Category Archives: 2021

Editor’s Letter

By Jane Bauer

Women belong in all places where decisions are being made. … It shouldn’t be that women are the exception.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg

How relevant is the feminist movement today and how pervasive is gender inequality?

I have found myself trying to answer this question often in the past few years. While I was growing up there was a certain amount of what became termed victimization attached to the feminist voice as statistics of domestic abuse and sexual harassment were recounted. I recall the ‘walksafe’ program at my university that it was expected women would call if they needed to walk after dark. And if you didn’t call and something happened, well, then you were to blame. However, the world is also a dangerous place for men and if we relied on data we would see that many men also face harassment and violence. More men than women go to war or join law enforcement or go to prison.

Women hold more political and economic power than in the past – not all over the globe, but in many developed countries. It has been suggested to me in social situations that gender inequality is hardly a main global concern. And yet I still believe it is. I believe it because of the women I know in rural Mexico who struggle to go to school. I believe it when I browse the internet and see women’s bodies sexualized in advertising and popular cultural.

Is all fear and danger equal? I recently read a wonderful short story called “The Wind” by Lauren Groff about a woman running away from her abusive police officer husband. The narrator is the daughter of one of the children and the final paragraph was so moving and poignant that I cried because I recognized this fear that I had been unable to put into words.

“The three children survived. Eventually they would save themselves, struggling into lives and loves far from this place and this moment, each finding a kind of safe harbor, jobs and people and houses empty of violence. But always inside my mother there would blow a silent wind, a wind that died and gusted again, raging throughout her life, touching every moment she lived after this one. She tried her best, but she couldn’t help filling me with this same wind. It seeped into me through her blood, through every bite of food she made for me, through every night she waited, shaking with fear, for me to come home by curfew, through every scolding, everything she forbade me to say or think or do or be, through all the ways she taught me how to move as a woman in the world. She was far from being the first to find it blowing through her, and of course I will not be the last. I look around and can see it in so many other women, passed down from a time beyond history, this wind that is dark and ceaseless and raging within.”

So let us not compare our heartaches and tragedies, gender inequality isn’t a men vs. women debate. It is about making the world a place where all of us can feel free. Until the wind that Groff writes about is a thing of distant memory, the feminist movement will be relevant.

See you next month,

Jane

Women and Water

By Brooke Gazer

From the comfort of Huatulco’s first-world development, it is hard to imagine that there are places in the state without access to water. But this is not an uncommon problem – over a third of Mexican households lack potable water, 2 million households have no water at all, and over 10 million receive water only every few days. Often the lack of water has “deep roots,” going back to land disputes that can go back to Spanish rule. For many communities throughout the Oaxacan Sierra, water is an all-consuming daily concern.

One of these communities is San Pedro y San Pablo Ayutla Mixe, a town located about 123 kilometers (75 miles) east of Oaxaca City, with over five thousand residents (2010 census); about 87% of the residents live in poverty.

You might wonder why a town would develop without a viable score of water? The answer is that it did not. Originally the residents drew water from pipes connected to a natural spring, but rural Oaxaca is rife with complicated land and water disputes. The one between Ayutla and Tamazulapám del Espíritu Santo is only one of three hundred in the state. When this dispute reached a violent climax in 2017, Ayutla lost access to the spring they relied on. Hauling water is currently the only alternative the residents have to survive.

For families in the Sierra, roles are clearly defined. Men labor in their fields, or travel away from home to take jobs on construction sites. Providing water for the family is women’s work. To meet the minimum needs of her family, each woman hauls an average of ten buckets per day. Ten buckets. If the bucket held eight liters (a little more than two gallons) it would weigh over 17 pounds. This would mean five grueling trips, carrying two buckets weighing roughly 35 pounds per trip.

The well is located 40 minutes into the forest, but the difficulty is not just the distance. It is downhill to the well. On their return, these women must carry their burden uphill, possibly on their shoulder or with a rope around their forehead. It is likely some can only carry one, which might mean ten trips, or smaller buckets. Half of a women’s day may be consumed just hauling water.

Ten buckets of eight liters would provide her family with 80 liters per day, less if the buckets are smaller. With care, she could boil black beans, prepare dough for corn tortillas, wash dishes and clothing and reuse wash water for bathing. To put this into perspective, in Mexico City, the average daily water consumption per person is 150 liters.

Life has always been hard for rural women in the selva (forest). This backbreaking chore is over and above her normal household duties, which are all performed without electricity or any modern conveniences. But for the past year, the coronavirus pandemic has placed an added burden to her nearly impossible routine. Extra water is required as everyone must wash their hands more frequently and to wipe and disinfect high-touched surfaces. This requires additional arduous trips to the well each day.

It has been over four years since this community was denied access to the spring that brought water into the town. Even understanding that this is a poor community with limited resources, one might still ask – was there no way to install a pump and a pipe from the current water supply? There may be two possible answers to this question. One might revolve around precarious land and water claims, preventing the town from installing any infrastructure surrounding the water source. The other could be that in these communities, men make the decisions regarding how resources are used … and it is women who haul the water.

Brooke Gazer operates Agua Azul la Villa, an oceanview B&B in Huatulco (www.bbaguaazul.com).

Malinche and the Spanish Conquest of Mexico

By Randy Jackson

Up until 500 years ago, the civilizations of Mesoamerica and Europe had been unknown to each other, completely unconnected since the beginnings of human history. But on November 8, 1519, representatives of these two vastly different civilizations met face to face for the first time. They met on a causeway of the splendorous city of Tenochtitlán (now Mexico City).

