Hernández Guzmán says to the young woman who just gave birth. “Take her, hug her, she’s your daughter. Congratulations.”

Mother and daughter engage in a long and delicate embrace. Hernández looks at them and smiles. She then starts cleaning the birthing room at the Hogar Comunitario Yach’il Antzetic.

This community home in San Cristóbal de las Casas, a city in Mexico’s southernmost state of Chiapas, provides shelter and care to pregnant women and new mothers, many of whom are indigenous and don’t have the support of their families or the babies’ fathers. Often, indigenous women are rejected and discriminated against if they’re pregnant outside of marriage, Hernández says. To be a single, indigenous mother is to face daily stigma in many indigenous communities.

“People point you out, your family rejects you because [they] say that you failed by getting yourself pregnant without being married,” Hernández says. “And if the father abandons you, worse. You don’t have anyone who supports you, who gives you a hand.”

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Judith Álvarez, a psychologist at Hogar Comunitario Yach’il Antzetic, sits in a birthing room at the center. Many women who come to the home have been rejected by their families, Álvarez says.

Adriana Alcázar González, GPJ Mexico

Hernández, 37, knows this from her own experience. She became pregnant with her first child 15 years ago.

“I couldn’t return to my home; I was alone because the father of my child wouldn’t take responsibility either,” she says.

Now, Hernández is the main midwife and leader of the Hogar Comunitario, the same place where she found help when she was pregnant those years ago.

“And this is what I now try to return to the women who look for support from us,” she says.

That home was established 20 years ago during a time of great upheaval. In 1994, the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, a guerrilla group based in Chiapas that is known in English as the Zapatista National Liberation Army, staged a rebellion and called upon the country’s indigenous peoples to join them in demanding reforms.

Sandra Lorea, a member of the Hogar Comunitario team, remembers it as a time of increased paramilitary activity and community fragmentation. The social upheaval brought sexual violence, early pregnancies and abandoned babies, she says.

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María Hernández Guzmán sits in a bedroom at the Hogar Comunitario Yach’il Antzetic. She stayed at the center when she was pregnant with her first child 15 years ago. Now, she’s a leader at the home.

Adriana Alcázar González, GPJ Mexico

Once a woman became pregnant, members of her family and community would blame that woman for the situation, Lorea says.

“If an indigenous girl returned home pregnant, she had disobeyed and she was subjected to an intense violence,” she says. “Even the life of that baby and the mother was in danger, which is why so many would abandon the babies as a method of mutual protection.”

The Hogar Comunitario was created to combat that problem, Lorea says. The aim was to create a welcoming home where mothers could make decisions in a safe place, free of charge.

Since then, the team at the home has attended to an estimated 3,000 women, most of whom ranged in age from 12 to 30, she says.

“The Hogar Comunitario is the house of love and respect for life,” Lorea says. “It is a space where we look for the woman to dignify her life, and this is only achieved through self-study, from self-learning, from getting to know oneself, by raising her self-esteem. We have various examples, among them, María Hernández.”

The home can shelter up to nine women at a time, Lorea says, and those women can stay for one night or up to six weeks at once while pregnant, during the few days before and after giving birth, and one more time afterward.

Verónica Gómez arrived at the home 10 years ago when she was 12. Her cousin had raped her, she says, and she became pregnant. Her mother found out about the home and dropped her off.

“I began to cry because I felt that my mom didn’t want me,” she says. “I felt that I was a hindrance for her. I was very sad.”

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A mural welcomes people at the door of the Hogar Comunitario Yach’il Antzetic home, which since 1996 has provided shelter and care to an estimated 3,000 pregnant women and new mothers, many of whom are indigenous and don’t have the support of their families or the babies’ fathers.

Adriana Alcázar González, GPJ Mexico

Gómez’s daughter was born at the home. Gómez says she felt supported and cared for there, and learned some handiwork skills through the workshops and classes provided.

“I learned to love myself,” she says.

Judith Álvarez, the community home’s psychologist, says the home provides young mothers with tools that will empower them emotionally and economically. This is done through workshops such as those that Gómez attended.

Among other subjects, there are classes in preparing for birth and labor, handicrafts, pottery, bookbinding, baking, dressmaking, marketing and selling products. In May, the home offered a workshop on macramé, a textile made by knotting cords or thick threads. Many of the workshops are given by volunteers, Hernández says.

“They teach themselves, accompany each other, interact, learn to put prices to their products, to live on their gift,” Álvarez says.

Local activists recognize the value of the home.

The social rejection of teenage and young mothers is a persistent problem in San Cristóbal de las Casas and the state, says Laura Serrano, the coordinator of Nuevos Códices Compatía, an organization that works with young, predominantly indigenous and mestizo (mixed heritage) people in the state to educate them about their sexual and reproductive rights, partner and gender violence and other topics.

Traditional indigenous homes expect all members to help out with farming or to contribute financially, Serrano says. These communities also conform to a patriarchal family structure, in which they believe a woman is inferior and needs a man in order to survive, she says.

But a single, pregnant young woman does not fit that bill, she adds.

Although cases where pregnant women are rejected and kicked out of their homes are decreasing, Serrano says, based on her organization’s experience, many women who still experience this feel they’re without resources. But the Hogar Comunitario has been a consistent option, she adds.

“The work that the home does is very important, because they are the only ones in San Cristóbal de las Casas; there is no other organization that does their work of supporting women who have no support nearby,” Serrano says.

Hernández says she is proud of their work. She especially believes that her early pregnancy, and all the challenges that came along with it, had to take place in order for her to return the support to other women.

“There have been the difficult things, but I don’t cry about or regret them. But rather I overcome it, and it makes me stronger,” she says. “It is already part of me, I won’t forget. But not because of the sadness, rather from the life lesson that stays with us.”

 

Rishi Khalsa, GPJ, translated this article from Spanish.

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