What will you do?


Summers over school starts and we are left with fun memories and hopeful energy for the fallseason.  This is important as now we are entering the season of debate, increasing chances of negativity and polarizations over the upcoming presidential elections. The following interview is a good example of how a woman in politics has figured out how to get beyond polarities.  Perhaps her amazing story will help us get through these elections without disliking and blaming our opposition party neighbors for all the problems.


Maria de los Angeles Corte Rios

Director General, Congress de la Union, Mexico

(The Director of Woman’s Right for the Congress)



MA – I think one of the main sources of arguments and discussions around our world today centers around women. The question is what should women do?  There are choices about family, marriage, abortion, etc. and who will make them.


But when people speak about women’s rights and responsibilities it becomes like a modern Tower of Babel.  Many times the real discussion is lost among the various political and economic interests. We lose the main issues: understanding women.  We need to understand our lives and decisions. Should we get married, have children, work or not work? 


I think there are a lot of tricks inserted into the discussion of who we are. No one seems interested in what woman need to make better decisions.  Each individual or group seems to want its own agenda.  Political people are often not seriously concerned about the real problems woman face.


It is sometimes shocking to me to see just how things are. For example, a person came and said to me, “If you give me $350,000 you will have no problems”. Of course I can not do that and of course I have a lot of problems. 


There are powerful and political vested interests everywhere. There is no decision made to first understand the predicament of women in our time.  We need to make better decisions but instead we have these other political and power things going on.


AMS – Yes, it is a big problem.  In listening to you I can see that you have to have the big picture and yet you must always deal with the individuals who are coming at you often from a corrupt place.


The way I deal with these kinds of challenges is to be funny when people are strange.  For example, I might have the guts to tell this person that if he paid me $400,000 I would make sure his life was trouble free too!  To be able to do this is not easy.  I am not sure if I can do it, except upon refection as this is a way to unwind a psychological trap.


MA– It is very sad that people do not want to understand the challenges and difficulties that woman face. People have not reflected on these issues of how to protect a woman’s rights. 


Yesterday a young woman was sitting here telling me about how she had been kidnapped. She and other very young girls were being taken to a farm and were to be sold as prostitutes. 


Reality goes far beyond our imagination. Sometimes we do not have the strength enough to say we have to keep on doing this and go on with our struggle.


If I get sad, because of the corruption then what will happen?   I ask, “Do I have the courage to go on myself.”  I say this to my staff, “Do I, do we have the courage to go on?  Yes, because being here is an opportunity to have something better happen.”


Gender itself poses a big question to the family. I agree with some, but not all, of the arguments about woman’s changing role.  Patriarchy has been the main vehicle for determining woman’s roles. So while many say woman should be seen as individuals and not just as members of the family, the reality is often quite different.   When we work with family budgets we, as women, think that the income is divided equally but this is not true.  Reality shows us this does not happen.  We see that the income goes to the man. 


We see this even more clearly in divorce.  The statistics show that after divorce, women’s  economic situation is lowered two or three levels, often into poverty.


A woman has no patrimony.  Women are not generally in line to inherit from their fathers as men are and have been.  I say to others we have to see the historic picture and work  with women today who are mothers and wives. Others have different ideologies and opinions about how to see these problems.  Some think that people must separate woman from family and marriage. They see these roles for woman as the two main vehicles leading to sexual slavery. You know all of this from your studies and experiences.


AMS – Yes, I know the statistics and I know that some people will predictably operate at lower levels of functioning, gaining power by subjugating others. 


This behavior originates all the way down in the brain stem.  It is primitive.  We share this with our reptilian cousins. The brain stem is where the automatic behavior to gain power over others rules. There are 23 behaviors that we share with reptiles which are instinctual. Protecting and gaining territory plus mating are all brain stem originating behaviors.[1]  You have to go far up into the evolving brain, to the limbic system, before you find the origin of caring for others. 


The mammals were the first to carry their offspring inside their bodies.  The mammal’s brain developed differently around this biological change.  The limbic system promoted social changes which then promoted the long term care of children.


The limbic system also made it possible for two other new behaviors to emerge: play and audio vocal communication.  These behaviors arose when mammals had children growing inside the womb. There was no more of the reptile’s freedom to just leave the offspring to pure random fate.


