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Into the Hearts of the Amazons is part rousing travel adventure through a little-known world and part popular ethnography, exploring how Zapotec women earned their legendary status in a remote corner of southern Mexico. To satisfy his curiosity about this culture, Tom DeMott journeyed to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, where he discovered a thriving modern-day matriarchy among the people of the Isthmus—a cultural crossroads, breeding ground for rebels, and home to a half-million Zapotecs. DeMott integrated himself into the culture by joining in the rites of spring (where women pelt the men with fruit); by interviewing the women who control the marketplace where men are rarely seen; and by honoring the saints with drink and dance at all-night ceremonies. Evoking these singular women and their culture, DeMott tackles a primal question: What would life be like if women, rather than men, had the advantage?
MAY 1997. The only photo I have of Rosa sits unprotected on my basement desk, and fleck-by-fleck it is disappearing. This began a year ago, when the same humidity that soaked and rotted the basement door began chipping off the pale olive of Rosa's neck. And though I've been meaning to put the photo away for years, it has lingered, neither framed along with loved ones nor categorized in an album with other, less significant photos.
I met Rosa in Juchitán, a dusty, windblown town deep in the flatlands that lie along Oaxaca's Pacific coast. It was May, at the beginning of the rainy season, but the cloud cover had yet to yield its first drop. From my seat on the bus the only signs of life on the desert flats that surround Juchitán were gray shrubs and leafless trees. As we approached the outskirts of town, men in wooden carts drawn by oxen returned from the fields along a dirt road that ran parallel to the highway. At seven, we rolled into Juchitán, and I took a room at the Fortress Hotel on Calle 5 de Septiembre, ten blocks north of the plaza.
On Monday, my first day in Juchitán, I woke to learn that my hotel faced a mortuary. It was a two-story, Bauhaus building with a bleak angularity that brought to mind Druid structures before the invention of the arch. The color of the mortuary, however, rescued it from its dreary architecture with an optimistic blue that belied the true nature of the business. This cheerful effect was heightened with signs in white that gave warm welcome to the bereaved: OPEN: RING THE BELL and ECONOMIC COFFINS and SERVICE TWENTY-FOUR HOURS A DAY. Below the signs, an oversized showcase window was filled with coffins, one stacked on top of the other like cakes on display at a bakery. Some of the coffins were wooden and plain; others were wrapped in satin with silver fringe and sagging ribbons. All were fitted with brass handles that caught and reflected the morning sun.
Some might have interpreted the location of the mortuary so close to their hotel as an ill omen, but for me it marked an auspicious beginning. Before all else, Mexicans are a spiritual people, and any attempt to understand them must begin with a look at the supernatural world of the indigenous people who inhabit the area. The Isthmus is heavily populated by Zapotecs, and the rituals they practice are far different from the Aztecs of Mexico's Central Valley or the Mayans of the Yucatan Peninsula. One constant, however, is the importance these Mesoamerican peoples give death and its attendant rituals. Although a saint's birthday is not shrugged off as unimportant, only the date of a saint's death can propel the extravagance of a Mexican feast day. Given this perspective, I saw the mortuary as a gateway to the spiritual world of the Zapotecs. Add to this the fact that spirituality was a part of the culture in which Isthmus women maintained exclusive control, and you will understand why I resolved to make contact with the owner of the mortuary in a day's time.
On the morning of my second day in Juchitán, I seated myself in the hotel restaurant where I could keep an eye on the mortuary. I ordered the Continental Breakfast: three slices of white bread with pineapple jam and a cup of instant coffee. Halfway through the toast, a blonde, fair-skinned woman in her early twenties emerged from the mortuary carrying a plastic bucket. She snatched a sponge from the bucket and began sloshing soapy water onto the hood of a silver hearse with a blue oval logo that said Laroche. I paid the bill and headed for the mortuary, rehearsing under my breath what I would say in Spanish: No soy antropólogo (I am not an anthropologist). This should come first, because as anyone familiar with the Isthmus knows, the Zapotecs have had enough of anthropologists. In the 1960s, American anthropologist Beverly Chiñas took up residence in the Isthmus, denouncing matriarchy as myth "because anthropologists have never encountered any truly matriarchal cultures." In the 1990s, a group of German feminists led by Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen descended on Juchitán, renaming it "The City of Women" and insisting that Juchitán's society was-and always had been-a matriarchy. In between the Americans and Germans, a slew of anthropologists had come and gone, each one with a fresh opinion about who held power in the Isthmus.
And so it was that I crossed the street with a certain amount of apprehension, and rather than entering the mortuary, I approached the young woman washing the hearse. "Is the owner in?" I said. She put the sponge into the bucket, drew a strand of hair off her face, and said, "My husband is inside." Through the glass door, a man with a potbelly that would have filled a wheelbarrow spoke to a young woman in black. He did not look like a mortician. A braided gold necklace swung conspicuously around his neck, standing in contrast to his otherwise casual dress. For a shirt, he wore a white, V-neck tank top; for pants, khaki shorts cut off above the knees. His eyes shone with a kind of restrained optimism, and his cheeks, which had become dislodged from his cheekbones, sagged with the onset of middle age, but he brought them into place when he smiled, and this was often.
