Paper: "Alternatives for Peasant Women: A View from a Village in Yucatan," June 16-18 1975 (19 pages)


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Paper: "Alternatives for Peasant Women: A View from a Village in Yucatan," June 16-18 1975 (19 pages)
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Elmendorf, Mary L. (Mary Lindsay)
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A View from a Village in Yucatan.


Mary Elry.endorf

Prepared for the Seminar on:

Women in Development

Organized by the
American Association for the Advancement of Science

Cosponsored by

Mexico City, Mexico
June 16-18, 1975

ALTERNATIVES FOR PEASANT WOMEN: A View from a Village in Yucatan

Mary Elmendorf

There are more than three billion people
in the world. Of these, more than half still
live in peasant communities. Of these in turn,
over half are women. Thus, the sheer arithmetic
of the situation underscores the urgency of
knowing more about the life, character, and
roles of peasants, including these peasant women.
(Elmendorf, 1971:21).
The focus of this paper is to explore the effect of
modernization on the roles and status of peasant women --
and their entrepreneurial behavior in the light of the
cultural, social, and economic variables which determine their
opportunities and their motivations. As a means to this end,
- and as an illustrative example we are going to examine
some of the details of the effect of the opening of a
highway into a highly equalitarian subsistence farming
Mayan village on the women living there, and on their
families, particularly their adolescent daughters.

Before going into the micro data of the village study
however, we should look at peasant women and Indian women in a
broader historical and contemporary framework within Mexico.
At the same time we should remember that there are simi-
larities and differences with the rural women in other
parts of Latin America where their contribution to agricultural
production is inadequately analyzed, both quantitatively
and qualitatively, as is true practically worldwide.
Within Mexico which is the largest Spanish-speaking
country in the world, both in area and in population, there
are many Mexicos, just as there have always been, ranging
from the modern, urban metropolitan area of Mexico City
which is rapidly approaching ten million people to another
ten million Mexicans living in isolated Indian communities
still speaking their native languages. In many ways the
problems of women are concentrated at the two ends of this
spectrum, since their share of the nation's wealth is often
a function of the socio-economic group to which they belong.
Rapid economic development in Mexico has not brought with
it a more equal distribution of income or wealth.
One percent of Mexico's population monpolizes 66 percent
of the national income, while the other 99 percent, among
whom are many women and many of the indigenous population,
receive 34 percent. (Gonzales Casanova, 1968:469). Many
people are now questioning whether industrialization and
increased modernization provide the answer to Mexico's
problem of socio-economic development or of raising the status
of women. Some even go so far as to say that women's situ-
ation worsens and that she loses status with modernization.


(Boserup 1970, Boulding 1970, Chaney and Schmink 1974, Elmen-
dorf 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, Gonzalez 1974, Schmink 1974,
Stavenhagen 1970.)

The Indian woman nearly always occupies the
lowest rung of the social ladder in Mexico... The
majority of them in fact become double slaves, to
man and to the natural and social order.*
(Elu 1969:24)
Octavio Paz says that despite prevailing opinions the
number of people who think of themselves as Mexicans is
very small.

Our territory is inhabited today by a number
of races speaking different languages and living
on different historical levels. A few groups
still live in prehistoric times. Others, like
the Otomis who were displaced by successive in-
vasions, exist on the outer margins of history.
(Paz, 1961:11).

"The Indian is defined ethnically not racially". (Beale
1965:35). For instance, the Indian working in the factory
becomes automatically mestiza or mestizo as modes of dress
and outward customs change.2 And the domestic servant, as
she changes her uniform for her day off can become mestiza
or Indian, depending on her plans. And the Indian can
stubbornly remain Indian even as she enters the commercial
life of Mexico City if this helps her survive economically.
In Mexico City along with thousands of rural migrants there
are Indian women from the states of Hidalgo and Tlaxcala
known as "Las Marias," who have been driven since the 1960's
by poverty from the rural areas to the streets of Mexico
City where they sell fruits and whatever else is available
in an effort ,to survive. The colorfulness of their dress
and their mobility make them more observable, but their
problems are similar to many other rural women who have
tried to live at the subsistence level with their families
and no longer are able to do so. Many prefer being street
vendors to being "live-in" domestic servants, and they
have the help of their families in performing their work.
(Arizbe, 1972) The Marias, along with the Juanas, who
sell pepinos (nuts), are only a part of an uncounted number
of women all over Mexico who earn a marginal living as
street vendors. These women are often parts of communities
where the Indian patterns of culture are continued within
the urban scene, isolated by language but with support
in this marginal existence.

