OVENTIC, Mexico – This is what a grass-roots campaign looks like in a country where politics has always been dominated by big spending, corrupt politicians.
First of all, almost nobody calls Maria de Jesus Patricio by her name. Everyone knows the Nahua indigenous woman by her nickname, MariChuy.
She has never worn a power suit or heels, but rather always appears in an embroidered indigenous blouse and pants or skirt. She has no political machine, unless you count the rag-tag army of ski-masked Zapatista rebels who have pledged their support to her in the southern state of Chiapas. She’s unlikely to win Mexico’s presidency, or even get on the ballot, yet her campaign has nonetheless generated an unusual amount of enthusiasm.
Supporters from dozens of left-leaning groups in the urban sprawl of Mexico City organize coffee klatches, small concerts and neighborhood walk-arounds for the uphill battle to sign up the 866,000 voters needed by Feb. 12 to get her on next July’s presidential ballot as an independent candidate.
In the first week of gathering signatures, Margarita Zavala — the wife of former President Felipe Calderon and a well-known political figure in her own right — got the highest number of signatures, at 13,033. But second place was a surprise: Patricio, who has no electoral machine and was essentially unknown until she was named the candidate of the National Indigenous Congress last May, gathered 4,734 signatures. That was higher than a major state governor, a former legislator and 44 others trying to get on the ballot.
What’s more, her backers say, she is handicapped by the fact that electoral officials use a smartphone app to record signatures, making participation difficult or impossible for many poor people in remote, indigenous regions with poor cellphone coverage.
Patricio is not even called a candidate. She is always referred to as “the spokeswoman” for the Indigenous Governance Council, an outgrowth of the Zapatistas, who staged a brief armed uprising in 1994 for greater indigenous rights, and other activist groups. Mexico has about 6 million speakers of indigenous languages and about 4 million others are considered indigenous due to their communities or families.
Many of Mexico’s voiceless, impoverished indigenous people see Patricio as a way to assert their own voice in politics in a country where they have long voted in blocs, controlled by local leaders who trade their support to the ruling party.