There now exist many imagined illustrations of this historical event. Any such illustration is without merit unless it shows one of the most important people at that moment. The one person who could enable the representatives of these two civilizations to communicate. That person was a woman known as Malinche. She was the one person on earth who could speak both the language of the Aztec emperor Moctezuma, and the European language of the upstart conqueror Cortés.

Moctezuma and members of his court would have referred to this woman as Malintzin, as ‘tzin’ in Nahuatl denotes honour to the person. Malintzin / Malinche (Doña María to the Spanish) was more than a mere translator. She was from a family of high social standing. She was educated, she was trained in negotiation, and she had a tremendous ability to speak and learn new languages. And in a stroke of bizarre good luck for the Conquistadors, Malinche was a slave to the Mayan peoples when Cortés landed in what is now Mexico.

As Cortés approached the Caribbean coast of Mexico, he presumed he was arriving at a large island like Cuba. He was expecting the peoples of this land to be similar to those of Cuba and Dominica. He could not have imagined a land with a flourishing civilization, with roads and cities, with markets and armies, with engineers and tax collectors. Cortés, without any information about this society and its structures, might not have succeeded in his base desires for gold, conquest, and adventure. Cortés did not know it upon arrival, but he needed someone versed in the workings of this civilization, someone who understood the different peoples, languages, and societal structures, someone who could negotiate with the different peoples of this land. Malinche was uniquely qualified for this.

Upon their arrival in the Yucatan in 1519, after some initial skirmishes with the Mayans, the Spanish were given twenty women slaves to appease them and to secure an alliance. Among the women slaves, they immediately recognized that Malinche was special. Cortés was told of Malinche’s royal heritage. Bernal Díaz, a conquistador with Cortés, noted in his book The True History of the Conquest of New Spain, that Malinche’s noble heritage was very evident in her appearance and demeanor.

When Cortés arrived in the Yucatán, there were two Spaniards who survived a 1511 shipwreck, one was Gerónimo de Aguilar. He was presented to Cortés by the Mayans. By this time Aguilar had learned to speak the Mayan language. Cortés quickly realized that with Aguilar speaking Mayan, and Malinche’s ability to speak Mayan and other Mexican languages, he could communicate with, and learn about, the different peoples of Mexico, and use that knowledge to his advantage.

Besides Díaz’s book, there are few historical documents that provide the scant history of the person we know as Malinche. She was likely born in the year 1500. Evidence of Malinche’s privileged class rests in part with her ability to speak the royal court language of Tecpillatolli (“lordly speech”) which is significantly different from the common tongue. It was the language spoken by Moctezuma. Before the Spanish conquest, children of elite families of Mexico were educated starting at the age of seven. Girls and boys were taught Tecpillatolli, along with such subjects as geometry and religion. They were also taught negotiation and public speaking, as these skills were central to the functioning of their society. Malinche’s negotiations for Cortés have often been cited as significant in helping him obtain allies to oppose the Aztecs.

Around the age of twelve, Malinche’s father died and her mother remarried. Bernal Díaz wrote that Malinche was sold into slavery to favor the male child of her mother’s new marriage. Díaz reports that Malinche was taken away at night to avoid social censure of her parents. For seven years, until the time of Cortés’s arrival, Malinche was traded or exchanged as a slave. Women were often given as gifts or traded to secure alliances between groups, and Malinche would have been seen as a prize gift. She was 19 years old when she was given to Cortés. By the time Cortés met Moctezuma, 10 months later, Malinche could speak Spanish.

The significance of Malinche’s role in the conquest of Mexico seems indisputable. Various codices (contemporary illustrated manuscripts) depict Malinche being as significant a figure as either Cortés or Moctezuma. In fact, Moctezuma referred to Cortés as Malintzin. The life-story, talents, and courage of this intriguing woman suggests a person with real strength of character. All of Malinche’s strengths worked to Cortés’s advantage. The military advantages of Spanish guns, steel and horses would not have been sufficient to defeat the Aztecs without the help of tens of thousands of warriors from alliances – alliances negotiated by Malinche.

After the conquest and after having a son by Malinche, Cortés “gave” her to one of his officers: Juan de Jaramillo. Jaramillo married Malinche and together they had a daughter. Then in 1528 at the age of 28, Malanche died of a European disease along with tens of millions of her countrymen. There are no records of the words of Malinche, only a few second-hand accounts of her role in the Spanish Conquest.

Through the succeeding centuries the mythic Malinche has been interpreted in various ways. To the Spanish she was portrayed as the Mother of New Spain. To Mexicans, starting around the time of the struggle for independence from Spain, Malinche was seen as a traitor. In fact, the word malinchista, still used today, is an insult, meaning a traitor and a fornicator with foreigners.

Before the Spanish Conquest, the peoples of Mesoamerica did not see themselves as one people commonly opposed to this new European group. They were Tlaxcalans, or Aztecs or Mayans, or one of many very different groups that had distinctly different languages and were often in conflict with each other. In this context how should Malinche be remembered? As a traitor – to whom? She was a woman who was traded (no doubt raped and abused) by different groups until February 1519, when one of these groups gave Malinche to this new group – the Spaniards.