When I entered the mortuary, he stopped midsentence and stared. This sort of reaction-a stunned look and a long stare-was something I would have to become accustomed to in Juchitán. Although it is less than 350 miles south of Acapulco, Juchitán is light years from contemporary culture. It has little tourism, and I would soon learn that I could stop conversations and turn heads no matter where I went-so rare were the features of my North American face to a town so removed from time.
The man held up his index finger as a signal to the young woman in black that he wanted a moment to deal with me. Then he approached me, grinning as though he had won the national lottery. We shook hands, and he introduced himself as Pablo Laroche. I waited for him to introduce the young woman. She wore a long, one-piece garment that was more T-shirt than dress, and it hung on her like it would have on a hook or hanger, revealing nothing about her shape other than an occasional bone. As soon as I looked in her direction, she turned away from us and fixed her gaze on the coffins in the showcase window.
When Pablo asked what brought me to Juchitán, I paused. I wanted to give him the long answer, but I was sure that this would take more time than he was willing to spend. I would have to explain that when I was a freshman at university and began pursuing the opposite sex, the women's movement was in full flux. In the newspaper I spread out on the kitchen table before going to class, I learned of the Equal Rights Amendment and the inequity of women's salaries when compared to men's. Editorials written by feminists attacked not only the patriarchal structure of American society; they blamed patriarchs for bringing war, hunger, and corporate greed to America and the world. Senseless as it may seem, I took these attacks personally, and a question took seed in my mind: Would life be any better in a matriarchy?
Though I carried this question in the back of my mind for years, I assumed there was no answer; matrilineal and matriarchal societies had ceased to exist. But seven years ago, while reading Paul Theroux's The Old Patagonian Express, I came across a paragraph that caught my attention: "These Indians, the Zapotecs, were a matrilineal people: the women owned land, fished, traded, farmed, and ran the local government; the men, with that look of silliness that comes of being bone-idle, lounged around. The station showed this tradition to be unchanged: enterprising women, empty-handed men."
This passage rekindled my interest in seeking an answer to the matriarchy question, and according to my guidebook, I could catch a flight at noon in San Francisco and by nine the same day I would be in Oaxaca. On the topic of women, the guidebook went a step further than Paul Theroux. It described Tehuantepec-the second largest city in the Isthmus-as a matriarchal society "where the birth of a daughter is a cause for celebration, and the men turn their wages over to their wives, who control family finances."
But I felt suspicious. Paul Theroux took his stand on the matriarchy question while sitting in a train headed south. He never bothered to speak with the Zapotecs. He didn't even step off the train. And although my guidebook went one step further, guidebooks are notoriously unreliable. If I wanted the truth, I would have to travel to the Isthmus and speak with the enterprising women and the empty-handed men myself.
The time would come when I would tell Pablo this and more about the reasons why I had traveled to Juchitán. For now, however, I gave Pablo a shorter version. I explained that I was a writer, not an anthropologist, and that I had a personal interest in gender and a curiosity about matriarchal societies. But no sooner had the word matriarchal passed from my lips than Pablo's smile faded, and it was clear I had touched on a topic he was tired of discussing. "Isthmus women work very hard," he said. "They also work long hours, sometimes ten to twelve hours a day. If an Isthmus woman's husband doesn't give her any money, she doesn't care. If her husband runs around drinking, it doesn't matter to her, she keeps on working. I lived in Veracruz for a long time. The women there are lazy, but here they work hard. This doesn't make them matriarchs, but it gives them privileges that women from other parts of Mexico don't usually have. When tourists see our women enjoying these privileges, they jump to conclusions."
I knew this argument. It was a variation on what I will call the "tourist myth." For decades, Istmeños have blamed tourists for inventing and perpetuating the myth of Isthmus matriarchy. Isthmus men, the argument goes, rise before dawn to work in the fields while Isthmus women labor in the market. When tourists come to walk through the plaza, they see women hard at work in the market while the men are nowhere in sight. Based on what they see, the tourists falsely conclude that Isthmus society is matriarchal, and when they return home, they spread the word, and thus the myth was born.
But I told Pablo none of this. It would only alienate him, and this made no sense. He was articulate. He spoke Spanish rapidly, but clearly, and I felt lucky to have found him.
"So what exactly does your interest in matriarchy have to do with my mortuary?" Pablo said.
I explained to him what I knew about Zapotec rituals of death: that Isthmus women dominate the ceremonies, and in a society renowned for ancestor worship, I conjectured that this must lend them power. "Little is written about these rituals," I said, "and I had hoped you could answer some of my questions."
