Marriage Payments in Oaxaca: An Evolving Convention?

Screen Shot 2016-04-15 at 4.38.52 PMBy Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.

In the central valleys of Oaxaca the tradition of making marriage payments is waning or disappearing in some towns and villages, while in others it continues to thrive. Marriage payments are either brideprice or dowry. In most instances brideprice refers to the transfer of currency or non-monetary equivalent from the groom or his family to the bride’s family, while dowry is a transfer payment by the bride’s family to the wedded couple itself.

In the extremely traditional Teotitlán del Valle (the well-known Zapotec rug village), somewhat surprisingly payments upon marriage have virtually all but disappeared. On the other hand, in Atzompa (the green glazed pottery village) dowry is still the norm. Yet just over an hour’s drive away in San Marcos Tlapazola (the red clay pottery village) paying brideprice is the custom.

Each of these three locations is only a short drive from the city of Oaxaca and is representative of Zapotec tradition, yet in one instance marriage payments are a lost convention from the past, and in the other two, while they persist, from whom and to whom they are made are quite different. This is but one illustration how within one culture there can be different sub-cultural manifestations. Zapotec is one of 16 Oaxacan ethnolinguistic indigenous groups. It predominates throughout the state. But within it as with the rest, there are variations; in words and dialects, food preparation, dress, religious observances, and other practices including marriage payment customs.

I’ll use an example from the matrifocal agricultural community of San Marcos Tlapazola to show how wealth can be transferred and maintained upon marriage within the context of the payment of brideprice; and how a cultural transformation may be developing.

Most residents of San Marcos are to some extent involved in growing corn, beans, squash, alfalfa, garbanzos and / or agave used in mezcal production. Animal husbandry consists of raising mainly poultry for personal consumption; as well as turkeys, goats and sheep for a small commercial market. Superimposed on the foregoing are well-entrenched traditions of making terra cotta pottery, the pre-Hispanic drink tejate, and tortillas hand-made on a comal over an open flame, all sold in the nearby city of Tlacolula de Matamoros mainly at its vibrant Sunday marketplace.

While it is predominantly the men who tend animals and do the heavy agricultural labor, women are also integrally involved in such work. They also cook, clean and wash, taught from an early age, being groomed for marriage. Women also work the fields. Tradition dictates that upon marriage the wife moves into the homestead of the husband and his family.


Seventeen-year-old María del Carmen had been untested as a homemaker and agricultural worker. While of Oaxacan descent (her parents are from San Marcos), she was born and raised in northern California where her parents had been living for over 20 years. On a visit to San Marcos with her family she fell in love with 19-year-old Fernando, a farm laborer. His family had always been involved in the usual subsistence vocations of the village. María’s parents on the other hand, had “made it,” living the American Dream including owning their own home in California, while maintaining a sizeable homestead in San Marcos, for vacationing.

While arranged marriages are still commonplace in San Marcos Tlapazola, in the case of María and Fernando, it was pure love; the families of the couple had nothing to do with the introduction or courtship. But once the marriage was announced the families took over.

María’s parents demanded an exorbitant brideprice relative to the means of Fernando’s family. While the academic literature indicates that the amount of the marriage payment is not normally correlated with the wealth levels of the respective families, it does suggest that it is tied to the rights which the bride will be providing to the groom and his family – labor and reproductive capacity. There also tends to be a relationship between availability of prospective mates in the marketplace. But the case of María and Fernando at first blush appears anomalous.

María had not worked in the fields, cleaned house or learned to do other household chores, and didn’t even know how to make a tortilla or tamale. And while youth is related to fertility and childbirth capacity, Fernando had a plethora of other potential young brides from which to choose. As is the case in many towns and villages throughout Mexico, and especially in poorer states such as Oaxaca, there is a paucity of young adult males in the populace due to emigration to the United States. Arguably Fernando was a catch and could have had his choice of youthful, attractive, hardworking partners.

So why did it take a brideprice payment from Fernando’s humble family to María’s westernized parents of 24 turkeys, 12 cases of soda pop, 12 cases of beer, several sacks of corn, large wicker baskets loaded with loaves of bread, and an abundance of fresh herbs, after weeks of negotiations facilitated between village elders from each side, before the families proceeded with the nuptials?

An American citizen, María can not only travel at will between the United States and Mexico; she can elect to reside permanently in the US as she has for virtually all of her life, and sponsor her new husband. The prospect of a Mexican laborer being able to legally live and work north of the border may be worth many times what Fernando’s household paid to have María join the family fold, if only for a short while. Ah, perhaps it all now makes sense!

Alvin Starkman co-owns Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast and Oaxaca Culinary Tours. He also operates and takes visitors to Oaxaca into the hinterland to learn about the culture of mezcal and some pre-Hispanic beverages such as pulque and tejate.

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