Brideprice in a Zapotec Village: Evolving Economic Theory?

By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.

Twenty-six turkeys on the ground, their feet tied. Cases of beer and soda stacked behind along with the rest of the brideprice for Paola and Javier’s wedding. Everything is arranged in an orderly fashion, easy to count, then loaded onto a pick-up at the modest homestead of Javier’s family, just hours after the wedding ceremony. It’s all waiting to be driven to Paola’s parents’ expansive home located on a hill overlooking a cluster of residences, a church, and municipal offices in San Bartolomé Quialana, an ethnically Zapotec village of roughly 2,500 inhabitants, under an hour from the city of Oaxaca.

While the tradition of paying brideprice is waning in parts of Mexico, it continues in Quialana. Brideprice is the transfer of currency or non-monetary equivalent from the groom or his family to the bride’s family. However, the circumstances of the courtship and marriage of Paola and Javier challenge traditional theory concerning the relationship of brideprice to the bride’s service to the groom’s family, to reproduction, and to the economic marketplace – unless one considers that the bride is an American citizen, and a minor.

Virtually all family members in the agricultural community of Quialana are involved to some extent in growing crops. Animal husbandry consists of raising mainly poultry for personal consumption, as well as turkeys, goats, and sheep for a small local commercial market. Underpinning the foregoing are well-entrenched traditions of making terra cotta pottery, the pre-Hispanic drink tejate, and hand-made tortillas, all sold in nearby Tlacolula de Matamoros, noted for its vibrant Sunday market.

Quialana is a matrifocal village, with a conspicuous absence of males except for youth and the elderly. Because of an essentially subsistence economy, and the allure of the United States, emigration is common, especially for males in their teens and twenties.

Mainly men tend the goats and sheep, as well as do most heavy agricultural work such as plowing. But women keep the economy alive: planting, weeding, and harvesting; making tortillas and tejate; producing pottery including excavating the hard clay from the base of nearby foothills; and selling in marketplaces.

Women cook, clean, and wash. At a very young age they are taught to become efficient at household chores, being groomed for marriage in their teens. A young woman who has been taught well by her mother is highly marketable. Arranged marriages are still commonplace.

Marriage is extremely important. At a minimum, state sanctioned nuptials legitimize what would otherwise simply be child-bearing out of wedlock, accepted but not rejoiced. At times, a couple will marry with a small civic ceremony, deferring the Catholic mass followed by multi-day festivities until their families can afford the latter. If under 18 years old, the couple must submit parental consent to marry.

Monogamy is valued and practiced. While extra-marital liaisons are much more commonplace throughout Mexico than in the United States and Canada, and in fact wives often accept a husband’s infidelity, it is likely that in Quialana men remain more or less faithful. Separation and divorce are uncommon.
Paola is 17, born and raised in Texas. Her parents are from Quialana, although they moved to the United States 28 years ago, shortly after marrying. They have four children; married sons aged 29 and 23, and daughters 21 and 17.

Both parents completed public school in their village, with no further education. After leaving school they became campesinos (agricultural workers) until moving to the US, although the mother became a housewife prior to giving birth to her first child. They own both their Texas and their village homes.
The father is a construction worker in the United States, while the mother has been a homemaker throughout virtually all of the marriage. Depending on the length of the family’s visits to Oaxaca, the father may work in the fields.

Roughly every two years Paola had been traveling to Quialana with her parents to visit family. By the time she moved to Oaxaca she was close to completing grade 12, with teaching her career goal.

Javier is 20. Quialana is his life. He only infrequently travels to Oaxaca, and has never left the state. He dropped out of high school. He’s a campesino. He lives with his sister, who is 16 and in high school, and his mother and aunt who both work in the fields and make pottery and tejate which they sell in Tlacolula.

When Paola’s oldest brother married, her parents paid a brideprice. When her second brother married, they did not, because it was only a civil ceremony. Her brothers and sister live in Texas.

Paola and Javier became acquainted via the internet, then met face-to-face when she turned 15 and was visiting Quialana. They began dating. When she was visiting over Christmas, 2014, just after she had turned 17, they decided to marry the following autumn.

The courtship and marriage was not arranged. In fact, Paola’s parents were upset with the couple’s decision to marry because of Paola’s age. Initially they did not want to consent. Although the intricacies of how the ultimate brideprice was determined is uncertain because of different perceptions and versions of the two sides, the threat of withholding consent and returning Paola to Texas played a role – as did Paola’s status as an American citizen.

Paola initially objected to her parents receiving brideprice, and felt she was being purchased like chattel. She eventually realized that it’s tradition. She now understands that if the groom’s family does not pay a mutually agreed amount, Javier would not be perceived as a quality husband. Both families earn the respect of other villagers if an accord is reached.

