Tehuana Power

Screen Shot 2015-11-02 at 1.58.46 PMBy Deborah Van Hoewyk

What Frida Wore: Tehuanas in Charge?

Women. Mexico. Mexican women. What do you see? Maybe Frida Kahlo comes first to mind, maybe just something fuzzy that is not Mexican machismo. Despite the 2006 passage by the Mexican parliament of the General Act on Equality between Women and Men, which has heralded considerable improvement in male-female equality, genuine gender equity still has a way to go in Mexico.

According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2012 put out by the World Economic Forum, Mexico ranks 84th (out of 135 countries) in gender equity (Canada ranks 21st and the United States 22nd); 84th place may not sound great, but it’s improving—Mexico ranked 93rd in 2007.

Mexico’s standing on gender equity, however, is largely driven by a first-place score on the “health and survival” subindex (that is, women are healthier than men in Mexico). First place on “health and survival” comes from a slightly higher birth rate for women (over 50% of Mexican babies are girls), and longer life expectancy for women. The report suggests that the high number of male deaths from drugs and violence makes female life expectancy relatively long, even though Mexican women are subject to an extraordinary level of violence themselves—see box on page 00.

The gender equity subindexes related to women’s power and impact in comparison with men’s are a mixed bag. Mexico has strong showings in political empowerment (# 48—in 2012, women won a third of the seats in Parliament), is just about average in educational attainment (# 69), but well below average on economic participation and opportunity (#113)—overall, Mexican women earn only 45% of what men do when they are doing similar work.

Screen Shot 2015-11-02 at 1.58.57 PMLas Tehuanas—Economic Empowerment at Work?

The Tehuanas of Oaxaca’s Isthmus, predominantly Zapotecan, are supposed to contradict this mediocre performance. And who might the Tehuanas be? Frida Kahlo should certainly come to mind now—although she was born in Mexico City, it was Kahlo who turned the traditional costume of isthmus women into a symbol of female strength and self-possession. (The term is often used to cover the whole of the isthmus, as we are using it here, but properly speaking, the Tehuanas come from Santo Domingo Tehuantepec and “Tecas” come from Juchitán de Zaragoza; the communities differ artistically and politically.)

She may have worn it because husband Diego Rivera liked to see her in traditional Mexican costume, she may have worn it to cover the physical defects caused by early polio and a street car accident in her late teens, and she may have worn it because her grandmother was a Tehuana. She also wore ethnic clothing from other regions of Mexico. Nonetheless, when Frieda Kahlo wore the Tehuana costume, she managed to draw a contrast between European frilliness and indigenous toughness in what may be the original “the personal is the political” statement.

The basic elements of Tehuana costume are a square-cut top (huipil) and full skirt, frequently seen in casual versions in the streets of La Crucecita in Huatulco. The full-dress version starts with a brilliantly embroidered velvet huipil, which can take a year to make if it’s hand-embroidered, and velvet skirt, plain or figured, over starched lace petticoats, accompanied by a stiff lace headdress. A fully-dressed Tehuana sports gold jewelry in large quantities.

People in the isthmus and of isthmus origin will wear these costumes for important family occasions, and Tehuana apparel is available for purchase (muy caro because of the workmanship, even when it’s machine-embroidered) or rental throughout the region. Public display of Tehuana costume is most frequent at “velas” (literally candles), or church festivals, held throughout the calendar in each of the 15 barrios of Tehuantepec; the grandest of these is the Vela Sandunga held in the last week of May.

Other velas are held throughout the isthmus, especially in Juchitán de Zaragoza, and, to a lesser extent, across Oaxaca. Tehuana and Teca costumes and dancing are featured in Guelaguetza celebrations, including the multi-location festival in Oaxaca in July. Huatulco is host to its own vela, La Vela Xanaxi, led by Tehuana Magdalina Mendez Diaz who operates the Martha Jery Panaderia; it is held in mid-Spring (see Brooke Gazer’s article in The Eye “Tehuana Celebrations,” April 2012).

Surface or Substance?

The popular view of Tehuanas is that, beyond the glories of their costume, their beauty, and their stupendous dancing, they lead a matriarchal society. They hold the power of the purse by running the markets and making family financial decisions; in the market, women were supposed to have taunted and belittled men who dared enter the space. In Juchitán, the strong image of the Teca is said to contribute to the general social acceptance of muxes, a male spectrum that runs from cross-dressing to transgendered: after all, who wouldn’t want to be a woman? (See Julie Etra’s article on the muxes in the February 2014 edition of The Eye.)

And the strong Tehuana was “image at first sight”; with the first foreign arrival, regrettably the conqueror Hernán Cortés, the Tehuana became what anthropologists and travel researchers might call an “exotic other.” Cortés took a “beautiful and well-favoured” mistress, La Malinche or Doña Marina, who collaborated with him in the Spanish conquest.

