In Mexico, a gain for Indian civil rights is a loss for some women

>SANTA MARIA QUIEGOLANI, Mexico (AP) – Women in this Indian village high in the pine-clad mountains of Oaxaca rise each morning at 4 a.m. to gather firewood, grind corn, prepare the day’s food, care for the children and clean the house.

But they aren’t allowed to vote in local elections, because – the men say – they don’t do enough work.

It was here, in a village that has struggled for centuries to preserve its Zapotec traditions, that Eufrosina Cruz, 27, decided to become the first woman to run for mayor – despite the fact that women aren’t allowed to attend town assemblies, much less run for office.

The all-male town board tore up ballots cast in her favor in the Nov. 4 election, arguing that as a woman, she wasn’t a “citizen” of the town. “That is the custom here, that only the citizens vote, not the women,” said Valeriano Lopez, the town’s deputy mayor.

Rather than give up, Cruz has launched the first serious, national-level challenge to traditional Indian forms of government, known as “use and customs,” which were given full legal status in Mexico six years ago in response to Indian rights movements sweeping across Latin America.

“For me, it’s more like ‘abuse and customs,’ ” Cruz said as she submitted her complaint in December to the National Human Rights Commission. “I am demanding that we, the women of the mountains, have the right to decide our lives, to vote and run for office, because the constitution says we have these rights.”

Lopez acknowledged that votes for Cruz were nullified, but claims they added up to only 8 ballots of about 100 cast in this largely unpaved village of about 1,500 people.

Cruz says she was winning – and wants the election to be annulled and held again, this time with women voting.

But the male leaders are refusing to budge. “We live differently here, senor, than people in the city. Here, women are dedicated to their homes, and men work the fields,” Apolonio Mendoza, the secretary of the all-male town council, told a visiting reporter.

Cruz has received some support from older men, who by village law lose their political rights when they turn 60. Some younger men also say the system must change and give women more rights.

At a recent meeting of several dozen Cruz supporters, most of them voteless, women in traditional gray shawls recalled being turned down for government aid programs because they weren’t accompanied by a man.

Martina Cruz Moreno, 19, said that when her widowed mother sought government-provided building materials to improve her dirt-floor, tin-roofed wooden home, village authorities told her, “Go get yourself a husband.”

As a woman, Eufrosina Cruz is not only barred from being mayor, but from participating in the “community labor” that qualifies male villagers as “citizens.” Those tasks include repairing roads, herding cattle, cleaning streets and raising crops.

“I’d like to see the men here make tortillas, just for one day, and then tell me that’s not work,” said Cruz, describing the hours-long process of cleaning, soaking, cooking and milling the corn, shaping the flour into flat discs, and collecting the firewood to heat the clay and brick hearths on which most women cook.