Marichuy: Mexico’s First Indigenous Woman Presidential Candidate

About sixteen men and women were dancing to drums in front of the bandstand in Oaxaca’s central square on January 29. A small crowd gathered to watch the dancers and wait for María de Jesús Patricio Martínez—better known as Marichuy—the Zapatista candidate for president of Mexico, and the first indigenous woman to run for the highest office in the country’s history.

The dancers wore bandanas, loincloths, and colorful skirts, with rattles on their ankles above bare feet. A few looked like young hippie-types in dreadlocks. Others were older, less ostentatious, wearing work boots and jeans. One man danced in an enormous gold, feathered headdress with a skull on his forehead.

In the center of the drum circle there were flowers and candles, offerings of bread, corn and squash, and copal incense emitting thick clouds of smoke.

Marichuy was on her way, a man announced from the stage. She was still marching with her supporters down Independence Street toward the zocalo.

Two of the dancers stopped and blew conch shells, and the whole group knelt and prayed, turning to face each of the four cardinal directions.

They thanked Mother Earth, asking forgiveness for the damage people do to her every day.

They shouted “Viva el consejo indigena!” (Long live the indigenous council!) and “Viva la rebeldia y la resistencia de Oaxaca!” (Long live the rebellion and the resistance in Oaxaca!)

Banners tied to the railing around the bandstand featured fabric paintings of Che Guevara next to Marichuy, and slogans using millennial-style gender-free language: “Nadie detiene a los guerrerxs—ni al dolor ni a su rabia” (No one holds back the warriors—not their pain nor their rage.)

Another banner was emblazoned with the Zapatista slogan: “Nunca Más un Mexico Sin [email protected]” (Never again a Mexico without us).

About an hour and a half past the appointed time, the band arrived: a Oaxacan brass band of the type that marches through the streets for festivals, weddings, and religious parades. The sound of horns overtook the pounding of the drums. A troop of white-clad stilt walkers marched in front. Marichuy came behind them, surrounded by onlookers and pursued by photographers and TV cameras.

Marichuy, a fifty-four-year-old traditional-medicine healer, was born in the state of Jalisco. She is the spokeswoman for the National Indigenous Congress, an organization formed in 1996 as part of the Zapatista movement, to be “the home of all indigenous peoples . . . to strengthen their struggles of resistance and rebellion.”

The Zapatistas have not been making as many international headlines lately. At least not compared to the worldwide sensation they created when they first took up arms in Chiapas in 1994 to resist NAFTA, as well as repression by the Mexican state, the seizure of their lands and livelihoods, and the entire global capitalist system.

Hundreds of reporters, movie stars, literary figures, and politicians from around the globe trooped down to the jungle in Chiapas to find out more about the indigenous uprising against big capital, and to interview the mysterious and charismatic Subcomandante Marcos.

Marcos has retired. But the Zapatistas are still a presence in Mexico—especially in the southern state of Chiapas, which, like Oaxaca, is poor, rural, and indigenous.

This year, with Marichuy’s campaign, the Zapatistas are entering the realm of electoral politics.

The goal, according to comments by members of the indigenous council and even the candidate herself, is not to win the presidency.

Instead, the campaign aims to give voice to the voiceless, and make an indigenous, feminist perspective a part of Mexico’s national presidential debate.

But first Marichuy’s campaign must gather 860,000 signatures by February 19. An iPad-wielding signature gatherer in Oaxaca—an earnest, bearded young man—conceded that, a month before the deadline, the campaign had gathered only slightly more than 100,000 of the 860,000 signatures required.

The process is daunting. I watched this young man take a photo of each citizen who signed the petition, and then take a picture of both sides of each citizen’s voter registration card, then enter the data on that card into the iPad by hand, and then ask for a signature.

Like voter ID laws in the United States, Mexico’s candidate-nomination process seems designed to put a damper on democracy. It took a few minutes for the volunteer I observed to gather signatures from each shopper at an organic market in Oaxaca. But without reliable Internet access or voter registration cards, Marichuy’s base of support in the remote villages of Southern Mexico won’t be able to sign.

The hill is getting higher as the February 19 deadline for gathering signatures nears. But Marichuy is forging on, and delivering a message you will never hear from the mainstream candidates.

When the parade arrived at the zocalo in Oaxaca, and Marichuy finally took the stage—almost two hours behind schedule—she was preceded by an array of speakers welcoming her and delivering their own messages about injustice and repression in Mexico.

The first speaker was a disabled woman who spoke from a wheelchair about her desire for a society that included everyone, did not look down with pity on the disabled, and was not led exclusively by privileged men.

A spokesperson from the newly formed Oaxacan Assembly for Sexual Diversity declared, “There can be no political liberty without sexual liberty.”

An indigenous feminist activist gave horrifying statistics on the scourge of “femicide.” “We are the cheapest element in the capitalist system,” she said of the poor, working women murdered by the thousands every year in Mexico.

Finally, Marichuy herself stepped up to the microphone. 

“These are problems that are not new,” she said of the list of injustices the speakers before her had enumerated.

“Up there, on top, they say that everything is fine. We’ve seen that’s not true.”

Focusing on the massive electrical dams and other projects that are threatening indigenous land, she said, “What we get when we plead [for justice] is jail, death, and contamination from large projects that don’t benefit anyone in the pueblos.”

Then she got to the point: destroying the capitalist system.

“Indigenous people are ready to fight, and we won’t stop. We will work together to construct a new Mexico from below, and to destroy this grand capitalist system that is destroying us.”

“Thanks for listening,” she concluded.

It was not a raucous event. But members of the crowd launched a few favorite call-and-response cheers:

“Viva Marichuy!” (“Viva!”)

Zapata Vive! La Lucha Sigue!” (“Zapata Vive Vive! La Lucha Sigue Sigue!”)

Alerta, alerta, alerta que camina! La lucha de los pobres por América Latina!”

Those chants stirred memories of bigger, more passionate crowds in Chiapas and Oaxaca, where indigenous people and workers have clashed with police in recent years and, at times, la revolución seemed close at hand.

Now the revolution is in a different phase.

“I think what Marichuy is doing in her campaign is admirable, and I support her doing it,” said human-rights ombudsman and political reformer Emilio Álvarez Icaza, when I spoke to him in his Mexico City office about the election. “But I wish the message were a little broader. They need to speak to people in Mexico City, and other people beyond the indigenous villages, to truly create a national movement.”

The Zapatista movement no longer has celebrity spokesman Subcomandante Marcos, who stopped hosting Hollywood stars and issuing his entertaining, philosophical treatises from the jungle when he retired in 2014. And, thanks to the Occupy-like “bottom-up,” communal philosophy of the indigenous council’s approach to politics, a multitude of voices must be heard.

It might be a recipe for good government, but it can make deadly political theater. No fewer than ten local speakers had to be heard ahead of the candidate in Oaxaca, who, when she arrived, spoke softly and earnestly for about half an hour before she departed the stage, evading the cameras that were set up nearby and skipping a scheduled press conference.

Still, her run is historic and timely. Focusing on the massive destruction of multinational capitalism, the connection between environmental protection and social justice, and the sound idea that women and indigenous people have something important to say about the values that could save our planet, Marichuy has an urgent, globally significant message:

“We, the indigenous people, say we don’t agree with this system—to be exploited, to have them continue to destroy our communities. . . . It should be the people who give the orders and the government that obeys.”

Ruth Conniff is editor-at-large for The Progressive.