By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
When we think of Mexico we often think of machismo. But in many rural parts of the southern state of Oaxaca, it is the women who rule the roost. In fact, there are many tasks that are solely within the purview of the female of the species. And if not 100% women’s work, they stand beside and not behind the men. Women’s equality and, in many instances, dominance is evident in the fields, kitchens, marketplaces, craft workshops, and even in production of Mexico’s iconic spirit, mezcal. Pregnancy, childbirth, weaning the flock, and physical strength, are only minimal barriers and in many cases not at all.
The corn-based food staples of tortillas, tamales and the highly nutritional drink tejate are all made exclusively by women. I’m not referring to machine-made tortillas or commercially produced tamales, but rather what one finds in the villages and urban markets. When have you ever seen a man pressing masa and then gingerly placing it on a wood-fueled clay comal to make a tortilla? Or gone into a villager’s home and witnessed tamal preparation involving men? Or in that same village seen males grinding corn, cacao and the rest on a metate for making tejate? And it is the women in tejate production who are kneading the dough mixture into water and serving it to market passersby. Furthermore, they take the finished foamy mixture into the fields to feed to their male workers (underlings) to keep them going since it’s loaded with carbs and vitamins, as well as protein and fat.
While men typically kill, skin and quarter sheep and goat for making barbacoa, it’s exclusively women who serve it, and in fact most other comidas in the markets. True enough men who have toiled in restaurants in the US then returned home are now receiving some attention based on their American-learned kitchen prowess; being at the helm of meal preparation is becoming more acceptable for them, but it’s certainly not the tradition, and change is slow in coming.
When it comes to turning pottery, while men do participate in the trade, somewhat, look at the predominant names in the Oaxacan ceramics industry – Doña Rosa of the famed black pottery in San Bartolo Coyotepec, and Angélica Vásquez, the late Dolores Porras and a few others from Santa María Atzompa. Visit the weekly markets in the central valleys of Oaxaca such as Ocotlán, Zaachila and Tlacolula, and you’ll see exclusively women sitting on the ground selling yet a different product; that is, their terra cotta pottery. For hundreds of years (in fact, longer based on recent archaeological evidence), women – to the complete exclusion of men – have been the ones excavating the hard clay from the mountainside, working it into buttery consistency at home with the addition of water, and then forming and firing pots, plates, comals and more recently decorative figures for sale.
Visit the cotton textile village of Santo Tomás Jalieza and you’ll see only women weaving table runners, placemats, purses and more on the pre-Hispanic backstrap loom, as tradition has dictated over a multitude of generations. It was only with the arrival of the Spanish that the modern pine loom arrived on the scene, and indigenous men began working them because of physical strength limitations of some women. In the rug village of Teotitlán del Valle, one sees mainly men working the larger looms (but still women and even children on the smaller ones), but in Santo Tomás Jalieza it’s still exclusively women who do the weaving.
The one craft item for which Oaxaca is almost universally famous and which brings significant revenue into the state, is the brilliantly painted hand-whittled wooden figure known as the alebrije. While alebrijes are normally carved by men, it is mainly the women (and again children) who are entrusted with the extremely detailed painting.
And even in production of the agave-based distillate, mezcal, women are equal to their male counterparts, and in some cases once again, the queens. Some women even defy apparent limitations of strength by harvesting the succulent out in the fields. And once back at the distillery they take no back seat to their husbands, brothers, fathers or grandfathers. They empty the oven of rocks, then load it with firewood, the rocks once again, the agave hearts and the rest; then after about five days empty everything from the in-ground depression. They work the horse crushing, pitch the mashed sweet baked bagazo into, and then out of vats once fermented, then fill the copper alembics. In at least one part of Oaxaca where crushed tree bark is added to the fermentation vats, it is exclusively the women who do the mashing with heavy wooden mallets.
In contemporary Oaxacan towns, villages, and even some suburbs of Oaxaca City, tequio, or the work of community service, is mandated. Each household is required to participate in administrative and cleaning tasks at churches, keep streets clear of encroaching grasses, mix cement for building community halls, and the list goes on. If a woman is head of a household during such a project, she attends to drop off sandwiches and/or soda, maintain a record of who is participating, etc.