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WOMEN AND POWER : Case Study: Politics : Activism Rooted in Mexico's Culture : An urban leader in Mazatlan draws inspiration from women of the 1910 revolution. Matriarchy also runs strong in Zapotec Indian communities.


MAZATLAN, Mexico — Sunlight has barely begun to illuminate the dirt streets and cinder-block houses of this slum named "Freedom of Expression" when Maria Helena Gomez starts exercising hers.

"Get up. Get to work. Make the day productive," her voice blares from the four loudspeakers of the neighborhood's only two-story house. And so begins another morning on the turf of La Guera Guerrillera, the Blonde Warrior, a nickname Gomez earned fighting landowners and city officials when "Freedom of Expression" was a squatter camp.

Gomez organized the invasion of a vacant plot of land four years ago, in a sort of urban homesteading that is the way poor neighborhoods traditionally get their start in Mexico. Her reputation grew along with her following as she and her supporters kept returning to the disputed plot despite police beatings and repeated arrests.

Eventually, she and her neighbors not only got title to the land but electricity and running water as well--achievements that have helped make La Guera a formidable leader. "I can raise 200 people for a demonstration just on my say so," she asserted. "I can get 5,000 more if you give me time to persuade them."

A short, plump woman with curly, shoulder-length blonde hair and freckles, Gomez exemplifies the strong women who lead a surprising number of grass-roots movements in Mexico, defying macho stereotypes. They organize marches for better housing, create committees to press for urban services and speak out at rallies for worker rights. Like women in other developing nations, poor Mexican women have found that to fulfill their traditional roles of caring for their families, they have to leave their homes and become activists.

La Guera compares herself to the women soldiers of the 1910 revolution who fought alongside their men, demanding land and liberty. The place of honor in the small office on one side of her home is occupied not by an altar to the Virgin of Guadalupe or a portrait of the president but by a photograph of Valentina Vazquez Ramirez, a colonel in the Revolutionary Army and heroine of a still-popular ballad from that era.

"She is my inspiration," La Guera said, pointing out that "she was from Sinaloa," the state where Mazatlan is located.

While Vazquez Ramirez was fighting government troops here in the north, women in Mexico City were leading rent strikes that resulted in current laws protecting tenants' rights. The beginnings of the current women's urban movement is generally traced to them.

However, the matriarchal countercurrent has much deeper roots. In the Zapotec Indian communities of southern Mexico's Tehuantepec Isthmus, women run the markets and are in charge of community activities, such as religious celebrations. Girls as young as 6 are assigned responsibilities in village celebrations.

The gaze of the Tehuana (a woman from Tehuantepec) is direct and her laughter uninhibited. After a dinner of armadillo, women often sit back, rub their stomachs and burp in a parody of rural macho habits. Paintings displayed in the region's Juchitan Culture Center portray women a head taller than the men around them.

"The Tehuanas have become an image of the liberated woman," said Efrain Cortes, an ethnologist at the National Anthropology Museum. "Women's participation in the economic and social life of the isthmus communities has made them equals to men. It has diluted the Mexican's traditional machismo, almost made it disappear."

Early Mexican feminists such as artist Frida Kahlo wore Tehuana costume, not only for its delicate embroidery and halo-like headdress but also for the matriarchal tradition it symbolized.

Nevertheless, the group of community activists gathered around Pilar Lopez's kitchen table in a modest Mexico City neighborhood one recent morning were not so sure whether the activism of urban women is a triumph over a patriarchal system or a part of it.

"In some ways, it is another example of the classic Mexican macho," said Alejandro Reyes, 34, the only man present. "It's very easy just to go to work, come home for dinner and let the woman take care of everything. We think it is beneath our dignity to go down to government offices and shout our demands. If the women will do it, let them do it."

But Alejandra Massolo, a sociologist at the Iztapalapa campus of the Autonomous Metropolitan University in Mexico City, has noted, "By delegating the responsibility to women . . . (men) give them the chance to exercise feminine power, upsetting the balance of the male hierarchy in the home and the community."

The women in the group said that the long struggle for decent housing in their neighborhood, which began when most of the current leaders were children, has changed relationships in their families.

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