Their faces appear etched on Mexican pesos and mannequins in their likeness stand behind polished glass in Mexico City’s world famous Museum of Anthropology. But despite the frequent use of their images as cultural symbols, the voices of Mexico’s millions of indigenous people are largely absent from their nation’s mainstream political life.

Mexico’s first indigenous woman presidential candidate, María de Jesús Patricio Martínez, is working to change that. Upon being selected by the Mexican Indigenous Governance Council and the Zapatista National Liberation Army as their candidate for the 2018 election, she has made history.

In its 194 years as a nation, Mexico has had just one indigenous president, Benito Juárez, from 1861 to 1872. And the country has never had a woman president.

This election probably won't change that. “We will participate in the 2018 presidential elections, but not with the goal of winning and taking power, but instead as a platform to help indigenous people further organize,” says Patricio, 54, at her traditional medicine center in the town of Tuxpan, Jalisco state.

Still, analysts say Patricio’s candidacy indicates a possible turning-point in the centuries-old struggle for Mexican indigenous rights.

“She represents a return to the spirit of the indigenous movements of the 1990s, to an overturning of our established political system,” says Juan Carlos Perez, a leading expert on indigenous rights at the Jesuit University of Guadalajara. “And she brings into national light issues of poverty and disenfranchisement that have never really been fixed.”

Lately, such issues are often overshadowed by news coverage of drug-related violence, the often-underperforming economy and bilateral relations with the United States, Mexico’s most important trading partner. Despite a lack of attention from mainstream national media, a 2015 United Nations report indicates that over 80 percent of indigenous Mexicans live below the poverty line. 

Patricio has been a notable leader for that community in recent decades. She was among the indigenous leaders and supporters who participated in the "People of the Color of the Earth" march in 2001. It was an effort to draw attention to civil rights legislation that indigenous leaders presented to the Mexican Congress, a moment often compared to Martin Luther King’s 1963 March on Washington.

Maria de Jesus Patricio Martinez stands in front of a photo of Emiliano Zapata — a Mexican revolutionary. 

Franc Contreras 

In an unprecedented moment in modern Mexican politics, Patricio took the podium in the main chamber of the national Congress, and delivered a speech on the plight of indigenous women. But many members of the chamber left their desks empty that day. 

Attempting to bring these issues to the forefront again will be no easy task for Patricio, according to Todd Eisenstadt, a professor of political science at American University in Washington, DC.

“I think it depends on what she does with this platform, and whether she uses it to advocate effectively for rights for all women, and anyone else who is disenfranchised,” says Eisenstadt, who is author of the book, "Politics, Identity, and Mexico's Indigenous Rights Movements."

But the ancestral ways of governing that Patricio represents require a 100 percent consensus before any social policies can pass. That approach lies in stark contrast to mainstream party politics in Mexico.

“Indigenous people have a very different conception of politics and power,” says Perez. “They have a very collective version of government. ... The main theme of this candidacy, and of indigenous politics, is, ‘How can I bring people together?’”

Despite her inexperience in mainstream politics, Eisenstadt says Patricio's ascendancy as presidential candidate indicates an effort by Mexico’s leading indigenous groups to unite marginalized groups throughout the country. 

“Historically, men [in indigenous politics] haven’t been able to do it,” he says. “It may be time to have the sort of woman who has traditional authority within communities to carry the baton. She represents a sort of a down-to-earth person. ... She is one of the people, rather than being a media celebrity.”

Many indigenous people in Mexico, and women in particular, see Patricio as a compañera and a symbol for change. Among them is Zenaida Pérez, an indigenous Mixe woman from Oaxaca state, who coordinates the indigenous women's program at the Simone de Beauvoir Institute for Leadership in Mexico City.

“She’s an extremely important figure not only for [indigenous women] in Mexico, but for women all over the south,” says Pérez. “That this struggle for indigenous rights has the face of a woman is very significant. We see her as a companion who has walked the same path and experienced the same struggles we have experienced.”

From PRI's The World ©2017 PRI