Thoroughly Modern Martha
Mexico's New First Lady Is a Career Woman, A Conservative Catholic -- and a Force for Change
By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 4, 2001; Page C01
MEXICO CITY--One morning in late June, President Vicente Fox was sitting
at the small conference table in his office, holding his daily scheduling
session with his
press secretary, Martha Sahagun.
"July 2, 8 a.m.," he said.
"Okay," she said, marking it down. "What do you need me to do then?"
"Marry me," he said.
Those words were the beginning of the end for one of Mexico's worst-kept
secrets -- the romance between the unmarried president and his longtime
secretary, who arrive today for their first official trip together to Washington.
But Fox's wooing and wedding of Sahagun was more than fodder for the
gossip columns.It was the start of something new for Mexico, an unbuckling
traditions that have long made Mexico's first couples seem oddly out of touch with average Mexican people.
When Fox, 59, and Sahagun, 48, were married in a private civil ceremony
on the grounds of Los Pinos, the presidential compound, it was the union
divorcees with seven children and a granddaughter between them. The two conservative Catholics defied church law by remarrying -- and can no longer take
Communion at Mass -- thereby becoming an emblem of the practical struggles of modern Mexicans.
When Martha Sahagun became Martha Sahagun de Fox, she immediately broke
with Mexico's tradition of the purely decorative primera dama. Sahagun,
her job as press secretary when she became first lady, intends to be an active liaison between the government and private programs helping women, children and the
poor. She says she has studied how others, from Hillary Rodham Clinton to Eva Peron, have handled that job, but none of them is precisely her role model. She
promises to be an advocate in a substantive way that Mexico has never seen.
"Many women see themselves reflected in her, and they like what they
see," says Patricia Mercado, president of Diversa, a feminist political
group. "She is intelligent
and innovative, firm in her decisions. She is Catholic and conservative, but when she made the personal and political decision to marry, she showed she could break
those ties despite the risks."
Sahagun, prim and petite, sitting on the edge of a huge leather chair
in her bright, paneled office in Los Pinos, seems on the verge of tears
describing those risks, and
the difficulties of juggling public opinion, her church and her love.
"This is a mature Mexico, a modern Mexico, a Mexico that accepts different
attitudes and respects them," she says. "Those of us who have second marriages
with a clear conscience. It was not a difficult decision to marry Vicente. It was an act of profound love."
A Secret Bond
The romance of Vicente and Martha (pronounced "Marta"; her last name
is pronounced sah-GOON) is on display all over Sahagun's office, which
is in the building
next to Fox's. She works surrounded by 12 photos of her husband, including two huge portraits of their wedding hanging over her desk.
"I am the happiest person in Mexico," she says, showing off her diamond-studded
wedding band, looking relaxed, by turns laughing loudly and welling up
describes the route that brought her here.
She says she fell in love with Fox about two years ago, when she was
working as his campaign spokesman. She had known him for 13 years, but
she says love
came gradually: "A moment arrives when you think, 'It's not just admiration, it's love.' It happens as part of a process without you even realizing it."
A romance developed, but to protect Fox's political career and their
children, they kept it secret. "We learned to communicate with each other
just through looks,"
she says. On the night Fox was elected president, July 2, 2000, "I wanted to run to him, hug him and kiss him, but I knew that I couldn't," Sahagun says.
Photos from those days usually show her in the background, near Fox
-- but not too near. Near enough for gossip but not enough for proof. Sahagun
were difficult days: "When you love someone deeply, you want to spend important moments together, and obviously that wasn't possible."
The transformation of Martha Sahagun can be seen in her wedding photos.
Instead of a harried-looking woman in business suits fending off reporters
conferences, there was a beaming bride in an embroidered white dress, eyes closed and face uplifted as she kissed her groom. Since then, she has been
photographed constantly with Fox, walking hand in hand, riding horses in matching denim shirts, spending quiet time in a home they can now admit they share.
"All that we had to hide, all that we had to refrain from living, now
that is over," she says. "I always knew in my mind and heart that better
times would come, which
allowed me to go forward with great happiness. I always knew that time would arrive, and it did on July 2."
A Matter of Conscience
It has not arrived without controversy, especially over religious issues.
Fox and Sahagun have sought annulments of their previous marriages, using
influential cardinal, Norberto Rivera, as an emissary, according to family and friends. The couple has an audience with Pope John Paul II at the Vatican in October,
and there is speculation that news about the annulments could be announced then. Sahagun declines to discuss the issue, and says "only time will tell" if she and Fox
can ever have a church wedding.