"Better than telling you," Pablo said, "why don't you tag along with me today and see firsthand. We'll be delivering a casket that Benita-the young woman in black-is picking out for her mother." Then Pablo put his big, Gallic nose in my ear and murmured, "I should warn you that the woman who died suffered from diabetes. She had gangrene on her legs, which is pretty common when diabetes reaches an advanced stage, so the smell will be strong, and the sight of her legs might sicken you. If you can help me lift her into the coffin, I'd be glad to answer your questions."
Soon, Benita had chosen a coffin for her mother, Victoria. Pablo and his teenage helper lifted it out of the showcase window. It was the smallest and simplest coffin and unlike any I'd ever seen. Someone, a seamstress, had tacked gray, pleated organdy to the sides of the casket, and the cloth on top was printed with tiny white marigolds against a black background. Benita followed the coffin with her eyes on its way to the truck, and as she turned toward me, I saw in her face the look of the trustworthy, of the child who assumes too much responsibility too soon. She wore no makeup or jewelry, and her black, shoulder-length hair was parted down the middle and tucked into place behind her ears. Her features were small and fine and-because of the recent past-fixed as a Toltec mask.
As I studied Benita, I wondered if she had foreknowledge of her mother's death. According to Zapotec tradition, a person who is approaching death will witness omens. There are the usual Mexican portents, such as the hooting of an owl and the presence of a great black moth in the house. To this list, the Isthmus Zapotecs have added their own: those about to die dream of falling teeth. When one or more of these omens occur, the person near death will often ask family members to remain with them as the date approaches.
I left Benita and joined Pablo outside, where his helper was loading a flatbed pickup with folding chairs. It was near ten now, and a blazing sun had risen over the top of the Fortress Hotel. And though I stood still in the shade, sweat rolled off my forehead and bled through my shirt. Many of the people brushing by me on the sidewalk carried a piece of cloth in their hands. Some carried handkerchiefs, others dishrags or washcloths, and it wasn't until a man took a swipe at his forehead with a terry-cloth towel that I realized that the cloths were intended to mop up sweat. Called paliacates, they are a permanent fixture of Isthmus life and a testimonial to Isthmus heat.
After Pablo finished loading several candleholders and a pair of silver crucifixes into the truck, he motioned to me to join him in the front seat. I got in and moved to the center of the seat to make room for Benita. Then I heard her high heels on the wooden bed of the truck behind me. Before I had time to ask about this unusual seating arrangement, Pablo had driven off toward the main plaza.
The buildings that lined the stretch of road between the mortuary and the plaza are divided evenly between homes and businesses. Unlike most homes in Mexico, with their protective walls to keep out intruders, the adobe homes in Juchitán do without them and are set back a good hundred feet from the road. Trust is a factor, and so is heat: the unwalled homes allow cooling breezes to pass over the bare-earth yards, which are often shaded by mango and tamarind trees. But the more we drove, the more it became clear that most of the buildings in Juchitán, especially those that housed businesses, were monolithic cinderblock structures, not much different from Pablo's mortuary.
As we neared the marketplace, the proportion of women to men rose dramatically; there were at least three or four women for every man. Many women balanced baskets on their heads that they had stuffed with fruit or tortillas or fish and called out what they had for sale in Zapotec, a tonal language that sounded more like Chinese than Spanish. The full-length skirts they wore touched the ground and hid their feet, creating the impression that the women floated rather than walked. Indigo, brilliant red, yellow, and purple were the colors of their skirts, and the women stood out against the cinderblock buildings like a flock of parrots crossing a twilight sky. "The full-length skirts you see the women wearing are called enaguas, and the blouses, huipiles," Pablo said. "Surprising as it might seem, these women are not dressed up. They are on their way to market in their everyday dress. Most are wearing what we call the huipil de cadenilla." The huipil is a sleeveless garment seen throughout Mesoamerica and can be sewn in minutes. A yard of muslin is folded in half, and a hole is made in the center for the neck. This is draped over the shoulders of the wearer and sewn at the sides, leaving two armholes in the measurements of the wearer's arms. "Unlike the huipil de fiesta where the flowers are embroidered by hand," Pablo continued, "the geometric patterns on the huipil de cadenilla are created with a sewing machine." Cadenilla is Spanish for chain, an appropriate name because the gold thread with which the huipil de cadenilla is embroidered creates the illusion that the women wore gold chains around their necks.
Frida Kahlo often wore Zapotec costume when painted by Diego Rivera and also in many of her self-portraits such as Pensando en Diego and Dos Fridas. "In another period I dressed like a boy with shaved hair, pants, boots, and a leather jacket," Frida wrote. "But when I went to see Diego, I put on a Tehuana costume." Aside from the obvious beauty of Isthmus dress, Frida chose to wear it for what it symbolized to Mexicans. "The costume she favored was that of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec," wrote Kahlo biographer Hayden Herrera, "and the legends surrounding them informed her choice: Tehuantepec women are famous for being stately, beautiful, sensuous, intelligent, brave and strong. When she put on Tehuana costume, she was choosing a new identity and she did it with the fervor of a nun taking the veil."
Excerpted from Into the Hearts of the Amazons by Tom DeMott Copyright © 2006 by Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. Excerpted by permission.
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