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Mexican women say 'no más' to booze

By Gretchen PetersSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / March 31, 2003


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.

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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.