Mariana Rodríguez, a Mexican mega-influencer, lives a lot like a Kardashian, with a life filled with wealth, beauty, and privilege. She draws people from all walks of life into a world of fashion, luxurious holiday spots, and fitness routines while establishing herself as an alluring brand, garnering a following of 1.6 million on Instagram. Her fame led to one of her biggest successes, the creation of her own makeup line, which was quickly superseded by a much bigger project with considerably higher stakes: seeking to make her husband governor of Nuevo León, the prosperous northern state.
As Mexicans prepare to vote in their country’s largest midterm elections on Sunday, this 25-year-old influencer is proving just how powerful the use of social media has become as a political weapon. Rodríguez is campaigning for her husband, Samuel García, the 33-year-old former federal senator running as a candidate of the nontraditional Movimiento Ciudadano party. Through Instagram stories, TikTok videos, and any number of memes in which they star, this millennial duo could become the most significant (and improbable) counterweights to President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, his ruling MORENA party, and his national agenda.
The border state of Nuevo León, anchored by the industrial powerhouse of Monterrey, is the base of some of Mexico’s most important business conglomerates and is the third largest contributor to the country’s GDP, despite being home to only 4.3 percent of the population. It’s economically intertwined with neighboring Texas and has long prided itself on keeping its political and cultural distance from Mexico City.
At the outset of the race, García seemed a humorous asterisk. When Rodríguez first got involved in her husband’s campaign, he ranked at the bottom of the polls. He’s now catapulted into a strong lead, as Rodríguez’s presence became a national phenomenon due to her celebrity status and online irreverence.
One can’t think of Rodríguez without García and the other way around. But it’s likely that many of García’s sympathizers relate more with the influencer than with his proposals and politics. Rodríguez is both infamous and famous, and García has managed to make good use of both. Like the time Rodríguez became the subject of mockery after a video of the two went viral. García appears listing the towns on his campaign trail on Instagram Live when he suddenly turns to Rodríguez for her opinion. The influencer replies by asking viewers if they want to see her bright orange tennis shoes she calls “fosfo fosfo,” or fluorescent. Fosfo fosfo became a logo of García’s campaign, and she has since made a point of promoting endless orange-colored consumer merch to followers.
“More than campaigning, Rodríguez is approaching García’s candidacy like brand positioning,” says Pablo Rendón, a digital content creator with a large following on Twitter. The image of Rodríguez as a young, entrepreneurial woman who also happens to fit into the conventional beauty standards in Mexico—fair skinned, thin, and blond—resonates with the audience García wants to pull. Traditional Mexican culture also tends to turn wives into extensions of their husbands. In this way, Rodríguez rubs off her popularity on García and also introduces him to an audience he didn’t have access to before.
Rendón worries about the impact of exporting the culture of mining for “likes” into the political arena. In the case of García’s campaign, his wife sings in music videos that go viral. She takes pictures with cute puppies and fans, or perhaps García sympathizers, at his rallies and once uploaded pictures of herself standing beside a girl who threw a Rodríguez-themed birthday party with a piñata version of her. The couple even has a picture of them with a young girl who lost her hair due to chemo and who will receive Rodríguez’s hair donation for a wig.
“There’s a sense of banality in their content, which is not using the platform to communicate policy proposals but to generate content that is funny or just a fad,” Rendón says. Before her husband’s run for governor, Rodríguez released content that was more closely tied to her world. In one video, Rodríguez thanks her followers for being there for her when she faced obstacles in life, like the time she was at the beach and the waves took one of her chanclas (flip-flops), or when she dropped her iPhone. The video went viral and garnered mockery on social media with hashtags like #PrayForLasChanclas.
García is not the only Mexican politician to be married to a celebrity. The governor of Chiapas is married to soap opera star Anahí Puente, and the brother of famous singer Belinda is running for office as a representative in Mexico City. “This phenomenon also responds to a society that is more disenchanted with politicians and their old ways of doing politics,” says Rendón.
The image of the (often-male) politician in Mexico tends to be associated with thieves, liars, and corrupt individuals, says Alexis Calderon, a political scientist who is herself running for City Council in the municipality of Zapopan in the state of Jalisco. Mexicans’ perception of corruption’s prevalence in their country is high. At a national level, 49 percent of the population believes corruption is “very frequent” according to a study by Mexicanos Contra la Corrupción, a Mexican nonprofit that investigates corruption within the public and private sectors. Globally, Mexico has the worst ranking of OECD member countries in the corruption index by Transparency International, a nongovernmental organization that measures corruption across the world. Just in the run-up to this election, at least 34 candidates have been murdered since the campaigns began in April, an example of the impunity with which violence is perpetrated in Mexico. “The politician transforms all the negative adjectives attached to him through the good public opinion of the women that stand next to them,” says Calderon.