All interpretations of Malinche seem self-serving. To those who sought independence from Spain she represented a traitor. To the Catholic Church, Malinche was a temptress like Eve in the Garden of Eden – Diego Rivera portrayed her in an Aztec market, crowned with callas (an erotic symbol) and lifting her skirts, in one of the murals in the National Palace in Mexico City. To the Spanish Malinche represented the romantic notion that she was the mother of New Spain, or romantic partner of Cortés. In fact, Cortés had 4 children (that we know of) with different women of Mexico – two of which were with Moctozuma’s daughters.

None of these interpretations seem to hold any respect for this central person in such a fascinating chapter in the course of human history. Malinche was a woman of her times. Someone who used her unique talents, education and experience. She overcame unimaginable obstacles when discarded by her noble family and traded as a slave. She acted with agency in creating her own mark on the history of the world. Now, 500 years later, the life and experiences of this remarkable woman stands as one of the most enthralling characters in the Spanish Conquest of Mexico.

Women, Females, Chickens, Hens

By Julie Etra

Last February, just as COVID 19 was showing its lumpy, spherical, and toxic configuration in the United States, we left Huatulco for a month on a trip to Africa. One component of the trip was a visit to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park in Uganda; the park is home to a population of the dwindling mountain gorillas. This park is just a few hours north of Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. Uganda, located on the African equator, is much poorer than neighboring Rwanda, and is currently governed by the apparently self-appointed President for Life Yoweri Museveni.

Geopolitical details aside, we were very anxious and excited to closely observe these special vegetarians in their native habitat, high in the equatorial cloud forest. The tours are extremely well organized, with a maximum of seven visitors, led by a guide and flanked in the front and back with minimally armed guards to scare off the jungle elephants. We were also offered the services of a porter, for an additional price, to help carry our packs, etc., and to hold our gear as we approached the gorillas and avoid making unnecessary noise.

After an arduous four-hour hike deep into the forest, our trackers had indeed located a silverback and two of his offspring, male and female, about two to three years old. We were allowed an hour of wonder, well worth the planning, the expense and the journey. Porters, as it turned out, were indispensable, the least of which was to help us carry our gear. The hike through the cloud forest was difficult, often steep, slippery and muddy. When I saw the guides were all wearing rubber boots, I thought to myself: hmmm I have the wrong boots. My porter helped me negotiate the mud and rocks, pointing out where to place my feet and helping me to maintain my balance.

After our magical hour with the silverback and his kids, we were told by our guides hey, no worries, we will take the short cut back, a less arduous route. NOT, at least not for me! The final river crossing was very difficult, as my sense of balance is not great, but I was additionally assisted by another strong young porter, with whom I became friends, Abaho Jason. After the last haul up a muddy steep slope, we obtained our certificates, and loaded into the Land Cruisers. Abaho approached me through the open window in the back, and asked for my WhatsApp address. Why not? I said to myself. Can’t hurt.

I heard from him in March 2020, and frankly I was confused since I thought he was my original porter, Ngabirano Justus, but sorting through photos and with his clarification, I recognized him as the last porter from the last crossing and again at the Land Cruiser. Of course, we all realized a bit later that COVID19 would have a huge impact on ecotourism, and that these communities depend on tourist dollars for both their own and the gorillas’ survival (other than the gorillas, sounds like Huatulco) and it was obvious that he and his village, Rubuguri, Uganda, would need help. I sent the first wire for the purchase of corn porridge for the village (first connection with Mexico!) and received photos and messages of gratitude. This evolved to the establishment of big cabbage and potato gardens.

I continue to get reliable correspondence, all in English, not in Rukiga, the common language of the region, which comes from Bantu roots. He indicated he needed to do something different and wanted to raise chickens, in addition to the new gardens. So next we helped him with resources to build a hen house, after which he would purchase hens and a rooster. Then the camera on his phone died, oh no! – and I really wanted to see the hens and the rooster, so the new phone was next.

Ten hens, and now we circle back to women, females, hens. I asked Abaho if I could name the hens, and he said, sure! Although there are barriers to women’s participation in Ugandan politics and the situation is culturally complex (as it is everywhere!), there would certainly be enough well-known women to name all the hens. The Right Honorable Rebecca Alitwala Kadaga, for example, is Speaker of the Parliament, the first woman to be elected to the position – the third highest position in Uganda’s national leadership (she was Deputy Speaker for a decade before that).

When Abajo said sure, I could name the hens, he added, “But please – in English,” so I took the opportunity to teach a little US history, and about current and recent very strong and smart women in government. Accomplished, fearless, compelling life stories, and diverse backgrounds. I also had in mind that the US is a nation of immigrants, and my friend lives in a community where his people have lived for thousands of years, and it presented an opportunity for me to learn a little more about women I admire, and to share that admiration, albeit perhaps not resonating with Abaho, with more important things to do. So here they are, in no particular order, and if you are not from the US I have added a few sentences about each “womhen.”

Kamala for Kamala Harris. Current Vice President, former senator and Attorney General for the State of California, graduate of Howard University and the University of California School of Law, and of Asian and African American descent.

Ruth for Ruth Bader Ginsberg, recently deceased Supreme Court Justice, graduate of Cornell and Columbia Law School, brilliant scholar, and pioneer for gender equality and of Jewish descent (Russian and Polish immigrants).

Amy for Amy Klobuchar, senator from the State of Minnesota and ex Presidential candidate. She is an attorney and graduate of Yale University and the University of Chicago and is of Swiss and Slovenian ancestry.

Elizabeth, for Elizabeth Warren. She is a senator from Massachusetts, a graduate of the University of Houston and of Rutgers Law School, and is a well-known progressive with particular focus on consumer protection and equal economic opportunity. Like everyone in the USA she is from immigrant roots, but not recent. Her great, great, great, grandmother was part native American, not unusual for families that have been in the US for generations.

