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In Mexico, Women Take a Siesta From Housework

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For the first time in 23 years, Irene Ortega slept late this weekend.

She didn’t get up at 6 a.m. to fix her husband’s meals for the day. She didn’t haul out the washboard to scrub the clothes. Her husband was duly informed that he could fend for himself: She was on strike.

“He looked at me bug-eyed,” the 60-year-old street vendor reported cheerfully. “He said, ‘Why, you old copycat.’ ”

Indeed, Ortega was joining an insurrection by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Mexican homemakers who dropped their mops, hung up their aprons and boycotted their ironing boards Saturday. They were participating in one of the most unusual work stoppages Mexico has ever seen: a one-day national strike against housework, intended to highlight women’s contributions in a society known for machismo.

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“This is aimed at converting the invisible into the visible,” said Gabriela Delgado, head of the Women’s Institute, referring to housework. Her institute is part of the center-left Mexico City government, which helped promote the event.

The strike appeared to be more symbolic than mass-based. But the widely publicized work stoppage captured the attention of a society in which women’s roles are rapidly changing.

Although about half of Mexican women are still principally homemakers, women have poured into the work force and universities in recent years. What hasn’t changed is their place in the home. Even those with outside jobs, like Ortega, find that they must do the household chores that traditionally have fallen to women.

That is, just about all of them.

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“Before I leave home, I have to work. When I get home, I have to work,” said Ortega, a stocky woman in a bright pink sweatshirt adorned with a Virgin of Guadalupe medal who puts in 10-hour days selling music cassettes in Mexico City’s Alameda Park.

Her husband, who repairs small appliances, she says, is “macho” and only reluctantly pitches in.

On Saturday, however, he was on his own. Ortega slept in until 8 a.m., bathed, then headed out to a street stand to indulge in some consomme and barbacoa, rich lamb tacos. It was, says the mother of two grown children, her first day off from housework since 1977, when she spent a day in bed. Normally, she works seven days a week, in addition to keeping up the house. “I’m a Mexican woman,” she explained.

The strike had lofty aims. Its organizers, various women’s organizations and the city government, hope to have domestic work included in national figures on economic growth. They want men to help out more at home. And they would like the media and textbooks to portray housework as a mutual responsibility.

To press these goals, they sponsored a protest march to the traditional heart of Mexico’s political power, the capital’s giant Zocalo plaza, on the eve of the strike. About 500 women participated, banging pots and chanting: “Democracy begins at home!”

Once in the Zocalo, the protesters listened as speakers denounced the inequity: Statistics show only half of working men pitch in at home--compared with 94% of Mexican women with outside jobs.

Such data didn’t surprise Laura Quiroz, 48, a television production worker who joined the march. She had announced to her spouse that she planned to take part in Saturday’s strike. He was not amused.

“He said, ‘I don’t care. In this house, we need to eat,’ ” she said with a grimace. Women were making progress, she said, sighing. “But it’s little by little.”

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Like her, Rosario Rosas, 47, a homemaker in Mexico City’s working-class Tepito neighborhood, had limited hopes for the strike. The mother of three wasn’t interested in making housework part of the gross domestic product. She hoped for something much more modest: a tiny income of her own. All the money she received from her husband was earmarked for the household, she explained.

“Men can go to the cantina with their friends. Women can’t” because they lack money and are criticized for such independence, she said.

While macho practices endure, however, the protest pointed up the dramatic transformation of women’s roles in Mexico. Birthrates have plummeted in recent decades because of extensive government family-planning programs. Young women often have twice as many years of education as their mothers. The percentage of women in the work force has more than doubled since 1970, to nearly 40%.

And women, who didn’t get the vote until 1953, have become far more politically active. In this year’s presidential race, candidates made an unprecedented effort to hold rallies with women and make campaign promises tailored to them. In Mexico City, women’s issues have been a priority, with the local government setting up special centers to address problems such as female unemployment and domestic abuse.

Delgado of the Women’s Institute said it was impossible to calculate how many women observed the strike. But the impact of the annual event appeared to ripple far beyond those who actually put down their oven mitts and brooms.

There were discussions like the one between Angelica Cruz, 45, and her husband, a 48-year-old copy editor, who were eating with their daughter at an outdoor taco stand in Mexico City.

Asked her opinion of the strike, Cruz told a reporter: “Good.”

“Good?” exclaimed her husband. He said the strike made sense only for women who held outside jobs.

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His wife disagreed. “We don’t receive a salary. We work and have no benefits,” she shot back.

“Who’s paying for the tacos?” demanded her husband. Turning to a reporter, he said his wife didn’t have time to participate in the strike.

But it seemed that he wouldn’t have the last word. “It’s new--I only heard about it yesterday,” Cruz said. “But I may participate the next time round.”


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