THE MAYAN WOMAN AND CHANGE
MARY LINDSAY ELMENDORF
A new look, focused on women from a woman's point of view, at a
well-known, traditional Mayan village as it faces changes being
brought by a long-hoped-for road, connecting it both with its
ancient ceremonial center and modern Mexico. Seven women, old
and young, widowed and unmarried, share their feelings about their
lives how they work and play and dream what their part is (or
isn't) in making a life, a family, a community, what they feel
about their lives now and what they hope and fear about the advent
of "progress". Can they do anything to keep the quality of their
lives from deteriorating with "modernization"? Can Mayan women
keep the humanity in their lives, as the rhythm of the known gives
way to the new?
This paper, using a humanistically oriented, cross-cultural tech-
nique by a woman investigator, explores the answers to the above
questions as supplied by these Mayan women, and, in so doing,
adds missing ethnographic material to past anthropological studies,
undertaken primarily from the male point of view.
Elmendorf, M. L.
For the past half century or more, anthropologists, economists,
sociologists, psychologists and others have been examining peasant
societies in an effort to arrive at satisfactory theories of devel-
opment, progress, and modernization. All too rarely, however, have
their studies taken into account the roles of women in these pro-
cesses. In most of the studies cited above, the word "peasant" --
even though itself of neutral gender -- usually implies a male.
Women peasants appear in the literature as sex partners of the men,
as mothers of the children or as helpers, rarely if ever as individ-
uals with hopes, abilities and functions of their own in the society.
As Beverly Chi7nas said:
Up to now, one might accurately state, I think, that
ethnology has been rather completely male-oriented
and male-dominated, making the cross-cultural inves-
tigation of women's roles and how these may interrelate
with, affect, influence, and be influenced by the total
(Chin'as, 1971, p.22)
In a time of unprecedented change throughout the world, peasant
societies are increasingly impinged upon by the "necessities" of
progress. It is crucial to learn about the roles which women have
played and will play as their societies face change. But, in con-
sidering women's potential role in any society, we must first under-
stand what her current or actual role is. As Elise Boulding says
in a recent unpublished paper, "The social invisibility of women
makes it difficult to document their roles in any society, in whatever
stage of industrialization." (Boulding, 1970, p.l)
Elmendorf, M. L.
Where and how might one find new evidence about the relation-
ships of the roles of women to change, either as they effected
change or were affected by it? This study will focus on a single
group of peasant women who are living in a society which has been
undergoing change and which faces still more drastic modernization.
It will undertake a direct investigation of the nature of women's
roles as it is perceived by themselves, by others in their community,
and by the writer, a trained woman observer who herself becomes
part of the process she is studying by assuming the role of 'activist
In the interests of economy of effort, as well as accuracy of
findings, I decided that the ideal community would be one which had
been thoroughly studied by competent scholars over a relatively
long period of time, for which present data could be effectively
integrated into preceding data, so that the nature and extent of
change could be measured, its' effects studied, and the role of women
in the whole process examined in historical perspective.
I wanted very much to find out if the beauty and the rhythm,
the enjoyment and the dignity which I had felt in my years of working
with Mexican peasant women, was only sentimentality on my part.
Were my eyes really as blinded as Oscar Lewis and some of my friends
once felt? Was I really caught into dignifying the "noble savage"?
Or was there something nearer the truth than the "culture of poverty"
which Oscar Lewis has so extensively described? Were all the women
morose, timid and male-dominated as he had projected them? Was a
Elmendorf, M. L.
traditional society more "life centered" than a mestizo community?
Were the women there more satisfied with their lives? Was work more
"spiritually satisfying" than in the mestizo village where Erich
Fromm and Michael Maccoby found that "work is seen by all but the
most productive individuals as a necessary evil and as a means for
gain." (1970, p. 120). In this study of Social Character in a
Mexican Village, they have suggested:
Both in medieval society and among the Mayan peasants
described by Redfield, work is meant to be spiritually
satisfying. The art, folklore and handicrafts of both
the Mayan and the medieval peasant suggest a higher
level of productiveness and a greater enjoyment of life
than in the village we have studied.
(Fromm/Maccoby, 1970, p.120)
In my decade of field work I had spent many days and nights
visiting isolated villages of all kinds, and working closely with
the community leaders, men and women. However, I had always been
an outsider, a community development expert, a change agent, nearly
always within an operational framework. Would I see things differ-
ently if I lived in a traditional subsistence agricultural village?
If possible, I wanted to find this out as it was felt by the people
who were living it, and not by the ones of us who were observing it.