La mujer indigena ocupa casi siempre el peldano mas
bajo de la estratification social en Mexico...La gran jayoria
vienen a ser, de hecho, doblemente esclavas del hombre y del
medio ambiente natural y social.


In fact, in Mexico we have "centuries of womanhood"
as we look at the many Mexicos: the primitive, the archaic,
the historic, modern and contemporary. As the woman re-
lates to her family, culture, religion, and to her own
feeling of self freedom and pride she is a part of an
evolutionary process, which is in some ways giving her more
freedom to have a larger part of her behavior not deter-
mined by her sex. (Giele 1972:99). But in Mexico the
evolutionary process is not a single continuum. Families
and even individuals find themselves living in different
historical periods.

To understand contemporary Mexico with its rapid moder-
nization and economic development, we must be aware of the
growing urban middle class family and of pressures for change
on the roles of both men and women, and of the many vestiges
of the earliest cultures which are still a part of the
many Mexicos.

So few specifics yet so many vestiges of earliest
Mexican culture remain that we must depend on the theoretical
reconstruction of what must have been, from well-known
archaeological remains and more recent findings such as
the Bonampak murals, figurines from Jaina and Tlaltilco,
the various codices, and some of the Indian chronicles,
which themselves have never been interpreted by historians
from the womants perspective. We must look for data too,
in materials to be found in isolated Indian groups of
Mexico today, many of which have preserved with amazing
purity their ancient language, culture and customs.
Certain anthropological studies, on the other hand, may
give us a new view of what pre-Columbian societies might
have been like and help clarify the roles and status of
women within them, both historically and as they may relate
to contemporary Mexico. (See: Arizpe 1972, Chinas 1973,
Collier 1973, Elmendorf 1972-73, Friedlander 1974, Hell-
bomrn 1967, Lewis 1959, Pozas 1971, Otero 1974, Villa Rojas
1969, et al.)

In any case, in attempting to understand Indian women to-
day one must be aware of the richness and variety, both ethnic
and cultural, of the pre-Columbian Mexicans and the still-
prevailing influences of those cultures. For instance,
the percentage of the Indian population increases
dramatically, if one takes into account certain customs
and habits such as wearing huaraches (sandals) instead
of shoes (37%) and eating corn instead of wheat (30%).
(Elu, 1969:24). Some folk beliefs, such as magic and healing
become stronger, not weaker, among the rural migrants to
the city as Redfield found in his pioneer studies in


Yucatan. (Redfield 1941). And more recent research among
working class women in a barrio of Bogota showed that the
attitudes among both the very poor, more recent arrivals
and the women who had lived there longer were similar.
Both groups were traditional with respect to such dependent
variables as the ideas of the wife-and-mother role, husband-
wife relations, labor force participation, educational
and political equality. Both groups experienced depriva-
tions and were engaged in the relentless pursuit of "making
it". (Harkness 1973:231-254).
Who were the progenitors of these contemporary
Indian women, and what roles did women play in the
historical development of the nation and what cultural
values still persist. There is not time here to explore
the many cultures and high civilizations which are a
part of the mosaic of Mexico but we should be aware of
the fact that there are over 5,000 archeological sites
and innumerable scattered remains in Mexico today. It
should be no surprise then, that new discoveries are con-
tinually pushing back the dates of the earliest human
habitations. Explorations near Mexico City have proved
the existence of hunters with obsidian tools and fire as
early as 21,000 B.C. (Cosio Villegas, 1973:8). It appears
that approximately half of the subsistence of these early
groups came from wild plants, suggesting the possible im-
portance of woman as gatherer for.that society. (Linton,
1969). The harvesting of corn surely began with the
earliest beginnings of corn culture, at about this time
or very little later. Did women experiment with the
first plants and start agriculture? (Deere 1974:6). By 2,500 B.C.,
there is clear evidence of permanent communities, specific
agricultural activities and what appears to be early reli-
gion, related to corn, the divine plant. We find,
for example, that the tortilla that delicious and ubi-
quitous corn patty which is still the food of many
Mexicans and, in rural areas, the plate and spoon as well -
made its appearance at about this time. We must thank
that early Mexican woman for this great food. The
descriptions of the techniques for making tortillas have
passed down unchanged from the 16th century records.
Then as now the skill was taught to the daughters of
each new generation during early childhood. (Landa 1549,
via Tozzer 1941, Elmendorf 1915, Paul 1974).