Stacy, for Stacy Abrams. This African American woman, although she narrowly lost the last race for governor of the state of Georgia in 2018, was largely responsible for increasing voter turnout and changing the state from red (Republican) to blue (Democratic) with the election of a Democratic president and two Democratic senators, thus shifting power in the United States Senate. Educated as a lawyer, she is a representative in the Georgia House and holds degrees from Spelman College, University of Texas, and Yale.

Nancy, for Nancy Pelosi. She is currently Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and has represented the state of California since 1987; she is the only woman in U.S. history to serve as Speaker and, until Kamala Harris came along, the highest-ranking female elected official in United States history. She is the daughter of an Italian immigrant mother and Italian American father, and a graduate of Trinity College.

Hillary, for Hillary Clinton. Clinton has long served in public office as the former Secretary of State and the first female senator from the State of New York. Of English, Welsh, Scottish, Dutch, and French descent (we call this Heinz 57), she graduated from Wellesley College and the Yale School of Law. As the former First Lady, she advocated for health care reform and universal coverage.

Elena, for Elena Kagan. She is a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, obviously an attorney by training. Of Russian Jewish ancestry, she holds degrees from Princeton, Oxford, and the Harvard School of Law.

Sonia, for Sonia Sotomayor. She is also a Supreme Court justice, holds degrees from Princeton and Yale School of Law, and is of Puerto Rican descent. She reflected in 1998: “I was going to college and I was going to become an attorney, and I knew that when I was ten.”

Michelle for Michelle Obama, the first African American First Lady and outspoken advocate for poverty awareness, education, nutrition, physical activity, and healthy diets. Trained as an attorney, she graduated from Princeton and Harvard Law School.

We can’t forget the rooster, Barack Obama! No explanation needed here. He will be very busy.

I can’t comment on women and empowerment in government in Uganda, since that is not why I was there, and would not have had an opportunity or reason to broach the subject with the few women I encountered in our brief stay. A revival of US based Evangelical religious activity in the county supports “traditional” women’s roles as homemakers, but existing and changing roles of women in the household and community are undoubtedly more complex than can be adequately discussed here.

As of this writing, Amy had succumbed to a parasite, despite expensive medication, but Ruth and Stacy have laid eggs, and Ruth’s clutch should hatch soon. I am happy that Abaho has found an alternative “career,” that the girls for the most part are doing well and that our friendship continues. There is always more to learn on both sides of the planet, and who knows, maybe I will be there when the hens come home to roost.

Women in Rural Oaxaca Wield the Power

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.

Women Writers Off the Beaten Path

By Carole Reedy

Not every writer creates a book that achieves best-seller status or wins a literary prize. Glancing over my 2019-2020 list of the books I read, particular authors caught my eye. Not the brilliant and popular Elena Ferrante, Joyce Carol Oates, or Maggie O’Farrell, but equally notable women writing from a variety of places and perspectives. Here are a few of my favorite unique novels, most with woman protagonists off the beaten path.

Magda Szabó: Stunning character development is her trademark

This Hungarian writer died in 2007 at age 90. Although popular in Hungary and parts of Europe, Szabó didn’t gain status in the English-speaking world until the 21st century, when her novel The Door (1987), which centers on a relationship between a prominent writer and her housekeeper, was translated into English by Len Rix (2005). Although The Door was translated for the American market by Stefan Draughon, Rix seems to have a particular talent for translating Szabó. Since that success, his translations of her novels Katalin Street (1969, tr. 2017) and Abigail (1970, tr. 2020) have won several prominent literary awards.

Szabó’s early writing career was interrupted by the repression of the Stalinist era from 1949 to 1956. She was labeled an enemy of the Communist Party because her work did not conform to the social realism it demanded. Her husband, a writer and translator, was also censored.

The four novels translated by Rix are readily available in English now, both in book form and on Kindle. The best known, The Door, was listed in the New York Times Book Review’s Top Ten Books of 2015. Abigail, a story of a young girl who is sent by her father to a girls’ boarding school in Hungary during World War II, is among her more popular books.

Iza’s Ballad (1963, tr. 2016 by George Szirtas) is my personal favorite, the tale of a doctor’s relationship with her mother and the toll that personal and professional obligations take on her life. The primary women characters are not always likeable, but Szabo’s ability to home in on the circumstances and details of their lives makes for a most compelling read. We are given an understanding of the characters from their hidden thoughts as well as their actions, and it’s in this intimacy that Szabó’s talent lies.

Katalin Street also takes place during Hungary’s struggle sunder German occupation in World War II and Stalin’s subsequent Communist regime. It is the story of three families over a period of time in which both the living and the dead tell their tales of happiness and hardship. Again, stunning character development is Szabó’s trademark.

Miriam Toews: Growing up in a Mennonite community

The early years of Toews’ life spent growing up in a Mennonite household provided this author plenty of fuel for writing about women.

Women Talking: A Novel (2018) is based on actual events that took place in a Mennonite community in Bolivia. Nightly attacks by men in the community result in the “women talking” of the title. Simple, while at the same time complex and revealing, this is a short but emotionally charged story.

In an interview with The Guardian, Toews explains her impetus for writing this story: “I felt an obligation, a need, to write about these women. I am related to them. I could easily been one of them.” In fact, Toews, like the Bolivian Mennonites, is descended from the Molotschna colony, a Russian Mennonite settlement in what is now Ukraine.

