ZOPOPE, MEXICO — In Mexico's Sierra Gorda, icy rivers cascade down the rugged mountains and torrential rains quench the dark, rich soil. But there's no more alcohol flowing down the throats of the farmers who populate these lush highlands.
Fed up with their men spending hard-earned pesos on moonshine, passing out in fields, or stumbling home drunk and abusive, Huasteca Indian women in this isolated part of central San Luis Potosi have said "no más."
With the help of local authorities, they enforced bans on the sale and consumption of alcohol in a dozen or so small communities. Authorities in Aquismon now confiscate bottles from men found carrying aguardiente, a cane-based liquor many poor Mexicans drink. They have shut down illegal factories that brew the hearty moonshine and conducted public burnings of illicit supplies.
"A lot of men are not happy with this," said Marcelina Martinez, from nearby San Rafael Tampaxal. "But, oh well. At least now they spend time with their families, so in the end things are better."
In a country known for tequila, fiestas, and boozy spring breaks, it would be a stretch to say that teetotaling is a growing trend. But the take-charge attitude by the Huasteca women is emblematic of a phenomenon that's transforming Mexico's Indian cultures, many of which are deeply patriarchal. Over the past decade, with ever-larger numbers of men migrating to the US looking for work, indigenous women have begun taking a larger role in local politics and making serious inroads in community decisionmaking.
As in some other Indian cultures here, women in the Huasteca are historically barred from owning land - unless widowed or orphaned - and rarely hold positions of power in local politics. Rather, as with many indigenous communities across southern and central Mexico, their townships are governed by all-male councils that adhere to tribal traditions. But anthropologists say that indigenous women have increasingly come to control the purse strings at home, assume new family and community roles, and thereby win a greater share of the power men traditionally monopolized.
"A lot of rules are changing because of the culture of migration," says Dr. Marylei Blackwell, an expert on the women's indigenous movement in Mexico at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. "We are seeing this across indigenous cultures."
Indigenous activists scour the country working with other, often isolated Indian communities, educating men and women in human rights, their privileges under Mexican law, and the opportunities they have to improve their economic situation. It's prompted Indian women in southern Veracruz to start a community investment network.
Meanwhile, in the highlands of southwest Oaxaca, women have been trained in small business initiatives such as chicken farming, creating compost, and selling basic groceries. The projects aim to help them achieve more economic independence. But along the way, organizers say, they learn managerial skills and get used to being in charge.
Indian women in Chiapas have come to insist that their communities' demands for self-rule, stemming from a 1994 uprising, include provisions that ensure more freedoms and rights for women. During the uprising, Mexicans were amazed to see indigenous women lined up in front of their homes, wielding sticks and stones to chase off the heavily armed soldiers.
"Aid programs to help the indigenous existed before, of course," says Martha Sanchez, who assists Indian women in communities in the states of Michoacan and Guerrero. "What we didn't see so much before was women taking on bigger roles within their communities."
There are high-profile examples, too, of these bigger roles, most notably President Vicente Fox's adviser for indigenous affairs, Xochitl Galvez, an Otomi from the state of Hidalgo.
"This trend is changing the political culture of the indigenous community and opening all sort of opportunities for women in other areas of social life," says Stefano Varese, professor of Native American Studies at the University of California, Davis.
Back in Huasteca, alcohol is still permitted, in limited quantities, during traditional planting festivals when aguardiente is poured into the ground as an offering to Mother Earth. It can also be served, they decreed, on Day of the Dead, when villagers remember the deceased, and during ceremonies to celebrate the community's patron saint.
"We don't want to stop these traditions and neither do the women," says Raul Hernandez, the alcohol inspector of Aquismon. "But if the cops catch a guy with more than 10 liters on a festival day, that guy's in trouble."
Aquismon authorities say a dozen other villages are considering prohibition, and that some have joined the ban after witnessing the harsh consequences of hard drinking.
Outraged villagers in Muhuatl, for example, swiftly banned alcohol last month after an intoxicated farmer bludgeoned his wife to death in a jealous rage. Huasteca women in San Rafael Tampaxal, their hair woven tightly with colorful yarn, took to chasing after the Corona truck whenever it pulled into town, shouting "Get out! Get out!" They forced the driver back down the winding alpine tracks before he could unload a single cerveza, much to the dismay of their husbands.
Though rising domestic violence is often cited as a reason for their crusade, Huasteca women, also known as Teneek in their native tongue, say their motives are mainly economic. In a region where most cultivate coffee and sugar on small plots, household incomes have plummeted with the prices of those commodities.
"Before my husband would spend the few pesos he earned on aguardiente," says Rosa Santiago. "And there would be nothing left for me and the kids. Now that's changed."
Some men grumble about the prohibition, or admit to sneaking the occasional tipple, but most say the decision was for the best.
"We used to sell beer here, and the prohibition has hurt our profits," says Gaudenzio Yanez, who runs the local grocery store in Zopope. "But since there's not much to do up here, a lot of guys were just drunk all the time. It was getting out of hand, and I have to say, the women were right."
• Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.