Interview with a Tehuana

Screen Shot 2018-03-01 at 7.26.27 PMBy Brooke Gazer

The Isthmus of Tehuantepec is the narrowest point in Mexico, but its people may have the broadest minds on the entire continent. Recently, I was privileged to speak with the owner of Bidaani, a shop on Calle Palo Verde. Señora Maria de Lourdes Cristóbal Lopez is from Juchitán and she specializes in dresses typical of the region. When I commented that the Tehuana costume is the most elaborate in Mexico, she agreed. “Tehuantepec women are specialists in embroidery and take exceptional pride in their work.” Living in Huatulco, one hears different versions about this matriarchal society two hours south of Huatulco. Lourdes dispelled a few of the myths, painting a softer version compared to the stereotype of strong, overpowering women who control their husbands.

Lourdes explained that in Juchitán, women are considered equal to men, but they don’t necessarily dominate. “It’s a partnership although it is usually the wife who initiates a discussion about something important, like an addition to the house or a major purchase. Both the husband and wife work hard. Men do manual labor while women run the home and commerce.” She described a lovely ritual that occurs during the wedding ceremony. “The bride cups her hands in front of her chest while the groom pours coins into them. This symbolizes that he will always provide for her and her children, and he gives her control of the family finances.”

Talk of weddings initiated a discussion about the elaborate gold jewelry worn by Tehuanas. Earrings, bracelets and necklaces dangling a multitude of gold coins are called lluvias de Monedas, or ‘rains of coins’. An authentic gold set, which might be valued at up to ten thousand American dollars, is an integral part of an Istmo wedding. Before the ceremony, the bride’s mother gives a set to her daughter and the daughter presents it to her new mother-in-law. Based on this, Lourdes admitted that while daughters are wonderful, it is financially easier to have sons. She has three sons, and has received one from both of her daughters-in-law.

The Señora became a bit emotional however, as she explained that most women currently wear what she referred to as “fantasy coins”, and she showed me a sample of earrings that she sells for $250 MEX. Pure gold coins are a show of wealth and Tehuanas love to flaunt them at fiestas and other formal occasions. But this is also a woman’s security. In times of need, these are transformed into cash, and months after September’s tragic earthquake, the lluvias de monedas worn in Juchitan might glitter, but they are no longer made of gold.

When I asked her about the earthquake, the Señora smiled wistfully. “Many people lost their homes, their businesses, and all their possessions, but these are material things. What is important is that we have our lives, we still have our health, and we have food.”

Lourdes appeared pragmatic about the repercussions of September’s earthquake. “The government gave those who lost everything about $12,000 MEX, only enough to buy cement to begin a foundation for one or two rooms. A foundation but no walls, no roof. For now, people must make do with lamina (often corrugated sheet steel) or perhaps a roll of plastic. Many families are still living in the Zócalo (main square), they have nothing. Certainly we could use more help, but we are a strong people and we will survive this.”

I couldn’t resist asking about Juchitán’s unique custom of muxes (see The Eye, February 2015, for more about muxes). Men who dress as women seem to be accepted within the community. It has been rumored that families without a daughter may even encourage one son to become a girl, but Lourdes refuted this. “I have three sons and no girls but none of my sons are muxes. This is a boy’s personal choice and most mothers are saddened when their son makes this decision. It means they will never give them grandchildren. We accept what is cannot be altered. It is understood that some boys prefer feminine things. This can be seen in how they play as children but the decision to become a muxe is not made until after puberty, possibly at sixteen or twenty.”

Long ago the people in Juchitán adopted a progressive way of thinking that is still evolving within the first world. Women are not only respected but play an equal role in family and community decisions. They are more philosophical, and accept whatever comes along, be it a gay son or a natural disaster. They have learned to weather storms.

Brooke Gazer operates Agua Azul la Villa, an oceanview B&B in Huatulco:

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