Activism and Women’s Rights in Mexico

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This paper explores the varied history of women’s rights within Mexico and the modern implications of the Mexican women’s rights movement. This paper is structured chronologically, with a brief overview of the history of women in Mexico before delving into modern issues. The concept of ‘machismo’ is also explored within the essay and is used to explain the phenomena of femicide and gendered violence within Mexico. The essay ends with the conclusion that the apathy of the U.S. and Mexican government is the cause of rising number of missing and murdered women within Latin America and it proposes that it is the duty of civilians to stop these atrocities from occurring.

Women in Mexico have been an integral part of their society since the Pre-Columbian era. However, women’s status and role in society has changed drastically as societal and economic changes shifted the cultural fabric of Mexico and the whole of Latin America. Prior to the 19th century, women were cast in the role of homemaker and had limited political, social, and sexual freedom. With the rise of urbanization and liberalism, women mobilized and made significant strides in their right to work, education, and freedom from male influence. However, progress within the women’s rights movement is still slow moving and has adapted to face the modern issues of femicide within Mexico and along the U.S. Mexico border. In order to understand the unique challenges that plague Mexican women, it is important to understand their rich history and the current social moments that are taking place to elevate women within Latin America.

The education of women and their establishment into society did not occur until the Spanish era, in which individuals were divided by a system of racial hierarchy. This system can best be described by Casta pantings, a series of paintings that documents the inter-ethnic mixing occurring in Spanish territory among Europeans, indigenous peoples, Africans, and the existing mixed-race population. These paintings, such as the Casta Painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe created by Luis de Mena, depicts white Spanish or European men with their indigenous, Indian, or African wives. This attests to women’s mobility within this society, as ethnic women were often betrothed to white men in order to elevate their social status and could only gain education through this process. Education was limited to the elite wives of white upper class men and by the late 17th century only 10 percent of elite Mexican women had a formal education. This trend continued throughout the following century and working class peasant women were excluded from the conversation of women’s rights until the early 20th century. Prior to the Mexican revolution, during 1904-07, middle and upper class women created The Mexican Woman, a publication that argued for women’s right to access professions only accessible to men in order to make them better homemakers and mothers.

This publication catapulted interest in women’s rights and in 1907 two textile workers, sisters María del Carmen and Catalina Frias, developed the political group “Daughters of Anahuac,” in order to defend the rights of female agriculturists and the Mexican Liberal Party. By 1915, the women’s rights movement gained traction and activist Hermila Galindo worked towards establishing women’s rights in law through her publication, The Modern Woman, which demanded women’s right to suffrage and focused on women’s education, job training, and sexual health. Some of these goals were achieved in 1917, when the new Mexican Constitution established the right to divorce, equal wage rights for women and men, and protections for laboring pregnant women. However, in this new constitution women were not granted the right to vote and were still under the jurisdiction of their husbands and had to have permission from their husbands in order to work and live independently. During the Mexican revolution, hundreds of thousand of women were taken out of traditional family roles and traveled with the armies of Zapata, Villa, and Carranza. Within these militias, women cooked, washed clothes, and cared for injured soldiers and therefore became an integral part of the army’s survival. These women also worked as scouts to help soldiers find camps for the night as well as risked their lives as couriers printing manifestos, making and distributing guns, and taking up arms themselves.

Many women were directly involved in armed conflict and strategizing and would often disguise themselves as men in order to fight in place of a fallen husband or brother. One Zapatista, Colonel Rosa Bobadilla, was a prominent member of the Zapata movement who was essential in drafting Zapata’s Ayala Plan. Another notable Zapatista, Elena Arizmendi, created the Neutral White Cross, an organization of nurses and medical students who aided the resistance in place of the Red Cross who supported the Porfirio Díaz dictatorship. Significant developments for women’s rights did not occur until the late 1930s, with the rise of a strong Communist Party presence that fought for progressive interests.

In 1935, working class women and educators created the United Front for Women’s Rights, which fought for women’s suffrage. Two years later, President Lázaro Cárdenas promoted a reform granting full political rights to women that was ratified by both the Cham0ber of Deputies and the Senate but was never officially enacted. It was not until 1953 that President Enrique Peña Nieto finally gave Mexican women the right to vote, which began the second wave of feminism in Mexico. Major social movements defined this era, such as the Zapatista’s movement “Caracol,” which organized 50,000 peasants into opposing the building of the La Perota dam in the state of Guerrero. Another prominent feminist organization, the Coordinating Committee of Oaxacan Women, marched against a media blackout and occupied a state-owned TV station for 21 days until their demands were met.