Many of the political people you are trying to influence are operating from the “power hungry” part of the brain stem.  The reptilian system is still working in each of us. But it does not have to dominate.  The other parts of the brain can inhibit some of this reptilian brain stem behavior. This is how we come to the notion that we have free will.  We can become more than our instincts.                                              


The people who are trying to bribe you give us evidence of the importance of power and place in the social group. Often, especially when threatened, people automatically “choose” to dominate others rather than deeply care for others. 


There are many power hungry men and women. There are also many desperate people. 


It is important to know who people are and what they are capable of doing and being.  There may be no harder job for the leader to do.  The group has the same problems in picking good leaders for their future.


When you saw this kind of power hungry man, who tried to extort money from you, you knew then who he was. 


You may also have decided that you would never be able to change the way he operates with you and with others. If you know this then you will be less frustrated wasting time being serious with him.


At the other end you have to listen to people whose stories capture your heart.  When you listened to that young woman telling her story of seeing and feeling abuse, you know you are talking to a different brain.


This is a person who has the potential to change. But again if her story saddens you too much you will not be able to help her come out of her frustration and feelings of powerlessness.


In general there is always conflict around the use of recourses. Even in the human family. This has been well documented in many species.  Families have conflicts and problems when recourses have to be shared.


Robert Trivers wrote about this in a paradigm shaking book called Social Evolution. Here he spelled out the unspoken rules of parental investment in the young. Each animal, including the human, asks unconsciously how much for me and how much should I invest in you?


None of this is pretty.


But we humans are capable of a bit of long term thinking.


Logically and rationally we can predict and even use computer models to show that cooperation has a better pay off for our families and our society in the long run.


You may be familiar with game theory.[2]  Game theorists have demonstrated this process over and over again by using computer models.  Here we see that people who want to be more cooperative need to set limits and retaliate if people cheat.[3]


We are able to look for different behavioral ways of being to add higher level values to our older ways of being in the social group.  Religions have tried to do this for thousands of years.  By reinforcing positive values like respecting human life, we can hopefully over ride some of the more automatic and primitive behaviors. 


Everything you are telling me I hear in terms of evolution.


Yes, we can change for the better all be mean.  But in the best of all possible worlds we humans also have a heart, which prefers higher values. The tendency to choose cooperative ways, to value individual differences, has so far led us to a better outcome for the social group.


Now, how many people have the courage and conviction to have a heart? Is it ten percent of the population? I am not sure how many people living in a patrimonial society can afford to listen. Woman might think: “I am married, my boss is a man and what can I do? I listen to your words but I am afraid to be a person in my own right.”


MA- Many people who work in family violence have experienced such violence themselves and that is why they have the courage to take a stand about this by helping others who’ve had similar experiences.  Because a woman was raped, she takes the time to help others because she knows how important this is. But many times we the people are in an emotional jail and are not able to take the risk to do the ‘right’ thing. 


I am going to confess I do not know how free we are really are?  We are constrained. Perhaps some of us can reach a different point because of what we have experienced.


The chance things that happen to you in your life, and how you deal with them will determine who you are. 


AMS Yes! I was saying to Maria on the ride over here when she told me about her hopes for a better future and her worries, which in fifteen minutes went all the way back to her early frustrations in childhood, that his was like a psychoanalytic moment.  We can see how the brain links all the events we have experienced together and this then influences our future decisions.  How we make decisions is very heavily influenced by experiences and by how our brain has been wired over evolutionary time.


This is fantastic as we are also creating new experiences every moment, which will also influence the future. We can learn.


When people open up and tell their story, they have a chance to see their own story very differently and to therefore act differently in the future.


But to change one has to be willing to have part of self die. I think change is hard as people have to die to the way it was and to emerge in a different way.  Is that ok, to die?



My book, The Mindful Compass – is about the process of being mindful of your choice about what you are doing now and of the impact on others in the future. To make the future different people have to understand and be willing to alter past ways. 


I have so far interviewed eight fantastic men from Mexico and yet only two women have agreed to be interviewed to tell their story for the book. You are the first woman who has volunteered.


