In the steamy lowlands of the Isthmus of tehuantepec, women's rights is a concept as deeply rooted as the region's ancient Zapotec Indian culture. In a nation known for machismo, this area southeast of Mexico City is an anachronism. Women in Tehuantepec run the market, buy and sell land, and celebrate their status at 13 annual fiestas.
"The women wear the pants here," says Edith Hernandez, a university student studying social work in Veracruz. "The woman runs the house. We tell the men what to do because we do the work." Men do work the rich tropical fruit and vegetable fields six months a year near this town of 35,000 below the towering Sierra Madre. Between seasons they have time to take long siestas at home and do housework. Others work as potters and masons.
The men turn over their produce to their wives, and the women run the stalls in the town market, which is a virtual sanctuary of the handsome Indian women.
Crouched behind heaps of ripe tomatoes, avocados, and onions, Ermelinda Cartas de Valdivieso rhythmically swings a stick tied with ribbons to swat away the flies that swarm along the two-story marketplace in the central plaza. She wears a blouse and long skirt typical of the market women. Her language is a mix of Spanish and Zapotec. Flame-red ribbons are braided in her two ponytails; they match the stripes and dots on her traditional clothing.
"The women are the organization so the family can eat," she says. "The man works the field, so the women can sell in the market. With the money, the woman can buy more land so the man can grow more. That's the way it has always been here." Even before the arrival of the conquistadors, the Zapotec home was dominated by the woman. She was said to be bigger and stronger than the man. The mixing of spanish and Indian blood seems to have equalized the relative size of the sexes.
The honored position of women in Tehuantepec takes ritual form at regular fiestas in the town's barrios. The elderly women of the town open the five-day Virgin de Asuncion festival in the courtyard of the Santa Maria Church, shuffling from side to side in each other's arms as the men look on. After the all-male band plays its song, the women hug each other warmly and take their seats to fix the orchids and balloons tied to their braided hair.
The men do not dare take the seats of the dancers. One who tries is shooed away.
Toward the end of the evening, young men and women in Western dress join in the ritual "Belorio" dance, signaling that modern ways are slowly diluting the ancestral traditions.
Both the modern women and the traditional women of tehuantepec are honored. Statues of women are unheard of in most Mexican towns. But across from the market in tehuantepec stands a statue of Juana C. Romero, a teacher who dedicated herself to the education of Indians in the early decades of the century.
The mayor of the Tehuantepec, Francisco Grajeda, is a man. But even he is not known for his machismo. "The major always says 'manana' so he can consult with his wife," said Edith Hernandez. And two of the mayor's key advisers are women.