Being a small Mayan village of about one hundred families, Chan Kom
thus filled two of my requirements -- excellent previous studies over
a long period of time and broad agreement as to the traditional na-
ture of its culture. I decided to concentrate on the women of one
of the leading families in Chan Kom. I did not want to use a large
questionnaire, or do a macro-study. I wanted to have the women
share their life-stories with me.
Elmendorf, M. L.
During my early talks with these women I asked each if she
would like to have a taped interview answering some questions I
was interested in. All of them agreed. For these first interviews
I used selected parts of the revised Fromm-Maccoby questionnaire
adding specific questions which would give information on individu-
ation covering the nine variables Boulding used: age of marriage;
freedom of marriage choice; property rights; inheritance rights;
divorce rights; range of movement from hearth; handler of money
and/or food provider; freedom to be traders and/or business women;
tribal positions of authority.
I was especially interested in knowing how the women felt about
themselves, how much individuation or individualism in the Reisman and
Fromm sense they had and felt that they had. I wanted to learn
their capacity to discover and realize themselves as they lived and
were. Mindful of Fromm's statement that this type of "freedom and
individualism is bound up with economic and social changes that will
permit the individual to become free in terms of realization of
self" (Fromm, 1946, p.234). I wondered how much the people of Chan
Kom might lose or gain with the opening of the new road.
During my first visit the women seemed shy, perhaps embarrassed
by my questions relating to sex and personal life. On my second
visit, however, they had grown to trust me and were eager to talk.
It seemed that all of the pent-up emotions and questions came pouring
out of them. I was someone with whom they could talk about their con-
cerns. I could hardly stop them to ask questions of my own.
R. lmncndorf, M. 1 .
I came into Chan Kom as a foreigner. I wanted to avoid impos-
ing views from an alien culture, but I found that I could not remain
a completely passive observer. It seemed extremely important to
understand and be sensitive to the local situation in order to work
there in a culturally non-polluting, but human, way. I agree very
much with Freire, who says:
to impose one ideology or prove a theory is another form
of cultural oppression" and "creative dialogue between
researcher and object-subject turns into a process of mutual
Partly because of these convictions, and partly because I found
that I learned most when I let the women lead the conversation, I
put aside my original research design, including the carefully
translated questionnaires, the schedules, the collection of data
for comparison and statistical analysis. I decided instead to
gather the substance of my study from "creative dialogues". (See
I made five separate field trips to Chan Kom between March, 1971
and July, 1972, averaging ten days each. I talked at length with the
wife, daughters, and daughters-in-law of one of the leaders of the
community. It was through these women and their networks of friends
that I have been able to get some feeling for the life of the Mayan
woman. They range in age from seventeen to sixty-five. In fact,
with children and grandchildren, grandmothers and aunts, cousins and
friends, I reached many other age groups.
Elmendorf, M. L.
Let me introduce briefly each of these women whom I came to
know so well, and tell you how I got to know them and their friends,
as I tried to understand their roles in daily life as they faced
potentially imminent change.
First there was Luz, wife of the village leader. Not only was
she my hostess, but my guide to the past, particularly in regard to
Mayan ritual: the loh casa ceremonial cleansing of a new thatched
hut (Redfield AV.R. 1934 p.146) -- on my first night there, and on
later visits, the handwashing ceremony and the Pib. She is curandera
for Chan Kom and neighboring rancherias -- if I got up early enough
in the morning I could watch her having office hours in the kitchen,
giving different kinds of herbal medicines. Luz was my first intro-
duction to the rhythm of life in Chan Kom -- she is up with the sun,
and seems to pray as it sets. She is a key figure in Chan Kom, and
not just because of her status as Don Trini's wife.
As we talked we were joined in the kitchen by a lovely looking
young woman. "This is Ana, the wife of my son Jorge, who eats with
us but lives on the corner where the nixtamal is." Ana is 24, and
runs one of the four molinos in town, a key position. She has more
time for this than most women because she has only one child. She
is intelligent about business matters, and also sells people the
right to use her well, fruit and vegetables, sewing, and so forth.
I see her as naturally beautiful; she is quiet and very domestic,
vain and independent. She is-at once child-like and astute. She
says she sees no threat in modernization, but some of her dreams can
Elmendorf, M. L.
be interpreted as showing fear. As she moved through stages of
cure from h-men, to the herbalist, and finally to the doctor in
town, she seemed a transitional figure. It was she who shared her
dreams so freely with me, and who, by dreaming of me, followed my
direction to the clinic to seo the doctor. She is ambitious for
her little son, and seeks outside contacts because of him.
