Minneapolis hosts women’s rights activist from Mexico

by Elizabeth Dunbar

Esther Chavez Cano stood in front of a couple dozen women, looking out at the skyscrapers on a gray day in downtown Minneapolis.

In a calm yet firm voice, Chavez Cano asked the group’s assistance for a women’s center in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, and described the atrocities that led her to establish the center.

In the past 10 years, Chavez Cano has documented 274 women murder victims in Mexico’s fifth-largest city, which borders Texas.

Another woman’s body was found Tuesday in Ciudad Juarez, she said. As many as 4,000 women have disappeared in 10 years.

A local committee brought Chavez Cano to Minneapolis before she travels to New York next month, where she will receive an international award for efforts in defending women’s rights.

She will present a documentary and speak at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at Coffman Union. Admission is $5.

Though many call her a heroine, 69-year-old Chavez Cano won’t hear the praise.

“When these women recover their own self-esteem and start fighting, those are the women that should be recognized, not me,” she said.

Chavez Cano began her work as a journalist in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, in 1982. She started writing about the thousands of women living in poverty and working in factories.

“When I saw the poverty, I couldn’t believe it,” she said, speaking through an interpreter. “That poverty is always surrounding us.”

Chavez Cano said people have to walk long distances to work, and many build their houses with waste from the factories.

In addition to working long hours at the factories, many women in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, live in fear, Chavez Cano said.

Gangs and drug cartels operate in the city, she said, but poverty has caused many to resort to violence.

“People have moved here to live on the border and perhaps have a chance at the American dream,” she said. “They move to survive, but they will never make it out of poverty.”

Chavez Cano learned about the murders when she was working at the newspaper and, along with a fellow reporter, talked to authorities about the problem.

But the police did not help much, and instead focused their enforcement and investigation efforts on car thefts and drug trafficking, she said.

Most of the documented murder victims had been raped, Chavez Cano said.

She recorded 93 as victims of numerous serial killers because of mutilation patterns on their bodies.

The rest were killed by their boyfriends or husbands, she said.

Chavez Cano did not start documenting the murders until 1993, but she soon gained the attention of international human rights organizations and media from around the world.

“I feel more support from other countries than my own,” she said. “No one in the (Mexican) federal government wants to investigate the crimes because they say intervening will violate the state’s sovereignty.”

After a CNN reporter asked her in 1998 why she had not done anything to help the women still suffering from domestic violence, Chavez Cano started Casa Amiga the next year to give medical, psychological and legal help to abused women.

She also plans to open a domestic violence shelter for women.

“When she saw the horrible atrocities she kept going and going,” said Liliana Espondaburu, of the Casa de Esperanza in St. Paul.

Chavez Cano said her dream is to write a book about the women victims of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.

“The discrimination in the world is against women who are the poorest of the poor,” she said. “People have the idea that women are of less value, and the worst of this discrimination is being lived in Ciudad Juarez.”