All My Puny Sorrows (2014) is another novel centered on a Mennonite family, but this time the focus is on one member, a concert pianist, and the people who love her and their attempts to stave off her suicide attempts. Her mother, husband, and dearest of sisters struggle, as does the protagonist, against demons in an attempt to lead normal lives. Toews’ own father and sister both committed suicide within a ten-year period.

Siri Hustvedt: Elaborately structured works

Probably the most diversely accomplished of the women writers mentioned here, Hustvedt received a doctorate from Columbia University in the US, as well as three honorary doctorates from Norway, France, and Germany. Her writing encompasses all the literary arts: essays, short stories, nonfiction, poetry, and six novels. In 2019 she won the prestigious Princess of Asturias Award for Literature.

In addition, Hustvedt’s fascination with psychoanalysis, neurology, and psychiatry has led to a second career as a lecturer on these subjects.

Hustvedt also writes about art, yet another topic on which she’s extremely knowledgeable. The Blazing World (2014) invites us into a world of art in which a woman artist presents her own work not as her own, instead tagging them with the names of men. The novel won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction in and was long-listed for the Booker Prize.
Memories of the Future (2019) is elaborately structured (as are all her books), bringing together a diverse set of themes that permeate our lives: memory, perception, and sensation. I especially warmed to the beginning, which describes the dismally fractured life of a young writer in New York City.

Hustvedt and her author-husband Paul Auster, along with their singer-songwriter daughter Sophie Auster, gathered members of the literary community including Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood, and Russell Banks to form the group Writers Against Trump to oppose “the racist, destructive, incompetent, corrupt, and fascist regime of Donald Trump, and to give our language, thought, and time to his defeat in November.” The group still meets in a continuing effort to protect the country’s democracy.

C.M. Mayo: A fine blend of Mexican and American

Mayo’s Mexican husband smiles when he notes that she was just five miles from being born Mexican. She was indeed born in El Paso, Texas, in the US, just a hop, skip, and jump from the Mexican border. And she’s lived in Mexico City for many years with this same husband.

Mayo has a wealth of writing to share with us. She has written poetry, essays, novels, and has a delightful blog featuring all types of extraneous writing. Her website is a trove of surprises, all warming a reader’s heart and all about Mexico. While the offerings are geared toward English speakers, both Mayo and her writing are a fine blend of Mexican and American.

Mexico: A Traveler’s Literary Companion (2006) is the place to start. This is a compilation of 24 pieces of fiction and prose by Mexican writers, many translated for the first time. Filled with the jewels of Carlos Fuentes, Juan Villoro, and Laura Esquivel, it is organized according to sections of the country. The Los Angeles Times tells it’s a book we should “throw in a suitcase or mochila (backpack) on your way to Mexico or just settling into a favorite patio chair. It will open your eyes, fill you with pleasure and render our perennial vecinos a little less distante.”

The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire was named the Library Journal’s Best Book of 2009. Indeed, it’s an exhaustively researched novel based on the fascinating story of a little-known adopted son of Maximilian, the archduke of Austria, during his short reign as Emperor of Mexico in 1864.

In another vein, Mayo gives us Miraculous Air: Journey of a Thousand Miles through Baja California, the Other Mexico (2002). Her exploration of the thousand-mile peninsula is filled with beauty and reflection on this most-separate Mexican entity, about which John Steinbeck said, “The very air here is miraculous.”

Garnett Kilberg Cohen: Characters you wish you had known

Cohen hails from my hometown of Chicago and her work was recommended to me by a friend, to whom I’m grateful. Kilberg Cohen is the recipient of multiple literary awards and is a professor of creative writing at Columbia College, Chicago.

The most popular of her works is a book of short stories called Swarm to Glory (2014). Several of the stories have appeared in publications throughout the US. Kilberg Cohen populates these small gems with characters you wish you had known while simultaneously relating simply and directly an utterly complex idea: the something we are looking for in our lives.

How We Move the Air (2010) is a short novel made up of the recollections of seven friends (each with his/her own chapter) who recall the suicide of a dear friend. It is filled with extreme emotion and insights into what and how we remember.

This may be just the time to try some new books and authors, because really … what else do we have but time?

Microenterprise in Mexico: Building Women’s Businesses

By Deborah Van Hoewyk

In 1976, amidst crushing poverty on the other side of the world, an idea popped up. Muhammad Yunus, born into the British Raj in 1940 in what is now Bangladesh, was an economist with a crazy-quilt professional background. An academic, a social activist, a banker, and more, Yunus went out one day to visit the poorest households in rural Bangladesh. He found women making bamboo furniture; to buy the bamboo, they took out money-lender loans, but the interest rates were so high, the women earned practically nothing, despite all their work.

Lending to the “Unbanked” – and to Women

As a banker, Yunus knew that conventional banks would not make tiny loans at reasonable interest rates to the bamboo workers – the banks did not believe these people capable of paying back a loan.

Enter the idea, and what an idea it was! Microcredit – tiny loans for tiny businesses started by people so poor they’d never even been inside a bank. Yunus adapted the idea of lending circles – groups of women were issued the loan, picked the recipient out of the group, and members supported her in making sure her business did well enough to pay it back. Then it was someone else’s turn.

Over the next six years, Yunus would reach 28,000 microenterprise borrowers; the program became the Grameen Bank (“village bank”). Together, Yunus and the Grameen Bank were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006. The idea swept the social and academic world of poverty alleviation – microenterprise development was an innovative, sustainable path out of poverty. Today, 97% of Grameen borrowers are women; the repayment rate is 99.6%.