As I watched Ana and Luz making more tortillas, and ate my
beans and eggs, a very different looking woman came in -- taller,
heavier, and dressed in modern clothes. This was Flora, the wife
of Antonio whom I had just met, and the mother of all the other
children who seemed to flow in and out of the hut. She sat down
with a handsome nursing baby at her breast and a knee baby leaning
against her, and joined the other two making tortillas. She, her
husband, and their six children, three of whom are loaned to rela-
tives, are interwoven in the network -- and will, I predict, be
the earliest marginal family, lost between tradition and urbanization
While we talked, first Antonio joined me at the table, then
Jorge, and finally Don Trini. There seemed to be no specific time
or order for their meal that I could observe, but the making of
tortillas went on for several hours during which all of the extended
family were fed, with the women eating last around the hearth where
they had fed the children.
Just before sunset the children and adults started appearing
all scrubbed looking. Seeing Ana come back fresh, obviously from a
Elmendorf, M. L.
bath, I suddenly felt tired and dusty and asked if I might have a
bath too. Do'na Luz took me ceremoniously across the plaza to the
house of Gabriela, Don Trini's daughter. She said that this house
had a "bathroom which would be better for me". Gabriela became
another key person in my understanding of Chan Kom, as the only
widow in the village that I got to know well. Don Trini had forced
her to marry her first cousin, who died later, and unlike most of
the other widows in the village, she had never remarried. Gabriela
and the others in the village believe that her husband's death was
the punishment for marrying so close in the family. In spite of
having extensive property, her family seems to be one of the poorest
in the vi llage. Her sons work as day laborers for relatives, paint-
ing and building walls. Everything which she owns -- her house and
her farm land -- were given to her by her husband's father. Although
as a widow she has a right to ejido property, she has not claimed a
share, nor have her sons. Don Trinidad, as Comisario Ejidal, has
done nothing to help her. She works her own milpa "like a man", the
others say. Her sons and daughters help and they raise bees, too,
and sell the honey.
Later we went to the corner store, run by Don Trini's son,
Eduardo, with a great deal of help from his seventeen year old
daughter, Felicia. Amparo, Eduardo's wife, bakes bread professionally
with the help of her daughters. This is an extremely close, tight-
knit family; they think of themselves as a cooperative. The family
is very literate, in contrast to the others in the village, and
Elmendorf, M. L.
Amparo wants each of her daughters to have a profession. In fact,
they may go to live with their aunt in Merida in order to learn.
She is extremely religious -- she has a beautiful home shrine to
Fatima and is close to the priest. As a mother of eight Amparo is
always busy, but never frantic; warm and adaptable, she is a strong
Then Don Trini took me to meet another son, Alvaro, who is
mayor of Chan Kom for the third time. He is married to Victoria,
whom I later found out was a sister of both Amparo and Flora. She
is a hearty, vigorous person who loves sewing and works almost
compulsively. She is quick-tempered and bossy, but she has a good
sense of humor and enormous curiosity. She considers herself an
artist because of the intricate designs she weaves into her huipiles,
and indeed she does beautiful work. Victoria and Alvaro have no
living children of their own, but have two sons of Flora's living
with them. On my second visit Victoria invited me to live in her
upstairs room after she accepted me as a fellow artist when she saw
me sketching the houses on the square.
From then on during my field trips to Chan Kom I lived as a
member of an extended family -- sleeping in my hammock in a vacant
room at Victoria's -- eating in Luz's community kitchen with Flora
and her children -- doing my laundry in a hollow log near Ana's well
having my daily bath, which is practically a ceremony there, at
Gabriela's -- and buying the few things I needed from Felicia. I
found a natural living network where I moved without plan from one
Elmendorf, M. L.
part of the day to another -- without appointments, without timing,
but still without feeling that I had disturbed the lovely rhythm
which I felt was such a real part of their lives. When they would
see me coming they would know what framework I was coming in -- for
Now my network included a key family on each of the four sides
of the village square, and I joined the parade of people crossing
IhA recrossing this commons. Soon I had met the other children of
Don Trini and their households. First was Anita, the second wife
of Demetrio, Don Trinidad's oldest son. My first impression of
Anita was that she was aggressive; also, her children seemed to be
less well-cared for than the others I saw. As I got to know her
better, it seemed to me that this was a reflection of her attitudes
toward many things that she was just easy-going, and wanted her
children to feel free and happy. She would let them run around
unkempt, throwing pebbles, playing in the mud. She liked them to
dress as they pleased or not dress at all. She herself is as unself-
conscious as her children. She is talkative, exuberant, and much
less reserved than the other women.
