Eufrosina Cruz – Claiming space for women

The men in her local community opposed her decision to run for mayor. The ruling mayor even went as far as saying that ‘women don’t exist here’. Undaunted by their discrimination, Eufrosina Cruz persevered, soon rising to chair the Congress of the state of Oaxaca, Mexico – the first indigenous woman ever to do so. She was elected to the Mexican National Chamber of Deputies last year.

Even as a child, Eufrosina Cruz spoke out against the way women were treated in Santa María Quiegolani, a Zapotec community in the state of Oaxaca. Like many indigenous communities in Mexico, it was governed according to the traditional legal system of usos y costumbres (‘customs and traditions’). This system gained legal status in Oaxaca State in 1995, which meant that men got to dictate everything that happened and that, in the words of Mexican writer Elena Poniatowska, ‘a woman is worth less than a stone’.

Eufrosina Cruz ran away from home when she was 12, went to school in the capital city of Oaxaca, and continued on to university. She returned to her home town after working as a teacher for several years, deciding to run for mayor in 2007.

When the results were announced, the local municipal council, consisting of only men, ordered the votes that had been cast for Eufrosina to be tossed out. She appealed their decision to the Electoral Council, but to no avail. Cruz decided to champion her cause at a higher political level.

The documentary Eufrosina’s Revolution ends with Cruz’s election to chairwoman of the State Congress. ‘That was only the first step,’ she explains nearly four years later. ‘The biggest success was that we were able to reform the state constitution of Oaxaca. It now includes an article prohibiting violations of women’s political rights. Thanks to that reform, women can now be elected mayor.’

Cruz won a seat in the Mexican national congress last year. It was a logical next step, ‘since the political rights of indigenous women are not only violated in Oaxaca, but in many other Mexican states as well. It’s not just the constitution of my state that we need to change, it’s also the constitution of my country.’

‘Changes will occur in how the “customs and traditions” are put into practice, but it will be very gradual. The point is to break through the fear of creating problems in the systems of power and leadership. Many leaders don’t want change, development, freedom of conscience. But the challenge is to highlight those problems, exactly those, and then find solutions for them. The ultimate goal should be to get out of poverty and marginalisation.’

The first changes are already appearing, thanks in part to Cruz’s efforts. ‘Women vote in my community now. They have seats on the city council and help make decisions. It’s very normal these days for men and women to be called to meet.’

By Cees Zoon