Chiapas Ten Years Later

Saturday, October 30, 2004

Female Mayor in Chiapas

Female Chiapas Mayor
by Diego Cevallos October 29, 2004
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MEXICO CITY - In December María Sánchez will become the first woman to govern an indigenous municipality in the southeastern Mexican state of Chiapas, where she is bucking local tradition. "I am the first, but there will be many more," she says.

"I can see that my brothers and sisters respect me and I respect them, which is why I have been able to achieve this great triumph, which won't be the only one for indigenous women," Sánchez told IPS from Chiapas in a telephone interview.

In two elections, in June and early this month, she managed to break with the indigenous customs and traditions of the municipality of Oxchuc and of a large part of the impoverished state of Chiapas, according to which women are not capable of governing.

Sánchez' case is an exception. In Mexico, indigenous women not only suffer the brunt of high levels of marginalisation and poverty, but in some parts of the country, they are forced to marry against their will, at a young age; in some cases, they may even be sold.

Indigenous women in Mexico have a life expectancy of 71.5 years, compared to 76 years for indigenous men. Indians make up around 10 per cent of the total population of 102 million.

While 18 per cent of men belonging to native ethnic groups are illiterate, this figure reaches 32 per cent for women. And just 8.9 per cent of indigenous women make it to secondary school.

On average, 10 ten per cent of the country's indigenous people between the ages of five and 24 do not attend school -- a proportion that rises to 42 when taking only girls and women into account.

"I have been lucky to be able to study, because I took on that challenge. But now I am facing something much more difficult, which is leading my community," Sánchez remarked.

Sánchez, who studied accounting and administration at university, will in December take over as mayor of Oxchuc, a municipality extending over 72 square kilometres which is home to approximately 40,000 members of the Tzetzal ethnic group, who live in dire poverty.

Oxchuc is near the area dominated by the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), a poorly armed indigenous guerrilla group that has not fired a single shot since 1994.

In elections held in accordance with local indigenous tradition, which were not officially recognised, Sánchez stood in June as candidate for mayor. Despite the opposition of the municipality's elders, she won the support of the majority.

Sánchez then went on to win the early October elections organised and endorsed by the Electoral Institute of Chiapas.

"To us, the municipal elections of Oct. 3 were just a formal requirement, as the community had in fact already elected me," she pointed out.

The candidacy of Sánchez, of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), was questioned by the elders of Oxchuc, who claim to be the defenders of customs and traditions, as well as by her male rivals, who point out that the mayor-elect is the wife of outgoing Mayor Norberto Santiz.

"I haven't received any help from my husband. It is the community which has given me its support in order to try to pull out of this tremendous poverty," she stated.

"I will govern for everyone, because paying attention only to one's supporters or friends are things that have already done a great deal of harm to indigenous peoples. As the first female mayor I have a great responsibility," she added.

In Oxchuc, 87.8 per cent of the inhabitants work in agriculture, illiteracy stands at 31 per cent, 88.7 per cent of houses have dirt floors, and 82.7 per cent of them have flimsy wooden walls.

According to the mayor-elect, who will serve a three year-term, neither the EZLN nor other organisations have influence over Oxchuc. "We are surrounded by groups, but here in our community we don't have those problems," she said.

"I respect the Zapatistas and hope that they also respect our community. The worst we could do would be to create divisions among indigenous peoples."

According to the EZLN, women hold leadership positions in their area of influence, which is not far from Oxchuc. The group accuses the PRI, to which Sánchez belongs, of harassing their members and supporters, even by use of military means.

Studies conducted by the Mexican government indicate that the Zapatistas control less than 15 per cent of the 75,634 square kilometres of Chiapas. EZLN authorisation is needed to enter those areas, which are administered according to customs and laws dictated by the Zapatistas.

The EZLN, which does not take part in local or national politics, says real justice, communal living and respect for women and the environment prevail in its territory. Since the Zapatistas engaged in fighting with government troops in the first two weeks of January 1994, there have been no skirmishes with the army, thanks to a "pacification law" or truce.

There are no precise figures as to how many indigenous people live in the area under EZLN control, but unofficial estimates indicate that the total is at least 100,000.

Since President Vicente Fox's electoral triumph put an end to seven decades of PRI governments in 2000, the Zapatistas have lost the prominent role they had gained by mobilising supporters of democracy and the rights of indigenous peoples.

Surrounding the Zapatista region, there are communities and organisations opposed to the EZLN, and violent incidents have occurred on more than one occasion.

The bloodiest was a Dec. 22, 1997 massacre, when members of the Catholic civil society organisation "The Bees" were attacked in the town of Acteal by right-wing paramilitaries, who killed 21 women, 15 children and nine men.

A late 1990s study by the Jesuit-affiliated Agustín Pro Juárez Human Rights Centre found evidence that the so- called Anti-Zapatista Indigenous Revolutionary Movement, which purportedly has ties to the PRI, is operating in Oxchuc and surrounding areas.

But according to Sánchez, "That isn't true. There are no violent groups in Oxchuc. Here, the only thing we want is to live in peace and escape poverty."

"We respect the Zapatistas' way of thinking, but we also hope that they respect ours, for the good of everyone," she insisted.

"What the people in Chiapas want is work, since we are poor and suffer great hardships. I have come to make my contribution," the mayor-elect added.


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