Ingeniera Magdalena Ojeda Arana is at the beginning of her third year (of four) as first lady of Michoacán. During her term as first lady, she serves as President of Michoacán's Sistema para el Desarrollo Integral de la Familia (Whole Family Development System), the state social services agency known informally as DIF.
In mid-2007, after more than 25 years living in other parts of Mexico, Mexico Cooks! moved to Morelia, Michoacán. At that time, the state was in the throes of a hotly contested gubernatorial campaign. We watched closely as the campaign progressed. At first we saw the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) candidate move ahead in the polls. Then the PRD (Partido de la Revolución Democrática) candidate, Leonel Godoy Rangel, took a decisive lead and never fell back. He took the oath as governor of Michoacán on February 15, 2008, to serve a four-year term.
During the first two years of Governor Godoy's term of office, Mexico Cooks! has talked many times with the first lady, Ingeniera Magdalena Ojeda Arana. At every cultural event where she and Mexico Cooks! have been present, we have been enormously impressed with her from-the-heart tenderness and genuine interest in the subject at hand as we hear her talking with Michoacán's artisans, musicians, and regional cooks. In the face of unprecedented difficulties in government, she remains steadfast as a leader.
Mexico Cooks! thought that you might like to meet her, too. We scheduled a private hour of conversation at the Casa de Gobierno (governor's residence) in Morelia (the state capital) to talk about everything from her childhood in Acámbaro, Guanajuato to her view of the future of Mexico.
Born into a family of six--she has five brothers--she has happily innocent memories of her childhood. Her mother worked as a bank secretary prior to marrying, but later stayed home to care for the family. Her father worked for Ferrocarriles Nacionales de México (Mexico's national railroad system) until his retirement, and as a child she learned to love traveling by train through Mexico, listening to the wheels turn on the tracks, watching the scenery as the train moved along, and sleeping in a Pullman car. Ing. Magdalena talked with great nostalgia about the simple games she played with her brothers and her friends: kickball in the street, avión (in English, hopscotch), and other games and lamented that, "Children don't play these games anymore. Now, everything is video games and computers. Even our son (Salvador Godoy Ojeda, age eleven) has to have his video games! He played so much with the ones his older cousins have that even though we didn't want to do it, we finally broke down and bought one for him."
Collecting pine resin near Pichátaro, Michoacán. The container holds about ten ounces; click to enlarge the photo for a better view of the small metal trough that channels the resin into the cup. Pine forests in the state of Michoacán supply about 90% of the resin for Mexico's industrial use--an average of seven tons of resin per year. Nearly 5,000 rural Michoacán families make their living collecting and selling pine resin.
Ing. Magdalena studied at the Universidad Michoacana de San Nicolás de Hidalgo. She flashed her lovely smile when she talked about her course of study: Ingeniería en la Tecnología de Madera (Technology of Wood Engineering), a post-bachelor degree offered only at the UMSNH. "I wanted to do something a little different, not study medicine or law. This degree is important in Michoacán because even now our state is highly forested. We need to know how to keep our forests strong, how to preserve our natural resources." She explained to me that the degree includes both the chemistry and biology of wood technology--and patiently said that it didn't in any way involve being a forest ranger, my romantic vision of what she had studied. Ing. Magdalena talked easily and knowledgeably about several technical aspects of her work, including age-dating a tree by its rings and about the process of making plywood.
We talked a bit about her role as President of Michoacán's Sistema para el Desarrollo Integral de la Familia (Whole Family Development System), the state social services agency known informally as DIF. As a preface to Ing. Magdalena's second annual informational report concerning that agency, given in May 2010, she said, "What started several decades ago as a nice, ladylike activity to keep the governor's wife busy has today become one of the most important functions of public administration. The DIF system truly is in charge of direct contact with all of those people whom society ignores, mistreats, or discriminates against. Girls and boys abandoned by poverty, elderly people, disabled people, pregnant or nursing women--or simply those people who live in a condition of inequality-- those people constitute the focus of attention that, as government, we must care for while they gain access to better life circumstances." As I quoted this section of her statement back to her, Ing. Magadalena nodded.
