Michelle Obama: Leaders can come from unlikely places

McClatchy NewspapersApril 14, 2010 

MEXICO CITY — Michelle Obama, in her first solo foray abroad as first lady, said Wednesday that it's time to break down barriers for disadvantaged youth and abandon "wrong and outdated ideas" about who's worthy of becoming a leader.

She described herself and President Barack Obama as examples of leaders emerging from "unlikely places."

On the second day of a three-day trip that took her to earthquake-devastated Haiti and on to Mexico, the first lady admired a huge Aztec stone wheel in a museum, played with underprivileged school children and practiced her Spanish.

"From the moment I arrived, I felt like I was entre amigos" — among friends, Obama told hundreds of students gathered at one of Mexico's most elite universities, the Iberoamericana.

In a talk that focused on the burgeoning global youth population, she exhorted the students to examine their privileged status.

"Those of you who already have a seat at the table must do your part to make room for others who don't," she said.

The world must confront assumptions, she said, "that only certain young people deserve to be educated, that girls aren't as capable as boys, that some young people are less worthy of opportunities because of their religion or disability or ethnicity or socioeconomic class."

The first lady seemed to revel in the international spotlight on the solo trip, speaking with passion and changing into a different colorful dress at mid-day.

The morning began with a 45-minute meeting with her Mexican counterpart, Margarita Zavala, at the Los Pinos presidential compound in Chapultepec Park. The two touched on drug treatment, a sensitive topic in a nation reeling from a war among narcotics cartels, a White House statement said.

A battle between rival drug cartels in Mexico has left some 22,700 people dead since late 2006, and drug-related violence along the border increasingly is hitting U.S. targets.

Gunmen killed three people linked to the U.S. consulate in Ciudad Juarez last month. On April 9, someone tossed a hand grenade into the U.S. consulate in Nuevo Laredo, shattering windows.

Afterward, the two first ladies sped in a convoy to the Museum of Anthropology to view Mayan and Aztec artifacts, and listened to a choir and youth orchestra. Then they went to a primary school, Siete de Enero, that serves disadvantaged children.

Despite her largely nonpolitical agenda, one expert said the first lady's trip would bolster relations with Mexico and the rest of Latin America.

"President Obama's got such a full plate, and Mexico is probably not even in his top 10 priorities," said Robert P. Watson, a scholar and editor of several books on first ladies. Michelle Obama's trip, he added, "reassures Mexico and Latin America that we haven't forgotten them."

Jill Biden, the vice president's wife, accompanied the first lady, and Watson said that was notable since many "presidents and VPs in history were anything but close friends, and the same can be said for many first ladies and VP wives."

Obama also conducted a series of one-on-one interviews with Mexican media, which provided intense coverage of her visit.

Some of the focus was on the sartorial aspects of what the El Universal newspaper labeled the "first lady of fashion." On her arrival Tuesday night, Michelle Obama wore a sleeveless floral dress, perhaps a faux pas in a high altitude city where women rarely go sleeveless.

The U.S. press corps also focused on her attire. A White House pool report noted that in the morning Obama wore "a purple and yellow print wrap dress (Diane von Furstenberg, maybe)." A later report confirmed the designer.

The first lady, who like her husband has a Harvard law degree, may be reining in a desire to step into policy matters, Watson said, but in her first year has stuck to "safe issues," such as childhood obesity, the welfare of military families, exercise, and organic gardening projects in conjunction with elementary schools.

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