TLAHUITOLTEPEC, MEXICO — Basilisa Vasquez knows that in the eyes of the wrinkled leaders who run her village by the old ways, she is not equal to a man.
Even a man who beats his wife in this village, atop a brown and prickly hill in the sierra of southern Mexico, is treated lightly by the traditional authorities who mete out justice, she says. But a woman who commits adultery is harshly punished.
Ms. Vasquez, a Mixe Indian, has the right to vote for mayor in the village assembly, but she has never been able to vote for a woman. Women, she says, are never considered by the council of elders, which decides who will run.
"Here, machismo rules, and women always lose out," Vasquez says, sitting in her dusty courtyard, her grandson playing with an old plastic bottle nearby.
The rights of women like Vasquez, who is one of Mexico's minority of 10 million Indians, are part of a debate over sweeping legislation that, if passed as proposed by the country's crusading new president, Vicente Fox, would enact the most far-reaching protection of indigenous peoples anywhere in Latin America.
Part of a peace initiative to resolve the 7- year-old Zapatista rebellion, the Indian rights bill may also, critics charge, push part of Mexico away from basic notions of individual and civil rights that have been the keystone of Western democracy for 400 years.
The proposal now being considered by Mexico's Congress would give the country's 56 indigenous groups limited self-government: control over local elections, the right to apply traditional methods of policing and justice for some crimes, and community control of land rights and natural resources.
But in many traditional villages, women can't vote, religious minorities are not tolerated, and punishments can be, by Western standards, bizarre, even cruel.
Straining to determine Mexico's future, many lawmakers are looking here, to the vast southern state of Oaxaca, where a law passed in 1998 created the closest working model to the Indian autonomy that the federal proposal envisions for all of Mexico.
In hundreds of tiny villages that dot Oaxaca's highlands or spread along its vast, fertile coast, the beat of political life echoes an ancient rhythm that most Mexicans would hardly recognize. There are no political parties, no mass media campaigns, no smiling candidates with gel-slicked hair.
Mayors fast and sometimes sacrifice animals before taking up their duties, which meld the civil and religious. A council of elders chooses the candidates to be voted on in village assemblies. And authorities must go through a series of lower offices, paying for the communities' festivals out of their own pockets, before they can rise to higher posts.
Passed to help stop the spread of the Zapatista rebellion from the neighboring state of Chiapas, Oaxaca's Indian- rights law created unprecedented protections for people of Indian blood, battered for centuries by institutionalized discrimination.
When Indians are charged in state courts, judges must now ensure access to a translator. Schools in Indian communities are by right bilingual, celebrating, the law says, rather than repressing ancient indigenous culture and traditions.
Like the federal changes now being considered, those protections are a dramatic reversal of 50 years of policy to assimilate Indians into mestizo culture.
"That policy of trying to assimilate the indigenous peoples failed. All it created was conflict and resistance," says Salomon Nahmad, an anthropologist and former director of the government's National Indigenous Institute.
But constructing even limited political independence for Oaxaca's Indians has created its own problems, not the least of which is a clash of two notions of democracy: the Occidental idea that democracy is founded on individual rights, and a pre-Columbian notion that the good of the community is more important than any individual's interest.
Many of those contradictions lie buried under the powerful urge within communities to conform.
State election officials assure outsiders that native women prohibited by the custom of some villages from voting don't see the exclusion as a violation of their rights. "It's not that the women can't vote, it's that they don't want to," says Cipriano Flores, president of the state electoral commission and a Zapoteco Indian.
In a recent murder case in a village of Chatino Indians, community elders ordered a murderer to marry his victim's widow. "It was a way to ensure that the wife and children of the man were cared for," says Pedro Martinez, an anthropologist in the office of the state attorney for Indian affairs. Both the murderer and his widow went along with the idea.
But inevitably, those traditions bump up against a modern, increasingly industrialized Mexico steeped in a liberal tradition that reaches back to Benito Juarez, Oaxaca's most famous native son and one of the principal authors of the Constitution of 1857.
As suburbs have expanded around the capital, Oaxaca City, mestizo professionals suddenly find themselves without a say in the local politics of traditional communities of which they are inadvertently members. Though the 16,000 residents of El Rosario, a shiny new development of mostly state workers and professionals, far outnumber the Zapoteco Indians who run the county government by custom, the newcomers cannot vote in local elections and have no say in how the county's resources are spent.
"We're left out of everything," complains Eulalio Lezama, president of the El Rosario residents association. "We're demanding our constitutional right to vote and be voted for," he says.
Critics of the federal bill see a potential for such conflicts everywhere. They claim that the proposed changes contradict dozens of existing federal statutes and are vague on how such a sweeping notion of autonomy can be implemented.
How will a mixed community of Indians and mestizos elect its officials? How are election authorities going to guarantee the fairness of traditional assemblies when there are no ballot boxes or secret votes? And because culture shifts and changes, who is to say what actually counts as a community tradition?
Proponents fear that Fox's version of the bill may be weakened or the constitutional changes it requires may not be approved. If that happens, disgruntled community members who lose elections or land disputes settled by tradition could use the courts to overturn those decisions, making autonomy meaningless.
While the debate goes on in Mexico City, officials in Oaxaca maintain that their system works and that despite the pretensions, modern media-gorged elections or legalistic judicial systems are often less fair than the ancient ways.
"A village meeting in an assembly is often much more democratic than a society expressing itself through a ballot box," Mr. Flores says. "Democracy implies deliberation. In the isolation of a voting booth, you don't deliberate with anyone."
Despite the machismo that Vasquez acknowledges is part of her culture, she, too, rejects the ways of outsiders. The elders with their ribbon-topped staffs of authority, the public assemblies held in the village square, where the men debate and the women mostly listen - and even the judges who let drunken husbands go with a nod and a wink - connect her people, the Mixe, to their past.
"Sometimes they talk as if our minds don't want to change," says Vasquez, her long black hair flecked with wisps of gray.
"But we're not closed. It's just that this is our form of government, our way of life, our kind of religion."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor