I was six years old when I had my first glimpse of what it meant to be a Mexican female citizen. Since then I have spent my life figuring out why most people ignore the fact that all humans, gender construction aside, have rights to happiness and freedom. Compassion is the force that can lead to change and make these rights a reality for everyone.
The year was 1971, and it was June, my favorite month because the sunshine embraces life and the blossoming trees paint Mexico City into an “eternal” spring paradise. I thought I was quite grown up and ready to listen to adult conversations. My mother, a feminist and psychologist, and some of her friends were discussing in the living room of our middle-class apartment the increasing authoritarianism of the Mexican government.
In northern Mexico police had cracked down on a students’ movement, and most of the students had “disappeared.” I could not grasp the concept of disappearances. Later my mother explained that the country was going through a “dirty war” in which things were often not as they appeared, and my mother stressed that solidarity was a must. Although the country seemed calm and stable to the outside world, the President did not like social movements against injustice nor did he like people rebelling against poverty or the lack of freedom of the press. On television there was a monopoly that still stands today. So we sat every night with my mother and father to watch Jacobo Zabludovsky, the star anchorman dedicated to hiding reality and recreating a new truth for all Mexicans to believe in: the realm where submissiveness and corruption could help you achieve the Mexican dream.
By the time I was twelve, I knew that Mexicans had two realities. The one shown on Televisa and in the main newspapers where the President was always right and where women should behave and respect the Catholic Church’s mandates: They had to stay in the kitchen, not have sex, be submissive, and never be involved in social protests (In that world, real women, such as my grandma, my mother, my sisters, and I, did not fit at all)
The other world was challenging but real. I knew the power of knowledge: In 1880 Mexican women had created the first feminist newspaper, and in 1953, ten years before I was born, women could vote in my country. I knew the president lied when he said the poor were miserable because they were lazy. My mother took me to work with her in the slums around town, and she showed me that the kids there looked like me, except that they had no food or chance to get an education. Part of the problem was that Mexican politicians would rather have their constituents begging for food and shelter than demanding education transparency and democracy.
I became a true citizen at an early age. I learned the genuine power of words and of freedom of expression. I never felt ashamed of being a girl/woman. But I also knew that I lived in a country where the ones that claimed their own voice would disappear or be killed. Later on I learned, firsthand, that women would often be raped as punishment before they were incarcerated by the powers that be.
From 1968 until I was a teenager in 1980, more than three thousand young men and women who organized and waged a discursive battle challenging the legitimacy of the State’s rhetoric were assassinated, incarcerated, or went missing. I grew up in a Mexico governed by a single political party, the PRI, which monopolized power for seventy years. These politicians evolved within a corrupt system. They invented new ways of living by a double standard in every aspect of life. Women had rights, but machismo and misogynist policies were reinforced by the political strength of the Catholic Church within the State. The best movies of Mexican cinema’s golden age depict the making of a macho culture that recreated women’s identities with the motto: “A man without a woman is half a man, and a woman without a man is nothing at all.”
By the time I had sex for the first time, my mother had already taken me to the doctor to ensure that I would be safe and prepared. I was convinced that every woman had a right to a happy, healthy, and safe sexual and reproductive life. Sadly, I knew that only two out of every ten women had the opportunity to exercise that right.
With my family I traveled by car through the mighty mountains of Chiapas, where indigenous girls were sold to be married and to be domestic slaves for rich city people. From the mountains of the north to the rivers in the south, millions of Mexican women knew they had no right to own land, speak Spanish, or go to school. I learned skin color divided my people between Indian, Mestizo, and White. My country was blessed with amazing rivers, lively jungles, deserts, and beaches, as if it were a sample of the perfect world. However, the government took the land from the farmers, forcing them to emigrate to the U.S. to escape poverty and violence. We had enough oil to become a rich nation, but politicians stole the money for themselves and their political parties.
When I was 26, I traveled as a journalist, listening to women’s voices and echoing their words. I had a radio program, and women often called to ask for the secret of liberation. I had nothing to offer them, except the hope that one day we would fight for freedom with our own tools. I opened a shelter for battered women and children who had been victims of trafficking. We understood all too clearly how poverty and inequality promotes sexual slavery. I traveled to Ciudad Juarez and wrote about the genocide of women, later called “femicide.” Six thousand women and girls have been killed in my country just for asking for women’s rights and freedom. In 2006, three thousand policemen arrested 60 women protestors in Atenco, raped them, and incarcerated them by orders of the man who most likely will become Mexico’s next President in 2012.
It is 2009. I am 46 years old. My country is bleeding under a “war against drugs.” The government calls for patriotism, but they are really hoping that this warrior spirit will bring people together on their side. Most women refuse to celebrate such militarization and assassination.
From 2009 until today (2011) more than 30 thousand people have been killed in two-and-a-half years due to the war. The drug price has gone down so much that we have more addicts than ever in our history. The drug lords know that the illegal market is a bleed valve that releases the pressures of social exclusion. Organized crime has been able to carry out the massification of illegal markets. Criminals know the legal markets are only open for the Mexican elite. Delinquency is a form of life for thousands of people in my country. We are 120 million people. More than half are as poor as the poor in Africa. Women in Chiapas live as do the poorest women in Pakistan. After all these years of confronting the powers that be, we have discovered the result of an unpartisan government, and now a right-wing war-prone President has made violence an official tool for social control. While the government tells the world we belong in a league with developed nations, gender inequality is our reality and femicide persists from north to south.
As the war against drugs fails, all crime increases. Violence against women becomes more evident and cruel. Real access to justice decreases. The new Government is incapable of administering justice. In its 70 years of governance, the PRI party created and maintained a corrupt criminal justice system, and justice is still only for those who have the money to pay for it. There is no Rule of Law in Mexico. Social movements are criminalized. Journalists disappear or are assassinated. Mexico has only 34 shelters for battered women, and all of them are run by female non-government organizations. Last year, two Human Rights activists I loved and admired where assassinated in Ciudad Juarez. Marisela, the mother of Ruby a young girl murdered by her boyfriend, and Susana a poet that coined the phrase we all use “Ni una muerta más”.
Death surrounds us and we search for life and love and dignity, as we will not surrender to the anger that perpetrates violence. We search for light and justice, and we know we will only find them if we walk the talk, by never recurring to violence. Instead, we share the wisdom of our teachers, the ones that came before us to let us know what equality truly means. We know the Constitution is only ink and paper if we do not make sure we are fully recognized as citizens and not slaves of power.
Along with millions of Mexicans, every day I explore my ability to listen, to understand, to feel empathy, to question, to be truthful, to be ethical. I develop ways to add insight and perspective to the coverage of human tragedy and human development. I also fight–as many colleagues do–to stay alive. I find myself in the uncanny position of a heroine just for exercising–with dignity–my right to freedom and justice.
I am grateful to my mother for teaching me the power of freedom and for helping me to understand that we cannot be a free people as long as we do not share that right with others. Most of all, I know the true power to build peace and equity lies in our ability to choose, everyday, not to live in fear and to never give up our right to happiness, love education and a safe home to reunite.
*Lydia Cacho is a Mexican Award winning Journalist, Author of “Slaves of power: a journey into sex trafficking of women and girls around the world”. She is a vocal activist for women´s rights and founder of CIAM Cancun a high security shelter for victims of gender violence and survivors of Human Trafficking www.ciamcancun.org.