MA- I am sure there are explanations for the lack of woman who are willing to be interviewed.  I am sure you will find women as the woman here have a voice. 

I think other woman will find out about this project and do it.


AMS I hope you are right.  Can you tell me how many siblings you have? 


MA- There are five of us. I have a twin sister and 3 other sisters. All of us were born one year apart and then our last sister was born, 14 years later. 


My mother is a political refugee from the Spanish war.  She was in concentration camps in Spain.[4] After the war she went as a child to Cuba and then to Mexico.  My maternal grandfather, her father, fought with Castro. 


Even though he was a dreamer I always valued the way my grandfather stood up for the poor and against injustice. He had a factory which he organized as a cooperative, and in the end he gave the factory to the workers. He believed property should be given to the workers and not passed on as a family inheritance.  Therefore he died poor.


The family eventually came to Mexico. The saying was that very poor people came with one hand behind their backs and one hand in front to signify that they came with nothing. 


My maternal grandmother became a well known designer of clothes. She did her work by hand. She worked for the president of Mexico and for many other important people.  She was a gifted, hardworking artist. Then she died at 42 of a cancer. First, the cancer was found in her breast and then it spread to the bones.  In the 1970’s treatment was not very good.   When she died, I recall my mother crying very much for her.  Then one night, in my mother’s dream, her mother appeared.  She was telling her daughter, “You must let me go.  I can not stay like this.”  After that my mother was different.  


I come from a family of fighters, who had nothing, no money. They were immigrants who used their gifts to do well. Now people do not see the history of my family. Now people just see that I have a car and they say, “You are rich”.  People make a snap judgment thinking I always had everything but they have no idea about the truth. 


AMS – What I hear is that many people are focused on others. They are jealous. They act as though they feel a threat from your doing well. They seem to have a hard time seeing others as different from the way they assume people to be.


I see this as automatic behavior by immature people who must resort to this kind of power play. They do the one up and one down relationship dance. They put you down by calling you rich. In a way they destroy who you are by insisting they know the way you are. They try hard to put you in a place where what you do does not matter  because you are now rich.


Of course if you want to lead any kind of a social movement you have to have resources. Over time people have rediscovered that it does not work just to want to help people, you have to figure out how to use resources well.


MA-   We constantly have to deal with people who do things we know are not right.  Meanwhile it is still hard to set limits with the people I work with here in the office, plus those out in the world.   I understand that I have to set limits with people who will not change. 


AMS – Your grandmother, Angelina, died in the 1970’s.  How old was your mother when this happened? 


MA– She was born in 1938.  So she was 32 when her Mom died.  I was born when my mother was 19. She was a young and beautiful woman.


AMS Your mom had how many siblings?


MA– She had one younger brother and he lives in Monterey. My mother is now 69 and has survived a terrible cancer but I have her here. 


AMS – Both of your grandparents came from Spain?  It is amazing how many people I have interviewed have come from Spain, Italy or Poland and are second generation immigrant families. It seems often that the first generations immigrant parents make some kind of a place for the children to do well and then these individuals seem to have more motivation to give back to the larger community.


MA- In my family it happened that way.  I see how people in my family have stood up for justice like my grandmother, who stood up for people in the Spanish concentration camp.


I recall my grandmother telling us that in the concentration camps they were giving poisoned milk to the babies. When she realized this she had the courage to tell the camp commander that she would kill him if he poisoned the babies. From that time on my grandmother was given two portions of milk for my Mom and there was no more poisonings. She was a woman of real courage to do this. 


My mother came at the age of six or seven to Mexico. My grandmother was working as a fashion designer. It sounds fancy but it was not. It was working at a machine and working hard to make clothes. My grandfather was absent and never home. He was the dreamer. He was also a social revolutionary.  He went with Chae Guevara to follow him and help him.[5]  He was also close to Castro.[6]


I always thought of my grandfather as someone who was so intelligent. He was a lawyer, a doctor and surgeon.  He spoke five languages, Russian, German, French, English and Spanish. He was a painter and played the violin very well.   My grandfather was someone who was not recognized in his time. He was unable to manage all that he was. 