Before the rise of social media, politicians married actresses instead of influencers. Former President Enrique Peña Nieto married telenovela superstar Angélica Rivera, popularly known by the name of one of her characters, “La Gaviota.” Their marriage only lasted Peña Nieto’s term in office, and her role in his campaign has been compared to what Rodríguez is doing today to García’s image.
But the making of the Rodríguez-García power couple has had its rough moments as well. Prior to his candidacy for governor, when he was a senator, García was caught ordering Rodríguez to shift the position of her cellphone camera because she was showing “too much skin” during an Instagram Live. “I married you for me, not for you to show off [your legs],” he tells her, and Rodríguez apologizes. Their interaction sparked criticism of García as misogynist, and women responded to the controversy by tweeting pictures of their uncovered legs with the hashtag #YoEnseñoLoQueQuiera (I show whatever I want). Their wedding at the onset of the pandemic, when strict social distancing measures were implemented and religious services were suspended, also sparked criticism.
“Mexican society is not politicized but is still very much part of a culture of entertainment,” says Calderon. She adds that the draw that a couple like Rodríguez and García has rests on putting someone famous and previously unattainable within reach. When Rodríguez is out with García in the streets and at traffic lights plastering stickers on windshields, it creates empathy. But Calderon also worries about the use of influencer culture in politics. “There are different ways to call upon your electoral base, but it matters how you do it,” she says. “Are you calling for an informed vote or asking people to vote like if it were the Oscars?”
García’s sharp rise in the polls can’t be attributed solely to Rodríguez’s marketing savvy. Two of the key contestants suffered major slip-ups that affected their popularity and credibility. Opponents to Clara Luz Flores, the candidate of the president’s ruling party, MORENA, released a video of her meeting with the leader of the cult NXIVM, Keith Raniere, sentenced for sex trafficking and other crimes. Flores had previously denied any links with Raniere, so the emergence of the video hurt her in the polls, while boosting García. Another candidate, Fernando Larrazábal of the conservative PAN, has been surrounded by accusations of corruption for many years. All of this has left García at the front of the race, followed closely by Adrián de la Garza, the candidate of Mexico’s most traditional of all parties, the PRI.
García’s opponents have called foul on his wife influencer–powered campaign, complaining to the independent National Electoral Institute, or INE, that it violates campaign finance laws and regulations. In response, the INE called on Rodríguez to stop giving shoutouts to businesses that support García. Opposing political parties argued that Rodríguez’s actions should be included as campaign expenses. García responded that Rodríguez’s accounts are private, and that she has the same freedom of expression every other Mexican has to weigh in on the election as she pleases. The García-Rodríguez duo is thus creating a conversation on how electoral laws need to adapt to new technologies in order to better regulate politicians on the campaign trail.
Separately, in what was widely denounced as an improper presidential intrusion into the election, President López Obrador encouraged the federal attorney general’s office at one of his daily press conferences to open investigations into the campaigns of Nuevo León’s two leading gubernatorial candidates. The president, still riding high in the polls himself as he reaches the midpoint of his six-year term, should see his party win a solid majority of the 15 gubernatorial races on Sunday, but he seems particularly upset by MORENA’s reversal of fortunes in Nuevo León, a state he instinctively mistrusts. The fear now is that the pre-electoral allegations and investigations may be laying the groundwork to contest Sunday’s results.
The vote and its aftermath will therefore provide a fascinating clash of cutting-edge social media politics and traditional power politics, and a barometer on the effectiveness of social media influencing to change politics.
For her part, in response to opposing candidates’ complaints about her use of social media to campaign for her husband, the influencer went to Instagram to argue that she is not a “thing” with a “price tag” that needs to be added to García’s campaign expenses. “I am a human being that has made it on her own, who has feelings, who thinks and most importantly, who chooses for herself,” Rodríguez says in the video, which garnered more than 1 million views. She then goes on to talk about García’s candidacy and to rally their base.
“We love you. Thank you for your support,” she signs off.