And then there was Marta, another daughter of Don Trini, who was
living in a grass hut on a side street. She is fat, happy, and has
an earthy, almost raucous laugh. "My father made me get married
when I was just thirteen. I was in tears because I was afraid to
leave my mother. I didn't know the boy well, but now I love my
husband very much. I wouldn't trade him for anyone," she said.
Elmendorf, M. L.
She told me that Mayan women have it easy compared to the men --
they get to stay in the cool houses with their children, swinging
in their hammocks and sewing. Her husband raises corn in the ancient
slash-burn method, still using a planting stick. She and the children
help him in the fields. Their front room was piled high with corn
when I stopped by in November, and I was shown the fullness of the
ears, the beauty of the grain. It was like a flower arrangement.
But we wouldn't have the family picture complete unless we
included Beatriz, the oldest daughter of Don Trinidad who married one
of the young Mayans who had worked with Morley on the original excava-
tion at Chichen Itza. When I called on her in her modern home in
Me'rida, the capital of Yucatan, after making an appointment by tele-
phone, I was very curious. How had she changed? Had she rejected
the past after leaving Chan Kom? Even though she was in city clothes
I could see a strong family resemblance; and as we talked, there was
great warmth in her voice as she spoke of her family and her old
home. "I married when I was just seventeen. My father arranged
everything, but I have been very happy. My daughters married much
later than I did, though, one at twenty-one and one at twenty-five.
And they chose their own husbands.,, I am happy here, but I still like
to go back to Chan Kom. We talked for a long time, and I came to the
conclusion that as I had been told in the village, that this was
truly a half-way station between the village and city.
Although not a close member of the extended family group on
which I was concentrating, Berta was drawn to my attention because
Elmendorf, M. L.
she is the first and only female member of the town council. Later
I learned her father was Don Trinidad's half-brother who had
Castillianzied his name. Her husband, Juan, the town clerk, spoke
proudly of her to me and invited me to interview her. I was imme-
diately struck by how different their home was in comparison to the
other homes in Chan Kom. It seemed to belong to another part of
Mexico -- mestizo Mexican, not Mayan. They actually cooked in the
masonry house, not in a grass hut out back where nearly everyone
else prepared their meals. She served me lemonade in a real glass
rather in as the jicara. Berta and her family wore modern clothes
also, dresses rather than huipiles, factory made trousers, and
plastic shoes. Why such a difference? I wondered. I began to
find answers to my questions. Her father had been a member of the
first Rural Cultural Mission to come to Chan Kom, and many of her
ideas and attitudes were greatly influenced by him. When we began
our discussions, I had asked that the children leave so we might
talk privately. But when Berta told me that her greatest pleasure
was in having the whole family together, learning and sharing, I
immediately asked that they come back in. They returned, quietly
but eagerly, and all pulled their chairs up close to hear the con-
versation. They are quite industrious. Even the little four year
old boy was busy making henequen margaritas (daisies) on a frame
while he listened to us talk. Berta was very proud that theirs was
the only family in Chan Kom who sent their children away to a good
school in Merida. Other families, including Don Trini's, I had
learned actually prevented their children from leaving if they wanted
Elmendorf, M. L.
to study somewhere else. Bcrta said all her children were doing
well in school and her greatest wish For them all was to get good
educations so that they could get good jobs. We spoke also of her
unique position as the town council secretary. She also helps her
husband with his job as "registro civil" and is capable of taking
over for him when he leaves town. "I have a key to the office,"
she told me, smiling. On one occasion, however, I noticed that the
other men on the council had perhaps not totally accepted her. There
was an important meeting on the arrival of the governor going on one
day, and I noticed that Berta wasn't there. "That's right, she
should be here," said one member. Had she been forgotten? Had she
been left out on purpose? Which and why? And during the state
governor's visit she was not sitting at the table with the rest of
the committee members, even though the new women teachers, who had
been in town less than a week, were invited. Instead she was help-
ing the other women prepare the food. I asked her about this later.
"When the governor came back to thank us, I told him I was the
secretary of the Council, and he congratulated me!"