AMS – He must have come from a very wealthy family to be able to have this kind of education.  


MA – I do not know as the stories were lost.


AMS Yes, this happens to many families. I also interviewed don Lorenzo whose family stories were lost.   He went back to find the families’ names in the Churches in Spain. He took pictures of where his family had lived and then brought his family back to see where they had come from.


MA- Yes I discover that when I talk to my children about my grandparents. I too can see how these stories affect my children. They say “really Mom, this is what really happened to them, you promise? WOW.”


AMS – How about your Dad’s family? 


MA– My grandfather died when my father was 14.  He had one brother who was one year younger.  My grandmother was Cuban but her family also came from Spain.  They were friends with Franco. She had letters from Franco and then so amazing to be in the same family there was my mother, as a child, in Franco’s concentration camp.


AMS – Yes, it often happens that in families you belong both to the slave owner’s family and to the slaves’ family.


Sometimes you have to go back a few generations to find the connections but it is there I am sure for all of us. 


I am part Irish and part of my family were the Protestant Brabazon family. They were from England. They invaded and took the land from the Irish in 1650.  My Irish family, the Mahers and the Maloneys, were the ones whose lands were robbed. Some of them lost their lives trying to defend their land. We see this same dichotomy in your family when some knew and followed Franco and others Castro. Your family members had very different ways of finding an answer to political questions.  We can see that nothing is perfect. Each choice led to problems.  But perhaps this imparts some neutrality as you see the difficulty of finding one right way and you also see the roots of the polarization between left and right ideologies in your own family.


MA- I can see this. It is very curious that the main teaching I received from my family is

a deep concern about social justice, a concern for the people, and the knowledge and strength never give up. 


I still talk things over with my father. I often go to him with an idea of the choices that I am facing, like in taking this job. He says, I have everything I need and I can do it.


My father never studied for his career. But he was great entrepreneur. His family had a small hotel and they had to sell it when my grandfather died. Then my father began by selling sewing machines from door to door. He met my mother and they fell in love and had me when they were poor and had nothing. They could only pay the hospital fee, when I was born because they won the lottery. It was small bit of money but it helped.

When I knew how poor they were I asked them, how could you conceive a child when you had no money?


They said, we knew we were going to make it.


AMS What a deep belief they had in a positive future with each other.  On the plane on the way to Mexico I saw the movie Jane Austin. Unlike your mother, Jane Austin, could not believe that her man could do it or that love itself would overcome tremendous obstacles.  Even though the man said the same thing your father said to your Mom, Jane Austin could not believe in his vision of hope.


Now your Dad is not still going door to door selling sewing machines.


MA- No, he became very successful. And my Mom stayed home and was taking care of us. My Dad was always working. He did not have a lot of time at home. I always remember him as a very good man. Step by step he made a success at work.  Then in his older age he lost the company he had built, but there is always something going on for him.


In some ways we were a very average family.  Certain things were always very clear. I knew that my sister would be the main support for all my life. Sometimes my children ask me: Mom would you give a kidney to your sisters?” I say “No doubt”

They ask Would you give money to your sisters?”  I say, “No doubt.” 


Our life was not a story book family life but there were some things that we knew. We knew we had to stand up for each other and that we would. 


AMS From your history you knew that if your family was not united, you could be in serious trouble.  Both sides of our family had survived wars prison and very hard times. 


MA – Also my mother taught us that we had to push ourselves and study hard- You have to study, you have to be better”.  


It’s funny how she always pushed us to study for a career. She helped me study to get a scholarship to Oxford.  I did not take this because I decided to enter the religious life. She always pushed us strongly to go forward. This has been very important.


I never think – I am a woman I can not do this or that”. No, I thinkI am a woman I can make it, I am going forward”.   And believe me I have done much due to my mother’s belief in hard work and in me as a person. 


I think my real achievement is to speak about what I think and stand up for what I believe.



It’s important for people involved in human rights to speak out.  Some times I think I could have been more considerate of others or been more of a mediator. But when you are in human rights there are certain limits you have to cross.


I do not care what government says.  The wrong ways must be exposed.  Even if the government does this or that you cannot be quiet, you have to speak out. This is not easy for me. The people surrounding me are very conservative people.  Perhaps if I was a man it would be easier.  Standing up for human rights is not easy in this world or in this time.


