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Refusing to take men for an answer

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Times Staff Writers

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.

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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.

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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.

“For them, I’m not any different,” she said. “When I go home, I still have to clean out the cornfields, clear the weeds, pick up firewood and make the tortillas.”

Meanwhile, she watched her older sister, the one who married at 12, struggle with the demands of a traditional rural life. Today she is 41 and has nine children, Cruz said.

Still, change has come to the Cruz family as it has to many others. More families than ever are sending at least one child to college. Quiegolani now has a small middle class that includes Mendoza, the mayor, who left the village to become a schoolteacher.

The broadening horizons have changed the way many people think. Cruz thought she saw an opening that would allow her to return home and make a difference.

“A lot of the men accepted me because I had gone to college, I had a profession and I could speak Spanish,” she said.

Still, in the odd calculus of social life in Quiegolani, having a college degree also worked against her. When she ran for mayor, one reason cited for disqualifying her votes was that she was a “professional.”

Some residents argued that since Cruz lives much of the week in Oaxaca city, she would not help in the community labor tasks that are a key element of village life. Community citizenship in Santa Maria Quiegolani, as in many indigenous villages across the Americas, is defined in large measure by participation in communal work.

Neighbors join together to build homes and clear roads. Lending a hand in the fiestas that honor the Catholic saints believed to protect Quiegolani is mandatory.

But Cruz says she has met all of her community obligations. She helped carry the heavy statue of the town’s patron saint in the procession at the village fiesta last year. And in the big meal that followed, she was even allowed a seat at the main table next to the male leaders.

“It took a lot of time, but gradually I won their confidence,” she said. When Cruz decided to run for mayor, she did so with the consent and support of at least some of the male elders.

Election day began the way it always had, with several dozen men gathering around the small city hall and a single ballot box. Being a woman, Cruz could not vote for herself, nor could her small group of female supporters vote for her.

Still, she believes she was winning. “The men were voting for me,” she said. Then Lopez, the village elder running the election, announced that he was nullifying the votes for her.

Lopez’s argument, verified by others present that day, was that Cruz could not run for office. “Show me the bylaws,” Cruz demanded.

The bylaws have been handed down orally through the generations, she was told. There was nothing to show.

Manuel Martinez Hernandez, a Quiegolani official who supports Cruz, denounced his colleagues.

“They didn’t respect our traditions, because on the day of the election, when they saw they were losing, they nullified the results without consulting the citizenry,” he said.

Mendoza, the declared winner, said no ballots were discarded. In fact, he said, he defeated Cruz 93 to 20.

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The new mayor, who took office in January, defends the practice of excluding women.

“Why is it that only men choose the municipal authorities?” Mendoza asked rhetorically. “They are the ones in charge of the tough jobs, the ones who run all the money affairs in the home. . . . Women occupy a special place, they are privileged for us Zapotecs. They don’t lift a hand in the toughest part of the harvest.”

Cruz took her complaint to the state capital. But an election official there told her it was too late to overturn the results. “Run again in three years,” he said. Then, she said, he asked her for a date.

Outraged, she turned to the media, writing a 600-word “Open Letter From an Indigenous Woman.”

“On Nov. 4 . . . there was an assault against the Constitution in my town,” she wrote. “With lies, threats and humiliations” the male leaders of Quiegolani “ ‘annulled’ my right to govern my people for the next three years.”

Now changes are afoot in both Santa Maria Quiegolani and Oaxaca state. Publicity about the case brought Oaxaca Gov. Ulises Ruiz to Santa Maria Quiegolani in February. He promised to “end once and for all the old practice of discriminating against women in local assemblies.”

Ruiz’s visit was treated by all as a historic event. Afterward, Mendoza said the Quiegolani community assembly would probably agree this spring to allow women to vote.

And in three years, when Mendoza’s term is over, Cruz plans to run again.

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hector.tobar@latimes.com


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