"Are you from Veracruz?"
             - Tanitra Partivit

Having travelled around the world frequently it struck me as strange that before this summer, I had never gone to Mexico.  Right across the border, perhaps I always thought that it was too close and not exotic enough. I was recently promoted at work and my new job gave me the opportunity to travel to the southwestern province of Oaxaca to meet one of the women my organization, Americans for UNFPA, will honor in October. I was thrilled and spent several weeks reading up on the rich history of the area and trying to pick up some Mexican Spanish from travel guides.

María del Carmen Elu Cayado is a famous social anthropologist who, early in her career, stumbled upon the high maternal mortality rate in Mexico. While researching the role of women in the family, she discovered that when women died in childbirth, it went unreported to any health agencies and was considered a family matter. She has spent the last 40 years getting the Mexican government to include safe motherhood programs in their national health policies.

Mexico is considered a middle-income country. The fertility rate has fallen from 7 children per woman 40 years ago to about 3 children per woman. This gives Mexico the appearance of success in women’s health and development programs but, as John Edwards might say if he lived south of our border, Hay dos Mexicos. One fifth of the population of Mexico lives in Mexico City where the health care is pretty good and where the fertility rate is about the same as it is in the United States. But the rest of the population live in conditions far less developed.

We had spoken to Maríacarmen prior to our arrival. In person I found her to be even more vibrant and, frankly, kinetic in person.  Her energy is unmistakably hers.  Everyone laughs and finds her endearing.  Even complete strangers. Even when she cuts ahead of them in line. 

Maríacarmen and our posse (translator, cameraman, etc.) went to the village of Tlahuitoltepec, which is about three hours into the Sierre Madre mountain pass.  We drove up and down a steep and curving road at breakneck speeds, sometimes it seemed we would surely go over the edge of unsecured cliffs or head-on into other vehicles. The driver seemed to have our van confused with a Fiat and more than once my heart missed a beat. There was no slowing this man down.  Finally, we arrived in the “place of the clouds” where the Mixtec Indians live.

We arrived in Tlahuitoltepec for a midwives conference where Maríacarmen was an invited speaker. We were greeted by some the midwives, who clearly adore Maríacarmen. But more stoic and shy by nature, a number of the Mixtec women also chose to not greet us.

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But out of the corner of my eye I saw some indigenous Mixtecs trying to secretly snap pictures of me. I’m Asian and have often watched as my white friends are photographed while visiting Asia. But this is the first time it’s happened to me. I realized I was a curiosity in Tlahuitoltepec, though one brave woman asked me if I was from Veracruz. The world can seem a small place sometimes.  

Maríacarmen says she loves midwives because they are the hope of the future. She understands both that they are often the only health care provider that women, particularly impoverished, rural women have access to and that even when women have another option, they may prefer a traditional midwife anyway. One of the midwives talked about the importance to Mixtecas of burying the placenta and how it shocked the women who first went to the hospitals that it was thrown away without ceremony. It was an enlightening example of why maternal mortality is so difficult to combat – building modern facilities is not enough.   

But Maríacarmen keeps plugging away – at government officials and medical personnel – to save women. “These are not things, they are not shirts,” she likes to say, “they are women, they deserve better.”

And she does it all with a unique love of life. I like to think I can hold my alcohol in polite company so when the Mixtecas served mescal at lunch (poured from gasoline containers into Jose Cuervo Especial bottles for the table) I gladly accepted but I wish hadn’t later.  It burns in the throat on the way down and leaves a somewhat unpleasant smoky taste in your mouth.  Maríacarmen, on the other hand, was able to kick back a couple shots with ease and get back to work.