How Individual Empowerment is Transforming a Mexican Community

By Katherine Mancera, HIP’s director of communications

In Mexico, in partnership with the Oak Foundation, HIP supports a group of 17 incredible nonprofits that work on gender issues. This is the second of a series of interviews with the amazing women and men who are fighting domestic violence and human trafficking, advocating for sex workers, sheltering victims of abuse, and unionizing domestic workers. These women and men daily confront horrific violence and inequality, and yet they speak of hope and perseverance. I hope their stories inspire you as much as they do me.

This interview is with Centro Fray Julián de Garcés Derechos Humanos y Desarrollo Local (The Fray Julián de Garcés Center for Human Rights and Local Development, or Fray Julián), an organization that promotes human rights and gender equality in Tlaxcala. I spoke with Alejandra Méndez, Fray Julián’s Director, a calm, self-assured woman with a steady vision for a better world, and Federico Luis Pöhls Fuentevilla, a gentle man with greying hair who is the organization’s Fundraising Officer.

(Note: I did this interview in Spanish, so the transcript isn’t word for word. Instead, I tried to capture the essence of the conversation.)

What’s your organization’s elevator pitch?

Alejandra: We work on community empowerment in Tlaxcala to deal with two issues: the trafficking of women and girls and illnesses caused by the pollution caused by industrialization. The core of our work is organizing the community to strengthen their collective power on human rights and gender issues. We also have various strategic initiatives, including working with universities that document trafficking and illness; creating public awareness campaigns through videos, workshops, and national and international presentations; and doing political analysis and advocacy to press the government to take responsibility for protecting human rights.

Why did you decide to work for gender equality?

Alejandra: Because of the context I grew up in, I’ve always been moved by injustice, and especially by violence against women. The idea that women are exploited sexually doesn’t fit in my head or in my heart. I decided to work on that issue using the knowledge I had, and learning along the way.

I also see the contrast between this world, where the economic model puts profit at the center, and a world I want to live in, which would prioritize people and the community. I’m not resigned, and I don’t think we’ve lost. We can create a world that accommodates us all.

Federico: I decided to work in this field because little by little in life I started discovering all these situations of injustice and misery that are normalized but shouldn’t be. I had the fortune of getting to know people from other cultures and social classes, which helped me understand that we’re all people and that we’re all equal.

When you talk about possibilities for women, for the poor, etc., you can talk in the abstract, but it doesn’t mean anything until you give the issues a concrete name—if you’re talking about Maria or Trinidad. This is about real lives. I started realizing that I had a choice with my life—although I might not get to see a better world, it’s something that’s worth dedicating your life to.

Tell me about a moment at work when you saw a positive change.

Federico: We were at a community meeting, a workshop about values. One of the questions was, “What is happiness?” A woman, a domestic worker who had been coming to our workshops for three years but who had always stayed silent, answered, “I think happiness is the peace you feel when you’re doing what needs to be done.” This woman, who had always been quiet, dared to express something, and she did it with such clarity. This showed so clearly her process of gaining self-confidence.

Alejandra: We work so that people start realizing they have rights, and also start living them.

The husband of another woman had been coming to our events for four years, and he was always quiet, listening. At one meeting, people were looking for solutions they could implement in the community—for example, if the river is polluted, how to deal with the wastewater in your own home. He decided to take that on, and he made his home’s water system environmentally friendly. Now universities invite him to come speak so he can explain his experience and show other people how to install water filters in their homes. He uses colloquial language, so people can really understand. He never finished school, but now people call him “engineer.”

What this man knows he puts to the service of the community, and to show people they can change things for themselves.

That’s what makes a difference to me—to see the changes in people who are becoming empowered.

What message do you want to share with the public about your work?

Federico: It’s just as important to help someone cross the street as it is to donate blood or rescue victims of human trafficking. Just as important to clean the bathroom as to be on a board of directors. That’s where life is.

We’re here to be happy, and that happiness depends on our attitude towards life. Happiness isn’t being content, but being in peace.

Alejandra: Keep dreaming, having hope, and working to create a society where all the beings of the world can live in harmony, justice, and support.

Interested in reading more? Check out our interview with El Centro Integral de Atención a las Mujeres (The Integral Center for Women’s Care, or CIAM), a Cancun-based organization that supports women and children who have been victims of violence.