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Witnesses to history: Celebrating Mexico’s first woman president at home, US

In World
June 08, 2024

MEXICO CITY – Sunday’s presidential election held special significance, especially for women in Mexico and across the United States.

Standing in the middle of the square, Victoria Martinez looked on to the majestic scene in front of her. Mexico’s grand Cathedral on one side and the National Palace in front of her. She missed her family, especially those living in California and elsewhere in the United States.

“I wish they were here to witness history,” said Victoria Martinez, who sold corn-on-the cob from her makeshift stand in the middle of Mexico’s giant public square, known as El Zocalo. “This is what we all dreamed of, to someday see a woman leading the country.”

Victoria Martinez stood to the side of the Zocalo and also hoped to catch a glimpse of history. She grew nostalgic and emotional talking about the importance of having a woman lead Mexico into the future.

Victoria Martinez stood to the side of the Zocalo and also hoped to catch a glimpse of history. She grew nostalgic and emotional talking about the importance of having a woman lead Mexico into the future.

Mexicans on Sunday elected Claudia Sheinbaum by a landslide as their first woman president, replacing her mentor, the outgoing populist leader, Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

Sheinbaum’s family fled the Holocaust and later found a haven and built a new life in Mexico where Sheinbaum was born.  Known as La Doctora, Sheinbaum, the former mayor of Mexico City, is a former university professor who once studied energy engineering at the University of California, Berkeley where she earned a Master’s degree. She later returned to Mexico City to get her doctorate at National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).

Fluent in English, Sheinbaum‘s immigrant story resonates across borders and into Central California and Texas where women traditionally play a key role in supporting their families, sacrificing to give the next generation an opportunity.

For Suzie Azar, the first and so-far only woman to be mayor of El Paso, Sheinbaum’s election represents an opportunity to truly root out the corruption that has plagued Mexico for so long.

“I am really excited to see a woman in that office,” she said. “I think, over the years, during every Mexican presidential election, they all profess to get rid of the corruption and, being a woman, she is not as tainted as the men in years gone by.”

Leading presidential candidate Claudia Sheinbaum arrives at Mexico City's main public square on May 29, 2024, to close out her presidential campaign ahead of the June 2 presidential election. Sheinbaum could become the first woman to lead Mexico.

Leading presidential candidate Claudia Sheinbaum arrives at Mexico City’s main public square on May 29, 2024, to close out her presidential campaign ahead of the June 2 presidential election. Sheinbaum could become the first woman to lead Mexico.

Still, Azar expressed concern over Sheinbaum’s political connections to the outgoing Lopez Obrador.

“The fact that she’s pretty much a follower of the former president, who was pretty left-wing, I think there’s some concern that she’s going to be a puppet,” Azar said. “I hope she moves from that narrow, left-wing ideology closer to the middle ground.”

Adair Margo, a former First Lady of El Paso who for decades has led tours of Juárez and has a fondness for its history, including its famed namesake Mexican President Benito Juárez, said she has “high hopes” for Sheinbaum’s transition to power.

Margo said Sheinbaum is an impressive, educated leader who “shows the strength of women” in Mexico.

“Though great to have a woman in Mexico’s highest post, it’s the character of a leader that matters most,” she said. “Let’s hope Mexico changes course to build a stronger constitutional country where all people are educated with the ability to rise.”

With its predominantly agricultural landscape, the San Joaquin Valley in California is home to a thriving community of Mexican citizens and their descendants.

For many, their lives straddle two countries, maintaining strong bonds with their homeland while embracing opportunities in the United States.

Agricultural workers in California are an essential part of the US economy. Many come from Mexico.

Agricultural workers in California are an essential part of the US economy. Many come from Mexico.

Within this dynamic cultural tapestry, women emerge as influential leaders, particularly in roles like promotoras de salud, where they advocate for the well-being of migrants and farmworkers.

These leaders hope that the election of Mexico’s first woman president will bring progress in gender equality and empowerment.

They said it’s a symbol of change and potential for inclusivity in politics while acknowledging the challenges she may face as a pioneer in breaking traditional gender walls.

Anabel Serna coordinates a team of 20 promotoras in Merced County for the nonprofit organization Cultiva Central Valley.

Under her organization’s guidance, these women navigate existing systems, striving for better lives for themselves and their families.

“Women are the ones that are most involved in the changes that happen in the community,” she said. “They have that connection with Mexico and the hope to return to their homeland,” said Serna. “Having a woman president will have a very positive impact in the valley.”

