There’s a mural in rural Juchari on the wall of a medical clinic. It honors the tradition of family and the women who preserve its culture. On a visit to Mexico City and several outlying regions, I witnessed the strength of Mexico’s women and their critical role as national freedom fighters. As America struggles to define its democratic values as a nation we can look to the south and our Mexican sisters as role models.
The indomitable character of Mexican women dates back to pre-Columbian times when Aztec beliefs centered on a cosmic balance of gender roles and power among the sexes. In the 15th century, Aztec women were equal contributors to society, inside and outside of the home. They realized the same social, religious and political power as men. With the advent of the Spanish conquerors of 1531, women were enslaved and limited to childrearing and household chores to accommodate Spanish patriarchal society and their Christian beliefs.
But women continued to practice natural medicine and share their wisdom, often eclipsing the skills of European doctors. In Diego Rivera’s mural, “The Popular History of Mexico” which hangs in the National Palace of Mexico City, industrious indigenous women and their tenacious resistance are everywhere.
In fact, Diego’s wife, Frida Kahlo, exemplified this resistance. She remains a celebrated artist in many modern art circles and thousands of people from around the world to visit her blue house in Mexico. Her garden and living quarters are open to the public and arrestingly painful self-portraits and original artwork still grace the walls. Frida fought discrimination, advocating social and political reforms for women.
A 16th century San Agustin church in Patzcuaro’s Plaza, Michoacan tells another colorful story of a freedom fighter. There is a bronze statue of Gertrudis Bocanegra, one of many women actively involved in creating secret communication networks in support of the Mexican independence movement. Juan O’Gorman’s massive fresco in the town church (now a library) tells a colorful pictorial story of heroic deeds, her torture and her death by firing squad. Like Leona Vicaro and other women active in the revolution, Gertrudis refused to relinquish the names of fellow insurgents after her capture by the Royal Spanish Army in 1817.
Women continue to fight suffering and injustice in Mexico, drawing strength from Our Lady of Guadalupe. She is Mexico’s most popular saint, immortalized in religious and cultural images throughout the country. Called the Queen of Mexico, she is credited with miracles including the perfectly preserved image of her on a tilma hundreds of years old. Our Lady’s image was added to the Mexican flag to unify the country, and the first President of Mexico (Manuel Fernandes) even changed his name to Guadalupe Victoria to honor her as a national symbol.
The image of the Mother of God permeates the country, in cities and the countryside, in church paintings, and even on rocks and walls along Mexican roadways. Her name lives in many modern day crusaders like Guadalupe Hernandez Dimas (or Nanu Lu), a humanitarian nominated for a Nobel Peace prize in 2005. I heard Guadalupe speak about her mission, describing the ancestry and culture of women within the context of four elements: women are the earth which provides nourishment, the air for breathing, the water that gives life, and the fire which represents God and our sun.
Respect for culture and pride are central themes as Guadalupe continues to promote a national women’s movement. She advocates for women and organizations to invest in health centers and community education to bring change. I witnessed the success of women in Jachari and Patzcuaro, where the infrastructure and delivery systems continue to provide critically needed efforts to address poverty and suffering.
With modern day freedom fighters like former first lady of Mexico, Margarite Zavala, and Congressional representative Amalia Garcia, Guadalupe’s message is spreading socially and politically across the nation. Zavala and Garcia are focused on the problem of migrant children who leave their homes to reunite with parents living in the U.S., to escape violence from abuse or drug cartels. When they head to the American border as unaccompanied minors, some as young as 8 years of age, they are opportune targets for child traffickers and gangs.
As countries around the world struggle to keep up with the new and challenging demands of migrant populations displaced from homes and atrocities associated with the ravages of war, Mexico’s freedom fighters provide a compelling argument for giving women a greater voice at the table. For any nation to be truly democratic and endowed with the freedoms of justice, liberty and equality, we have much to learn from Mexico’s women.
If you’d like to know more about the international organization I traveled with, visit: https://www.heartlandalliance.org/about/corporate-structure/heartland-alliance-international/