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Mexico reality TV show seeks to spur social action

In a country battered by news of drug violence and corruption, a reality television series is aimed at creating hope and spurring Mexicans to join activists trying to make the nation a better place.
/ Source: The Associated Press

In a country battered by news of drug violence and corruption, a reality television series is aimed at creating hope and spurring Mexicans to join activists trying to make the nation a better place.

Don't expect fame-seeking singers or shrieking arguments in a house full of twentysomethings. "Iniciativa Mexico," or "Initiative Mexico," is more likely to show mothers taking to the streets to demand justice for their slain daughters or youths teaching residents of a poor Mexico City neighborhood how to take advantage of rain water.

The weekly program will feature drama-laden segments about the struggles of Mexico's poor, something rarely seen on Mexican television, where programming focuses mostly on soccer games and soap operas with Cinderella-like story lines.

Yet the program brings an American Idol-style glitz to social projects. The second season starts Sunday with 25 activists who will try to win the audience's support for a top prize of $2.5 million. Two or three will be voted off each week by viewers who can cast votes by text messages, phone calls or clicks on the show's website.

Norma Ledesma, part of the group Justice for Our Daughters in the border state of Chihuahua, said she entered because she wants to bring her support network to more victims of violence and teach Mexicans how to stand up for themselves.

"We want people to know their rights so they can feel empowered to demand authorities do their jobs and deliver justice," she said. "The government has to take responsibility. It hasn't because we are submissive and we keep silent, but we can change that."

Ledesma helped found the group that demands justice in the cases of murdered and disappeared women after her 16-year-old daughter went missing and later was found dead in 2002. The case remains unsolved.

Ledesma's initiative is one of 50 that were selected by the show's producers from more than 56,000 proposals submitted this year. She will find out if she is one of the 25 finalists in the show's opening episode Sunday.

The audience will see regular citizens, who despite the odds and sometimes dangers, fight to improve life in a country where half the people live in poverty and where drug violence has caused more than 35,000 deaths since 2006.

"It seems that the country is crumbling down, but it's not true. That's not all of Mexico," said the show's director, Tania Esparza. "There are people who are helping to keep this country's heart beating."

Last year, the program showed activists traveling to isolated villages to explain how to end malnutrition or disinfect water, or giving talks or their work against domestic violence.

Contestants will have to explain to the audience and a panel of judges that will include some of Mexico's top businessmen and intellectuals how they would use the prize money to expand their projects and reach the largest number of people possible.

They will also face challenges such as taking their programs to new communities and recruiting volunteers. The latter, especially, is a tall order in a country that doesn't have a culture of civic participation and volunteering.

"There are a lot of people with fear and frustration, but there are also people who don't give up," Esparza said. "We want the audience to see them and say: 'I, too, can be like him. I, too, can do something.'"

The show was created last year by Mexico's biggest television networks, Televisa and TV Azteca, and was backed by dozens of media groups that put competition aside as part of the celebrations to commemorate Mexico's 200 years of independence. It was so successful, with Mexicans submitting 47,000 projects, the producers decided to bring it back.

"Iniciativa Mexico" will be shown simultaneously on five national television channels each Sunday for 12 weeks.

The Mexican chapter of Ashoka, a U.S.-based charity that promotes social entrepreneurship, helped select 120 projects and a board of 14 influential Mexicans, including authors, journalists and the rectors of Mexico's top universities, chose the 25 finalists.

The 24 that don't win will also receive prizes, ranging from $1.2 million to $182,000. More importantly, the program will help promote their causes.

Raul Hernandez won last year for his Water Forever program, which has built hundreds of terraces and small dams and planted forests on mountains and hills of the semiarid Mixtec region in the states of Puebla and Oaxaca to help regenerate the river basins there.

He said that he and his wife, who began the project 31 years ago, have been contacted by thousands of people since he won asking to be taught how to repeat their work in their own villages and towns.

"We hear about the problems but we never hear about the solutions and that can be overwhelming," Hernandez said. "To discover there are many people doing valuable things all over the country was like getting a fresh, revitalizing rain."