Another woman who impressed me greatly as a key figure in Chan
Kom is Concepcion, the midwife who is married to Ramon, the bone-
setter of the village. She is also sister of the local h-men (shaman
and priest) and their father was a shaman before he died. At Luz's
invitation, I had attended the Pib, the handwashing and other Mayan
ceremonies at Concepcion's house. As she spoke only Mayan, my
interview with her was conducted through her eldest son. I originally
Elmendorf, M. L.
asked that a daughter translate for us, but Concepci6n smiled and
said that her son would do. "He helped his wife when their two
children were born, as do most Mayan fathers", she added. Concepci6n
told me that no one had taught her to be a midwife, not even as a
child. She simply had dreams which told her now to do the various
things, dreams about each woman she took care of. She is, to me, a
beautiful, dignified looking woman, with a completely professional
attitude toward her job. She and Dona Luz seem to me to be the most
respected women in Chan Kom. Their power and influence are not
obvious, but they form a pervasive undercurrent in the life of the
village. These two relate most closely to the Mayan past, with their
knowledge of medicine, of herbs, and secrets.
Chan Kom is not a typical Mayan village and these women were
not necessarily typical of Chan Kom. Even though most of the women
who were more deeply involved in this study were related to the
leading family, and as such held positions where they potentially
may claim more "status through wealth" than others when moderniza-
tion gives it more importance, I felt a great similarity between
them and the other women of the community. They wore the same
clothing, ate the same food, drew water from the same wells, had
children in the same school. Every family has a home plot and a
right to ejido land -- there are no peons. Everyone is a peasant!
Even though all of these women have masonry houses, most of their
daily life and sleeping for many, including the family patriarch
and his wife takes place in the jacales. As Alfonso Villa Rojas
Elmendorf, M. L.
As wives of leaders, as members of the leading family,
these women are setting the trend.
They are at the pressure-point of change.
How do these women feel about their lives? Are they happy?
One of the things I had asked various people was suggested to me by
Erich Fromm: "How do you feel about your life? -- are you very
satisfied, a little satisfied, dissatisfied?" Unanimously the
answer was "muy satisfecha." What were the happiest times? Two
of the wives said the happiest times in their lives had been when
they were living in the bush raising corn with their husbands. They
thought they might move out to the country again if the road brought
noise and crime and problems. They all feel they are happy, they
say they are happy, they look happy, they sound happy, they seem
happy. All of them except the oldest seem happy with their husbands
in spite of the fact that all of them except two had married the
person who had been chosen for them by their father.
It is probably often true that the modern day Maya marry without
love in the modern American sense. It seems rather a matter of
routine. The boy wants a home and children of his own, and either
his parents or a matchmaker simply arranges for this marriage with
a suitable girl. (Mortay. 1956, p.168)
In Chan Kom I met one twenty-one year old girl who was very
happy not to be married and enjoyed being a soltera. Married women
Elmendorf, M. L.
seem happy in the married state, and unquestioning of it; they
seem to feet for their daughters that this is the only way a woman
would want to live.
Alfonso Villa Rojas said that he had noticed in Quintana Roo,
and I had felt the same in Chan Kom, that couples are very stable
and usually pass their lives together in congenial and tranquil
"Quarrels are very rare and the small disagreements which
do occur are brief and inconspicuous. During the course of
his time in Quintana Roo only once did he see an instance
when a man struck his wife, and in no instance did a wife
strike a husband."
(Villa Rojas, 1945, P. 89)
In Chan Kom I found one wife who said that her husband struck
her during their early years of marriage, but that she blamed her-
self as being young and inexperienced. "lie is 'muy delicado', but
now I know how to handle him."
Of the ten couples that I got to know well in Chan Kom, eight
seemed to be 'loving partners', in the Fromm/Maccoby sense. In
their village, Las Cuevas, they found very few husbands and wives
who could fit the definition, and those few were considered by the
others as "remarkable, admirable, but exceptional". (Fromm/Maccoby,
But then they also found strong "machismo" feelings among the
men, as is common throughout Mexico. "Machismo indicates an attitude
of male superiority, a wish to control women and keep them in an
Elmendorf, M. L.
inferior position." (Ibid., p.166). In Chan Kom I found very little
of this attitude. While the village :is set up as a patriarchy, and
the men hold the positions of power, they treat their wives and
children with loving concern, and respect.
"In the years in Yucatan I have never seen a Mayan man
kiss a woman."
