OAXACA, MEXICO -- She is cursed and persecuted by her home community. She has received death threats. Federal police follow her to protect her life. Still, she describes herself as “the freest woman in the world.” She is Eufrosina Cruz.
Cruz is from the village of Santa Maria Quiegolani, a community in the southern highlands of Oaxaca, Mexico. In this indigenous village, Zapotec, not Spanish, remains the primary language of the 1,500 residents. But there is something else peculiar about this town. Here, women are not considered citizens. The ancient rules of the community do not allow women the right to vote.
That’s why when Cruz ran for mayor, it caused quite a stir. Though many people in the village voted for her, some even claim she won, local authorities denied all votes cast for her “because she is a woman,” says Valariano Lopez, the current deputy mayor. He confirmed that all ballots cast for Eufrosina Cruz were nullified.
Today, Cruz has used her political defeat to begin a state and nationwide fight for indigenous women’s rights. She launched a national-level effort to reform ancient indigenous practices that limit the freedoms of women throughout southern Mexico. In the process, she says, she found her own voice and a way to empower others.
Cruz is no stranger to challenging the status quo. She ran away from home when she was 11, after watching her older sister become a bride at 12 and a mother at 13. Today, at 29, Cruz is a college-educated accountant and founder of a foundation dedicated to empowering the indigenous women of Mexico.
After she left her home as a girl, she spent several years living with relatives in another city of Oaxaca, working and studying, both commonly forbidden in her community for a woman. When she returned to the mountains, she took her rebellion a step further – she decided to enter into politics in order to finally bring change to her community.
She soon discovered, however, that nothing had changed in her absence. Though she was not successful in her bid for mayor, Cruz has used her mayoral run to draw increased attention to the plight of indigenous women in Mexico.
Historical Marginalization and Ancient Rules
Despite the wealth of natural resource and historical significance, the southern state of Oaxaca is one of the poorest regions of Mexico. Only two percent of the population has access to basic services like water, electricity, education and public health. Oaxaca is also the Mexican state with the greatest diversity — according to the federal statistics, almost two million of the 3.5 million inhabitants, belong to one of the 16 different ethnic groups living in there.
“Oaxaca is the province with the highest rate of marginalization and poverty and among the poorest states of Mexico,” says Cruz. “We have the first place in illiteracy, the first place in poverty, the first place in violence against women.”
According to the National Ministry of Social Development 58 percent of the population in Oaxaca