Why women? To Yunus, it was obvious that poverty inflicts greater stress on women, and when women make money they spend it first on their business, then on their families, and finally on their future. Pro Mujer is a U.S.-based women’s development organization that works throughout Latin America; in Mexico, it operates from Mexico City east to the state of Veracruz. Their research shows that Mexican women reinvest 90% of their income in their families and communities. Men? A measly 40%.

Born in the U.S.A., Bred in Latin America

Back on this side of the world, an organization called ACCIÓN International took shape fifteen years before Yunus came upon the bamboo furniture makers of Bangladesh. In the late 1950s, jumping the gun a bit on President Kennedy’s Peace Corps, a Berkeley law student named Joseph Blatchford undertook a thirty-stop goodwill tour involving tennis (he was an ace) and jazz, meeting with youth across South America in an effort to create cross-cultural understanding. He set up a volunteer “Youth Force” dedicated to international service in 1961, establishing ACCIÓN International in 22 barrios across Venezuela.

With the philosophy of listening to what local communities wanted to do, Acción volunteers helped build schools and water systems and health centers, giving people the tools they needed to help themselves. The United States Peace Corps started doing the same thing by the end of 1961; after eight years of expanding ACCIÓN International beyond Venezuela to Peru and Brazil, Blatchford went home and became Director of the Peace Corps. ACCIÓN International became just Accion and started focusing on microlending. In less than five years, Accion’s program in Recife, Brazil, made 885 small loans; those businesses employed 1,386 people.

Based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Accion began to build a network of financial institutions willing to lend to the poor. The great majority of microlending is conducted through the lending-circle model (now also called a “communal bank”). The networking strategy allowed Accion to expand its microfinance programs to 14 Latin American countries – Mexico among them.

In Mexico, Banco Compartamos (the “We Share” bank) opened its doors in 1990, and Accion invested. Accion also partners with CrediConfia in east central Mexico (Mexico City and the states of Mexico, Hidalgo, Puebla, and Michoacán), as well as the online microfinance platform Konfio, which started up in 2016. There are branches of Banco Compartamos in the Huatulco area in Chahue, Santa María, and Pochutla. Moreover, Oaxaca is almost unique among Mexican states in having a growing universe of credit unions (casas de ahorro, caja popular), often located in remote locations and quite willing to set up lending-circle-type financing. The biggest credit union, Caja Popular Mexicana, has branches in La Crucecita and Santa María.

The Microfinance – Microenterprise Development Connection

Mexican statistics indicate that very large businesses (over 250 employees) make up less than 1% of all Mexican businesses. The remaining 99% comprises medium (51-250 employees), small (11-50), and micro (1-10) businesses. The microenterprises are about 94% of all businesses and provide half of all the jobs in Mexico.

What does it take for a woman to get started on her own business? Here we should note that microfinance and microenterprise development are not the same. Microfinance provides a key tool for business expansion – without money, even if a business owner only needs enough money to stock 20 more scarves in her shop, there is no growth. Starting up a microenterprise is something else entirely. Like poor women everywhere, Mexican women face institutional barriers to getting financing, and the pathways to education and training are often blocked. But they also face cultural barriers.

Gender discrimination in Mexico is far more explicit (and can be extreme, see the article “Hits, Blows and Coffins,” on page 18 in this issue) than in other countries. Sociologist Gina Zabludovsky Kuper, from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), researches gender and power, and has written extensively about women as entrepreneurs and executives. In terms of microbusinesses, Zabludovsky Kuper points out that there’s a cultural perception about “women who start microbusiness in order to contribute to the family economy or get out of poverty” – they have to stay at the micro level because “their work is only viewed as auxiliary”; the women themselves often buy into the notion that just being a sideline business “is what is reasonable for them.”

Microenterprise – Making It Work

Nonetheless, in some places in Mexico, the programs to train and encourage women do come together with microfinance institutions, and women-owned microenterprises do start up and succeed.
The Mexico City nonprofit Crea Communidades de Emprendadores Sociales is typical of a microenterprise development organization. It offers programs to empower women entrepreneurs with training in business skills, technical assistance, and business support; it also brings participants into a support network for each other. It serves central Mexico (CDMX, and the states of Mexico, Aquascalientes, Guanajuato, and Querétaro), offering online services across the country as well.

From 2002 to 2006, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in Michigan funded a program in Oaxaca called Yo Quiero, Yo Puedo … Empezar Mi Propio Negocio (I Want to, I Can … Start My Own Business). Yo Quiero arose out of a women’s health initiative founded in 1985, added life-skills training in 1990, and started Yo Quiero, Yo Puedo as a school-based self-efficacy intervention in 1996. With Kellogg Funding, the microenterprise program served 600 rural women, started 17 bancos communal and 300 women-owned businesses, and had a 100% loan repayment rate. It included training 25 “social promoters,” who continue to run the program in Oaxaca, and have added a youth microentprise program that serves Oaxaca, Puebla, and Michoacán.

South of Oaxaca City, Villa de Zaachila is the site of the largest landfill in the state. A project named Mujeres A.V.E. supports solidarity networks for women to help them start and grow microenterprises that support their families and contribute to the community. Organized by the SiKanda Foundation (Oaxaca) and supported by the British Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, among others, Mujeres A.V.E. helped 45 women build the skills to strengthen their businesses and access new markets in its first year of operation (2018).

See for Yourself in Oaxaca!

