Mexico's most eligible bachelor: the next president

It seems like everyone wants to be Vicente Fox's first lady.

On the night of July 2, as Vicente Fox Quesada declared victory in Mexico's presidential election - becoming the first opposition candidate to defeat the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in 71 years - he was flanked not by a beaming first lady, but by his four adopted children.

Where was the Missus? There isn't one.

That night Fox also became the first unwed president to be elected in this predominantly Roman Catholic nation.

In recent weeks, Fox's bachelor status has prompted a vigorous public debate here about the role of the first lady and the Mexican president's relationship with the Catholic Church on issues such as divorce and abortion. And, of course, more than a little gossip over finding him a mate.

Like most members of his center-right National Action Party (PAN), Fox is deeply religious and, for the most part, socially conservative. His family, however, is far from the kind that historically has inhabited Los Pinos, Mexico's White House.

He divorced his wife Liliana de la Concha in 1991. All of their four children are adopted.

In a country of romantics, Fox's social status has captivated the national imagination. The former governor of Guanajuato state, where he still owns a sprawling ranch, is considered the nation's most eligible bachelor. With Fox's 6-foot, 5-inch stature, trademark cowboy boots, and rugged good looks, speculation is rife on who will become first lady once the former Coca-Cola executive takes office on Dec. 1.

There's his loyal and capable press secretary, Martha Sahagun. His protective oldest daughter, law student Ana Cristina, has said she could act as first lady. The social pages in local newspapers have also suggested a popular soap-opera actress and singer. And there's his ex-wife, Liliana de la Concha.

"This is a big dilemma for the PAN," says Guadalupe Loaeza, who writes about the social lives of Mexico's elite in the newspaper, Reforma. "It has already become an 'issue.' It has to be resolved or it could explode in their hands. The PAN wants him to marry."

A rumor circulating last month that Fox was going to marry Ms. Sahagun caused a stir. The report was quickly denied by Fox, and, notably, by Ana Cristina, who is very close to her father and is said to disapprove of Sahagun. What his daughter favors is a reconciliation between her parents.

For her part, Ms. de la Concha has made it clear she wants a reconciliation. "It's sad that the ambition of his advisers is blocking a reconciliation between us," de la Concha is quoted as saying in Ms. Loaeza's column. "However, for all of our life and even in heaven, we will continue being married."

The Roman Catholic Church weighed in on the matter in an editorial in their publication, Nuevo Criterio, at the end of July, urging Fox to be an "example of family unity" and reconcile with his ex-wife. Since their divorce was civil it is not recognized by the church.

However, Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera, the highest Catholic figure in Mexico, responded by telling the press, "I think that in personal matters no one has the right to intervene, it's exclusively the decision of that person."

A fourth woman on the crowded possible-first-lady scene is Lucia Mendez, star of the soap opera "Low Blow." Last year, she interviewed Fox on national television. Although they have met "for coffee" a few times, Mendez and Fox deny any romance.

Is all this much ado about nothing? Probably. Especially given that the first lady's role has always been ceremonial.

"The first lady in Mexico doesn't matter at all," says Sara Sefchovich, author of a proclaimed book on the nation's first ladies from colonial times to the present - "The Consort's Luck: A History of Obscurity and a Tale of Failure." She adds: "Mexico is just copying the United States. It was a completely unrecognized position until recent years."

Traditionally in Mexico, the first lady has always headed up the Department of Welfare for Mothers and Children. Much to the chagrin of feminists here, Ana Cristina - whose own experience has made her an active adoption advocate - has said she would use the position to lobby against abortion rights.

The rapid onslaught of modernization on a fundamentally conservative culture has created pressures on family integrity and conspicuous contradictions.

For example, in recent weeks Mexicans have hotly proclaimed their disapproval of provocative TV talk shows that often show - or even provoke - family disintegration. Yet they continue to avidly watch them.

In another example, demographic surveys show that a majority of Mexican households are headed up by single mothers who are nevertheless unwilling to admit their husbands have left because of the shame in the face of the Church.

"The concept of family still has a lot to do with religion in this country," says Ms. Sefchovich. "But the church [lags] behind reality in Mexico." Nonetheless, the Catholic Church and its pronouncements still hold a central position in the moral universe of a majority of Mexicans and how they think about, and judge, family matters.

Because of this, says Sefchovich, "The important thing [about Fox and his marital status] is if a religious president can leave his wife." He would have to be granted an annulment from the Church to remarry.

Whether Fox cares about marrying is anyone's guess. He seems much more preoccupied with getting a head start on the immense task of becoming the country's first opposition president. If he does want to marry again, however, he will have to face the dilemma of his religious devotion versus the church's refusal to recognize divorce. Otherwise, he can remain a bachelor. After all, the 15,000,000-plus Mexicans who voted for him didn't seem to mind that he's not married.

Maybe he doesn't either.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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