According to Paola, Javier’s mother initially offered 15 turkeys. It is customary to also pay an equal number of cases of beer, plus corn and sometimes other foodstuffs of lesser value. Elder church members became involved in the negotiations, one representing each family. Paola believes that her parents initially rejected accepting anything, because of her wishes. Javier’s mother claims that the number of turkeys grew to 26, and that the number of cases of beer reduced to 10, plus 10 cases of soda. If the number of turkeys is too large, then the quantity of beer should be reduced. The final brideprice was 26 turkeys, 10 cases of beer, 10 cases of soda, a fixed number of sacks of corn kernels, and perishables including aromatic herbs.

If Paola’s parents were initially predisposed to not accept anything, how did matters progress to the point wherein they demanded at least 26 turkeys and the rest? According to Paola that was what her parents needed to fulfill their gifting obligations to members of their extended families. On the other hand, Paola states that it was her parents who gave the couple large appliances, a wardrobe and other valuable gifts, whereas friends and family gave only relatively inexpensive household items such as pots, pans, dishes and blenders.

Brideprice-paying societies have been associated with a strong female role in agriculture. Because at marriage a bride generally moves into the household of her groom, brideprice is typically considered the payment a husband (and his family) owes to a bride’s parents for the right to her labor and reproductive capabilities. Brideprice has usually been a rather uniform amount throughout a society, linked directly to the number of rights which are transferred and not to the wealth level of families. It has also tended to correlate with polygyny and with the possibility of divorce. However, Paola and Javier’s situation poses a problem within the context of this explanation.

Javier had many prospective brides from whom to choose, given a plethora of young women in Quialana and nearby villages who had been readied for marriage by their mothers, and the effective absence of competition for him given the paucity of eligible males. “Marriage squeeze” refers to an imbalance between the numbers of marriageable men and women. With such a pool of young women, why in this case do we not see no marriage payment at all, or the beginning of a change from brideprice to dowry?

Where there is greater competition by men for wives, a “marriage matching framework” may explain a transition from brideprice to dowry as societies grow more complex. The frequency and magnitude of brideprice should be greater when wives’ input into production (like agriculture) is high and in societies with a significant incidence of polygyny. On its face, the case of Paola, Javier and their families does not accord with this approach.

Quialana is monogamous, and even within the context of widespread adultery in Mexico, this village does not appear to fit the mold. Furthermore, Paola had not been groomed for the rural Oaxaca marriage marketplace. It was only after wedding and moving into Javier’s family’s home that she truly began to learn household chores, from Javier’s mother and aunt. Months after the move she had still not gone into the fields to assist in farming. Her value as a housewife and agricultural worker had been unknown and untested prior to marriage, as compared with other village teens. Townspeople talk, and they know. Paola’s value cannot be understood as commensurate with the household labor she would contribute to Javier’s household. And while a bride’s value is often tied to her capacity to bear children, in this case there had been no prior suggestion that the couple would try to start a family immediately after the wedding, nor any discussion in regard to the couple’s ultimate family size. On the contrary, Paola’s childhood in the United States suggests, despite class considerations, the likelihood of a small family.

The most dramatic changes to marriage payments within societies are the times when payments have increased substantially, particularly in the value of a dowry. As compared to dowry transfers, little evidence exists of brideprice escalation in historical or contemporary societies. If we accept academic conjecture that modernization plays a role in decline and disappearance of marriage payments, then what specifically about modernization does this?

In this case the relatively exorbitant brideprice ultimately received provides a glimpse into the importance of age and citizenship as determinants of quantum of marriage payments. Furthermore, if this theory is correct, one might witness dramatic cultural change in which these two factors, US citizenship in particular, have the potential to govern payments – not only the amount, but also to and from which family the funds flow. In Quialana, the possibility thus exists for the tables to turn, with young, rural Zapotec men who are American citizens returning home and their families demanding dowry payments from the bride’s family.

Within this context, the amount of brideprice is consistent with at least some aspects of contemporary economic theory. While dowries seem to comprise a substantially larger portion of household income than brideprice, the latter are nevertheless significant. They can represent a large financial burden for poorer households, having implications for the distribution of wealth across families and generations.
There appears to be a correlation between marriage payments and the ability of prospective immigrants to move legally to the United States. Assuming that inter-country migration is one concomitant of modernization, we may find that modern arrangements actually see an increase in marriage payments as opposed to their disappearance.

Paola and Javier’s case may also provide an answer to whether brideprice influences the welfare of women. Both sexually and in terms of labor, brideprice has long been linked to domestic violence, owing to women’s fear of returning to their natal home without being able to repay the brideprice. If Javier uses his marriage to Paola to migrate legally to the United States, and thereafter embarks upon a “path to citizenship,” Paola retains the upper hand, insofar as Javier would, pending citizenship, have to be on his best behavior for fear of being deported in the face of any alleged domestic abuse.

