Rise of matriarchy in Southern Mexico

It turns out the Isthmus Zapotec women, also known as Tehuanas, have a lot to thank for the Spanish administrators, a fancy railway and Frida Kahlo…

Between posting our adventures in the Isthmus Zapotec culture, I thought I should give you the details of how these women rose to fame in the first place.

  • In 1522, the Spanish arrived to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec led by the conquistador Pedro de Alvarado. The last Zapotec King Cosijoppi was no match for the Spanish and was quickly converted to Christianity, and the town of Tehuantepec was established. Later in the seventeenth century travellers used Tehuantepec as one of the main crossing points from the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and from North America to Central America. Tales of exotic natives in a lush tropical paradise soon started to capture their imagination. The English Dominican Monk Thomas Gage (normally a balanced observer) describes the place in 1648 as:

… a mysterious land filled with witches, devils and Indians in the shape of beasts.

  • Most travellers, however, were less superstitious and simply enchanted by the flamboyant women, the way they balanced large baskets on their heads, spoke freely with the men and bathed naked. The French colonist and travel writer Mathieu de Fossey in 1832 observes with some affection:

The first time I saw young Tehuanas in their traditional dresses, I thought they were divine. Moreover, their gaze and their demeanour create an air of softness the ideal complement to their elegant grooming. Living beneath such a scorching sky it follows that they have a passion for pleasure.


  • The market place was the main area where women showed their strength. Due to the early Spanish administrator’s excessively raising taxes, it forced the men to work longer in the fields, allowing the women to take full control over the business of selling. Early anthropologists to the region saw this as a clear sign of matriarchy. To give you an idea of what they must have witnessed, here is a typical day-in-a-life of an Isthmus Zapotec couple:

Due to the immense heat of the day, the husband starts work in the fields at a sleepy 3am, and returns home, exhausted, at 10am. He gives the produce to his wife to sell at the market, and then collapses into a hammock for a well-earned siesta.
The wife sells the fruit and veg for the highest price she can, and then returns home around mid-afternoon, just as the husband is getting up. She gives him a little pocket money, but keeps the rest for managing the house and family.
Later in the afternoon the husband usually goes to the local cantina (bar) to meet up with friends, and sink a few beers or shots of mescal. He invariably spends all of his pocket money, and on some occasions has to be physically carried home and put to bed by his wife, so he is ready to start work early the next day again.


Due to this nocturnal and inebriated life style of the men, it is not surprising the women were seen as being in charge.

  • Trade in the region increased dramatically with the Californian gold rush of 1848, but a bigger influence at the time happened when a young precocious Tehuana started a relationship with the future president of Mexico, Porfirio Diaz. Her name was Juana Catalina Romero, and she amassed great wealth and influence, but did not use it all for her own gain. Every year when Juana travelled to Europe she brought back expensive cottons and silks to transform the look of local Tehuanas. The English journalist WE Carson at the beginning of the twentieth century noticed this new look quite profoundly:

Nothing else betrays so quickly the social condition of a race as the status of its womankind. The difference between the Zapotec women and their uncomely, unkempt sisters of northern Mexico is almost the difference between savagery and civilization.


  • The greatest moment in the history of Tehuantepec, however, began in 1907, with the inauguration of the Trans-Isthmus Railway, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. At its height it was one of the busiest railroads in the Americas, bringing prosperity to all towns on route. During this period the Tehuana costume received lace decorations from Holland, shawls from the Philippines, and necklaces of real gold coins came into fashion. To add to the cosmopolitan atmosphere, food acquired a Mediterranean and Arabic flavour, and music was enriched with rhythms from Cuba and Chile.
  • During the 1920s the symbol of the Tehuana became exactly what artists, intellectuals and politicians were looking for to represent a new inspired Mexico – a Mexico that could embrace its indigenous cultures and come together as a proud Nation. One of the artists responsible for depicting the Istmus Zapotecs as this new symbol of Mexico was Diego Rivera.
    Jose Vasconcelos the Minister of Education, commissioned Diego to paint a series of murals celebrating traditional Mexican life. He sent the artist south to Tehuantepec to gain inspiration. The result is a set of murals that cover the entire first floor balcony of the Ministry of Education in Mexico City, and which glorify the life of the local Tehuanas. Diego did such a good job in fact that he managed to transform the voluptuous Istmus women into Greek Goddesses to be worshiped by the Mexican public.


  • Other artists and intellectuals soon flocked to the region to be inspired by the aesthetic power of the women, among them, Diego’s wife Frida Kahlo. By painting herself in traditional Isthmus costumes, and wearing their outfits on a daily basis in public, Frida helped to popularise the women even further. She was using the Tehuana image to be seen both as an intellectual sympathiser of indigenous cultures, and a flamboyant independent woman.


  • By the 1930s the Tehuana image had become an established symbol of Indigenous Mexico. Films portrayed Tehuantepec as the magical birthplace of Mexican culture: breweries gave away calendars with pictures of pretty girls in Tehuana dresses, and operetta companies presented strains of local Isthmus songs, La Zandunga and La Llorona, now famous all over the world. All classes of Mexicans were being irrepressibly drawn into the enigma of the Tehuana.
  • Popularity culminated when the face of a local Isthmus girl was printed onto a ten pesos bank note, in circulation from 1937 to 1967. Since then, however, the iconic status of the Tehuana has slowly been on the decline, and, for many, the reputation of the Isthmus Zapotec women has drifted into the realm of legend.


So… there you have it. How the Tehuana rose to such heights of fame, usually reserved for royalty.

For me, however, just because the Isthmus Zapotec women were clever enough to use various situations to their advantage, does not necessarily mean they are matriarchal…

Stay posted for more of our adventures in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.

Thank you for your interest in our project.

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