Rosario Ibarra once seemed destined to live the tranquil existence of a well-to-do Mexican housewife, a doctor's spouse and mother of four in the relatively prosperous northern city of Monterrey.
That all changed in 1975, when, during a period of brutal Mexican government repression targeting suspected leftists, security forces arrested her son and he "disappeared." Ibarra soon emerged as the most visible agitator pressing Mexican authorities for answers to the fate of more than 500 desaparecidos during Mexico's "dirty war" against supposed subversion.
Now, at 68, she is the reigning queen of the Mexican human rights movement, still spry and dynamic, whatever is made of her singular political vision.
Ibarra is in Los Angeles this week in her latest incarnation: a kind of roving ambassador for the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, the rebel movement in Mexico's southern state of Chiapas. Her unequivocal message: Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo and the long-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party must step aside and make way for a truly democratic regime, including participation of the Zapatista rebels, and a new constitution.
"The current group has had its chance," Ibarra--twice an unsuccessful presidential candidate for leftist opposition parties--said Wednesday after a Los Angeles news conference. "It's time for a different kind of Mexico."
During her three-day visit to Los Angeles, she is speaking to community, student and labor groups, as well as raising funds for civilians in impoverished Chiapas. She says she is particularly anxious to reach out to the area's huge population of Mexican immigrants and others of Mexican ancestry, a group increasingly targeted by both opposition and pro-government groups in Mexico.
Already, Ibarra has traveled several times to Europe on behalf of the Zapatistas, who have a considerable following there.
Privately, Mexican government officials dismiss Ibarra as a kind of far-left gadfly, a dreamy idealist who preaches an anachronistic vision of some socialist utopia. But Ibarra calls her prescriptions practical in an era when the peso's collapse--following the loss of confidence by international investors--has sent the nation's economy into a deep tailspin, throwing more than a million people out of work and leaving a residue of deep despair.
"People talk about the 'new world order' and the 'global economy,' " Ibarra said, "but I call it the 'internationalization of misery.' "
In her view, the Zapatista uprising embodies the worldwide struggle for dignity in a transnational economy that increasingly views the poor as nothing more than an ever-disposable source of cheap labor. She bemoans the paradox of today's Mexico: Foreign-made luxury goods stock the shelves, but the vast majority of citizens are struggling to feed their families and stay ahead of creditors.
What the Zapatistas seek, she says, are "biblical" demands: land, health care, education, opportunity.
As to the current turmoil within Mexico's ruling circles, she calls it the inevitable end-of-empire chaos. Her greatest hope, she says, is that the crumbling system will not slide into a bloody abyss of anarchy and violence.
"The Mexican Revolution was the first revolution of the 20th Century," she said, referring to the uprising that began in 1910. "But let's hope Mexico is not also the site of the first revolution of the 21st Century."
Now a federal congresswoman for the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party, Ibarra dons a cross and a stylized image of Marcos, the ski-masked leader of the Chiapas rebels, around her neck. Pinned to her clothing is a small black-and-white photograph of her son, Jesus Piedra Ibarra, who has never been heard from since his disappearance in April, 1975.
Twenty years later, her voice still breaks when she speaks of her son, who would be 41 now. A former medical student, he could have inherited his father's successful practice, but became an urban guerrilla instead.
"He preferred to fight for those who had nothing," Ibarra said during a meeting at The Times.
She apologizes for the tears, and, later, the smile reappears when she returns to the theme of the charismatic Marcos, famed for his lengthy and often humorous communiques dispatched from the Chiapas rain forest, where the rebels' ragtag army of mostly Indian peasants is in hiding.
"There's a little bit of Marcos in all Mexicans," she says, adding that she, like many, fears for his safety should Marcos ever emerge publicly.