Aída Fabiola Valencia Ramírez learned the hard way what can happen when you fight for public accountability in rural Mexico. On March 10, 2013, the Mexican federal deputy attended a meeting in her hometown of San Agustín Loxicha in Oaxaca to question then-Municipal President Flavio Pérez about what she considered under-funded public works projects. An angry Pérez ordered local police to escort Valencia and her staff out of the municipal palace at gunpoint.
Press accounts of the incident differ, but Mexican legislators of all parties rallied around Valencia afterward—giving her the encouragement to pursue her uphill fight against the corruption, violence and mismanagement she believes are endemic to Oaxaca. “My hometown has always been the government’s till,” says Valencia, 36. “But you’ll still find schools without roofs, or without potable water, electricity, or toilets.”
Valencia isn’t easily intimidated. One of the few Indigenous women in federal politics, she was elected a federal deputy for the Movimiento Ciudadano (Citizens’ Movement—MC) in 2012. Valencia, who is Zapotec, was raised by politically conscious, leftist parents who insisted on the value of an education for all six of their children.
With a degree in tourism administration, Valencia came to politics almost by accident—first as a translator at political meetings, then as a campaign organizer and manager of sustainable development projects for Oaxaca’s governor.
But Valencia doesn’t just want to pass legislation; she’s passionate about ensuring that marginalized communities, including women and Indigenous Mexicans, have the same opportunities she had. Noting that some women who can vote in federal and state elections are barred from electing municipal authorities due to usos y costumbres—local customs and practices—that govern many Indigenous communities, she says, “It’s a battle we see every day […]a woman who stands up and says she wants to participate [in politics] is told she can’t, because she isn’t part of the [political hierarchy] to run for public office.”
Valencia has used her two years in office to push for women’s rights, education for disadvantaged and disabled populations, and sustainable development—particularly in impoverished, rural communities like her own. One bill that Valencia supported sought to guarantee Indigenous women the right to vote, to run for office and to prohibit community practices from limiting those rights. It was unanimously approved in the Chamber of Deputies in October 2014, and passed in the Senate in November. She also supported a successful initiative to help Oaxacan coffee farmers deal with falling prices, and another to ensure that both men and women possess the rights to hold title to communal lands and enjoy the associated benefits and protections.
But she has had disappointments as well. A proposal to modify the Constitution to require that communities’ usos y costumbres guarantee the equal political participation of women never made it past the constitutional commission for a vote. And Valencia now says that the first bill aimed at enfranchising Indigenous women, which is now law, didn’t go far enough—particularly in states like Oaxaca, where most of the state’s 570 municipalities are governed according to Indigenous usos y costumbres. “We’re requiring [gender] parity in municipalities governed by political parties, but that leaves aside all the communities governed by usos y costumbres,” she says. “If we’re going to seek parity, then let’s seek it without distinction between municipalities.”
Since then, she has joined four multi-partisan commissions, including the Comisión de Equidad y Género (Gender Equity Commission), to continue pushing for equal rights for all Mexicans.
“There’s a crisis here in Mexico, in that we politicians are seen as synonymous with corruption, clientelism, influence-peddling, and not doing anything,” Valencia says. “But we think politics should be used to benefit the people who have the least.”