María de Jesús Patricio Martínez has been providing herbal remedies for decades – and she’s poised to apply her skills in the political arena
María de Jesús Patricio Martínez: ‘Our aim is to highlight the problems that those of us at the bottom are experiencing.’ Photograph: Stringer/Reuters
María de Jesús Patricio Martínez has always had a gift for curing people’s ailments, an ability she attributes to her close connection with the Earth.
Born and raised in Tuxpan, a slow-paced town in western Mexico surrounded by scrubby hills and fields of sugarcane and maize, she began offering herbal remedies to sick neighbours at the age of 20 after noticing the government’s indifference to local health problems.
“Back then, there was a shortage of doctors and medicine and the health department had no answers,” said Patricio, an indigenous Nahua. “But we have so many plants and so much knowledge from our elders. My grandmother would give us special teas to cure stress, coughs or diarrhea, and they worked. So I thought: why not give herbal remedies to those who can’t afford medicine?”
Now a 53-year-old mother of three, Patricio is renowned for preserving traditional indigenous medicine. But she is about to embark upon a much more ambitious mission: healing a country that has been torn apart by rampant violence, political corruption and economic inequality.
Mexico’s National Indigenous Congress – a broad coalition of native ethnic groups – and the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) have nominated Patricio to represent them in next year’s presidential election.
If they gather enough signatures to ratify her nomination, she will become the first indigenous woman ever to run for president in Mexico.
With cockerels crowing next door and Zapatista imagery on the walls, the modest health centre that Patricio runs in Tuxpan is an unlikely place to find a woman primed to challenge Mexico’s political establishment – even if she admits her campaign is primarily symbolic.
“We’re not going for votes,” she told the Guardian in the narrow courtyard lined with therapeutic plants. “Our aim is to highlight the problems that those of us at the bottom are experiencing.”
Indigenous communities frequently complain of displacement and the destruction of their ancestral lands to make way for mining, tourism and infrastructure projects, while government studies show they suffer structural discrimination, disproportionate poverty and substandard access to health, education and employment.
President Enrique Peña Nieto says his administration has invested a record 21.5bn pesos (£914m) in infrastructure for indigenous communities, provided legal support for 4,100 wrongly imprisoned indigenous people and issued 8,000 birth certificates to unregistered children.
Yet Patricio remains unconvinced. “The government isn’t interested in supporting indigenous people – it sees us as people who get in the way,” she said. “The political class only see the earth and our natural resources as means of making money, not things that benefit the community and need protecting.”
Patricio’s candidacy is a first step towards addressing the underrepresentation of indigenous people in politics. More than 25 million Mexicans (21.5% of the population) identify as indigenous, but since independence, the country has had only one indigenous president, Benito Juárez, who took office in 1858.
The July 2018 presidential election will be the first to permit independent candidates, although they still face significant hurdles. Electoral law requires independents to gather the signatures of 1% of the nominal electoral roll, including inhabitants of 17 of Mexico’s 32 states, to ratify their candidacy within 120 days. Patricio needs about 850,000 signatures.
The political analyst Enrique Toussaint said this would be a “titanic task”, but he believes she has sufficient support in rural areas and among urban dwellers who are disillusioned with Mexican politics.
“Her great potential lies in drawing many Mexicans out of abstention,” said Toussaint, with about 40% of voters usually abstaining during presidential elections. “I’ve spoken to a lot of people who never vote because they’re against the system, but they’re very interested in this movement.”
Patricio hopes the campaign will create a national network that unites indigenous communities with working-class Mexicans. The goal, she said, is to destroy Mexico’s political system and rebuild it from the bottom up.
Patricio draws great inspiration from the Zapatistas, a ragtag army led by the charismatic, pipe-smoking Subcomandante Marcos, who forced indigenous rights on to the national agenda by seizing several towns in the southern state of Chiapas on 1 January 1994.
“It was a push that benefitted many indigenous communities across Mexico,” Patricio said. “Their struggle made people turn around and notice us. We see them as our wise older siblings because they set an example for all the other communities that have suffered.”
The short-lived uprising ended with the Mexican army driving the Zapatistas deep into the mountains and jungles, where they still live in self-governed communities.
Now a more insular, nonviolent force, they’ve faded from the public consciousness in recent years, with Marcos, who once captured global support with his witty and poetic communiqués, taking on a less prominent role.
Indigenous issues have since been overshadowed by Mexico’s decade-long drug war that has left more than 200,000 dead or missing. Indigenous communities have not gone unscathed, with cartels invading their lands to grow opium and marijuana and engage in illegal logging and mining. At least six indigenous activists have been murdered this year.
Patricio sees little distinction between the state and organised crime. “It’s part of the same problem. The government, the army, the police, the narcos, they all facilitate the exploitation of our natural wealth,” she said. “They all want to scare our people and make those of us who oppose their capitalist projects disappear.”
With so many challenges facing the country, Patricio’s experience with medicine tells her things will not get better without drastic change.
“We have to tear up the roots of what’s hurting Mexico,” she added. “This country needs healing.”