Tag Archives: rural

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).

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.