And we have every reason to believe that this skill,
along with other parts of the processing of the corn and
foodstuffs, was just as important as men's contributions
to the total livelihood. Perhaps then, as now in some
parts of Mexico and other parts of the world sub-
sistence agriculture makes marriage a union of two specia-
lists where the woman injoys far more equality with her
husband than her mestiza sisters. In some traditional


communities, Indian or with related peasant values, the
woman often has a feeling of autonomy and dignity, and
does not consider that her work is onerous or debasing.
(Elmendorf 1973, Chinas 1973, Wolf 1959:221, Kaberry 1939:36).
In spite of the hardships of subsistence living work can
be "spiritually satisfying" in some peasant communities,
but relationship of women to their work and their families
depends on various things including availability of land,
water, and minimum resources along with cultural attitudes
toward work in general, and "feminine" tasks specifically.
In fact, the work of women is considered not only a skill
and technique, but of equal importance with that of men
in certain traditional Indian communities. (Wotf 1959,
Elmendorf 1973, Chinas 1973, Paul 1974).
There is little real data on which to assess the role of
women in pre-Columbian societies.3 A pioneering study by a
Swedish women anthropologist, Anna Hellbom, using material
from the Aztec codices, indicates that in Aztec society,
women were esteemed in their roles as wife and mother (Hell-
bom, 1967). Even though few historians or analysts have
noted this, women receive considerable attention in the codices.
While the father was educating his sons, the mother was educating
her daughters to perform their special roles. Although these
roles were confined to the home in most cases, and were sex-
defined they were not, perforce, considered of less signifi-
cance. From the very earliest childhood, females were taught
to be skilled and diligent housekeepers.4

Women did sometimes play very important societal roles
outside the homes as well, from the usual production of
foodstuffs and clothing, to many professional occupations
considered of high status, such as midwivery, serving in
religious orders and being medicinewomen -even running busi-
nesses. (Hellbom, 1967:229). Women priests ran special
schools for these professional women, but little is really
known about them. (Petersen, 1969). Virve Piho cites
the following quotation from Sahagun:

The commoner woman was especially active
in the market as retail vendor, but also, in
times, functioning as wholesale merchant. And,
of course, women excelled in the productive pro-
cess as in the fields of weaving and feather-
(Piho, 1973:5)

Aztec women could also enter into contractual relations,
inherit and possess property from either parent, and claim
justice in the courts. Archeological remains and new
findings such as the Bonampak murals, some codices and
figurines from Jaina show that there were at least some
women priests and military leaders.5


Indian women, in pre-Columbian times, had personal
dignity and specific rights which had been scrupulously
recognized in their own culture. When they lost their
social position and became servants to the Spanish conquerors,
their general situation deteriorated. Not only were they
expected whatever their previous social class to per-
form such activities as were formerly untertaken by a
servant group, but they were also expected to bear the
children and satisfy the sexual needs of the conquerors.
In time, the Spaniards came to define them as "bad women"
and thus "fair game" for illicit sexual relations. (Macias,

In 1810, Father Hidalgo uttered the grito, the call
to independence, under the banner of the Virgin of Guada-
lupe, "so the Dark Madonna was given the burden of making
Mexico no longer Spain." (Brenner, (1929)1970:151). There
was very little change in the condition and way of life
of most Mexican women. A small number of exceptional women
were educated in secular schools established up to 1855,
but one could say of most women, as was reported in the
1916 Feminist Congress in Yucatan, that "they lived, they
made tortillas, and they died." The old feudal life still
held sway, and in society at large, the extremes of
privilege and poverty were great. (Calderon, (1843) 1970:
W When Benito Juarez, a Zapotec Indian, became President,
some of the laws of reform gave increased opportunities for
middle-class women to study and work but these were not
paralleled by similar developments for poorer women. In
fact, the conditions of poorer women often worsened as
large numbers of them, lacking other means of support,
became domestic servants or prostitutes. (Macias, 1971:4-17).6

Certainly in Mexico during the Revolutionary years,
1910-1918, women's lives were altered as some took up com-
plete management of homes, farms, businesses, and families.
The peasant women with their children and metates, joined
the troops, serving as needed quartermaster corps. Several
women held the ranks of sergeant and lieutenant, and some
were colonels. (Encuentro de Mujeres 1972:8:26). Some
such as La China, the ex-tortilla maker, commanded a battalion
of widows, wives and daughters which became the terror of
the region. (Womack 1969:170).7
Mexico's entrance into World War II on the side of
the allies, reinforced the rapid, extensive industrialization
For women, this meant an acceleration of migration from
the villages, their entrance into the factories, and the
rise of a middle class with increasing demand for servants.
Some women found new economic freedom.

