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A woman will likely be Mexico's next president. But in some Indigenous villages, men hold the power

PLAN DE AYALA, Mexico (AP) — At 4:30 a.m., girls and women begin to appear in the dark streets of this village of Tojolabal people in southern Mexico. They walk in silence. Some head to grind corn to make their family’s tortillas.
Liz Vázquez, left, speaks and Maria Leticia Santiz translates into the Tojolabal language, during a workshop with a co-ed class about gender equality at a school in Plan de Ayala, a Tojolabal village in the Las Margaritas municipality of Chiapas state, Mexico, Thursday, May 2, 2024. Vázquez and Santiz aim to encourage conversation and reflection in some of Chiapas’ most closed communities, learn the realities of people there, and provide tools to improve their lives. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

PLAN DE AYALA, Mexico (AP) — At 4:30 a.m., girls and women begin to appear in the dark streets of this village of Tojolabal people in southern Mexico. They walk in silence. Some head to grind corn to make their family’s tortillas. Others fetch firewood to carry home, on their backs or with the help of a donkey. The youngest hurry to finish chores before running to school.

Hours later, it’s still morning, and it’s time to talk. A group of young women and men gathers in a classroom at the Plan de Ayala high school. They’ve come to discuss gender equality and reflect on the role of women in this remote Indigenous community in Chiapas, Mexico’s poorest state.

Jeydi Hernández, 17, wants to be a veterinarian and play basketball, though her first attempt to form a team failed: “There were 12 of us, but my friends got married, and there were only four of us left.” Madaí Gómez, 18, complains she can’t express opinions in her town: “They think women don’t know anything.”

Two Indigenous women lead the workshop; dozens attend. Years ago, such an initiative wouldn't have been so well-received, they say. But change is coming — albeit slowly.

Seventy years ago, Mexican women won the right to vote, and today the country is on the verge of electing its first woman president. Yet some of the Indigenous women who will vote in Sunday’s national election don’t have a voice in their own homes and communities.

In Plan de Ayala and other corners of Mexico, women can’t participate in local government. Men set priorities. Plan de Ayala’s women aren’t even registered residents, even though they are on voter rolls, so its 1,200 men can only guess at the true population.

With no official data, it’s unclear how many communities operate this way. But it’s one of many contradictions for a part of the Mexican population that for centuries has been marginalized. Now, Indigenous women are pushing for change — little by little — with the younger generation often leading the charge.

Of more than 23 million Indigenous people in Mexico — nearly 20% of the population — well over half live in poverty, according to 2022 government data. And women face the worst of it, with the lowest rates of literacy in their communities and little, if any, rights to own land.

Neither of the two women candidates for president — Claudia Sheinbaum of the governing Morena party and the opposition’s Xóchitl Gálvez — have spoken much about Indigenous issues. Still, women in this region can’t hide some hope that a woman president could better address some of their most pressing needs: health care and education access, and protection from domestic violence.

Juana Cruz, 51, is one of the women on a crusade to bring change. She grew up listening to stories of abuses suffered by four generations of her family forced to work on an estate where they had to speak Spanish rather than their native Tojolabal, a Mayan-family language. She remembers being beaten in school for not speaking Spanish well.

Today she's one of the most veteran social activists in Las Margaritas, the municipality that includes Plan de Ayala, and director of Tzome Ixuk, which means “organized woman” in Tojolabal.

There’s been progress in places like Las Margaritas, a sprawling township of some 140,000 people spread across about 400 mostly Indigenous communities, including Plan de Ayala, but unwritten rules still govern much of life in the villages.

Increasingly, girls and young women are rejecting such norms. That’s part of what’s discussed in the workshops at Plan de Ayala high school.

About a third of those gathered said they'd like to continue studying, according to María Leticia Santiz, 28, and Liz Vázquez, 33, who lead the discussion.

“You all have the ability to make decisions in your communities, in your schools, in your families,” Vázquez tells the group. “You are a generation of change.” Santiz translates to Tojolabal.

Vázquez and Santiz are from a collective called Ch’ieltik, meaning “we are those who grow” in the Indigenous language Tseltal. The group’s goal is to encourage conversation and reflection among young people in some of Chiapas’ most closed communities.

In Plan de Ayala, like most rural corners of Las Margaritas, there's little evidence of the coming national election. Posters of Sheinbaum are seen in some places. The face of Gálvez — who has Indigenous roots, with an Otomi father — is not.

Vázquez says that personally, she hasn't connected with either candidate. But in the workshop, she tells the group that a woman becoming president proves nothing is impossible.

The campaigns of the two leading female presidential candidates are notable for what’s lacking: any prioritization of gender issues or detailed plans to address Indigenous communities' issues.

Sheinbaum insists she'll try to reach agreements to compensate for past injustices against some Indigenous peoples. Gálvez has only gone so far as to remind voters of projects she pushed when she was in charge of Indigenous development under a previous administration, two decades ago.

In Plan de Ayala, Vázquez and Santiz leave the workshop at the school encouraged. The young men seem receptive to speaking about equality, and they see signs of change: fathers supporting daughters’ dreams, young women carving out spaces for themselves.

After the workshop, Madaí Gómez, the 18-year-old, heads home to finish helping her mother. She’s not yet sure about continuing school — she wants to be economically independent and considers herself a strong woman who doesn’t take “no” for an answer. Maybe she’ll stay here and find work. Maybe she’ll try making it to the U.S.

That afternoon, she puts on her soccer uniform and heads to the local field, optimistic that more girls want to join. On the dirt track, teens pass older women wearing traditional embroidered blouses and satin skirts returning from the fields, their bodies stooped by bundles of grass hoisted on their backs.

Gómez said she believes in the potential of her community's women and thinks Mexico’s first woman president could show they can do more even than men.

“I want gender equality to come, for them to give us that chance to raise our voices, for our voice to be valued the same as a man’s,” she said.

María Verza, The Associated Press