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A woman could be Mexico's next leader. Millions of others continue in shadows as domestic workers

A television program promotes an upcoming presidential debate as domestic worker Concepcion Alejo goes through her morning routine, in her apartment in Mexico City, Wednesday, April 24, 2024. Alejo is among approximately 2.5 million Mexicans — largely women — who serve as domestic workers in the Latin American nation. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Concepción Alejo is used to being invisible.

Alejo, 43, touches her face up with makeup on a Tuesday morning, and steps out of her tiny apartment on the fringes of Mexico City. She walks until the cracked gravel outside her home turns into cobblestones, and the campaign posters coating small concrete buildings are replaced with the spotless walls of gated communities of the city’s upper class.

It’s here where Alejo has quietly worked cleaning the homes and raising the children of wealthier Mexicans for 26 years.

Alejo is among approximately 2.5 million Mexicans — largely women — who serve as domestic workers in the Latin American nation, a profession that has come to encapsulate gender and class divisions long permeating Mexico.

Women like her play a fundamental role in Mexican society, picking up the burden of domestic labor as a growing number of women professionals enter the workforce. Despite reforms under the current government, many domestic workers continue to face low pay, abuse by employers, long hours and unstable working conditions some equate to “modern slavery.”

Now, as Mexico is on its way to elect its first female president, women like her who feel forgotten by their government hope that having a female leader might shift the balance in their favor.

“I’ve never voted all these years, because it’s always the same for us whoever wins. … When have they ever listened to us, why would I give them my vote?” Alejo said. “I have hope that at least by having a woman, maybe things will be different.”

Still, as two female politicians — former Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum and former senator Xóchitl Gálvez — are leading the race to the June 2 presidential election, it's unclear how much it will shift the realities of working women in the country.

‘YOUR LIFE ISN’T YOUR OWN'

Born to a poor family in the central Mexican state of Puebla, Alejo dropped out of school at age 14 because her parents had no money to pay for her to continue studying. Instead, she and two of her sisters each moved to Mexico City to do one of the few jobs available to them as lower class women: domestic work.

Women in Mexico, like much of Latin America, work in informal jobs — tasks like selling things on the street without a fixed contract or benefits — in rates greater than their male counterparts, something experts following the topic attribute to misogyny in their cultures.

Like many young women coming to the city, Alejo began working as a live-in nanny, sleeping in a small room in the house of the family she worked for.

“It’s like you’re a mother. The kids would call me ‘mama’,” she said. “Their children were born and I would bathe them, care for them, do everything from the moment I awoke to the moment they slept.”

While some domestic workers live separately from families, many more live with families and work weeks, if not months, without breaks. They’re isolated from family and friends, in a custom that roots back to slavery, said Rachel Randall, a Latin American Studies researcher at the Queen Mary University of London.

“In a region like Latin America and the Caribbean, the history of slavery and colonialism continues to weigh on relationships to domestic workers even today in terms of class, race and gender dynamics,” she said.

Alejo said the demands, combined with the low pay of domestic work, led her not to build a family or have children herself. Others told The Associated Press they were fired from their positions after they fell ill and asked for help and time off from the family they’ve worked with for years.

Carolina Solana de Dios, 47, said she started working as a live-in nanny when she was 15 to escape an abusive household. While she feels free from the abuse and knows her job is important, she added: “When you work in someone else’s house, your life isn’t your own.”

‘WE COULDN’T TAKE IT ALL ON ALONE'

At the same time, their help is essential for working women like 49-year-old Claudia Rodríguez, as they continue to fight to enter professional spaces historically dominated by men. Rodríguez, a single mother and owner of an IT company, said she’s had to work twice as hard to get half as far as male counterparts.

In Mexico and much of Latin America, a gap has long divided men and women in the workplace. In 2005, 80% of men were either employed or looking for jobs, compared to 40% of women, Mexican government data shows.

That gap has slowly closed over time, and at the end of 2023, 76% of men were active in the workforce, compared to 47% of women. Large gaps in salary and leadership roles still exist.

Born in a town two hours from Mexico City, Rodríguez fled an abusive father with her mother and siblings, taking refuge in the capital. After watching her mother toil away selling food on the streets and any other job to pay rent, Rodríguez decided from an early age she didn’t want to follow the same path.

Instead of pursuing her dream of professionally dancing, she began selling computers when she was 16.

“I didn’t want to make the same sacrifice that she was making for me,” she said. “So I began to work and study.”

She spent years clawing her way up in the IT industry despite sexual harassment and “men slamming doors in our faces.” But when she married and had children, she said, she would often have to do all the housework in addition to running her own business.

Caregiving can shift the trajectory of a woman’s career in Mexico, making it harder for them to reach higher level professional positions, according to a 2023 survey from the Mexican Institute for Competition. While more than half the women in Mexico say they’ve had to pause their careers to care for children, only one in five men reported the same.

When her husband left her for another woman six years ago, hiring a live-in domestic worker was the only thing she could do to stay afloat.

