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In Mexico's historic presidential election season it’s down to 2 women

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We take a listen to the sounds of an election in Mexico.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

That's the soundtrack for hundreds of thousands of people crowded into a square right in the heart of Mexico City for the last campaign rally of a historic presidential election season. It's down to two women, opposition leader Xochitl Galvez and Claudia Sheinbaum from the ruling party.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CLAUDIA SHEINBAUM: (Speaking Spanish).

(CHEERING)

MARTÍNEZ: Sheinbaum told supporters, this won't be my win. It'll be a win for all women. She has a double-digit lead in most polls. Now, whoever wins will become the first woman to lead Mexico since it became a republic more than 200 years ago. NPR's Eyder Peralta is in Mexico City - joins us now. Eyder, you've been out in the streets talking to women. Is this a big deal to them?

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: You know, A, I thought I would hear a ton of enthusiasm and pride and emotion, but I've heard a lot of skepticism. One woman told me that, quote, "a tiger will never become a vegetarian." And what she meant by that is that she believes that politicians are inherently corrupt. So she doesn't expect a woman politician to be much different from a man. And while this country is about to make history, it's also still an extremely violent place for women.

Just the other day, I was in Iztapalapa, and that's one of the poorer neighborhoods here in Mexico City. And Sanda Sagrero (ph) was complaining that the police in her neighborhood harass them and, instead of helping them - that she worries about walking home from work. I asked her, don't you think a woman president could change some of this?

SANDA SAGRERO: (Through interpreter) No. It has me worried. It has me stressed. Forget the pride. I'm stressed. We're living through so much violence. If a man couldn't handle it, how could a woman?

MARTÍNEZ: Wow. Is this feeling universal, Eyder?

PERALTA: No, it's not. This week, I also visited Elena Poniatowska, and she is this 92-year-old trailblazer of a feminist. She's a famous author, and she has written books about fascinating women in Mexico who have beaten tremendous odds. And her house is just stunning, A. Every wall is lined with books. And she sat near her bay window surrounded by her orchids.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, and you got to be there. So you lucky duck, let's hear some of your conversation with her.

PERALTA: I want to talk about something that you wrote in the book about the photographer Tina Modotti. So she's facing accusations in the murder of her activist boyfriend. And you write - and I took the liberty of translating.

(Reading) in Mexico, women are despised. They are consumed. They are discarded, stigmatized, then hanged from the tree of patriarchy.

Obviously, you're writing about something that happened in the late 1920s. Do you still think that's the case in Mexico?

ELENA PONIATOWSKA: No. There's a woman who's going to take charge of a whole enormous country - very different country.

PERALTA: Is this how you imagined it? Is this how you imagined...

PONIATOWSKA: Yes.

PERALTA: ...It would happen?

PONIATOWSKA: This is how I imagined. I worked for it, and I not only hoped it would happen - women now have invaded territories that before they didn't know well. The only woman they used to speak about was the artist Frida Kahlo, and everyone was tired of hearing about Frida Kahlo, no?

PERALTA: (Laughter).

PONIATOWSKA: It was either Frida Kahlo or the Virgin of Guadalupe. And so now there are other women - they're scientists, astronomers, women in hospitals and women everywhere.

MARTÍNEZ: So Eyder, it sounds like Elena just thought it was a matter of time that Mexico reaches this historic moment.

PERALTA: Yep. She's not surprised. And the reason for that is because the work of these feminists has been so intentional. First, they pushed for parity at the lower political levels. And then, when the nation's Congress hit parity in 2018, women banded together to push through a constitutional amendment that called for parity in every aspect of public life - parity in the president's cabinet, parity in party candidates, parity in the legislature. So what Elena Poniatowska is saying is that this is the natural order.

And something interesting is that she met the woman likely to become president, Claudia Sheinbaum, decades ago in jail. She was interviewing political prisoners, and Sheinbaum was accompanying her mother, who was doing the same. I asked Poniatowska if she found her to be extraordinary.

PONIATOWSKA: I thought at the time that she was very beautiful, that she was very intelligent and that she was - that I was happy to be next to a woman who was in the university, of course.

PERALTA: And so - but you never thought, oh, this woman is going to be...

PONIATOWSKA: No. I never thought of what is happening now - that's a dream or that's foolishness. I think it's not a dream. I think it's a battle that has been won, and I think it's against machismo. And it proves that Mexico is much more intelligent than it used to be before. For me, it's not a miracle. It's not a great surprise.

PERALTA: Were there many moments in your life when you thought - or a particular moment when you thought, this isn't going to be possible...

PONIATOWSKA: No.

PERALTA: ...We're not going to progress?

PONIATOWSKA: I never - I didn't think that because, first of all, I had a mother - I'll show you her picture - who drove an ambulance in France during the war, and she had a Mexican name. And she was very brave, and she used to drive at night so the Germans wouldn't see her. She had to do it with lights out - without any lights. And she saw a donkey in the middle of nowhere, and she went and she fetched the donkey. Surprisingly, the donkey obeyed, and she put him in the van and took him...

PERALTA: (Laughter).

PONIATOWSKA: ...To a safer place.

PERALTA: Wow.

PONIATOWSKA: So you can save a donkey.

PERALTA: And so when Hillary Clinton was running for president, I was in the United States. I was a journalist, and there was a euphoria. She didn't win, but there was a euphoria about it. And here in Mexico, right now, even with women - right? - I feel like it's...

PONIATOWSKA: Yeah. They take it for granted - think it's completely natural.

PERALTA: Huh. Like you.

PONIATOWSKA: Like me.

PERALTA: (Laughter).

PONIATOWSKA: Now...

PERALTA: I love that.

PONIATOWSKA: ...It would be horrible if I said, oh, what a miracle. Look, we're going to thank the gods, and we - no.

PERALTA: And you worked for it, right?

PONIATOWSKA: Yes.

PERALTA: Women have worked for it.

PONIATOWSKA: Oh, yes. I did work.

PERALTA: Does that feel personally...

PONIATOWSKA: Gratifying.

PERALTA: Yeah?

PONIATOWSKA: It is very gratifying. It is. It's something that makes me happy. That makes me cry sometimes. It's a woman's - a women's triumph. Yes.

PERALTA: And Elena Poniatowska told me that she has always believed in women. And now, within a few days, a woman she supports politically could become the most powerful person in Mexico.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Eyder Peralta in Mexico City. Thanks for bringing us this.

PERALTA: Thank you, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
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