AMS I think it’s still difficult for a man to speak the truth if it’s not popular.  When people oppose your message it’s hard. But for a woman its easier for the larger group to discount your message and say that you are only saying this because you are a woman and woman do not count. 


MA– Yes, I do have many people who are able to hear this message and for whom the goal of human rights makes sense. I often talk to Paco about  the difficulty of getting your message across and how we can find better ways for people to hear our message.


AMS The most important thing I hear is that you and others have found your truth and your voice. First, it seems to be that your courage is based on being authentic and then to do what you truly believe in and then lastly, to be clear in your message to tell the hard truth to others.


It is important to me in my life to be as authentic as possible. This requires knowing oneself well and not being afraid to die.  Only then can I speak my version of the truth. It took me along time to see this.  I saw how easy it was to be too polite, to please others, to be political. Eventually I saw that I would end up becoming a person who bends like a pretzel.  There is always pressure to please others.  Finding your own voice is easier if you come from a family where this kind of honesty is valued. 


How did you choose the religious life and then get married and stay focused on social values.


MA- Poverty has always been an important issue for me.  I recall when I was six, my father had bought a very expensive car and I said to him We cannot buy such a car because we are in a very poor country?


Now I think what would I do if one of my children said such a thing to me?


I have always been worried about social problems, deeply and sometimes anxiously, but always in my brain and my heart.


Then when I was 19 I thought God wanted me to work serving Him all the time.   My parents did not understand my decision.  At the same time, a sister of mine who was two years younger than I am wanted to join the religious life as well..  My parents told us we could not do this.  They installed body guards to prevent us from leaving.    I did not have a chance to talk with them.  They were afraid of my decision and we never spoke about it.  


Then one day I was able to leave and I did. For two years I did not speak to them about

this as they did not  want to know what I was doing.  I left home with one hand behind my back and one hand in front, with nothing.  I regret I did not know how to talk to my parents better about this decision 



Then eight years later I saw I could not continue in the religious group and I got out with one hand in front and one hand in back. Then my parents gave me a hug.  In those eight years I learned about being alone.


After that I finished law school and then I got married in 1991. I was a teacher for thirty years, teaching at the university.  During this time I also earned two masters degrees, one in human right and another in women’s studies. It has not been easy for my husband, but we do have the blessing of three wonderful children. It is also not easy for them that I am not always home. 


I wish there were more time for this interview as there are many things we do not have time to talk about and many people who have been helpful to me.


It’s interesting to see how recalling these family stories can point towards enduring family values. I hope you will come back and we can work together.


AMS I am sorry the time is up and I will look forward to coming back and seeing what you are doing.




Reflection promotes greater choices and reflection happens in this  interview.  

Andrea Schara




The Mindful Compass for Maria de los Angeles Corte Rios


(1)  The ability to define a vision: Often the deeper roots of our working vision are rooted in values we learn early on. We see evidence of this as Maria de los Angeles tells us: Poverty has always been an important issue for me.  I recall when I was six, my father had bought a very expensive car and I said to him we cannot buy such a car because we are in a very poor country. I have always been worried about social problems, deeply sometimes anxiously but always in my brain and my heart.


In addition her vision was influenced by the fact that she comes from a family of fighters. The roots of her vision for social justice are clear in the story of her grandparents. It is interesting that early on she was asked to understand how people could take opposite sides in a war. 


Both sets of grandparents were swept up by the Spanish civil war,  one set on the far right and one on the far left.   Maria de los Angeles understands how the relentless march of human events results in people hearing the promise of political voices in very different ways. Above all she knew that any vision for social justice would have to unfold on a political stage with all kinds of actors participating.  Therefore she has developed her own unique voice and offers a deeply rooted vision based in understanding the challenges of complex social forces. 


The work that her vision inspires is to find many ways to deal effectively with the forces that trample people’s rights and freedoms. Overall her life course has been to take actions to relieve the suffering of others. 


In her nuclear family, her mother encouraged her to see that she could do anything with hard work.  She was successful academically and has been able to use knowledge gained in the academy with her own experience and knowledge of life.  