There’s a new way to learn about Mexican microenterprise – visit one. Independent women micro-entrepreneurs, along with long-standing family businesses, abound in the craft towns around the state capital, Oaxaca de Juárez, and at least a couple of travel companies will arrange a tour for you.

The online Spanish travel company Authenticities (www.authenticitys.com) has a tour specifically focused on the entrepreurial women artisans – weavers, chicken-raisers, flower-growers, tamale-makers, potters – who participate in a micro-finance program to which Authenticities contributes.

Fundación en Via, which itself runs microfinance and microenterprise developments programs (https://www.envia.org/microfinance-tours), takes you to visit microenterprises where the owner is ready for her next En Via loan. The tour takes nearly all day, visits two communities, and gives the owners the chance to show you what they do and explain how previous and upcoming loans have helped build their businesses.

Concrete Ceilings: The 21st Century Status of Women Politicians in North America

By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken

The 20th century was a golden age for enfranchising women in many countries around the globe. Between 1900 and 1920, women in about 20 countries joined their New Zealand sisters, who won their right to vote in 1893; these included Canada, but with exceptions (First Nation women were excluded until 1960). In 1920, women in the United States were enfranchised, slowly followed over the decades by other countries around the world. In Mexico, although women were allowed to vote in some state elections, it wasn’t until 1953 that women were allowed to vote in federal elections. By 1999 all countries except three Muslim nations had granted the right to vote to women; the last country that recognized the partial right of women to vote was Saudi Arabia, where in 2011 women were allowed to vote in municipal elections; it is the only country in the world where some people are still ineligible to vote solely on the basis of gender. The right to vote and the right to stand for office were initiated simultaneously in almost all countries; but in Canada, for example, women were not eligible to run for office until 2 years after the first year when women could vote.

It’s been more than a century since women in Canada and U.S. were enfranchised, and almost 70 years in Mexico. One might think that given this long stretch of time, and the many movements for women’s rights around the world, the third decade of the twenty-first century should see women having equal representation in all branches of Federal government and holding major executive positions at the state/provincial levels. But reality is short of that ideal.

The progress of North American women in being elected to the legislative branch of government has been mixed. As of 2021, only 27% of the members of the U.S. Congress are women; 120 women out of 439 representatives in the House and 24 of 100 members of the Senate. While this is a 50% increase in women in the U.S. Congress over 10 years ago, it is far from equal representation. Canadian women are doing slightly better in elective legislative positions: as of the 2020 elections, 100 women out of 338 members of Parliament were serving in the House of Commons; Canadian Senate seats, which are appointed rather than elected, have a far more equitable gender distribution, with 48 women out of 100 members.

In Mexico, women have actually reached an equitable representation in Congress. Due to systemic changes and a mandate that political parties achieve gender-parity in candidates for Congress, women were elected to 49% of the lower house and 51% of the Senate in the 2018 elections. This ranked Mexico in fourth place for women’s representation in countries around the world.

Women still are under-represented in the judicial branches of federal government in North America. In both Canada and the United States only 3 of the 9 Supreme Court Justices are women, and in the US only 5 women have ever served as a Supreme Court Justice. In Mexico, with the resignation of one woman from the Supreme Court, only one woman serves on an 11-member Court.

The status of the election of women in North America to head the Executive Branch of the federal government is even worse. As of the end of 2019, close to 90 countries around the world have had an elected or appointed woman as head of State. Canada can barely be included in that category, by virtue of a 4-month period in 1993 when Kim Campbell served as Prime Minister after the Conservative Party PM resigned toward the end of his term and Campbell won the Party leadership. The United States and Mexico have never had a woman head of state, although Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in the U.S. 2016 Presidential Election but lost the Electoral College vote. Recently, in November 2020, Kamala Harris bored a hole through the concrete ceiling that has blocked North American women from the highest offices, and was elected as Vice President. She is a heartbeat away from the Presidency, but so were the majority of U.S. vice presidents who never became president.

State and provincial/territorial elections also have produced relatively few women heads of government. Currently, out of the 13 provinces and territories in Canada, only one, the Northwest Territories, has a woman First Minister, Caroline Cochrane. In Mexico, only one of the 31 States, Sonora, has a woman governor, Claudia Pavlovitch. In the United States, 9 out of 50 States (18%) currently have women serving as governors.

One elected position that might seem to be emerging as a power base for women is the office of the mayor in large cities. This perception is probably due to the high visibility of several women mayors but is not borne out by overall data. In Canada, Sandra Master, the mayor of Regina, Saskatchewan, and Valérie Plante, the mayor of Montreal, Québec, are relatively well-known, but only four other women are currently mayors of Canadian cities with populations of over 100,000. Among the 100 largest cities in the United States, only 27% are headed by women mayors; those with mayors often in the news are Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot; San Francisco, Mayor London Breed; Seattle, Mayor Jenny Durkin; Washington, DC, Mayor Muriel Bowser; and Atlanta, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. In Mexico, only two women are mayors (municipal presidents) of the 10 largest municipalities. But since they head the two largest cities in Mexico (Tijuana with Presidente Karla Ruiz MacFarland and Mexico City with Presidente Claudia Sheinbaum), they have altered the perception of the power of women in Mexico’s government. Claudia Sheinbaum in particular has been newsworthy as the first woman (and the first Jew) ever elected to head the government in Mexico City, and she was elected hot on the heels of the former mayor of Mexico City, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, or AMLO, who is now president of Mexico.