"That has to be the most important part of my role in government. It's true, there have been times in the past when the governor's wife was just a decoration, someone with her hair done just so and her clothes in sync with the latest and most fashionable styles. I like being a little more casual than that. I prefer to dress in my jeans, unless the occasion is more formal. My style lets me be a little more accessible to people. When I can have close and genuine contact with the people of this state, they know that someone cares, someone who has the ability to offer some help. Frankly, we can't go just everywhere we would like to go, to visit all the little towns in Michoacán, because people have come to expect that we will be able to offer them something. Sometimes we simply don't have the state resources to offer what we would like to everyone who has needs, and we cannot go with empty hands.
"It's very difficult for me to see so much need. A few small towns in Michoacán are still impossibly marginalized, living on the very edge of terrible want. My heart goes out to the people in those towns, and in fact to everyone who needs help--but as a government, we are also very limited in how far we can stretch our resources.
"Fortunately, we have still been able to maintain and strengthen Michoacán's program to feed those who might otherwise go hungry. We have provided basic food packages to more than 100,000 families. During this year, we have provided more than 18 million school breakfasts to young children. The program CRECER (to grow) provides milk to 75,000 Michoacán children ages six months to three years. Other programs offer help and training in health education and services, nutritional information, education, and housing.
"I don't want to leave out the importance of sex education and preparation for marriage. So many teenagers are having babies in our state. It's crucial to offer them a choice, an education about preventing pregnancies while their own lives are still in formation. It's equally crucial for our young people to see that marriage isn't just about today; it's an important commitment that takes hard work and isn't to be casually thrown aside when the going gets tough.
"All of these programs are very close to my heart. It's extremely difficult to see that we in Michoacán live in so much abundance, and yet there are people here who do not have enough to eat, or do not have safe place to sleep at night."
Mexico Cooks! was eager to talk with Ing. Magdalena about her point of view of today's Mexico. As a highly educated, politically knowledgeable woman, she shares our concerns about the state of the country. Her demeanor became very serious as we discussed current events. "President Calderón is a human being, just like the rest of us. His party's political philosophy is different from that of my party, the PRD; the PAN (Partido Acción Nacional) is more conservative, more business oriented, than the PRD. The PRD is more to the left of center, with different ideas of social equality and social justice.
"What President Calderón is trying to do for Mexico [the war against drugs] is very difficult, with so many ramifications. I think that he's made some mistakes--but don't we all make mistakes? Not one of us is perfect.
"Right now, there are definitely problems of security in Mexico. We cannot say otherwise. It seems to me that in order for Mexico to come out of this crisis of security, we all need to do our part for change. No single person can change a country--it takes all of us, working together, to bring about the changes we need for the good of society, for everyone's safety."
And her personal security?
"I like to shop in the tianguis (street markets). I like to be able to compare the ripeness of this avocado with that one, to see which fruits are less expensive, which cost more, to see what's in season here in Michoacán. Shopping that way isn't just a household chore, it's a social event, too. I like to go here and there with my friends, go to our son's soccer games, live my life normally when I am not in my official capacity as state head of DIF or attending an event as the governor's wife. When my husband was first in office as governor, wherever I went they sent a patrol car ahead of me, red and blue lights flashing. How secure is that? Those lights just announced, 'Here comes somebody who needs special security!'. Now, they let me go out with an unmarked car and a plainclothes bodyguard, which I think is much safer.
"The truth is, in many places where I go, people don't know that I am the governor's wife. Some people don't even recognize that he is the governor. When they do expect us at an event, it takes a while for some people to realize that I am not just another woman following along with the pack of reporters or string of government representatives. I really like that; I don't need or want to be set apart from or above someone else just because of my temporary position as first lady.
"We'll only be in this house for two more years and then someone else will be in charge, just like before us, there were other governors and other first ladies. My husband will go back to his political life--right now, a substitute senator is working in his place, but he wants to go back to that. He's been active in politics since long before I met him, 25 years ago; that's what he has chosen for his life's path. I'll go back to my chosen career, our son will continue in school, and our lives will go on as usual. Meanwhile, the new governor--whoever he or she might be--will, we hope, carry on the work that we have done during our time in office."
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