Maria de los Angeles’s passion for social justice comes across when you first meet her.  It is obvious in her lack of fear about standing up for principles about human rights, even if these principles are unpopular.  Her position in her family as the oldest sibling (although a twin) combines with her deep personal, practical and academic knowledge to make her a natural leader. She can easily connect her vision with the daily life of people.  In addition she holds her vision with a deep appreciation for the importance and impact of political factions on achieving that vision. 


(2) The resistance to change in self and in any system: Maria de los Angeles is not easily pulled to one extreme or the other and can remain open to new ideas.  When the challenge comes, whether in the form of bribes, difficult stories or from her parents telling her “no”, she can find way to think carefully before taking action.  In addition she has been able to come back around and forgive and try again.  She sees the importance of staying connected to the opposition while still doing things her way.


(3)The ability to connect and use systems knowledge: Maria de los Angeles an ease with her family history and with the knowledge she’s developed throughout her life.  Her natural inclination was to be in an academic environment where the issue of social justice could be studied and understood in a cool environment away from the heat and the passion of the moment. She emerged as a social activist in her new roles with a great deal of personal and academic knowledge. This has enabled her to have more confidence in her ability to understand the many forces at work and the time it takes to make changes happen. 


(4)The ability to be separate:  Perhaps there was a no greater time where Maria de los Angeles perused her inner passion than when she joined a religious order despite her parent’s objections.  The price she paid to serve was to withstand and deeply understand the difficulty of being alone. The ability to separate a self from important others, especially parents, is crucial in order for any of us to become autonomous. 


If one is not able to reconnect with family members after a time of separation the relationship system will show us the signs of stress and strain.  Better to stay open and wait for the system to reconfigure. In her case she was able to reconnect. This shows Maria de los Angeles’s resilience and openness. We can guess that her actions increased the resiliency of her nuclear and extended family to deal with more diversity.


It is not easy on the family member who separates from the family “norms,” but neither is it easy on the family.  Often when one person can be separate and remain in some emotional contact with the others, it is evidence of a more flexible family system.


Maria de los Angeles took actions to be more separate. This is often what must take place for a leader to bring new ideas to and asks for different actions from a group. It is almost impossible for the group to be in step with the leader.  Leaders almost by definition see things differently than the group.


Clearly her early experience is important in her ability as a leader to listen to many sides of a story, and to make difficult decisions than others might be ale to do. She can also assume personal responsibility for the consequences of her decisions. 


If people reject Maria de los Angeles’s ideas or actions she has the experience and the proven ability to sustain a principled driven difference without rancor but rather with respect.


Everyday she manages herself in the trenches of real human tragedy and political circles. Being slightly separate while connected, makes a difference in the ability to respond thoughtfully to one and all. Above all, being separate enables Maria de los Angeles the ability to communicate a different message to and authentic message to all kinds of people.



[1]The Triune Brain in Evolution: Role in Paleocerebral Functions by P.D. MacLean The triune brain is a model proposed to explain the function of traces of evolution existing in the structure of the human brain. In this model, the brain is broken down into three separate brains that have their own special intelligence, subjectivity, sense of time and space, and memory[1]. The triune brain consists of the R-complex, the limbic system, and the neocortex. In animals such as reptiles, the brain stem and cerebellum dominate.  For this reason it is commonly referred to as the “reptilian brain”.  It has the same type of archaic behavioral  programs as snakes and lizards.  It is rigid, obsessive, compulsive, ritualistic and paranoid; it is “filled with ancestral memories”.  It keeps repeating the same behaviors over and over again, never learning from past mistakes.

[3] Evolution of Cooperation (Paperback) 2006, The Complexity of Cooperation (Paperback) 1997
by Robert Axelrod

[4] The economic blockade of Republican controlled areas caused malnutrition in the civilian population. It is believed that this caused the deaths of around 25,000 people. All told, about 3.3 per cent of the Spanish population died during the war with another 7.5 per cent being injured.

After the war it is believed that the government of General Francisco Franco arranged the executions of 100,000 Republican prisoners. It is estimated that another 35,000 Republicans died in concentration camps in the years that followed the war.




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