Arenal, Sandra

Sandra Arenal Huerta was born in Mexico City on 29 November 1936, in a home marked by politics and art. Her mother, Elena Huerta, was a progressive painter who shared the leftist ideals of the muralists Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siquerios (the latter became Sandra’s uncle-in-law when he married Angélica Arenal, her father’s sister, Leopoldo Arenal, a PCM activist). In the years prior to World War II, Mexico experiences a period of politic, economic, and cultural effervescence under the influence of a flourishing socialism that aimed to improve the living conditions of workers. By chance, Sandra spends her childhood in the USSR, at a time in which the deprivations of war were added to the restlessness produced by the threat of Nazi invasion. The experiences and memories from this period would mark her social conscience and her search for justice, traits that have always defined her.

Of rebellious essence, she studied up to college, joining the communist youth and participating in various student and support movements for people’s rights. In 1954, she paused her studies to marry Professor Edelmiro Maldonado Leal, a normal school teacher and member of the Mexican Communist Party.

Due to her husband’s health, they decided to move to Monterey, Nuevo León, where Sandra became concerned about the improvement of collective life. This led her to help open a nursery, place suitable roads, and demand better salaries for teachers. She participated in several activities fighting for the people, especially for children. Her love for them and her tireless desire to surpass herself led her to study education in 1971, when she was a mother of five, some of them already teenagers.

At the same time, her eagerness to express in writing the people’s feelings and voices encouraged her to join various literary workshops. In 1976 she participated in the ‘Makarenko’ Literature Contest of the Normal Superior State School, winning first place with her novel Vidas Ásperas (Harsh Lives), published by the same institution.

The topics that Sandra investigated, as well as her own biography, are a reflection of the events she experienced. It is often said that we are the result of our history and circumstances, and in Sandra Arenal’s case the statement could not be more true. By reviewing her publications we obtain the portrait of an era. From her first research reports, she used a testimonial and demanding writing style to give voice to marginalised, unprotected, and forgotten people. Around 1983, after the investigation of a tragic coal mine accident in Coahuila, her first text appeared, published and co-produced by Lega publishers, Workers and Macehualtin Information of Mexico City. Barroterrán: crónica de una tragedia (Barroterrán: Chronicle of a Tragedy) narrates the pilgrimage of the miners’ widows in their claims to various authorities. Not only did Sandra give them a voice, but she also remained by their side and supported them in their fight. She was one of the team, as she would say.

In 1985 she travelled to the country’s northern border to document her book Sangre joven: las maquiladoras por dentro (Young Blood: Inside The Maquiladoras), where she offered, through the words of the workers themselves, an outlook on the exploitative and abusive conditions in which they worked. This book was published by Nuestro Tiempo in 1986 and saw a second edition in 1989.

The desire to denounce the disadvantaged and unjust situation of the working class led her to write En Monterrey no solo hay ricos (Not Only Rich People Live in Monterrey), which focused on Monterrey’s industrial essence: workers, technicians, and professionals who participated in the construction of the so-called ‘industrial capital’ of Mexico. The book was published by Nuestro Tiempo in 1988.

The same publishing house invited her to participate in a collective volume coordinated by Alejandra Porras, Nuestra frontera Norte… tan cerca de EU (Our Northern Border… So Close to the US), where she narrated the vicissitudes of the men and women who were increasing the population near the border, searching for the American Dream.

Her belief that people’s voices needed to be heard led her to participate in a new collective project about a natural phenomenon that shook the city of Monterrey: Gilberto: la huella del huracán (Gilberto: The Hurricane’s Trace). The work, which focused on the human side of the tragedy, was published in 1989 by Castillo Editions.

What Sandra Arenal loved most of all was children. She believed that her devotion to them through her professional work as an educator, which she never interrupted, was not enough. Like in many other parts of the world, Mexican children are incorporated into the workforce to improve the economic situation of their families; however, they do not have any benefits or laws in place to protect them from the abuse of their employers. Therefore, during 1990 and 1991, she devoted her time to investigate children’s situations in Monterrey’s metropolitan area and gave name to the children who, from one day to another, become the livelihood of starving offspring that lacked the minimum life conditions. No hay tiempo para jugar (No Time to Play) was published by Nuestro Tiempo in 1992, and marked a pattern in the actions Sandra would develop in the following years.

Between 1994 and 1995 she teamed up with other teachers to carry out a field study on young girls who worked in domestic services in the metropolitan area of Monterrey. From that research emerged La infancia negada (Denied Childhood), published by the Autonomous University of Nuevo León in 1997.

Monterrey is an industrial city, the economic hub of our country’s northern region. The industry of which was developed around the Fundidora de Fierro y Acero (Iron and Steel Foundry), the pilar of many small industries and our region’s economic capital. Sandra became interested in the human side of this steel mass that for decades, until 1986, marked the timeline of our city. In 1994, she participated in the PACMYC 94 project of the General Directory of Popular Cultures and published her testimonial La flama y el faro (The Flame and The Lighthouse). Different voices congregated around this monument to the progress of our region, to talk about the positive and negative aspects of the city, and to recover the suffering the rusty iron kept for so long.

From 1995 to 1996 she retrieved the foundry’s history from the voices of its protagonists. This remembrance dispenses of numbers and data: it is the workers who narrate what that source of work meant to them and their families, since it was one of the main economic engines of the city. Fundidora, diez años después. Para que no se olvide… (Foundry, Ten Years Later. So It Is Not Forgotten…) was accredited support from FINANCIARTE for its publication, along with the Faculty of Philosophy and Literature and the Regional History Information Centre of UANL, to value Sandra’s efforts to preserve our roots and acknowledge our past.

Sandra Arenal, a restless activist, participated in different non-governmental organisations and numerous congresses and symposiums, distinguishing those in which the main topic was child labour, such as the one that took place in Mexico in 1996: ‘Independent International Court against Child Labour’. Sandra did not only denounce abuses and injustices, but also tried to offer alternatives. This goal led her to found and coordinate the Committee for the defence of children’s rights in 1997, a non-governmental organisation that offered aid in cases of child abuse related to labour matters. Through said committee she raised many of her concerns in the form of proposals to Congress and others to focus on improving the working conditions of children.

Children and women were the central point of Sandra’s life and work, representing society’s most vulnerable groups. Mujeres de Tierra y Libertad (Women of Land and Liberty), published by CONARTE, presented the lives of the women who participated in the movement that gave housing and an identity to thousands of urban outcasts during the seventies.

Being a stubborn defender of gender equality, she coordinated the collective Mujeres en Acción (Women in Action), fighting for the defense of women’s rights through various publications.

In 1997 she ran as an independent candidate for a local council’s Labour Party. Although she was not elected, her fight for a more equal and fair world did not fade, and continued with the same momentum on various fronts. In 1999 she received recognition for her active social participation: ‘Mujeres: Equidad y Género 1999’ (Women: Justice and Gender). Sandra Arenal passed away on 19 March 2000 in the city of Monterrey.

In 2003 Seventieth State Congress of Nuevo León awarded her an In Memoriam for her outstanding trajectory as a Nuevo León woman, on the 50th anniversary of the women’s vote.

Comrade, wife, mother, activist, writer, ‘woman of a thousand battles’, as many have called her, lost her last one to a terrible illness. However, she won many more, giving voice to the weak and the oppressed, the voice of those who have no voice, to point the direction in building a new society.

Sandra Maldonado Arenal

Portrait of Sandra Arenal by Mariana Chiesa