Indeed, the prospect of a female president in Mexico sparks hope and introspection among women like Rosa Nuno and Antonia Sierra-Martinez, both promotoras for Valley Onward.

Raised in Mexico amidst a political landscape dominated by the PRI and PAN parties, they migrated to the United States seeking new opportunities.

Sierra-Martinez, reflecting on her upbringing in Mexico, which was marred by machismo and gender inequality, expressed astonishment at the possibility of witnessing a woman president in her lifetime.

“Traditionally, men controlled leadership and decision-making solely,” she said. “The barrier has been slowly breaking as we’ve seen women reach other positions of power.”

A woman in power, Serna said, will show Hispanic women that the status quo is changing and women are being recognized more for their contributions to society.

“For generations, men have controlled everything, starting at home,” she said. “The results of the elections show that women have influence. It’s very empowering for women.”

Serna said she expects social change in recognizing and including all members of society due to the innate sensibility of women towards families, minorities, Indigenous people, and members of the LGBTQ+ community.

“We, as mothers, believe that a woman in power is going to make great change,” she said. “I can feel the excitement as I’ve seen girls as young as 13 have high expectations for the future. We know that women have historically been put down under macho culture, and we’re realizing that we as women have power in politics, society, economics, and family life.”

As a woman president takes power, Sierra-Martinez said some questions have risen for her, such as what factors allowed two women to be at the forefront of the presidential race.

“I don’t really know how it happened, but this is setting the standard that women can lead a country,” she said.

Sierra-Martinez said having a woman as president will bring very positive changes to the Valley due to women’s innate qualities, such as intelligence, sense of love, protection, emotional connection, and advisers.

“There’s also the fear that this is the first time women will be in charge of the country,” she said. “No woman is going to say there’s any doubts. If we see a woman get ahead and succeed, it sets the standard for others to follow, and we can do it in our own country.”

Women and girls march for the 8M march to the Paso del Norte International Bridge on International Women's Day Wednesday, March 8, 2023, in Juarez, demanding justice for women and an end to femicides.

Women and girls march for the 8M march to the Paso del Norte International Bridge on International Women’s Day Wednesday, March 8, 2023, in Juarez, demanding justice for women and an end to femicides.

The most significant impact of this election for Sierra-Martinez is the advancement of gender equality in a country often viewed as a patriarchy.

“It opens the door for us to expand our horizons and seek to be more,” she said. “I hope she properly uses her feminine common sense, charisma and emotional maturity to run the country and create accords.”

The only fear Sierra-Martinez has is that as the first woman president, she will experience a lot of pioneering pressure that might affect other women if not appropriately handled.

“She has to take advantage of the opportunity and make sure she doesn’t disappoint anyone, especially the women of her country,” she said. “There is an emotional connection even for us women in the U.S. even though we are here. Our heart is still in Mexico.”

Having a woman president brings excitement for Nuno, who said the potential of women can be used in larger projects where the heart can be used to have empathy while also fearing that emotions can take over and cause difficulties.

“It can serve as motivation as long as we don’t get overly feminist,” she said. “A woman can be in power, but her cabinets should also have men and women working together to have true equity.”

Leticia Presa Herrera dressed up in her Sunday best and went to the Zocalo, the biggest public square in Mexico City, and prepared to witness history: The election of Claudia Sheinbaum, Mexico's first woman president.

Leticia Presa Herrera dressed up in her Sunday best and went to the Zocalo, the biggest public square in Mexico City, and prepared to witness history: The election of Claudia Sheinbaum, Mexico’s first woman president.

Back at the Zocalo, Leticia Presa Herrera was dressed in her Sunday best, munching on a corn-on-a-cob. As the sunset, the giant Mexican flag waved in a gentle breeze. Two children flew kites, as their mothers looked on.

Presa Herrera spoke of the violence that has gripped Mexico for decades, particularly the attacks against women. She took in the moment and took a deep breath.

“For the first time the most powerful people here are women,” said Herrera, who cleans homes and other odd jobs. ““I want her to move the country forward, rather than sink it even more.”

Alfredo Corchado, executive editor and correspondent of Puente News Collaborative reported from Mexico. Christian Betancourt reported from the San Joaquin Valley. Angela Kocherga, news director for KTEP 88.5 public radio, contributed to this report.

This article originally appeared on El Paso Times: Mexico did something US hasn’t: Elect a woman as its next president

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