Tag Archives: marriage

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).

Love in the Time of Covid: Remembrance of Times Past

By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken

We have been sheltering in place since March 15, 2020. Just the two of us. Fortunately, fifty-seven years of marriage have allowed us to stockpile decades of memories of times when we sought opportunities to flee our busy lives in the U.S. and find solitary romance – often in Mexico.

Our earliest romantic moments in Mexico took place in the 1970s in archeological sites in eastern Mexico. Chichen Itza, Uxmal, and Palenque were relatively inaccessible at that time and were visited by very few tourists traveling independently. There were only one or two places to stay in each area, and we tried to choose one adjacent to the ruins, a new or newly renovated hotel that was large, luxurious and, for the most part, empty. We usually breakfasted by ourselves at dining room tables covered with pristine white tablecloths.

We spent the early, coolest part of the day wandering over the ruins of temples, climbing reconstructed pyramids, and reading to each other from papers published by archeologists with detailed descriptions of the digs. We filled in the gaps in knowledge by amusing each other with made-up stories of our interpretations of the glyphs – the ancient Mayan pictographs adorning the buildings and stelae, which at that time were still undeciphered.

When the sun became piercing and the busloads of tourists arrived, we cooled off in the hotel swimming pool or, at Palenque, in a memorable artificial stream that fed the pool. Then we ate lunch and retired to our freshly cleaned room. In the cool of the evening, when the grounds were nearly deserted and moonlit, we wandered hand in hand listening to the unidentifiable sounds in the surrounding jungle and watching the shadows play over the remains of the Mayan civilization, while imagining other couples from that civilization also strolling in the moonlight.

A decade later, in the 1980s, after having exhausted exploring many of the Mayan architectural sites, we romanced in Mexico in mainly uninhabited areas with fish-filled lagoons prime for snorkeling. Isla Mujeres was a memorable boat trip from Cancun; our hotel was noteworthy for a spectacular view, lack of hot water, and proximity to a good place to snorkel, but not much else.

Akumal became our favorite place to stay; all we really needed was a studio apartment with a kitchenette, a view of the water, and the sound of the waves pounding on the beach. After packing a lunch, we spent the days swimming side-by-side in waters that were natural aquariums, pointing out spectacular specimens of fish and other forms of marine life. The Xel Ha lagoon, not yet developed for tourists and accessible only by a narrow path through the jungle, became our private pool.

Xcaret was a bit more luxurious, having a changing room, a bathroom facility and chairs for lounging – but at that time not much more. The area was generally less private, but we could always find a place away from other people where we could commune with the fish, large iguanas, and each other. And the ocean in front of our Akumal digs abounded with interesting aquatic phenomena – sponges building their habitat, octopi lurking under rocks and snatching unsuspecting passing fish, and schools of fish, forming and reforming. Deserted cenotes around the area provided a place where we would float on our backs side-by-side and watch the birds and clouds overhead.

The following decade for the most part had rare times for romance. We were both working over 70 hours a week, flying all over the U.S. and almost never to the same destination. We became notorious for planning our flights so we could spend an hour or two together in an airline club in Chicago or elsewhere. We were fortunate enough to have a month’s vacation every year. Then we travelled as far from the U.S. as possible and chose places where it was really difficult for our employers and employees to reach us – mountains in New Zealand; islands on the Great Barrier Reef; rural villages in Italy, Spain and France; rivers in China; archeological sites in Malaysia. Mexico was too close and too accessible to prevent someone from contacting us about a statistical error or an ungrammatical sentence in a report to be published. So, although our stockpile of romantic times continued to grow, Mexico was not part of the pile.

That changed on Inauguration Day in 2001. Jan, who held a presidential appointment in the Clinton administration, was suddenly freed from his pager, cell phone, and government responsibilities. Marcia had developed internet communication between members of her research teams and could work from anywhere as long as she had her computer.

We immediately packed the computer, clothes and other essential items in our car and headed south and into Mexico. We spent the better part of that year driving around the country, staying in memorably romantic beach casitas or apartments with incredible city vistas. We wandered together through art museums discovering new artists. We enjoyed wonderful concerts. And we had numerous adventures, sometimes totally lost, sometimes totally terrified, but always together. And then we discovered Huatulco!

Although we settled down at the end of 2001 in Ashland, Oregon, one of the best tourist destinations in the U.S., we returned again and again to Huatulco, finally buying a condo and spending about six months a year here. For many years we drove our car, loaded with books and supplies, from Oregon to our condo, over varying routes and stopping to see friends or interesting locations on the way. Romantic times abounded – many over meals in fabulous restaurants in Oaxaca, San Cristóbal, Mexico City, and of course Huatulco. When Cafe Juanita was located in Santa Cruz, we had a standing reservation for New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day at our “own” table overlooking the plaza. After the move to the Chahue Marina, Juanita’s continued to be our place for romantic dinners – even planning our 50th wedding celebration there while having a Valentine’s dinner. We also have had a very favorite place in Huatulco for romantic breakfasts – but since we enjoy frequently being the only people there, you’re not going to find out where it is.