The improvement in the opportunities for women in
the 1950's resulted primarily from the efforts of pioneer-
ing women from the upper class. But the success of these
exceptional women did not, of course, end the systematic
discrimination against their sisters. Part'of their
success depended on the help of young women from the villages,
who could be hired as live-in servants. It should be
pointed out, however, that domestic service can have
positive aspects as an occupation. The young migrant,
while receiving housing and a kind of autonomy, learns
how to survive in the urban setting. But for others
such as the mono-lingual or semi-literate woman, in Mexico
as in other parts of the world, it can be exploitation
of the worst sort. (Smith 1973:193, Myers 1973:164).
As in all industrializing countries, Mexico had its
booming textile industry which gave employment to large
numbers of unskilled women, who were usually in lower
paying jobs than their male co-workers.

The 1969 census tables showed that 45 percent of the
women working fell into the lowest income group as com-
pared with 18.9 percent of the men and that 72.2 percent
of the women workers were listed in the two lowest income
categories wheras only 53.9 percent of the men were so
classified. (Gonzalez 1974:14).

In the last 40 years the number of economically active
women in the paid work force has more than quadrupled,
from 4.6% in 1930 to 19% in 1969. (Gonzalez, 1974:4). More
significantly, the problems that working women confront
have now achieved national recognition. In an article
on the front page of Excelsior, August 22, 1974, the Pre-
sidental Task Force on the "Study of Women's Participation
in Labor" reported that women who now made up 20% of the
total labor force in Mexico suffer considerable discrimination
and are subjected to other unnecessary problems deriving
in part from the obsolete labor laws. According to the re-
port, these laws restrict women rather than protect them,
bringing about greater underemployment and an unemployment
rate nearly three times as great for women as for men.
The commission also found that adequate figures are lacking
for the true picture of women's contribution to the agri-
cultural sector.

For the rural woman there is enormous disparity between
the statistics and the actuality of labor performed in the
agricultural sector. In 1972 only 10.8% of the female labor
force was listed as economically active in agriculture and


related fields, even though in many rural parts of Mexico
the unit of production is the family with each member per-
forming a necessary role. (Gonzalez, 1974:Table I). In
those parts of Mexico still engaged in subsistence agricul-
ture, the woman serves a fundamental and indispensable role
because the division of labor gives her integral economic
and social functions, but at .the same time ties her irre-
vocably to the family and to family enterprises, to numerous
arduous and demanding tasks, to years of immobilization
through many pregnancies and child rearing. Often if asked
if she works the rural woman will answer negatively, partly
because she often receives no money, but also she considers
her labor as duty even though she might help, along with
her children, in planting or harvesting, in care of animals
and gardens. "There is both a differential evaluation of
men's and women's work and a different motivation. The man
works to sustentar;the woman to ayudar ... Women work be-
cause necessity obliges them to; men work because they are
men". (Martinez-Alier 1974:20). Often the woman carries
the complete responsibility of the farm for long or short
periods while her husband is working in the city, with the
man still designated as "head of the family". (Encuentro de PMujeres
12:26). As Mexico reevaluates women's economic contribution
to agriculture as either full or part-time participants in
subsistence, wage labor, as producers or processors, the
results will be a dramatic increase in the statistics for
female labor force in the agricultural sector, including the
participation of the Inoian women, many of whom live in sub-
sistence farming.

What happens when these women enter the paid labor force?
What contributions can they make to the overall development
process and what choices are available to them?

Now, as I suggested at the beginning of this paper, let
us examine at first hand the economic contributions of the
women in a Mayan-speaking village in Yucatan. Tfe basic
livelihood is subsistence agriculture using planting sticks
and other slash and burn techniques as practiced by their
pre-Colombian ancestors. The average yield of maize (corn)
is still around 600-700 kilos per hectare on land which is
communally owned (ejido). The average family income between
$230 and $380 (U.S.) per year -- including the estimated
value of production for subsistence consumption -- means that
per capital income is well below $100 (U.S.) per year. The
area concerned lies outside the Merida-Ticul-Valladolid
hennequen triangle, within an area rich in archaeological


sites of great touristic interests, and inland from the
Caribbean beach areas. In Chan Kom, as in many villages
of this area, there is a high rate of illiteracy among adults
particularly women, many of xThom speak only Maya. The
poverty of these communities is attributable in part to
their isolation, but can also be traced to socio-historical
factors such as nearly three centuries of virtual enslave-
ment during the period of colonial rule and the devastating
heritage of the Wars of the Castes waged during the 19th
century by some of the elites.