(Thompson, 1954, p.159)
I should go on and say neither did I; in fact; I never saw even an
overt sign of affection, not even an arm around a shoulder or a
hand touching. Husband and wife would pass each other on the plaza
without speaking. There may have been signals I didn't understand,
or passing in the plaza may be rather like meeting in the hall of
one's home. In their homes there is a very warm interpersonal
relationship. Husbands and wives sit together around the hearth on
low stools, talking, drinking chocolate or cola. When tortillas are
being made, the woman continues doing this while her husband and
children eat. There doesn't seem to be the rigid segregation of
males and females at eating in the nuclear family, as is often
All of these women but Victoria have children. When asked how
many children people had and how many they wanted, all of the women
except one countered by asking me how many children I had. When I
said two, they asked how we only had two children, and how Americans
know how not to have more. This seemed to be an interest of theirs
which, as I came to know them as women, we could discuss freely and
in depth. All but one said they hoped to go to a nearby village to
Elmendorf, M. L.
visit a Mayan doctor whom I knew, one trained by Planned Parenthood
in birth control methods, including IUDs. One of the mothers said
she wished I had taken her to the doctor when I was there the time
before. "Now it is too late," she said. "I'm pregnant again."
Since then, she has had a serious miscarriage. Her husband went for
the doctor, but was unsuccessful at getting him to come to help her
In one of my early visits, the village leader suggested that I
talk with the women about birth control. His understanding and the
freedom with which he discussed such matters with me seemed rare.
He seemed pleased, but surprised, when I told him that most of them
had already asked me for information. Alkfonso Villa Rojas had
reported that "proudly they turned down the use of contraceptives"
in the thirties when he suggested to the men that there were
protective devices that they could use so as to have fewer children.
One wife of thirty with five living children, one dead, said
that she had never had more than one menstrual period between her
children in all her thirteen years of married life.
"I've always wanted to ask my sister-in-law how she managed
to have only one," she confided, "but I never could ask somehow."
She eagerly took the address of the Mayan doctor, saying that she
hoped she could see him in time -- she had just had her first menstrual
period after the last baby, and if she could manage not to have any
more children, she would be so happy. "I could take better care of
lmeondor[', M. L.
the children," she said. "I could make more hammocks, and maybe
buy a sewing machine so I could make huipiles to sell. I can
teach my daughter." Her whole world would be expanded.
Another young woman of twenty-four who has had only one son
after five years of marriage wanted to speak with the doctor too,
because she is afraid to have another baby. She almost died in
childbirth and her husband, too, is afraid for her life. According
to her this has meant that they have not had intercourse ("slept
in separate hammocks") since their son's birth; her husband told
me on my last visit, that they had the midwife fix her to prevent
any further children.
It was this same woman who had described her curing by the
shaman on my previous visit. As her illness soon returned, I
invited her to come with me to the clinic in town on my way back
home. On my last day in the village her husband got up and left
before I had breakfast, unusual since we had always eaten together.
I was very upset, fearing that I had caused trouble between them
by inviting her to come with me. She told me when I left that her
husband did not wish her to go to the clinic, hence I left worrying
about her and about them.
On my third visit, the first person I met was her husband.
Ile greeted me warmly and said that he knew I was coming because
his wife was weaving my colors into the hammock she was working on
that morning. When I arrived at their home, I found the hammock
Elmondorf, M. L.
woven in the blue and white design of the dress I had lived in
during my last trip there. She told me that after I left she had
a dream every night for a week in which I was standing on the road,
pointing the way to the clinic for her. Finally, she told her
husband that if he would not take her there she would use her own
money and go alone. So he sold two pigs and took her to the clinic
for two weeks. He left her there with her mother and son, coming
to visit himself every third day. Now she trusts the doctor there,
and told me that she may go back soon with her husband to learn
about birth control devices.
This incident, along with others I observed made me realize
that the women did have more freedom to control their lives than
I had thought or read about previously. The property which they
owned or the things which they can sell do in fact give them money
which is theirs to spend as they wish, and they take real pride in
the freedom this gives them.
The question of "freedom" in the context of Chan Kom is one
with several dimensions. One of the questions which I raised was
"whose life is harder, mas duro, that of a man or a woman?" Every
woman told me that the men's work was much harder, except the
childless wife who said she felt men's and women's work was equal.
The others said, "We get to stay inside the cool houses, be with
our children, embroider 'paint with needles', we call it -- while
the men have to work out in the hot sun". The women carry up to
forty pails of water a day drawn from deep wells, but they say th+-
Elmendorf, M. L.
thi& water isn't heavy.