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Today, Mexican feminists protest against the rising issue of femicide on the U.S. Mexico border with protests such as the “Day of Dead Women,” in which hundreds of women marched through the streets of Mexico City to draw awareness to unprotected gender-related killings. In order to understand the rise of femicide in Mexico, it is important to grasp the culture of violence against women that is perpetuated by the Mexican government and the social phenomena of ‘Machismo.’ ‘Machismo’ is defined as strong or aggressive masculine pride that normalizes men’s superiority to women and reinforces the idea of women as second-class citizens. Pamela Neumann, professor of Latin American Studies at Bucknell University, states that, “There has been a social and cultural expectation in Latin America since the Spanish conquest, that men are entitled to women, and it’s how they express their sense of masculinity.” This entitlement to women’s bodies has lead to more than 2,500 deaths of women in Mexico every year, with less than a quarter of these murders being investigated and with fewer than 2 percent of these cases leading to sentencing.

One example of this is the murder of Graciela Cifuentes and her daughter Sol, who were bludgeoned to death by Alan Sánchez Romero after Sol rejected his romantic advances and “never took him seriously.” This case was ruled as a double suicide by the Mexican government, one example that attests to the lack of investigation put towards missing and murdered women within the country and along the border. In order to protest the femicide epidemic, feminist organization “Voices of Absence,” have created the “Day of Dead Women,” which is a protest that includes over 100 families broadcasting the names of missing loved ones on large purple crosses displayed in Mexico City’s main square. Frida Guerrera, the creator of the demonstration passionately claims that, “We march on ‘Day of the Dead Women’ to take them beyond just the altars,’ she said. ‘They did not die of old age or from illness. They were snatched away, they were ripped from their families, and we want them to be seen. May they not remain in the invisibility of Day of the Dead celebrations.”

This demonstration mirrors the protests executed by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, an organization of mothers that formed in 1977 to draw attention to the disappearance of their children during the Argentinian dictatorship of 1976-78. Both protests used strong visual strategies to convey an emotional message, with the mothers displaying the enlarged silhouettes of their missing children on the street walls of the Plaza de Mayo. Similar to the mothers who often wore white and carried pictures of their children, Mexican activists have donned large photos of heir missing loved ones and have worn the color purple to symbolize the missing women. The mothers’ activism goes beyond demonstrations and has expanded into multiple organizations, such as “The Founding Line,” a group that is dedicated to discovering the particular causes of death for individuals killed during the dictatorship. Other associations formed by the mothers include the “Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo” and “HIJOS,” which focus on reuniting missing children to their families and establishing bonds between the parents of lost children.

These organizations are similar to movements founded to rally against femicide on the U.S. Mexican border, such as the group “May Our Daughters Return Home.” This organization was founded by the mother of a victim of femicide and focuses on bringing justice to casualties of gendered violence in the border city Ciudad Juarez. Another feminist organization, “Colibri Center for Human Rights,” is group that uses an independent DNA bank to help find and identify remains of indigenous women who die crossing into the United States. This center has also established statistics on the type of women that are the victims of gendered violence, stating that, “The social and economic marginalization of Indigenous women and girls not only makes them prey for violent men, but is also used by officials as a justification for failing to protect them.” These organizations claim that this deeply rooted racism has lead to the Mexican government turning a blind eye to missing and murdered indigenous women, with government officials dismissing the alarming statistics as side effects of drug use and sex work.

Enrique Morones, a leader of the volunteer group Border Angles, has stated that, “This issue’s been going on for a long time … the mistreatment of women, especially women of color, the abuse of women, the disappearance of women. And it’s not only happening on the U.S.-Mexico border…But you don’t hear those stories, and this series are important that they be told.” Activists such as Morones have inspired my course of study to be social work within Mexican communities particularly along the border. My goal is to work with disabled children who have crossed over and whose parents have limited means in providing them specialized education or healthcare. The care of girls is especially important to me as young women often go undiagnosed or untreated for intellectual disabilities and are subject to violence and mistreatment particularly within Latin American communities. Due to the fact that Mexican girls are a vulnerable population, my long term goal is to create a women’s shelter along the border of Ciudad Juarez in order to protect these women from targeted gender violence. The population along the border has been ignored by the U.S. and Mexican government for far too long and it is our responsibility to protect Mexican individuals from racial and gender motivated brutality.

Overall, the position of women within Mexican society has changed over time but the deeply rooted effects of ‘machismo’ and institutionalized sexism are still felt to this day. Historically, Mexican women were limited to the jurisdiction of their husbands and family life but through social mobilization and publications such as The Modern Woman, they were able to elevate their status. During the 1900s, women worked as revolutionaries and used this political leverage to gain suffrage in the 1950s and continue to advocate for women’s rights through moments such as the Zapatista’s “Caracol.” Today Mexican women draw on examples set by organizations such as the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, and use visual strategies to protest femicide within Mexico and along the U.S. Mexico border. The hard work of Latina organizers has inspired me to delve into the world of Latin American political activism and continue to fight for the thousands of missing and murdered women within Latin America as their voice for justice.

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