Finally, for the past 10 years, we’ve found many romantic moments, exploring together and writing articles for The Eye about our adventures. You can read about many of these in the Eye archives. So, thanks to you, readers, to our fellow Eye writers, and most of all to our Eye editor Jane for the many opportunities you have provided for building memories of romance in times past and hopes for more romance in Mexico, post-pandemic.

Marriage in the Time of COVID – A Statistical Review

By Randy Jackson

If we are lucky, we only have to endure various COVID-19 effects on society for one to two years. Any effect that the pandemic might have on the incidence of marriage likely won’t even register as a bump on the long, long road in the history of marriage; however, whatever COVID effects there might be, could also exacerbate some negative trends in the institution of marriage in 2020-21. Sampling from a flood of research, articles, and speculation on the institution of marriage, I pulled together four interesting statistics to see what might happen to pandemic marriages.

The first record of a marriage ceremony is from Mesopotamia in 2350 BC. Anthropologists suggest that marriages between one man and one woman started around the time when humans first formed agricultural societies, about eleven or twelve thousand years ago. With the advent of personal property, men needed to know which children were their biological heirs. Back then, and for a long, long time thereafter, the title of Tina Turner’s 1984 hit song “What’s love got to do with it?” pretty much summed things up. Marriages were arrangements made between family groups for economic and political reasons. They bound one man to one woman (not equally) for the production of children, the division of labour, and the inheritance of property.

How Do We Meet and Marry?

Even today half of all marriages in the world are arranged. India comes to mind in this regard, as 90% of that country’s marriages are arranged. Young people in India, even in the wealthiest and most educated levels of society, still largely prefer to enter into a marriage where a spouse is chosen for them (in modern educated families each marriage candidate holds a veto). There are a number of studies that show arranged marriages are no less successful than those called “love marriages.” Just before COVID struck, 35% of couples met online, the most frequent method for meeting a partner. COVID could only increase this trend.

When Do We Marry?

Another trend going into the pandemic is that people are getting married later. In Greek and Roman times up to the middle ages, marriage was common for girls starting at age 12, for boys it was age 14. By the 15th century records show the common marriage age was closer to 17. By colonial times in Europe and North America, women were commonly getting married by 20 and men by 26. By 2017, the age of marriage in Canada, Mexico and the USA was 27 for women and 30 for men. Marriage age in Europe is generally higher – Sweden had the highest marriage age among countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, well into the mid-30’s. Turkey had the lowest marriage age in the OECD, with women marrying before the age of 25 and men before 28.

How Often Do We Call It Quits?

News stories abound on the extra stress on marriages because of COVID lockdowns and restrictions. One of many such articles is a BBC story from December 2020, “Why the pandemic is causing spikes in break-ups and divorces.” Although the story uses anecdotal or “soft” data, not statistics (it’s too early for that), one source was a major British law firm. The firm reported an increase in divorce inquiries of 122% over the previous year. There have been increases in divorce inquiries in the U.S., China, and Sweden – and no doubt other countries as well. There’s a busy year ahead for divorce lawyers.

One thing that is not news going into the pandemic is that divorce rates around the world have been climbing for decades. The highest divorce rates in the world are in Europe, often greater than 60%, followed by Canada and the USA, nearing 50%. Latin and South America are lower, as is much of Asia. Vietnam has the lowest in the OECD (7%).

This chart shows the percentage of divorces among couples who have been married only once. Divorce rates per capita – perhaps a better statistical measure – are increasing around the world and have been for years leading up to these COVID times. (The divorce rate in the U.S. has actually been decreasing, from a high of 50% in the 1980s, but it varies by age group – “gray” divorce rates are going up.) Divorce rates for 2021 and beyond should be interesting, with couples bursting out of lockdown and heading to their divorce lawyers on the one hand, but fewer marriages in 2020 to hit the rocks further downstream.

How Many of Us Do NOT Marry?

One final statistic that pulls together all the trends mentioned above is the percentage of single-person households.

Following the same country pattern as divorce rates, European countries (especially Nordic countries) have the highest number of single person households, followed by Canada and the USA, then Latin America and Asia. Pakistan has the lowest number of single person households in the OECD.

This statistic is where all aspects of the decline in traditional marriage come to rest. Fewer people are choosing to marry, those marrying are doing so later in life, and more couples are separating and divorcing. All this leads to a higher number of single person households. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If there is a crisis here, it’s that we need more houses. That first recorded marriage back in 2350 BC, between two kids who would be in grade 7 in our times – just doesn’t work. Things have changed, and marriage too will change and adapt.

Increasing equality between the sexes, personal and economic freedoms, birth control, and just plain knowledge of the world all mean that marriage has some catching up to do. In times of COVID and beyond, women and men will find some form of relationship that works for them and for them to have and raise children. Love – Para Siempre. Feliz Día del Amor y la Amistad.