Work in the 19th century on a cross-isthmus railway brought a plethora of visitors. In his 1852 regional survey to assist in railway construction, John Jay Williams found most of the isthmus groups “coarse and vulgar,” not to mention “deplorably ignorant” with a “vague and indefinite” notion of the deity, but an “inordinate love of liquor.” The Zapotecs, on the other hand, were “incomparably superior,” and the women of the isthmus were “delicately made, mercurial, voluptuous, and full of vivacity. They are particularly remarkable for the exquisite grace of their carriage, the winning softness of their manner of expression, and their love of gay costumes.” (He deemed the Indians of Juchitan “superior in every respect,” but “in disposition less docile.”)

To a Europe that had moved on from its concern with the United States and Canada, the tropics that started on the Mexican Gulf Coast were immensely attractive, and the women of the Isthmus seemed to be the most attractive aspect of those tropics. Tehuanas not only ran the market and asserted a vibrant presence in public spaces, they tended to bathe in public view, often half dressed. They were taller than the reserved women of the Mexican highlands, often balancing laden baskets, pots, or gourds on their heads. In 1828, Claudio Linati, an Italian lithographer who spent a number of years in Vera Cruz and the Isthmus observing, depicting, and writing about Mexico, described the Tehuana woman as tall and slender with “elegant contours.” He noted “the brightness of her dark eyes, arched eyebrows that join on the forehead” and published an illustration that emphasized what he called the human instinct of “coquetry in women.” The Tehuana does wear a tight, calf-length skirt, but her “deftly placed” veil/shawl is transparent and she has nothing on underneath. Linati concludes the “slanders” that Tehuana women were insolent sexual libertines were only to be expected.

The image of Tehuanas as having political clout comes almost entirely from Juana Catalina Romero (1837 – 1915), mistress to Porfirio Diaz’s brother Felix. As governor of Oaxaca (1867 – 71), Felix found the Isthmus impossible to govern, and used Cata Romero as an informant to keep the rebelliousness down to a dull roar. She exploited her image as a hard-drinking matriarch, hung out in the pool halls of Tehuantepec, and became the great Zapotec cacique of the Isthmus.

In the early 20th century, Tehuanas and the Isthmus represented something close to Gauguin’s Tahiti, overblown with gorgeous tropical vegetation and women alike, a rampant, erotic contrast to the Mexican Revolution and early struggles to urbanize and modernize the country. It was here that a particular indigenous identity resisted even the slightest government attempt at repression or homogenization into the new common national identity, while adopting and adapting any outside influences into a more accessible, energetic “Indianness” unique to Oaxacan culture.

Since this identity was communicated primarily with the brilliant colors and flash of clothing and jewelry, it was associated with women—liberated women. And they fit right in with the post-Revolutionary traditions of freedom, democracy, and apparent reverence for pre-Columbian culture. Tehuanas provided the symbolic visual content for artists and photographers, from muralist Diego Rivera and painter/author Miguel Covarrubias to photographers Tina Modotti, Graciela Iturbide, and Manuel Álvarez Bravo.

And, of course, Frida Kahlo, in both her paintings and her dress. Dressing “a la tehuana” highlighted her Mexican identity and made a feminist statement simultaneously; the cultural history of the Isthmus provided mystical, mythological content for her paintings. In 1937, as a sign of her arrival, the Tehuana was featured on the 10 peso bill—granted, all you see is woman with a virginal starched lace ruff around her face, but there she was.

Today’s Tehuanas: political clout no better than average

Tehuanas do indeed rule the public markets in the Isthmus, perhaps even more in Juchitán than in Tehuantepec, and perhaps even the private purse at home. But their political power is no greater than average, if not a little less. Neither Tehuantepec nor Juchitán list their councilors by name, but photographs of 2014 cabildo meetings in Tehuantepec show women as less than a third of them, i.e., less than the national Parliament. (In Santa María Huatulco, 3 out of 11 councilors are women, about 28%.)

For Mexico, this is not good enough. In February 2014, Parliament amended the Constitution to address gender parity in elections. Political parties are required to have 40% women candidates on their local and national election slates. The actual legislation is way more complicated, but it closed a loophole that allowed parties to use primaries to limit the number of women. The law still only provides a quota for women candidates, not the actual elected outcomes.

True progress won’t come from Tehuana costumes or aggressive marketing styles. It will come from the women who hold that third of the seats in Parliament, and their current efforts to coordinate and support a focus on gender equity.

When Kahlo died, Rivera had her private rooms locked up for fear that her belongings would be mishandled or destroyed. Now those rooms in the Casa Azul (better known as the Museo Frida Kahlo, sometimes called the Blue House, http://www.museofridakahlo.org.mx)—and Kahlo’s closets—have been opened and the contents put on display in Las apariencias engañan: los vestidos de Frida Kahlo (Appearances Can Be Deceiving: The Dresses of Frida Kahlo), a collaboration between the museum and Vogue Mexico. The exhibit opened on November 30, 2012, and will run through May 31, 2015; the clothing is rotated every four months. See also, Self-Portrait in a Velvet Dress: Frida’s Wardrobe, Fashion from the Museo Frida Kahlo, edited by Denise Rosensweig and Madgalena Rosensweig (San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books, 2008), which covers the costume in detail, including the differences between Tehuana and Teca dress.

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