Tag Archives: women

Editor’s Letter

By Jane Bauer

“The story of women’s struggle for equality belongs to no single feminist nor to any one organization but to the collective efforts of all who care about human rights.”
Gloria Steinem

I am grateful to the generation of women that came before me and told me that I could be anything. Yet, for me, this also translated into the idea that I had to do everything. While I wanted a career I also wanted to be the kind of mother who drives the kids to tennis lessons and picks them up from school. The world I was raised in didn’t make it seem very possible to have both, and career was definitely considered better and more respect-worthy than becoming a housewife.

The world today is different. Being able to work remotely and have flexible hours has made it easier than ever for women to have a work/life balance. Reproductive choice – access to birth control and pregnancy termination – has also made it easier for women to choose what their future will look like.

Every International Women’s Day we celebrate the women who are making strides ahead. We raise them up on pedestals as examples of what is possible. We applaud our gender and marvel at how far we have come. Those who have peeked over the glass ceiling give speeches on how they hope to inspire girls to strive to the top of whichever field they choose.

But if the standard we hold for success is that every woman become a doctor, CEO or climate change activist we will always fall short of our goal.

Rather than look at the millions of women who spend their days caring for their family as failed potential, we could elevate our value of the tasks that occupy them. What if we elevated the value we put on what is termed ‘women’s work’?

What if we shifted our expectations of what it means to be a feminist to be more inclusive to those who haven’t had access to academic schooling on gender theory or the chance to get an MBA?

This IWD let us celebrate the women who are doing laundry in rivers, carpooling their kids to hockey, cooking dinner while staying on budget, helping with science class volcanos and mediating tantrums from toddlers.

Because while it is encouraging to be taught you can do anything, being taught that you are enough is true empowerment.

See you next month,

Jane

Fertile Ground for Life-Changing Insights,Self-Forgiveness, and Joy

By Kary Vannice

For our women’s issue several years ago (2017), I wrote an article about the mistreatment of inmates in women’s prisons in Mexico. My research uncovered unspeakable human rights abuses and a judicial system that turned a blind eye to reported sexual assault and torture. Many of the accounts were too stomach-turning to include in the article, and I felt deeply for these women. Their stories stuck with me because even law-breaking inmates deserve to be treated with respect and dignity.

There are 102 women’s jails and prisons in Mexico, one of the toughest of which is in Ecatepec de Morelos, in the state of Mexico on the outskirts of Mexico City. This penitentiary houses several hundred women and many report living conditions that are borderline inhumane. Some have reported having to sleep standing up because there is no room for them to sit or lie down at night. Any possession, even a toothbrush, must be carried on one’s person at all times, or it will be immediately stolen.

It is a harsh environment filled with hardened criminals with hardened attitudes toward life and everyone around them. Forced to live in survival mode 24/7, there is no time to contemplate or create community, and vulnerability could mean death.

This is not the kind of environment that seems ripe for spiritual transformation work, unless you’re two Mexican women with a shared dream of helping this largely forgotten and underserved population.

Enter the Give to Give Foundation, a not-for-profit organization headquartered in New York that supports an organizational change technique called neuro-change solutions, based on the work of Dr. Joe Dispenza, a neuroscientist, researcher, teacher, and best-selling author. As the pandemic closed organizations down, Dispenza became interested in using his approach in prisons. Rose Caiola, Chair of the Board of Directors of Give to Give was more interested in working with women in prison. Through a series of coincidental meetings, Give to Give began a pilot project with at the penitentiary in Ecatepec – a simple three-day workshop to help rehabilitate and bring positive change to the lives of female convicts living in some of the worst conditions imaginable. The project was headed up by Verónica Ontiveros, who is with Give to Give in Mexico, and Sonia Peña García, a certified NCS consultant based in Monterrey.

It may seem that three days would not be nearly enough to change the mindset of someone who had been incarcerated for decades, attempted suicide multiple times, or sold their own child for grocery money, but, in fact, the opposite was true. The depraved conditions offered the perfect fertile ground for life-changing insights, self-forgiveness, and joy to bloom once more.

Twenty-eight women participated in the pilot project. Over the three days, they learned how to shift out of survival mode by releasing emotions like shame, blame, selfishness, anger, hatred, and resentment, and take 100% responsibility for their lives and their circumstances.

Slowly, the women began to laugh, trust, and smile again. One woman said, “I haven’t laughed in years. I didn’t even remember what it felt like to smile.” She was moved to tears just by seeing her own smiling face in the mirror again. Something had awakened in her, an inner knowing, an inner light.

At the end of the training, another woman raised her hand and exclaimed. “I finally got it! It’s not about having freedom outside. Freedom is a feeling. It’s a state of mind. So, if I think and feel that I am free, then I’m free here, even in prison.”

Each day, the women were also taught how to quiet their minds and meditate on the feelings of freedom, joy, and inner peace so that they could feel more in control of their lives again.

Twenty days after the three-day workshop, organizers returned to the prison for a surprise visit to see if the participants had integrated what they had learned into their daily lives. Upon arrival, they discovered that two of the participants had been released for good behavior and that every other woman that remained had been completely transformed. Their faces were brighter, they looked happier, they were more open and accepting of others around them. They were genuinely living examples of what they had learned. So much so that other inmates were requesting to take part in the next workshop.

Many of the women also reported improved relationships with their families on the outside and had eagerly shared what they had learned with their children, parents, husbands, and extended family.