The men, on the other hand, told me they thought that the
women's .1 i Fe was harder. "They had to stay home and cook and wash
and be with the children. They can't go out to the fields or the
city alone. One element involved in this apparent contradiction
seems to be that men perceive women's work as being confining,
limited to the house and yard, while their's is free of that con-
fining element. Women, on the other hand, see men's work as being
harsh, physically exhausting and therefore not as Free as is their's,
since men do not have the opportunity to take advantage of free
moments in the hammock, in the coolness of the home. What we have
then, is a reverse pair of concepts, one involving freedom to and
the other freedom from. There would appear to be little difference
in the value assigned by the women to their freedom to enjoy what
the men perceive as limiting factors and that which the men assign
to their freedom of movement, in turn seen by the women as limiting
or negative factors. Thus, both men and women feel freer and con-
sequently live in a value system which is more comfortable for them,
using their freedoms in ways which enhance their respective joy in
life and hence the overall harmony of their lives together.
Another dimension of the relative freedom of men and women in
Chan Kom may derive from the phenomenon commented on by Oscar Lewis.
"In general," he says, "women's work is less rigidly defined than
men's" (Lewis, 1969, p.25). -I have elsewhere commented on the almost
Elmendorf, M. L.
random appearance of structure in the daily routines of the women,
their occasional "hammock-breaks", their sporadic turns at the loom
or at embroidery and their unscheduled lives, with little other than
the preparation of meals to demand a specific action at a specific
time andktha i not tied down to an hour. But there is some
evidence that activities were once the exclusive domain of the men,
activities which do indeed demand a more rigid structure, are
increasingly becoming open to the women of Chan Kom. Among these
tasks are the baking of bread for sale, keeping shop, and even the
singing of sacred songs, once the exclusive role of the maestro
cantor, now being assumed by the rozoneras. (PDF/1M dd/&/ b'1 '
In summary, there is much more feeling of independence on the
part of these women than I have sensed among many suburban U.S.
women. Dorothy Lee has said:
"Self-esteem is paramount and rests on freedom and self
(Lee, 1959, p.160)
The women of Chan Kom derive self. esteem From their essential
skills and knowledge, and from their private income, possessions,
livestock and real property. The combination of these assets places
them in an integral position in the functioning of the village
economy and brings them prestige and power in the community and
in their homes.
The important thing really is that each feels the other has
an important job, a hard job,' and in this community in which life
l me ndorf, M. L.
is divided in such a way that man and woman depend on each other,
an interdependence is tied to subsistence living based on a corn
culture. Life is still related to the corn god and the rain god,
the two Mayan gods for whom ancient ceremonies arc still held. In
fact, according to local legend, God made the first people from
The most salient conclusion I have drawn from this study relates
to change. Mayan women do accept change, they will initiate and
even agitate for change even against the wishes of their husbands -
and school teachers who are highly respected if it seems to be in
their own best interests or those of their children. Mayan women
are not frightened by a new language either literal or metaphorical
since they are already bi-lingual both linguistically, culturally
and "ceremonially", as Redfield put it. They are strangely sophis-
ticated peasants who have somehow absorbed from the Spanish culture
what they wanted from it, without, in the process, losing much
which they value from the traditional pre-Columbian culture, above
all the corn culture. Even though they appear not to have realized
that the old culture is passing, that matters beyond their control
have made the old concept that "to make milpa is to live" an
anachronism, perhaps even a myth, they still cling to the value
system of the milpa, even while changing in many other ways.
The facts speak for themselves. Don Trinidad no longer culti-
vates his milpa. Of his six sons, only two made milpa last year.
Elmendorf, M. L.
In contrast, when we check on his daughters, we find that both of
them in Chan Kom are still tied closely to the life of the milpa.
The widow, Gabriela, physically works with her sons in the fields,
and the only source of income for Marta and her husband Rufino is
their earnings from the corn they raise and from produce and house-
hold animals they sell.
But unless something drastic happens, I foresee the approach-
ing end of the corn culture and with it the relationship to the
Mayan Gods and the milpa-based intertwining of the lives of the
men and women. It may be that the family with whom I was living
is in the process of repeating history. They may be on the verge
of returning to the combination cattle and maize culture in hacienda
complexes which had been introduced earlier by the Spaniards.
(Strickon. 1965, pp.46-47). This resulted in an extension of the
pure corn agricultural patterns of the earliest Mayans without
disturbing basic life patterns. These cattle ranches, in turn,
were supplanted by huge sugar and henequen plantations. These
"factories in the field", as Strickon and Mintz earlier called
them, were highly destructive of village life and cultural patterns
and it was from them that many people fled to renew their traditional
way of life. Many, in fact, fought for their old ways in the War
of the Castes. Now again, the people of Chan Kom appear to be
adding cattle as a source of income which is compatible with their
ways of life and value systems. Hopefully this new development
will prevent some of the possible dehumanization effects which the
Elmendorf, M. L.
new road forbodes and help Chan Kom avoid some of the problems
of the consumer society.
