We went to Michoacán to see M, a dear old friend. And her daughter N, another dear old friend. Up here in Guanajuato, we think of Michoacán as a conflicted zone, a Mexican state ruled by narcos and other manifestations of organized crime—a state patrolled by Army, in green; Federal Police troops dressed in black with balaclavas hiding their identity; and Marines dressed in shades of tan and wearing a reputation as the only branch of law enforcement that actually captures anyone.
Everyone seems to have a heavy pickup truck with a shielded, mounted machine gun manned by a trooper of some kind. The Army has Hummers, and also brandishes machine guns, shielded or unshielded depending on the testosterone level of the commanding officer, I suppose, who would not actually be the one standing behind the weapon. I don’t know what the Marines drive, since I’ve never seen a Mexican combat Marine.
I went to Michoacán, expecting to see trouble, such as I saw in the Eighties in El Salvador: the countryside set ablaze to deny the guerrillas ambush cover; swaggering, semi-psychotic US-trained soldiers ready to kill anyone; and frightened (mostly death-squad annihilated) women health workers that had been trained to teach women’s rights and hygiene, and Liberation Theology-preaching priests, who were also menaced with extinction.
Just now, we stayed with our friends in the old idyllic compound in Erongarícuaro, where we lived for the year 1997–98, on a rise that looks out over Lake Pátzcuaro at the storm-blue volcanoes in the distance—an area we were told to avoid.
The Michoacán I found had some similarities with El Salvador in the Seventies and Eighties: women teaching women about health care and making it available—but without the violent repression. Instead, the activity here was taking place in a setting full of beauty, peace and security. Families (men supporting their wives) sat waiting for their appointments on benches in the shade of an overhang partially obscured by curtain reddish-orange Passion Flowers. They looked out over a lawn sprinkled with fallen light-blue Jacaranda blossoms. And beyond, over cattle grazing far out on the lake’s plane, where the water has receded, then farther across the lake toward the volcanoes in the distance.
The Eronga compound has found a new life, after various incarnations. Now it is a non-profit women’s clinic called Mujeres Aliadas: Organización pro Derechos Sexuales y Reproductivos de la Mujer—Allied Women: An organization for women’s sexual and reproductive rights. And our younger old friend N, who is not even thirty, is its director. You can Google them. You can look them up at http://www.mujeresaliadas.mx and talk to them at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can even see at least one YouTube clip on what they do.
Mujeres Aliadas is an impressive operation. The sixty-five foot living room (with a primitive kitchen at the far end), where we wrote and lived during our year there, is now the office and lecture hall for women’s workshops. The row of guest rooms—we stayed in one that year—that makes up another shed-like building is now a row of consulting and treatment rooms, all renovated, clean and staffed with two trained midwives and an all-woman staff. The bed my love and I slept on that year has since had at least fifty babies born on it.
The clinic has office hours three days a week, but a sign at the gate says there is care available 7/24 if you are in trouble—a notice I find extremely moving. Plus, you can receive consultation and treatment in Spanish or Purépecha. The little clinic has 1,500 regular clients and serves forty marginalized communities in the Lake Pátzcuaro basin. Here, clients can approach without fear of the centuries-old racism toward marginalized women, for being Indian, lacking education, being poor, being unmarried, being uncomfortable speaking Spanish, being different from the light-skinned Mexicans on TV and on billboards. For being a woman.
The clients, from adolescents to adults, receive instruction in anatomy, contraception, prenatal care, the politics of sexuality (how to say no) and in postpartum care—both physical and psychological. For forty pesos, a woman receives both treatment and the needed medicine—roughly three dollars. The center also offers training in midwifery and nursing. There are plans to gradually establish other centers, in order to reduce infant and female mortality, a condition that has risen something like 30% in the last ten years—probably keeping pace with Mexico’s rise in poverty.
At the present, funding comes from Finish Embassy, the MacArthur Foundation and DFW (Dining for Women). But these grants, like most grants, have time limits and will eventually dry up. I cannot think of a better place to send financial support. The link for donating is:
The center makes me think of the scene in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. In the midst of an a war-like hunt against a great swirling outer group of sperm whales, in the middle of the chaos and deep below, “There a sleek, pure calm reigns…(and) far beneath this wondrous world upon the surface, another and still stranger world met our eyes, as we gazed over the side. For, suspended in these watery vaults, floated the forms of the nursing mothers of the whales….”
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not comparing the women that visit the clinic to birthing whales, but I am saying that, for me, the clinic is sane, kind, luminescent center in a troubled sea. I had come to Michoacán hoping to see something of the autodefensas. What I mostly saw was the normal grinding poverty, the normal economic struggle, and the normal normal. In Uruapan, we did pass through a self-defense checkpoint, with two rows of rubber speed bumps laid across the road and a sandbag fort off to the right, with a tarp over it to keep off the sun. I was driving, so I could only glance. I could see that the men occupying the fort wore no uniforms, i.e. were not military, and I knew what that meant. I saw no AK-47’s, but those would have been held out of sight, so as not to provoke the police and military. My two companions—my love and my dear old friend—read the bed sheet banners hanging beside the fort and shouted, “Autodefensas!” That was what the banners were saying. But the clothing the men wore was too dark, the banner too much grafitti-like, I thought.
Since then, I have heard Dr. Mireles—the articulate and I think courageous spokesman for the self-defense groups— say Uruapan is yet to be liberated. I don’t know. There is a good chance the checkpoint was occupied by the Knights Templar or some other narco-criminal group.
None of which really interests me that much, now that I have seen Mujeres Aliadas—something positive and wonderful—something that serves as a metaphor for what Mexico can and does do in certain areas—behaving socially responsibly, meeting the people’s needs.
For more on the context in which the clinic exists and why it is so important in Mexico’s struggle for democracy, you can read two of my stories by writing their titles in the Search box in this blog’s front page. The two stories are “The Pátzcuaro Incision” and “Jorge and the Santa Muerte.” The Jorge of the latter story still stands at his place on the side of the road, not far from a church of Saint Death, up the road toward Pátzcuaro. He has grown up to be a quite handsome lad but is, like many parts of Mexico, still very much lost.