REPORTING FROM MEXICO CITY -- The lone female candidate contending for Mexico's presidency described herself as one of the millions of Mexican women who go home at the end of the day to check on the refrigerator, in comments that played on the touchy subject of gender roles in Mexican culture for the first time in the campaign for the 2012 election.
Josefina Vazquez Mota made the statements this week while responding to a question during a radio interview with one of the country's most prominent female journalists, Carmen Aristegui (link in Spanish).
Aristegui asked Vazquez Mota via telephone to respond to seemingly negative comments about women made by front-runner Enrique Peña Nieto, candidate for the formerly ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.
Peña Nieto, facing criticism and ridicule after several recent public fumbles, was asked in a separate interview to name the price of a kilo of tortillas, a standard food base in homes across Mexico, rich or poor. The PRI candidate replied, "I am not the lady of the house," or literally in Spanish, "No soy la señora de la casa" (link in Spanish).
The phrase was interpreted to mean "housewife" among social-media users and commentators who criticized Peña Nieto for what some called an example of Mexican machismo.
On Tuesday, Aristegui asked Vazquez Mota, a 50-year-old married mother of three daughters, "Are you a 'señora de la casa?' "
"I am a woman, and as a woman I am a housewife, I am a government official, I've been twice a government secretary, I've been leader of a parliamentary group, I am an economist," Vazquez Mota said.
"And indeed, all of that along with being a housewife, a housewife who knows what happens every day at the dining table and in the kitchen," she went on. "And although we may not be there for many hours, as is my case -- and I'm sure your case and many others of us -- every night we return to that space of the kitchen, return to check the refrigerator and see if everything is ready or what needs to be bought the next day."
Vazquez Mota also suggested that she stops at markets between public events if anything is needed in her household. Directly addressing Peña Nieto's statements, she characterized them as "pejorative."
"Regarding a price of something, we are not obligated to know everything, but what does seem precarious for me is this disdain, this pejorative attitude toward being a housewife," she said. "We have millions, Carmen, millions, that go out to take care of their children all alone."
Vazquez Mota is one of three primary candidates remaining from the conservative National Action Party, or PAN, of President Felipe Calderon. The PAN is trailing in polls behind the PRI as it seeks a third consecutive presidency.
A former education secretary and federal legislator under Calderon, Vazquez Mota would be the first major party female candidate for president of Mexico if she captured the PAN nomination before next year's vote in July.
The leftist Democratic Revolution Party is also trailing behind the PRI under the repeat candidacy of populist leader Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who lost the 2006 election to Calderon by a razor-thin margin he refused to accept.
Lopez Obrador and others have hammered away at Peña Nieto since he recently was unable to correctly name three books that have influenced his life. That appearance, at Latin America's largest book festival, in Guadalajara, bolstered the long-standing argument that the former governer of the state of Mexico is all image and no substance.
"As he does not have substance, it is not only a matter of [Peña Nieto] not reading, it is what he represents: more of the same, more corruption, more injustice, more privileges, more decadence for our country," Lopez Obrador said in his weekly YouTube address (link in Spanish).
Peña Nieto's campaign has been in damage-control mode since then, yet the candidate keeps making missteps.
His answer about the price of a kilo of tortillas came during an interview with Spain's leading daily newspaper, El Pais, in which he also could not accurately cite the minimum wage in Mexico. The full audio of that interview was released Monday.
Peña Nieto, married to telenovela actress Angelica Rivera, his second wife, has used Twitter to defend himself once more, saying in Spanish, "I said 'I am not the lady of the house' in reference exclusively to my home, not as a disparaging or offensive expression towards women."
The price of a kilo of tortillas, meanwhile, is a point of serious concern for many low-income households in Mexico, recent news reports say. That price rose this month from 8 pesos to 12 in some states, a radical increase for households that struggle to make ends meet. Overall, inflation rose in November by 1.08% (links in Spanish).
Next year, the minumum wage in Mexico will rise by about 4.2% for a number of regions and jobs, the Labor Ministry said in a statement. In the geographic zone of Mexico City, where the cost of living is among the highest, that wage will be set at $4.60 a day.
-- Daniel Hernandez
Photo: Josefina Vazquez Mota of the National Action Party celebrates Monday after filing her candidacy for president at the PAN headquarters in Mexico City. Credit: Carlos Jasso / Reuters