In the market place women conduct most of the business … while the poor, henpecked men keep in the background. The women usually hold the family purse, and it is even impossible for a man to get credit unless his wife vouches for him. Under these circumstances, it would be a blissful abiding place for the suffragettes.
This is how the British journalist WE Carson describes the Isthmus of Tehuantepec at the beginning of the twentieth century.
On our hunt for matriarchy, Katerina and I explore the outdoor markets of San Blas Atempa, the biggest of which is Mercado Cuarenta (Market Forty) held daily from 4am to 10am.
The earliest we manage to get there, however, is a lazy 7am.
The market is set on a crossroads near the edge of town and has the look of an old Wild West film set. The odd horse drawn cart clatters by and colourful obese women noisily gossip to one another, while eyeing us up suspiciously.
As I didn’t have time to get breakfast, my eyes goggle at the amazing selection of cooked food on offer: iguana empanadas, red chilli chickens hot pot, green chilli rellenos, fresh roasted sea fish, milk and maize gelatinas, and boiled salted turtle eggs (illegal in Mexico).
Katerina gets talking to a stout butcher woman in her early forties called Alicia.
“Look, my eldest daughter Zarina is expecting her first child,” Alicia says, displaying her twenty year old daughter who is helping to slice the meat.
“And… how about you,” Alicia points at Katerina. “You are thirty and still nothing, do you have a problem?” she suggests rudely.
“There is no time for children,” Katerina answers bravely, making the market women around her cackle in agreement.
“You are so thin and beautiful, I wish I looked like you,” Alicia says, holding up a thin lick of meat.
“But Zapotec women have to be big and strong, that’s the way they are,” Katerina says, trying to be supportive.
“Not really, it is just because we eat too much. If we were like you we would have a better chance to get a gringo,” Alicia declares looking across at me, and all the women split themselves laughing.
“That one over there,” she points impolitely at a short fat woman selling gelatinas. “She is thirty, and is still a senorita.”
“So, she is not married?” Katerina says innocently.
“Yes, of course,” shouts a woman from the crowd. “It means she has not fu***d yet!” and everyone erupts again with uncontrollable laughter, except for the poor woman in question.
Alicia’s skinny husband, Manuel, works as a motocaro driver, and waits patiently on the other side of the street for the morning’s excitement to die down. His job is to help fold up the market tables and ferry the women home. I feel a little bit sorry for Manuel, because he has a rather defeatist expression on his face and hunched shoulder.
To start a conversation, I ask if he would prefer to be selling at the market like his wife, instead of being a motocaro driver.
“For sure at the market, you finish early, as a driver you have to work the whole day,” Manuel says in a thoughtful voice.
“But, I cannot do it. I would be too ashamed, because there are just women here. Everywhere else in Mexico men work at the markets as well, sometimes just men, but here it’s just women.”
“I have only been driving this motocaro for five months. Before I worked in Salina Cruz for eight years in a ship building yard, but I got fed up with it and left.”
Katerina asks Alicia if she is happy with Manuel changing his job, and suggests that it must give him more time to spend at home with the family.
“No, not really, it would be better if he worked properly, and earned good money,” Alicia says, scowling at him, “who knows what idea he will come up with next?”
“Who brings the most money home?” I ask.
“When Manual had a proper job, he used to earn much more than me, we built a house, bought a TV, and a washing machine. But now I earn more than him, it is not very much, just enough for daily needs like food,” Alicia says, trying to conceal her large well-fed torso with a humble smile.
“The woman always looks after the money,” Alicia continues. “When a family is poor, people start gossiping that the woman is not able to manage money.”
“But what happens if the man doesn’t give you the money?” I challenge her.
“That is simple – he will not eat!” Alicia says, smiling broadly, and I find myself looking across at her skinny husband Manuel again, who is now busy folding up the market tables.
On another visit to Mercado Cuarenta we meet an amusing couple called Jorge and Juquila. Jorge helps me sketch a woman selling boiled turtle eggs, and amusingly adds the turtle and where the eggs come from. Meanwhile, Juquila casually buys a dozen small eggs from the woman, and then offers them to me.
“They are re-charging for men,” Jorge says, gobbling down several eggs at once.
With Katerina’s immense disapproval, I peel back the soft leathery skin of one of the eggs and guiltily pop it into my mouth. It is dry and crumbly, but very tasty, like a good free range chicken egg.
Picking up on the fact that Juquila bought the eggs, I ask Jorge what he thinks about women being in charge of the finances.
“Women do not drink as much as men, so they are cleverer in the head,” Jorge says, taping his own head with his finger. “A man just gets drunk, sees another woman and loses his mind. He cannot manage money like a woman can.”
“But, you don’t look like a drunk?” I say encouragingly.
“Yes I am – at the weekends,” Jorge boasts with a wide Mexican grin.
“We have lots of fiestas here; this weekend there will be several Birthdays and Weddings, it’s always like this, and…” he hesitates, “it’s always about drinking – you must come.”
I dictate my mobile number to Jorge, but he has difficulty keying it into his phone, so I have to repeat the number several times. Before he manages to complete this simple task, however, I get a call from an unknown number – it is Juquila, Jorge’s wife! She had been listening into our conversation and taken my number on the first shout, and was already buzzing me back.
Jorge looks at me hopelessly, hangs his head, and then puts away his phone.
The American anthropologist Frederic Starr at the turn of the twentieth century, describes the atmosphere on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in a very similar way to how I would today:
It must be admitted the women appear to have more energy and quicker intelligence than their husbands. They appear to decide most matters of importance and are the usual ‘spokesmen’ of the family… The traveller meets a constant line of ox-carts, each usually carrying a whole family. Should he ask his way, it is generally the woman who responds?
Me trying to blend in with the women!
Next time I will be delving into the drunken and rowdy street fiestas of the Isthmus Zapotec culture – stay tuned.
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