In the Mayan village today, women's work is sex-stereotyped,
so defined even by such ceremonies as the Hetzmek a kind of
baptismal rite for 3-months-old baby girls where the sym-
bolic three defines their terrain in the hone around the 3
stones cf the hearth. Within this world, however, the women
are skilled technicians who have mastered their work and
achieved a high level of self-respect as well as the respect
of their husbands and community.
In this world the woman often holds decision-making
prerogatives. New research by analysis of roles in the
public vs private, formalized vs nonformalized domains -
is revealing many hitherto unexplored areas where women often
exercise much greater power than had been realized. (Chinas 1973).
Even though many of these decisions are in the private, non-
formalized domains, they often relate specifically to change,
whether in the area usually referred to as rural development
such as the introduction of new techniques, seeds, fertilizers
or agricultural credits or, more broadly, to other action
decisions, including the decision to leave the village to
look elsewhere for a future -- or merely to sell produce or
handicrafts. (Chinas 1973, Elmendorf 1972, 73, 75; Diaz 1967).

When Avila studied the village of Tepoztlan, he found
that the building of the road into that village played an
important role in its economic development because of commercial
interchange and mobility. (Avila 1969). And Oscar Lewis
noted in 1951 that many women quickly became merchants, selling
their wares and produce in the market. Still today most of
the stores in the market arcade and most of the stands in
the market itself are run by women, yet the long-run effect
of the road has been to weaken the local marketplace and to
increase the importance of trade relations with Cuernavaca,


as it were leaving the minor purchases to be made in Tepoztlan
while major items are purchased in the city.

Something of this same pattern seems to be being re-
peated in Chan Kom, with residents of still more remote
communities coming there for small items once their only
purchases but now taking advantage of the new road and
newly created wants only to go on to Valladolid for addi-
tional purchases. Thus, Chan Kom will probably not get the
trade it had hoped for, but become a way station along the
route. After years of effort on the part of the villagers
a hard top road was finally opened in November 1973. At
the time of the formal inauguration, by the governor, the
women of Chan Kom expressed interest in the establishment
of cooperatives for their handicrafts, chiefly hammocks
and embroidery. Many of these women are petty traders --
"penny capitalists" at the centavo level. They perceive cf
themselves as artists "painting with needles". They have
always sold their own produce eggs, fruits, fowl and their
handwork. (Elmendorf 1972:533-550). At the same time some of them
are well aware that handicrafts like theirs are fetching
prices in the tourists shops of Chichen Itza and Merida far
above what they themselves receive from the middlemen, who
normally paid them the traditional "twice the cost of the
thread" for their hammocks, and proportionally the same
for their embroidery. For the lovely hammock they receive
8 to 10 US dollars, for which $85 is charged by the ultimate
seller in New York. "Artisans frequently receive only 10%
of the price the final buyer pays". (Asman and Meissner 1975:6).

With the arrival of the road and newly experienced con-
tacts with the outside world they are becoming increasingly
aware of new needs and new values, even to the point where
some of them expressed a desire to learn Enclish and to under-
stand dollars as well as pesos and to know more about the
values of people and of things in a money economy. Still,
they continued to hope that the tourists Mexican, American
and European would indeed come to their villages and buy from them,
enabling them to earn more and making it unnecessary to
leave the village. (Elmendorf 1975:170-76).

Some of these women, even before the road came, walked
for three hours from the village into Chichen Itza to market
their own and their friends'/relatives' handicrafts. What
the women of Chan Kom asked for and want is "an effective
public handicrafts marketing organization". They seem to know
that this"could help increase total production while assuring
the artisans better unit prices." (Asmon and Meissner 1975:6).