Quialana is monogamous, and even within the context of widespread adultery in Mexico, this village does not appear to fit the mold. Furthermore, Paola had not been groomed for the rural Oaxaca marriage marketplace. It was only after wedding and moving into Javier’s family’s home that she truly began to learn household chores, from Javier’s mother and aunt. Months after the move she had still not gone into the fields to assist in farming. Her value as a housewife and agricultural worker had been unknown and untested prior to marriage, as compared with other village teens. Townspeople talk, and they know. Paola’s value cannot be understood as commensurate with the household labor she would contribute to Javier’s household. And while a bride’s value is often tied to her capacity to bear children, in this case there had been no prior suggestion that the couple would try to start a family immediately after the wedding, nor any discussion in regard to the couple’s ultimate family size. On the contrary, Paola’s childhood in the United States suggests, despite class considerations, the likelihood of a small family.

The most dramatic changes to marriage payments within societies are the times when payments have increased substantially, particularly in the value of a dowry. As compared to dowry transfers, little evidence exists of brideprice escalation in historical or contemporary societies. If we accept academic conjecture that modernization plays a role in decline and disappearance of marriage payments, then what specifically about modernization does this?

In this case the relatively exorbitant brideprice ultimately received provides a glimpse into the importance of age and citizenship as determinants of quantum of marriage payments. Furthermore, if this theory is correct, one might witness dramatic cultural change in which these two factors, US citizenship in particular, have the potential to govern payments – not only the amount, but also to and from which family the funds flow. In Quialana, the possibility thus exists for the tables to turn, with young, rural Zapotec men who are American citizens returning home and their families demanding dowry payments from the bride’s family.

Within this context, the amount of brideprice is consistent with at least some aspects of contemporary economic theory. While dowries seem to comprise a substantially larger portion of household income than brideprice, the latter are nevertheless significant. They can represent a large financial burden for poorer households, having implications for the distribution of wealth across families and generations.
There appears to be a correlation between marriage payments and the ability of prospective immigrants to move legally to the United States. Assuming that inter-country migration is one concomitant of modernization, we may find that modern arrangements actually see an increase in marriage payments as opposed to their disappearance.

Paola and Javier’s case may also provide an answer to whether brideprice influences the welfare of women. Both sexually and in terms of labor, brideprice has long been linked to domestic violence, owing to women’s fear of returning to their natal home without being able to repay the brideprice. If Javier uses his marriage to Paola to migrate legally to the United States, and thereafter embarks upon a “path to citizenship,” Paola retains the upper hand, insofar as Javier would, pending citizenship, have to be on his best behavior for fear of being deported in the face of any alleged domestic abuse.

If we consider that legal residency in the United States would provide Javier with an enhanced opportunity to repay the brideprice to his family in Quialana, we can work towards determining the value the brideprice has represented. Otherwise, there is an extremely tenuous connection between the cost of the brideprice and the ability of Paola’s services to provide a net gain to Javier’s family over the ensuing years. However, one must also recognize that one theory links marriage payments to the rights of inheritance held by women, and to this extent the payment by Javier’s family might make economic sense, arguably at a more indirect level.

The suggestion that marriage payments are correlated to the number of rights, should perhaps be adjusted to the value of one or more rights. On the other hand, this case does support the contention that the wealth of families involved has little to do with the amount of the payment. Take the example of Mexicans intent upon migrating to the United States without papers. A coyote (human trafficker of sorts) charges his clients based on the value he attributes to that service. Charging brideprice, or dowry for that matter, in certain contexts is valued in a similar fashion. That is, these individuals charge a fixed fee to assist Mexicans to illegally cross the border without regard to their financial circumstances, just as parents of brides may attribute a value to the permission to marry their daughters without regard to the ability of the groom or his family to pay.

Most economic explanations for brideprice are based on notions of supply and demand in the marriage market. But many such elucidations are weakly convincing, and puzzles remain. Indian research has focused mainly on dowry and brideprice separately, ignoring the possibility of a “joint determination.” However one academic study analyzed dowry and brideprice as “interdependent institutions,” taking into consideration factors such as education, age, and distance of marriage migration.

The case of Paola and Javier illustrates the potential for developing a broader model for determining and evaluating similar factors at play regarding marriage payments in contemporary society where migration exists. This is not to totally discount Paola’s explanation that the lofty payment her parents received indicates that they respect and value Javier as a son-in-law.

The general application may be limited to contexts of high emigration, especially involving countries where citizens are able to sponsor a spouse for legal immigration. Age and other factors must also be considered. This approach leads us away from the static traditional notion of there being either brideprice or dowry. Driven by more modern considerations, payments might increase, decrease, or dissipate completely. In any event, thinking about Paola and Javier expands our understanding of the legal issue of “quantum meruit,” or the determination of how much something is worth.

This article has been adapted from an earlier academic paper by the author. Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).

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