How can we explain these data that show a far lower proportion of women than men in these elected or appointed government positions? The example of women reaching parity in Congress in Mexico suggests that systemic change is needed for women to successfully compete. One reason offered by men for explaining the relative lack of women in high government office is that women are more interested in very local matters than serving as the heads of large cities, states/provinces of their county; they cite statistics showing fewer women running for such offices. But a report by the Canadian Inter-Parliamentary Union has identified the reason for fewer women entering political spheres: it is not a lack of interest but the reality of violence against women.

Women who, in the face of violence against their gender, have chosen to run for high office or stand for appointments to powerful positions, have been brutalized both physically and psychologically. Gisela Raquel Mota Ocampo, the Mayor of Temixco, Mexico, was assassinated the day after her inauguration on January 16, 2016; she was just one of numerous women politicians who have been murdered in Mexico. Kim Campbell, the only Canadian women Prime Minister, was vilified during her campaign for a second term. Hillary Clinton, the only woman who was a major candidate for the U.S. presidency was not only slandered with grotesque stories about pedophilia but actually stalked on stage by her opponent, Donald Trump, a self-confessed sexual predator. And most recently, the world was riveted by a mob instigated by Trump, breaking into the U.S. Capitol and screaming for the assassination of the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi.

In some ways it is miraculous that women in North America persevere in seeking high political office. They are truly the inheritors of the suffragettes and women in the Mexican Revolution who preceded them more than a century ago – risking life and limb and reputation to win the right to vote and to stand for office. We can only hope that in less than a century from now, the concrete ceiling keeping women down will be obliterated by systemic changes in government and the eradication of violence against women.

Hits, Blows and Coffins

By Kary Vannice

There has been much talk in the news over the last year about the financial “hit” many Mexicans have suffered as a result of the Coronavirus lockdown and economic downturn. Countless businesses took a “blow” as they were forced to close their doors. And for many, that put the final nail in the coffin of their business.

However, there is another equally important story, not making headlines, also connected to the Coronavirus outbreak. This story too is full of hits, blows and coffins. But, in this story, they are not financial, they are physical.

Less than a month after social distancing measures took effect in Mexico, domestic-violence-related 911 calls increased by 60% and federal authorities estimated that violence against women and girls had gone up between 30% to 100%. And that was in just the first three weeks of the pandemic.

Now, nearly a year later, the statistics on violence against women in Mexico during the pandemic are gruesome and, in all likelihood, don’t even come close to telling the full story, as many women are too afraid to file an official report and the ones who try often report that authorities urge them not to.

Even if a report is filed, odds are it will never result in a conviction. According to the government’s own data, 93% of all crimes in Mexico went unsolved in 2018; according to U.S. researchers, 98% of violent crimes go unsolved – which is a very sad reality for the families of the thousands of women who are killed in Mexico each year.

On average, 10 women a day are murdered in Mexico. In the early months of the pandemic, that number rose by more than 20%. Ten women a day might not sound like many in a country 127 million, but multiply that by 30 days and you have 300 women a month and multiply that by 12 months and you have 3,600 women murdered each year.

And for every one woman or girl murdered, there are countless others that suffer physical violence. Statistics report that two-thirds of all women in Mexico have experienced some form of violence, 44% of which is at the hands of a domestic partner.

Domestic violence is now referred to as the “shadow pandemic” in Mexico and throughout Latin America. One civil rights group said, “The so-called ‘shadow pandemic’ is characterized by a lack of information, incomplete data, and a culture of silence. How are national governments and support services supposed to respond to such an intimate and private, but also urgent, issue?”

Well, here in Mexico, quite poorly, as it turns out. When asked at a press conference about the startling numbers of domestic violence reports in the early days of the pandemic, Mexico’s President Lopez Obrador replied, “90% of calls to domestic abuse hotlines are fake.” But neither he nor his administration could provide any evidence that this statement was true. His failure to substantiate these literal cries for help as factual does nothing to change the culture of oppression and control over women’s bodies in Mexico.

A few weeks later, perhaps as damage control, the administration unveiled a new public service campaign aimed at addressing the rising domestic violence problem. The campaign depicted men and boys starting to get angry with women and girls in the home and advised them to “Take a breath and count to 10.” It then showed them smiling and waving a white flag of peace and surrender.

However, that same month, the AP reported that the Mexican government proposed cutting funding to women’s counselling centers in rural and indigenous areas, at a time when they knew they were needed more than ever.

It is unlikely that simply counting to 10 is going to change a deeply machismo culture, especially when the country’s own president “blames violence against women on the neoliberal policies of his right-wing predecessors and dismissed Mexico’s growing feminist movement as a plot orchestrated by his right-wing opposition,” as one news outlet reported.

Where does this leave Mexico’s women?

Well, unfortunately, we are back to the hits, blows and coffins. With the Coronavirus pandemic still ongoing, victims of domestic abuse have fewer support resources available to them than ever before and they are less likely to report their abuse due to the fact that they have to queue up outside of civil offices in full view of community members and potentially their own aggressors.

The Coronavirus has contributed to a spike in domestic violence in Mexico but is by no means its root cause. The root of it is a deeply misogynistic culture, which Cornell University philosopher Kate Manne defines as, the “policing of women’s subordination” in patriarchal societies, or the way people condemn women who don’t adhere to social expectations.

Until social expectations evolve in Mexico so women are seen as having rights equal to those of men, domestic violence and femicide will continue. Many, many more women and girls will suffer the consequences, as they continue to go unprotected in their own homes and often unaccounted for when they disappear.