Breaking with church tradition and remarrying has earned them tongue-lashings
from conservative Catholic leaders in Mexico -- a key part of Fox's political
constituency. It was a surprising move from a president who practices his faith more publicly than any Mexican president in history.
And it was an especially unexpected move considering Sahagun's background.
She is the second of six children of Alberto Sahagun, a prominent urologist
town of Zamora in the state of Michoacan. Three of her father's brothers are priests, including one who is a bishop. One brother presided at her first wedding. At her
Catholic high school, Martha was president of the Daughters of Mary service association and taught catechism in poor neighborhoods and in prisons for women.
"She was a very pious child," says Guadalupe Mendez de Garcia, who has been Sahagun's friend for 40 years.
But in 1971, at age 17, she dropped out of high school a few months
before graduation to marry her sweetheart, Manuel Bribiesca. She moved
away to Celaya in
the state of Guanajuato, about two hours down the road. She finished her high school exams a few months later but never went to college. "We were a little
surprised when she left school, but she was always restless," says her brother, Alberto Sahagun, a radiologist in Zamora. "She was always looking for something new
In Celaya, Sahagun's husband, a veterinarian, started a small veterinary
supply business while Sahagun was giving birth and tending to their three
sons (who are now
29, 26 and 20). As Martha got more and more involved in running the family business, it eventually grew into the second-largest in Mexico.
Sahagun first met Fox in 1988, when he came to Celaya as a candidate
for federal Congress promoting a presidential candidate from his pro-business,
National Action Party (PAN). Sahagun had recently joined the party -- her father-in-law was also a PAN federal congressman -- and she recalls taking instant note
of the 6-foot-4 Fox.
Two years later, when Fox ran unsuccessfully for governor of Guanajuato,
Sahagun worked for him. When Fox ran again and won in 1995, he named Sahagun
press spokesman, even though her only substantial political experience was an unsuccessful run for Celaya mayor the year before.
Rumors about Fox and Sahagun floated around for years and intensified
in 1998, when she separated from her husband after 27 years of marriage.
divorced in 2000 when Sahagun was spokesman and a chief adviser in Fox's presidential campaign. Fox's first marriage had ended in divorce in 1991; he has four
Sahagun says the wrath of church conservatives does not bother her --
and it doesn't distress her to sit still while others take Communion at
Mass. She says her
father taught her that in matters of religion and morality, following your conscience is as important as following the rules.
"I am not in any way downplaying the great value of Communion for Catholics,"
she says. "But I am absolutely certain that communion with God can be achieved
many ways other than bread and wine."
Finding Her Role
Sahagun's wedding to Fox was greeted mainly with a national sense of
relief. Many people had been uncomfortable that the president was essentially
living with a
woman who was not his wife. It made matters worse that she was a member of his cabinet.
And Sahagun did not always appear to be the most able communicator for
Fox's government. She is credited with encouraging Fox to display his down-home,
informal personality. But her public pronouncements on policy were occasionally imprecise or misleading. And there were rumors of poisonous relations between
Sahagun and other cabinet members, who thought she had undue influence over the president. Some still roll their eyes at the mention of her name.
Sahagun represented Mexico at the swearing in of Peruvian President
Alberto Toledo this summer, causing a stir from some who said a government
have made the trip. Sahagun says she was there simply as a personal representative of Fox. But the heated headlines showed that Mexico is having trouble figuring
out how to react to a modern, professional woman as first lady.
"This is not a housewife who became first lady. This is a political
person who now also happens to be the president's wife," says Antonio Ocaranza,
a public relations
executive and former presidential spokesman. "That's why the roles of the previous first ladies are just too small for her."
Sahagun says she is still weighing options for her professional projects,
which are likely to be in the areas of women, children, health and education.
other Latin American first ladies on the sidelines of a Latin American summit in Chile last month, Sahagun proposed that the women meet again in Mexico to discuss
creation of a new organization that would link governments and private groups in the fight against child poverty.
"I don't know of any law that says that by being the president's wife,
you can no longer work in a committed way with society and your country,"
Sahagun says. "We
are changing from a passive attitude to an active one. Mexican men and women are not waiting to see what the government gives them, they want to work for the
Sahagun, who became a grandmother just over a year ago, says she has
no political aspirations of her own. And this week in the United States,
she's likely to stick
to a traditional script, visiting a Chicago art museum with first lady Laura Bush while their husbands handle politics in a visit to Mexican-American voters in Toledo,
"I am an impulsive woman," Sahagun says. "I like to move fast in all
that I do. I have also had to learn that sometimes walking slow is a good
thing, that being patient
and acting with restraint can bring good things to your life. Being 17 isn't the same as being forty-something. For me it has been a long road of learning."
© 2001 The Washington Post Company