Monday, June 14, 2004

St. Paul Pioneer Press | 06/14/2004 | Mexico's first lady will address big issues in visit to the state

St. Paul Pioneer Press | 06/14/2004 | Mexico's first lady will address big issues in visit to the state

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Rubén Rosario

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Posted on Mon, Jun. 14, 2004

Mexico's first lady will address big issues in visit to the state


The first lady is coming to town Friday. No, not Laura Bush.

Marta. As in Marta Sahagún de Fox.

But like Evita, Hillary, Jacqueline or Mamie, a last name is unnecessary. Mention the name Marta on Concord and George streets in St. Paul or on 35th Street and Nicollet Avenue in Minneapolis — two epicenters of the Mexican-American and immigrant communities in Minnesota — and the response will be the same: the popular, proactive, high-profile, if controversial, wife of Mexican President Vicente Fox.

"I'm really excited about the opportunity to meet her,'' says Susana Deleon, a Minneapolis-based immigration lawyer and mother of three.

Deleon is one of a select group of Minnesota women of Mexican descent who will meet privately with Sahagún on Friday to discuss cross-border women's issues, such as employment, education and family health. But the numero uno topic likely will be domestic violence, one that the primera dama has taken on as a personal crusade following her marriage to Fox in 2001 and one year after he toppled the 71-year hold on the presidency by the country's major rival political party.

And there is much in her homeland to tackle. There's the unresolved and disturbing string of slayings of more than 326 girls and women between the ages of 12 and 19 in the border town of Juarez since 1993. Many were considered victims of interfamilial violence.

Abuse of such women, particularly migrant workers and undocumented residents in Minnesota, is rampant. Suffering in silence is a given, and the divorce rate is high. A key contributing factor, the women likely will inform Sahagún, is the uncertain immigration status that forces the undocumented to largely live in the shadows of an American economy and lifestyle that they help maintain and sustain.

There's the culturally entrenched attitudes that women are second-class citizens. Despite recent improvements, three large states within Mexico still impose harsher penalties on cattle rustling than rape.

"As bad as it might be in Mexico, there's a greater frustration and reluctance to come forward here because of the immigration status,'' says Deleon. "Often, they want to come forward but can't, because the very real fear is that by calling authorities, their children's father will likely be deported.''

The unmet needs of such women, who across cultures are commonly seen as the anchor of family stability and well-being, is a grave concern for Deleon and Maria Padilla, who serves as a Minnesota liaison to the Mexican consulate on external issues.

"I would have to say that as much of a problem as this is in Mexico, it is … a larger concern for women in this country,'' says Deleon.

The consequences, says Padilla, are grave.

"Many times, these women are holding down two jobs, trying to balance raising kids and helping out,'' says Padilla, a widowed mother of three who also resides in Minneapolis. "Many have no way of handling such stress, or seeking help for it. Also, because they sometimes get a sense of empowerment over their lives that clashes with the way (their) husbands regard the traditional role of the woman.''

Deleon says she will ask Sahagún to consider the formation of a domestic violence unit if a permanent Mexican consulate is established in the Twin Cities. The unit could help women whose abusers have escaped back to Mexico, or have custody of their kids.

Although her husband's popularity has plummeted in recent months, due to his unsuccessful attempts to pass proposed reforms through a government largely dominated by a rival party, his wife continues to enjoy popular support.

One recent poll in a Mexico newspaper gave her a 70 percent approval rating. Since Mexican presidents cannot run for a second, six-year term, Sahagún could wage a very real and formidable presidential campaign for 2006.

And if she were to win, would Vicente Fox become Mexico's primero caballero (first gentleman)?

"I would support her, not so much because she may be an ideal candidate, but because she may have the more realistic shot at winning,'' says Padilla. "Having her here is almost like an acknowledgment the community exists, that it's on the map.''



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