Today, she and her nanny, Irma, both wake up at 5 a.m., one making lunch for her two daughters while the other drops them off at school. While it’s hard to keep up, now, at least she can breathe.

“She is part of our family,” she said. “In the case of women in business, we couldn’t take it all on alone simply because it’s far too much that society expects of you.”

‘WE’RE GOING TO TAKE ACTION FOR WOMEN'

Despite the load, a historic number of women in the socially conservative country are taking up leadership and political roles. Between 2005 and 2021, the gap between men and women in roles of government and international entities slimmed by more than 25%, according to government data.

That’s in part due to a decades-long push by authorities for greater representation in politics, including laws that require political parties to have half of their congressional candidates be women. Since 2018, Mexico’s Congress has had a 50-50 gender split, and the number of female governors has shot up.

While neither presidential candidate has spoken explicitly about domestic workers, both Sheinbaum and Gálvez have proposed addressing soaring violence against women in Mexico and working to close the country’s gender pay gap.

“In our government, women won’t just be recognized for having a woman president, we’re going to take action for women,” frontrunner Sheinbaum said in a speech on International Women’s Day.

But Norma Palacios, head of the country’s domestic workers union, known as SINACTRAHO, said many of the social advances seen in recent years haven’t trickled down to poorer classes of working women, least of all domestic workers.

In 2019, the government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador passed landmark legislation granting domestic workers basic rights like paid leave, limits on working hours and access to health insurance paid by employers.

But failures by the government to enforce those rules has left women “unprotected” and locked in a “dynamic of power inequality,” Palacios said.

“Nothing has changed, and (domestic workers) continue to face informal working conditions, in precarious work, with low salaries facing violence and discrimination, even if on paper we should have more labor rights,” Palacios said.

Neither Alejo, the domestic worker, nor Rodríguez, the single mother, say they particularly identify with either candidate on the ballot, though they both plan to vote. While both say having a woman leading the country would be a step forward, the women — long disillusioned by Mexican politics — still see the leaders as more of the same.

They echo other analysts who say that having a woman on the ballot doesn’t necessarily mean they will make gender issues a priority. Still, they and Palacios, the head of the domestic workers union, hope it will mark a longer-term shift.

“It’s still a woman who is going to be at the head of a country — a sexist country, a country of inequality, a country of violence against women, a country of femicides,” Palacios said.

Meanwhile, workers like Alejo continue down a shaky path as they struggle to push for their own rights.

Alejo is among the 98% of the 2.5 million domestic workers who have yet to enroll in health insurance, according to SINACTRAHO data. She and many others fear that asking for their new rights to be respected would end in them being fired.

Alejo, who long worked as a live-in nanny, eventually moved into her own small apartment alone in a poorer area of the city. After years of low pay and one case of sexual abuse, the 43-year-old said she finally works with a family that pays her a fair wage and respects her.

Still, as she summons up the courage to ask the family to pay for her health insurance, she adds that she knows they see her as replaceable.

“They don’t like that you ask for things," she said. “It’s not easy finding work, and if you need to work, you end up accepting whatever they give you.”

___

Follow AP’s coverage of Latin America and the Caribbean at https://apnews.com/hub/latin-america

Domestic worker Gabriela Flores arrives to work in Mexico City, Sunday, May 19, 2024. Flores is among approximately 2.5 million Mexicans — largely women — who serve as domestic workers in the Latin American nation. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)
Domestic worker Concepcion Alejo rubs her face with creme as she gets ready for work, in her apartment in Mexico City, Wednesday, April 24, 2024. Alejo is among approximately 2.5 million Mexicans — largely women — who serve as domestic workers in the Latin American nation. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)
Domestic worker Concepcion Alejo walks out of her apartment as she heads to the gym before going to work, in Mexico City, Wednesday, April 24, 2024. Alejo is among approximately 2.5 million Mexicans — largely women — who serve as domestic workers in the Latin American nation. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)
Domestic worker Concepcion Alejo lifts a weight at a gym near her home, before heading to work, in Mexico City, Wednesday, April 24, 2024. Alejo is among approximately 2.5 million Mexicans — largely women — who serve as domestic workers in the Latin American nation. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)
Domestic worker Concepcion Alejo heads to her workplace, in Mexico City, Wednesday, April 24, 2024. Alejo is among approximately 2.5 million Mexicans — largely women — who serve as domestic workers in the Latin American nation. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)
Domestic worker Gabriela Flores straightens the cushions on couch in a living area at her workplace in Mexico City, Sunday, May 19, 2024. Flores is among approximately 2.5 million Mexicans — largely women — who serve as domestic workers in the Latin American nation. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)
Domestic worker Gabriela Flores washes dishes at her workplace in Mexico City, Sunday, May 19, 2024. Flores is among approximately 2.5 million Mexicans — largely women — who serve as domestic workers in the Latin American nation. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)
Domestic worker Gabriela Flores puts away dishes at her workplace in Mexico City, Sunday, May 19, 2024. Flores is among approximately 2.5 million Mexicans — largely women — who serve as domestic workers in the Latin American nation. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)