Either a Hñahñu (Otomí) or a Jewish President(a) for Mexico

Alberto Diaz-Cayeros
4 min readApr 10, 2024

But what we are is what our ancestors did. How they survived. We are the memories we don’t remember, that live with us, which we feel, which make us sing and dance and pray the way we do, feelings and memories that flare and bloom unexpectedly in our lives like blood through a blanket from a wound made by a bullet fired by a man shooting us in the back for our hair, for our heads, for a bounty, or just to get rid of us.

Tommy Orange. There, there: a novel.

Some months ago I was bitterly complaining about what I saw as a lack of imagination in Mexican politics. The dominance of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO as everyone calls him) and his political party, MORENA, seemed overwhelming. Opposition parties were seemingly unable to put forward a candidate that could seriously challenge the President’s nominee, whomever that would be. I was premature in my judgement.

The Mexican Presidential race is on, with the two frontrunners, both women: one is a Jewish scientist, former Governor of Mexico City, Claudia Sheinbaum; the other is an indigenous entrepreneur, former Senator Xóchitl Gálvez. They both gave a lively televised debate on Sunday (a third candidate, from Movimiento Ciudadano, has little chances of making any significant headway in the race). The debate was, for the first time ever, simultaneously translated into Nahuatl, Maya and Tsotsil (as well as sign language). Despite the polarization in Mexican politics in the past few years, it is a reason for celebration to think that two women, identifying with an ethnic (Hñahñu) and a religious (Jewish) minority, discussed the future of the country. As far as high profile public events go (or even as more modest events are organized still as “manels” in so many universities), one of the most inclusive political events in Mexican history.

My TV screenshot of Mexican news host Denise Maerker moderating the debate while three indigenous Nahuatl interpeters translated on the INE Youtube channel

Political innovation usually come from unexpected places, surprising both savvy pundits and academic analysts alike. When Xóchitl announced at the end of June of last year her intention to run for President, she created a whirlwind in Mexican politics. Her announcement uncovered the subtle and overt racism and misogyny that still pervades much of Mexican society. President AMLO himself went into a vociferous attack of her career and integrity, using the bully pulpit of his morning news conferences (the mañaneras), until the electoral authority, the Instituto Nacional Electoral (INE) put a gag order restraining him.

A successful entrepreneur with a long political career, Xóchitl is a computer science engineer designing intelligent buildings, leaning ideologically to the right (liberal) of the political spectrum. She was often criticized on social media, questioning, among other things, her indigenous identity. She was accused of not being indigenous enough. And she was accused of being a puppet of male businessmen and politicians.

Claudia Sheinbaum seized the candidacy of Morena, the party in government, by defeating a far more experienced politician, Marcelo Ebrard. Ebrard had shown a special talent at political survival, despite sea changes in Mexican politics, for decades. Sheinbaum had perhaps a more coherent career, or perhaps she really promised something different from the typical Mexican politician.

A physicist with a PhD, she had built a successful academic career, eventually spending time at Berkeley. She is a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 and taught at University. Despite her acumen and shrewdness in pursuing a political career, engaged in political activism since her early student days with the CEU at UNAM, she has been often accused of being a lackluster protege, a puppet of AMLO. In my mind this only shows how deeply misoginy still is entrenched in Mexico. And critics denied her national origin. Sheinbaum’s parents were born in Mexico, but she originates, on the paternal side, from Ashkenazi Jews migrating to Mexico from Lithuania in the 1920s; and, on the maternal side, from Sepharadic Jews from Bulgaria, escaping the Holocaust.

Xóchitl and Claudia are remarkable women. Architects of their own successful political careers. In a racist place like Mexico it is hard, however, to be called Xóchitl. Her parents made a naming choice without knowing she would eventually go into politics, signaling something related to their identity and, yes, their political aspirations. Xóchitl is a common female name in Mexico, a Nahuatl word meaning flower. But her sister also received at baptism an indigenous Nahuatl name, Malinali, for grass. The other siblings have indigenous names: Eréndira and Xicoténcatl, names of the P´urépecha and Tlaxalteca royalty. A fourth one is Tonatiuh, sun in Nahuatl. The father was a bilingual teacher, the Hñahñu peoples (commonly known as Otomí).

In a xenophobic and antisemitism country like Mexico, it is not easy to be have Sheinbaum as a last name either. The former Governor of Mexico City was quickly accused of not having a Mexican birth certificate, but being born in Bulgaria. Instead of being able to highlight her academic excellence that allowed her to spend part of her time abroad, she has had to downplay her international exposure and her scientific knowledge. As far as I am aware, Claudia does not speak any Lithuanian or Bulgarian. And Gálvez has been on record saying she does not speak Ñhañhu. But those linguistic markers do not deny them the right to call upon their origins, and proudly assert that they have successfully arrived to this point, where male politicians have been eclipsed by minority women, and no matter the exact vote tallies on June 2, one of them will become the next President of Mexico.

An Eclipse in the Florentine Codex, 1576



Alberto Diaz-Cayeros

Mexicano orgulloso, migrante renuente. Economista ITAM y Politólogo Duke. Senior Fellow en CDDRL y Director Centro Estudios Latinoamericanos Stanford University