I see the cattle and the increase in the production of handi-
crafts (and their sale) by women and children as supplements to
the corn economy, as ways to increase their monetary wealth in
order to purchase the medicines and other new commodities which
they will desire without destroying their present life styles.
With these changes, corn will remain central as food for people,
for cattle, chickens, etc. so the cultural patterns of the village
will not be destroyed.
A village leader said to me just before the highway opened,
"I wonder what will happen to Chan Kom when the highway comes --
when the smell of gasoline is like it is on the streets of Merida?
Will the community be so crowded that people push each other off
the streets? Will the noise be so great that I will want to go back
up to the bush and live in a thatched hut?" There is both hope for
modernization and fear of it, which I felt among women as well.
Two of the wives had said that the happiest times in their lives
had been when they were living in the bush raising corn with their
husbands. They felt they might move back out if the road brought
noise, crime and pollution.
One of the fears that was often mentioned was pollution,
smells, noise, and dirt like the city. And as I looked around me
Elmendorf, M. L.
on my first visit I had felt a strange feeling of being in a balanced
aquarium. In the thatched hut where I ate and chatted I never saw
a fly, never was there an ant. In spite of the setting turkey in
the corner, the hens and chickens, and the innumerable pigs and
dogs in the yard, I never once stepped in filth -- not even in the
dark. This strange cleanliness -- this exciting ecological equilib-
rium -- continued to amaze me everywhere until I was there my last
trip. When the road opened, when the fiesta commenced, when the
festive meals of chicken and pig began, when the outsiders started
arriving all at once there were flies -- in the corner store, in my
room, in the plaza...and I saw three scorpions in one day. Maybe
it was just coincidence, but I felt that the aquarium was already
out of balance. But this is just a part, the bigger thing is the
feeling of harmony with nature -- with earth and sky and wind and
water -- with the feeling that all essentials are really there.
As Landa reported amusingly even the dishes were provided by God.
They merely picked them from the trees, where God had provided them
(the jicaras). The women of Chan Kom see the new road as a way to
bring things they want into the village, things like better medical
care, electricity and markets for their products. They do not see
it as an escape, a way out. But, one wonders, will they be able to
resist the road out which has entrapped so many peasants into changing
their lives from the rural, farming subsistence economy to the meager
existence of the urban culture of poverty? These and other questions
are real. One way out does lead to the pockets of poverty which
clutter the barrios around Latin American cities and our own U.S. cities.
Elmendorf, M. L.
In this move out, many of those who move are in culture shock,
but the women too often suffer the most.
They leave subsistence economy where they have been part of
a mutually dependent relationship with their husbands for an urban
pocket of poverty where their role is undefined, uncertain and
undignified, and which at best seems rarely if ever possible to
redefine in a culturally meaningful way. Often there are fewer
opportunities for employment, or, those which do seem tempting
turn out to have much less status than the traditional role in the
village. And one key role, that of map-builder and guide for the
young, is lost. No longer does the woman have either self-respect
or the respect of her children, her husband or her community. No
longer is she tied into those communications networks, these half-
hidden but very real ones which work so well in the village.
Admittedly the problem is a complex one. "At one end of the scale
is the peasant community in which all work is essential for survival
and thus all work has dignity. The man and woman exist in an inter-
dependent relationship in which each has status, but neither is free
to change." (Elmendorf, 1971,. p.18)
I left Chan Kom with ambivalent feelings this time. From the
huge coca-cola advertisement painted on the multi-colored store,
once all white, to the mini-skirted schoolteachers, it was obvious
that Chan Kom was turning away from its past and beginning a new
stage of existence. Would the men and women remain contented with
their lives, each believing the other's job to be more difficult?
Elmendorf, M. L.
Or would the exposure that the road might bring make them feel
"backward", "underdeveloped", and soon discontent to live the
lives in which they had such joy and pride before? Would the
road bring in the many benefits of modernization, or would the
changes overwhelm them, sending those still able to leave back up
into the peaceful bush country? Would the women have any part in
making the choices that would affect their lives, or would they
see, as many have seen before, their role as women and as mothers
particularly minimized as they come into contact with a civiliza-
tion to which their past experience does not relate?
Elmendorf, M. L.
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