Where women's vote holds key

SUN JOURNAL

Mexico: Working-class wives are the political activists and community organizers, and their leaders steer them to the longtime ruling party to get neighborhood services.

July 01, 2000|By Sam Quinones | Sam Quinones,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

CHIMALHUACAN, MEXICO - As 10 male strippers pranced down a runway, tearing off clothes, snapping G-strings, a crowd of 15,000 women kept up a prolonged shriek.

This was the finale to the recent Mother's Day Festival - a huge party billed as a gift to the women of this trash-strewn shantytown of 1.2 million people in the state of Mexico, just east of Mexico City.

But the party was also an illustration of the political ingenuity that has allowed Mexico's ruling party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), to remain in power for 71 years despite a dreary record of corruption and economic catastrophe.

The PRI is the world's oldest authoritarian regime. Tomorrow, it faces its greatest challenge: a free and competitive presidential election.

More than ever, it must call on its local cadres, especially in poor and working-class areas where its apparatus remains strong. And in cities that means women, especially working-class housewives.

Among Mexico's working classes, politics, like churchgoing, is largely the woman's job.

Women are involved in politics "wherever you see anarchic urban growth," says Hector Gonzalez, a Chimalhuacan neighborhood activist. "She's the one who, while her husband is away at work, is out there looking for the gas truck because the streets aren't paved and there's no way for the truck to get in, trying to get the water truck."

The PRI has turned the scarcity of municipal services in poor neighborhoods from a political liability into a tool to maintain party loyalty. In working-class Mexico, women fight for these services and thus come into contact with the local PRI, which requires their support in exchange for the services.

Legions of working-class housewives are thus the cornerstone of PRI power. Across the country, they can be found at PRI political rallies in aprons or T-shirts, aggressively leading cheers.

One place the PRI is counting on is Chimalhuacan.

Here Guadalupe Buendia, a stout woman known as "La Loba" ("The Wolf"), is the political boss.

Buendia runs a large group, made up mostly of women, known as the Organizacion de Pueblos y Colonos (Organization of Villages and Neighborhoods).

Buendia, 50, grew up in Chimalhuacan when it was a tiny village near the great Lake Texcoco. As Mexico City grew, the lake began to dry. People from the capital settled the dry lake bed. Finally, they began to squat on land owned by families like Buendia's. After several parcels of her land were stolen, Buendia subdivided her remaining plots and took up a career fighting for city services for people in her subdivision. That grew into the OPC, which now has member-neighborhoods in most of the city.

Early on, that fight also led her to join the PRI.

Today, she is the pre-eminent political force in town. Her office walls are adorned with pictures of her with presidents and governors. Her cousin, Carlos Cornejo, is mayor of Chimalhuacan. Her son, Salomon Herrera Buendia, is municipal secretary. This election they are running for Congress and the state legislature, respectively.

Buendia herself directs the water district and is reported to occasionally cut service to neighborhoods where opposition parties dominate. The media portray her as a little dictator. But many Chimalhuacan women love her. She spends her days on such things as water-rights disputes and organizing food giveaways.

"On one hand, she likes helping people," says one man in OPC. "On the other, you know, it gives her power."

Another important component of her activities is the annual party she throws for mothers.

This year's was held on a vacant lot under a yellow tent.

"This party is for you, the mothers," the announcer kept saying. But it was also a rally for PRI solidarity.

"Who are you going to vote for?" the announcer, then Buendia boomed throughout the day. "The Priii!" the crowd would respond. The announcer would lead the women in cheers: "The PRI! The PRI! Rah! Rah! Rah!"

Each woman was given a plastic bucket emblazoned with the PRI logo and the faces of Salomon Buendia and Cornejo, containing comic books detailing the life of PRI presidential candidate Francisco Labastida. Next came PRI T-shirts and caps. All of them were avidly snapped up.

"We're celebrating those who gave us life, you, the mothers," said Salomon Buendia. "Those who don't get a T-shirt will get a cap. There'll be more gifts. So just remain in your seats."

Indeed, Guadalupe Buendia would raffle six refrigerators, two televisions, two dozen irons, four stoves and a washing machine. At past parties, she has raffled parcels of land, chickens, goats and pigs.

The party's first hours were taken up by comedians and an appearance by Senate candidate and former Gov. Cesar Camacho, who helped raffle merchandise.

"Women aren't equal to men. They'll always be better," Camacho told them.

But the real show began about 1 p.m., when Paquita la del Barrio arrived.

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