September 10, 2012
September 10, 2012
OAXACA, MEXICO — She is cursed and persecuted by her home community. She has received death threats. Federal police follow her to protect her life. Still, she describes herself as “the freest woman in the world.” She is Eufrosina Cruz.
Cruz is from the village of Santa Maria Quiegolani, a community in the southern highlands of Oaxaca, Mexico. In this indigenous village, Zapotec, not Spanish, remains the primary language of the 1,500 residents. But there is something else peculiar about this town. Here, women are not considered citizens. The ancient rules of the community do not allow women the right to vote.
That’s why when Cruz ran for mayor, it caused quite a stir. Though many people in the village voted for her, some even claim she won, local authorities denied all votes cast for her “because she is a woman,” says Valariano Lopez, the current deputy mayor. He confirmed that all ballots cast for Eufrosina Cruz were nullified.
Today, Cruz has used her political defeat to begin a state and nationwide fight for indigenous women’s rights. She launched a national-level effort to reform ancient indigenous practices that limit the freedoms of women throughout southern Mexico. In the process, she says, she found her own voice and a way to empower others.
Cruz is no stranger to challenging the status quo. She ran away from home when she was 11, after watching her older sister become a bride at 12 and a mother at 13. Today, at 29, Cruz is a college-educated accountant and founder of a foundation dedicated to empowering the indigenous women of Mexico.
After she left her home as a girl, she spent several years living with relatives in another city of Oaxaca, working and studying, both commonly forbidden in her community for a woman. When she returned to the mountains, she took her rebellion a step further – she decided to enter into politics in order to finally bring change to her community.
She soon discovered, however, that nothing had changed in her absence. Though she was not successful in her bid for mayor, Cruz has used her mayoral run to draw increased attention to the plight of indigenous women in Mexico.
Historical Marginalization and Ancient Rules
Despite the wealth of natural resource and historical significance, the southern state of Oaxaca is one of the poorest regions of Mexico. Only two percent of the population has access to basic services like water, electricity, education and public health. Oaxaca is also the Mexican state with the greatest diversity — according to the federal statistics, almost two million of the 3.5 million inhabitants, belong to one of the 16 different tribes living in there.
“Oaxaca is the province with the highest rate of marginalization and poverty and among the poorest states of Mexico,” says Cruz. “We have the first place in illiteracy, the first place in poverty, the first place in violence against women.”
According to the National Ministry of Social Development 58 percent of the population in Oaxaca lives on less than $4.50 a day, and much of the indigenous population earns far less than that.
Norma Reyes Terán, director of the Women Institute in Oaxaca, said that in at least 80 of the 570 rural localities, women have no political rights. In some areas they do not even exist in the official registry of citizens. In total, 418 communities still live under traditional rules that contain a no-write law that states political issues are solely the concern of men. A popular saying declares this privilege is legitimate, because “women do not work enough to deserve that privilege.”
“We must change that,” Cruz says. “They only use these kinds of rules for political conveniences and interests. There is no romanticism in them, not when they are attacking our human rights.”
The Flowers Revolution
Cruz’ now famous analogy, between women and the white lilies that grew wild in her home town, served as the beginnings for her new foundation – Quiego, an organization dedicated to empowering and strengthening the rights of indigenous women in Mexico.
“They are always there,” Cruz says of the wild white lilies. “They grow naturally by themselves, despite the bad weather that we have in this mountains. The lilies are beautiful, but nobody appreciates their value even though they are always there. That is why the white lilies are my inspiration. My sign.”
More than 300 women in 10 provinces are already receiving services from Quiego. A host of workshops and conferences focused on improving self-esteem and decision-making are facilitating Cruz’ dream and changing the way indigenous women view themselves and their communities. “We started Quiego to teach women to give value to their voices, and it is incredible the big changes that now we can see among the communities,” Cruz says.
“When you change a woman, you change a family, then a town and step by step we can change the entire country,” she says.
This article was created in partnership with Voices of Our Future.