OAXACA, MEXICO — Many years ago, when she was still a tiny girl in braids, and not the professional she is today, Eufrosina Cruz heard the story of how her father married off her sister to a stranger at age 12: She wondered if a man might come to claim her too.
Being a girl isn't easy in Santa Maria Quiegolani, a poor rural village where Zapotec is the native language and most girls are lucky to complete grade school.
Cruz left to eventually become a college-educated accountant. But now, at age 27, she has returned to her old village in the mountains of Oaxaca, and stirred up a gender war.
Her struggle, at first personal and local, has sparked the governor of her state and Mexican President Felipe Calderon to back her call for legislation that would grant thousands of women in Oaxaca state the right to vote and run for office in about 100 rural towns. Male-only assemblies run those communities, which follow indigenous customs that predate the Spanish conquest.
"We have to help those women who are still in that place where you don't have any rights because you're a woman," she says. "The women who live in the mountains are shouting that someone listen to them. . . . I don't want any women to ever feel alone as I did."
Cruz's effort began with her decision to run in the election last November for mayor of Santa Maria Quiegolani, a mountain community of about 1,200 people. It gained momentum on election day, when the votes for her were tossed out.
"You are a woman," said Elpidio Lopez, a village elder who was running the election. "In our bylaws, women don't exist."
Cruz didn't surrender. She wrote news releases and made speeches about male-only rule. Eventually, the story became a national cause celebre.
Last month, Calderon invited Cruz, the sixth of nine children whose parents were Oaxacan farmers, to stand by his side at an official celebration of International Women's Day, praising her for "her tenacity, valor, courage and nobility in confronting a milieu . . . that is horribly machista and misogynistic."
How and why the diminutive but strong-willed accountant became a symbol of women's rights is rooted in the many legal and cultural contradictions of rural Oaxaca, a state in southern Mexico that has undergone dramatic social transformations in the last two decades.
The exclusion of women from government rule in Oaxacan towns is ostensibly protected by Article 25 of the state constitution, which establishes the rights of groups such as the Zapotecs to elect municipal officials according to "the traditions and democratic practices of indigenous communities." The Zapotecs, most famous as the builders of the pre-Columbian city of Monte Alban, today number about 400,000, living mostly in rural Oaxaca state.
"It's the way things have always been done here, since we've had the use of reason," said Eloy Mendoza, a 32-year-old schoolteacher who was declared the winner of the mayoral election. Only men are allowed to run the city government because, as Mendoza put it, "we do all the hard physical work."
Cruz remembers growing up in a place where illiteracy was common among women, whose feet were calloused and scarred from working barefoot in fields and at home.
Allowed to go to the village school, Cruz saw in her classrooms another vision of what a girl's life could be: Her teachers valued girls as much as boys. She worried that after she completed primary school, her education would stop, as it does for most girls in the village.
"In school, I was happy," she said.
"But when I went home I returned to my reality: They would treat me badly and say I wasn't worth anything because I was born a woman. They would order me around and say, 'Do this, do that.' "
By the time she was 11, she said, "I began to realize that at any moment any man could come for me" in an arranged marriage. "Just the idea was horrible and terrified me."
For two weeks, a tearful Cruz implored her father to let her leave the village to continue her studies. He relented, walking 10 hours with her to the next town so she could take a bus to the city of Santo Domingo Tehuantepec.
In the city, she lived with uncles who allowed her to study on the condition that she also work selling peppers, oranges and corn on the streets, a job that required her to begin her day at 3 a.m. Later, she won a scholarship that allowed her to attend and finish high school.
Eventually, she found her way to college in Oaxaca city. She wanted to study medicine but chose accounting because the tuition was lower.
"I lived with a cousin of mine in a little room with a tin roof," she recalled. "It was hard, but I kept going because I had this dream that one day I would be called 'doctora' or 'licenciada,' " the titles Mexicans confer on people with doctorates and bachelor's degrees.
On weekends, she rode the bus six hours back to Quiegolani, as the locals call the town. She had become a "professional," though that didn't seem to matter to her parents.