The closest I came to witnessing the physical strength of the Isthmus women was a brawl at a local cantina (bar) on our first visit to Tehuantepec.
Katerina had left early because it seemed to be too much of man’s world in the bar. The moment she walks out the door, however, this big woman comes storming in and marches past me up to the bar. She grabs a woman sat on a stool by the shoulder (possibly a prostitute) and starts a verbal attack.
This quickly escalates into a full-on brawl. The men sat nearby shuffle their chairs out of the way to give the women more space. Only the barman tries to try to intervene, with little success. It ends with the woman who marched in, marching out again, satisfied the other woman has been suitably beaten and embarrassed.
None of the men in the bar say anything and continue their card game calmly. The woman who had been beaten returns to her stool, a little shaken. The barman then complains to me: “Women here on the Isthmus like to express themselves, which is fine by me, as long as they don’t do it in my bar!”
During the course of history the Isthmus Zapotec women have participated in many rebellions against all their oppressors, from the Spanish colonialists to modern-day dictators.
From the 17th to 19th centuries nine rebellions took place on the Istmus, and as well as the men the women also formed mobs, arming themselves with stones and knives they stowed beneath their skirts.
The largest and most famous rebellion happened in 1660, when the new Spanish Mayor of Tehuantepec Juan de Avellán began imposing heavier taxes on the locals. He came down hard on local chiefs who had not been thorough with their collections. The Spanish chronicler Manso de Contreras describes the bloody events that came to pass that Easter Monday:
The Mayor of Tehuantepec, already unpopular, ordered the whipping of a local chief for delivering some ‘sloppy [made] blankets to provoke and irritate
his [the Mayor’s] spirit’. In reaction the thousand or so native Indians who were gathered in the town for the Easter celebrations, suddenly started to gather sticks and stones.
A frenzied attacked ensued: ‘They took the streets, occupied the plazas, surrounded the houses and won the eminences of the hills […] the women especially, were the worst and the most obstinate, daring and brave stone throwers.’
The Mayor was eventually forced out of his residence by fire and smoke. He made a dash to win the church, and seek sacred protection, but in the middle of the plaza he was knocked down by a stone, and a mob of women and men descended upon him. He was beaten, and his body pierced with his own rapier (long thin Spanish sword). Story has it that the stone thrower was a woman.
The Isthmus Zapotecs seized forty muskets and other weapons, and for a year they commanded Tehuantepec and the surrounding region. Eventually, however, the rebellion was suppressed by the Spanish in 1661, and the culprits rounded up and sentenced. The women received the same punishments as the men.
Manso de Contreras mentions some horrific punishments: ‘Lucía María and Francisca Cecilia are both condemned to perpetual exile and that the hair of the said Lucía María is to be cut and her ear to be cut and nailed to a pillar of the gibbet (gallows).’
‘Magdalena María is condemned to receive 100 lashes in public and her hair to be cut, and she will be taken to the gibbet where her hand will be cut and nailed on the gibbet because this is the place, where the mentioned sat above the body of the dead Mayor and beat him with the stone saying disgraceful words.’
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