Because of the success of the pilot project, Give to Give is now planning to expand the project to other women’s prisons in several other states in Mexico; they have the support of prison officials, who also noticed the change in the participants immediately, even though the conditions around them had not changed.

These 28 women, who were living in the very worst of conditions, now understand that it’s not the world around you that has to change for you to feel free and happy; it’s your inner world that must change first. That is where the true power lies to control your environment.

An Eye on the Women of The Eye

By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken

Inspired by International Women’s Day, which falls on March 8th, which in turn inspires much of the content of the March issue of The Eye, Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken have profiled the women writers of The Eye. We’ll be reprinting those profiles month by month, in alphabetical order, starting with founder and Editor-in-Chief Jane Bauer. As the months go by, we’ll sneak in the men, too!

Jane Bauer

Jane is the Editor-in-Chief, Art Director, Publisher, Marketing Director, and originator of The Eye magazine. She began the publication in January 2011 as a means of building a bridge between visitors and English-speaking residents in Mexico and the many small businesses available to provide them with goods and services. She realized that some tourists and foreign residents held distorted perspectives based on misinformation about Mexico and its people, the “nationals” with whom they were interacting. Jane brought together a small group of writers who previously had extensive literary experience and a deep interest in Mexico, and encouraged us to research and write articles about diverse topics to address these misconceptions. She also saw The Eye as a vehicle for small businesses to reach out to visitors and foreign residents with the goal of promoting and growing many “mom and pop” business enterprises. Many local businesses were receptive to this concept and provided support; for example Johnny Gonzales, of Lorama Grafi, did the layouts for the first six issues of the magazine, and he trained Jane to take over the activity.

Jane’s establishment of The Eye might possibly have been predicted from her early years. She was born and raised in Montreal, attending French-speaking schools, including a high school semester in Brittany, France, and went on to earn a BA at McGill University in Cultural Studies with a minor in Women’s Studies. Before graduation, she traveled to Mexico and once she saw Mazunte in Oaxaca she vowed to return, and she did. She worked at small family-run inn in Puerto Ángel and it was there she met her husband. Once their baby daughter Frances was born, Jane became a stay-at-home mom until, in 2005, Frances was ready for first grade. Jane moved to Huatulco where there was a better offering of schools for her daughter and began teaching yoga.

In 2008, she started Café Juanita, which recently moved to Tangolunda. Beginning in 2009, Jane and her boyfriend opened Hemingway’s Cantina, and many of us fondly remember the events she organized there, such as Oscar Night, until 2013. In addition to yoga and Café Juanita, Jane coordinated weddings starting in 2010, established the Huatulco Salt Company in 2016, and started giving cooking lessons. Later she designed and built the Chiles&Chocolate Cooking School in Zimatán, a rural village 25 minutes outside Huatulco, where she also hosts weekly farm-to-table dinners. In the hours when she is not teaching, managing her numerous projects and bringing out the latest issue of The Eye, Jane is a voracious reader, totaling 53 books last year, mostly fiction.

In her role as Editor-in-Chief, Jane publishes an editorial each month. Although she is hard-pressed to select a favorite, she really likes her editorial from the September/October 2013 issue on “What I Learned in Mexico.” Jane is justifiably proud of the way the English-speaking community continues to clamor for hard copies of The Eye and equally proud of the ability of the online Eye to keep people living in other countries interested in Mexico and wanting to return. As Jane hoped, The Eye has become a bridge among foreign visitors and residents and many small businesses. Businesses that advertise in or are written about in The Eye report significant increases in patronage.

For more about Jane: Instagram @livingfoodmexico

Editor’s Letter

By Jane Bauer

When I was growing up, gym class was treated as a less important subject than math or English. It was grouped in with art and woodworking (which I wish I had taken). It was a class you would skip without being worried about falling behind and many girls I know routinely came up with reasons for being excused from it. However, in the real world, skills learned in gym class are incredibly useful: it forces people to get out of their physical comfort zones, and it teaches teamwork, discipline, and communication.

On a larger scale, sports unites or separates groups, depending on whether you are a glass half-full or half-empty kind of person. The swell of stadium calls and passionate allegiances to teams have led to violent riots but also to emotional triumphs that have lifted people up and improved their lives.

One such moment is happening as I write this. With the Taliban in Afghanistan returning to power, the world watches helplessly to see how this will play out. Women will most likely be prevented from working (except as teachers and nurses), they will be restricted to women-only spaces at university and I assume limited in the subjects they are allowed to learn. You can bet they won’t be allowed to play sports where any aggressiveness might be displayed, a challenge to the meek silent demeanor the Taliban wants to force upon women. In the face of this, members of the Afghanistan women’s junior football (soccer) team and their families have fled to neighbouring Pakistan.

The international organization Football for Peace worked out the arrangements; Fawad Chaudry, Pakistan’s information minister, tweeted that the team had entered Pakistan at the Torkham border crossing and were met by a representative of the Pakistan Football Federation. The news service Reuters later published a photo taken at the PFF headquarters in Lahore of the 81 people involved – the team, their families, and their coaches; another 34 people are expected shortly.

When it comes to communities where girls and women are restricted in public life, sports can have an effective social impact. Girls who play sports tend to have higher self-esteem, continue further in education, and I would also posit that they learn to value their bodies as action-based, rather than through the sexualized lens of the media and social media.

My philosophy has always been “If you want to help a community support the education of its women.” I think I can take that one step further and include supporting its sports teams.

See you next month,

Jane

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).

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).

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.