MARMOL, Mexico -- Once upon a time, Libia Zulema Lopez Montemayor didn't know the way to this destitute village of empty houses and old people waiting to die.
She led a fairy-tale life as one of Mexico's most pampered and adored. She was three times a beauty queen, mother of another beauty queen. She was an upper-class housewife -- "the queen of my house" -- living in the Pacific Coast resort of Mazatlan in the state of Sinaloa.
Then came 1995, the start of Mexico's most recent economic crisis, and today, at 46, Lopez Montemayor, called Libia Zulema by most, is a different woman. She is the local president of El Barzon -- a nationwide organization of middle-class debtors, radicalized by the country's economic situation and wrathful at Mexico's banks.
Running in Sunday's election for mayor of Mazatlan, a city that includes Marmol, she campaigns among shirtless and unshaven campesinos, denouncing bank usury, poverty, injustice.
Townspeople timidly shake hands and get a gentle hug, a luscious smile and a request for their vote from the woman they remember and are dazzled to meet. "I think it's time that a woman was in city hall," she says. "If we run our homes on so little, what can't we do in city hall?"
When she stops to eat at a food stand, the owner crows, "one day we'll be able to say that the Queen of Carnival, Miss Sinaloa and Miss Mexico ate here."
Lopez Montemayor's trek of personal transformation is Mexico's transformation as well. Years of economic catastrophe have politicized large sectors of Mexican society. Even the country's upper classes can occasionally be found rabble-rousing in the streets.
"She went from being a woman who didn't speak, to one who articulates the feelings of a large part of the population," says Enrique Vega, Carnival treasurer and director of the state elections office in Mazatlan. "She was this porcelain figure up on a pedestal and now she's this social fighter with the people."
A far cry from the perfect life that lay before her when, in 1970, at 17, Lopez Montemayor was selected Queen of the Carnival -- the pre-Lenten celebration Mazatlan holds every February.
This alone would have made her a celebrity for life. The city, more than any other in Mexico, has beauty-queen fever. Every high school, most university departments, bank branches, kindergartens, restaurants, firefighters, taxi drivers, industry associations, every social club -- all have pageants and reigning queens. There's a queen of Old Age, of Spring, of Happiness; there's a Fat Queen.
No contest is as important as Queen of the Carnival. Yet Lopez Montemayor's fame surpasses even that. From Mazatlan, she was selected Miss Sinaloa. She represented the state in the Miss Mexico contest, and won -- the first Miss Mexico from Sinaloa. She competed in the Miss Universe and Miss World pageants. In pageant-happy Mazatlan no queen is better known than Libia Zulema Lopez Montemayor.
By 1971, a year after her sudden catapult to fame, she was married to a Mazatlan shipbuilder and soon was raising three daughters.
"I was a housewife 24 hours a day," she says. "I was committed to my family. My husband took care of everything else."
Life stayed like that for Lopez Montemayor for 24 years. Then in 1995, a peso devaluation pushed Mexico into recession. It hit the middle and upper classes hardest. They had believed President Carlos Salinas' promises of stable peso and interest rates. With the economy opening to foreign goods, they had gone on credit-fueled spending sprees. But by mid-1995, Salinas' promises were mocked by interest rates over 100 percent.
The forces that had destroyed many small villages had finally reached Mexico's upper classes. It was Lopez Montemayor's first taste of economic hardship. Her husband's shipyard could barely make payroll. It had a large loan to pay off, and there were huge credit-card bills at home. Her husband had to dismantle the company and take a job as Customs director in La Paz, Baja California.
Then one day bank lawyers, accompanied by police and a locksmith, entered her house when she wasn't home and removed all her downstairs furniture -- a television, a microwave, a dining table and chairs, an air conditioner.
Lopez Montemayor joined El Barzon.
"I didn't know anything about the law. My husband had always taken care of all that. But I did have this feeling that an injustice was being done," she says. "I learned the problems other people were facing. That's where my struggle began. There are people who have paid their debt two and three times and they're still paying. That's what we were fighting for: to pay, but pay what's fair."
El Barzon quickly elected her president. Mazatlan was stunned to see a former Miss Mexico marching in the streets like any poor campesino.
Her husband, burdened by debt, was supportive. "But my daughters were ashamed that I was in marches, sit-ins," Lopez Montemayor says. "The first marches in the street, my daughters said, 'Don't pass by our school.' They missed their mother in the house, the little snacks she'd make them. Suddenly they had a mother who was out on the street protesting, fighting with judges.
"But life has a lot of turns and you have to face them."
In September of 1997, with El Barzon in the sixth week of a round-the-clock sit-in in front of a bank, police arrested 37 protesters, including their new president. They spent a day and a half in jail, charged with obstructing the bank's entrance. Members of Mazatlan's high society were being treated like common criminals.
For Lopez Montemayor'sdaughters, this was too much.
"When I was in jail, they called, crying, 'Mom, please leave El Barzon.' I told them, 'Your mother hasn't stolen anything, hasn't defrauded anyone. She's just defending herself. The government doesn't like it when we Mexicans stand up and tell the truth about what it's doing wrong.' "
Finally, the governor freed them, explaining that he hadn't realized honorable people from good families had been arrested.
"How terrible," says Lopez Montemayor. "If we'd been poor, we'd still be there."
Her daughters have since made peace with her struggle. But her activism cost Lopez Montemayor that cornerstone of her perfect life -- her marriage. She and her husband divorced this year.
When he got a better job with more money, she says, he decided, " 'My little woman doesn't need to keep going around yelling in the street.' He pressured me to leave the movement. But I'd changed my way of thinking. I wasn't fighting any longer for some personal cause, but rather for the problems of the people."
She will continue to fight from the outside, at least for now. In Mexico's system it is party support that delivers blocks of votes, and Lopez Montemayor chose to affiliate with the small Labor Party. She will do well to finish third in the mayor's race.
Whatever happens Sunday, however, Lopez Montemayor seems quite content with her new path. "This direct contact with the people allows you to see how they live and makes you grow as a person," she says. "I don't feel like a loser. The only inheritance I can leave my daughters is that of a brave woman. We Mexicans need that. We've been a people that have put up with a lot."
Pub Date: 11/03/98