These women are not at all frightened by a new language
or a new technique. After all, many of them are already
bilingual culturally and linguistically. They are eager
to communicate and to trade. They are even flexible in their
approach to their handicrafts, willing to change details
of shapes, designs, sizes and patterns of hammocks and
huipiles. Some embroider on strips of cloth to be sewed
on other fabrics quite curious but not disturbed-- about
how they may be used. There are those who would say that
the women of Chan Kom like the Tejuanas of Oaxaca
(Covarrubias 1946:283) are not interested in pecuniary
gain, but rather in gold chains or jewelry. As a savings
account a chain is probably safer than cash and an adorn-
ment in the meantime! Few husbands will borrow their wives'
gold chains but the women can always sell them if they
need to.

The women, in fact, are very aware of money of what
it can do to prevent the hunger they have known when there
was no corn. They teach their daughters to earn money
selling eggs and chickens they have raised. (Elmendorf:
1972:2/87). And the women themselves are not afraid of
long hours of work. Of course hammock breaks to do embroid-
ery are welcome, and sewing machines are placed to be seen,
and to see from. In the work sphere, where roles are sex-
stereotyped, women are skilled technicians, who pass on
their skills to their daughters. From early childhood
they have learned the intricate patterns of coordination
to master their work. They, as the Mayan women of San
Pedro, Guatemala, feel a sense of competence and satis-
faction in the symbolic and social importance of their
work and a gratification from the conviction that work is
a virtue. (Paul 1974:298-9). In fact, I was told that
"to work is to live". One could become ill without work
just as one would wither away without food. Work was
often talked about as creativity, as satisfaction. (Elmen-
Tienda has told us that in order to be entrepreneurs
"women riaust be aware of their propensities and be pro-
ductive and innovative before they can be expected to do so."
(Tienda 1973:6). My feeling is that women such as these
Mayan women must not lose their feelings of creativity and
competence if they are to be able to cope successfully with
the changes brought by modernization as they face exposure to
the outside world? Will they be able to hold on to their
feelings of self-esteem and cultural identity or will they
find themselves nepantla "caught in the middle"?(Leon-
Portilla 1975:4).


Will the exposure that the road brings with it make them
feel "backward" or "underdeveloped" and cause them to be
discontented with the lives which in many ways are difficult
but also have been joyful and rewarding? And, should they
leave the often hard life of subsistence farming for the
city, what would await them there? For the women even more
than for the men, the prospect of going to the city was
frightening. Even though they had no really accurate way
to be aware of the ghettoizing effect of the city on the
peasant woman, they were somehow apprehensive. As we have
seen above in this paper, they had good reason to be, since
the prospect for them was a very limited one, a choice
between domestic work, prostitution or the lowest paid work
in industry and commerce.

The advent of the road indeed posed many hard questions.
The people of Chan Kom wondered what would happen.' They hoped
that the road might be the avenue through which they would
have better medical care, people to buy their products, even
clients for hotels and restaurants, perhaps even a factory.
Already the villagers have contributed labor and money to
bring in electricity and three TV sets are being shared at
ten centavos a viewing. Would, however, the road proven
spite of these new things, to be merely a way out for the
young people?

During the first year that the road was open, fifty
young people, eighteen of them young women, left Chan Kom,
most of them to work in Can Cum, a newly established elegant
Caribbean resort. Predictably, most of the women worked
as kitchen helpers in the hotels, earning about half of what
the men earned, repeating the familiar pattern. The young
women who work at Can Cum are paid approximately $400 (pesos)
per month $32 (US) which gives them an annual per capital
income of $384 (US) greater than the average per family in-
come of the area. The young men earn 800 to 850 pesos and
have as well work camps to live in, weekends off, and, in
some cases, opportunities to learn how to operate road-
building machines and other skills which serve to relate
them to the modern world. The women remain in the most menial
of tasks, still in the kitchen doing their sex-defined chores,
but without either the dignity or status they would have had
in the village. (Elmendorf 1975:170-176).

But there are others whose movement has managed to
remain within the framework of an extended family. They
have moved into Merida, live with aunts or other relatives,
and work at various jobs, usually in family businesses or
as household help. They have less money income but more


freedom and dignity. As one of the girls told me: "The
girls working in Can Cum earn more money but my sisters
and cousins who live with my aunt in Merida have a better
life and they can save nearly everything they earn." These
young women do have a way to work toward goals which could
eventually mean that they not only get out of the village
but also begin to build a base for a future profession or
vocation nursing, seamstress, pastry cook, accountant
- a future they had only dreamed about before when we had
talked about what you would like to do. They too, however,
have questions, cultural questions about whether or not
they will marry a Mayan man, whether they can combine marriage
with work, and whether they may some day join the young women
entrepreneur who enjoys her single status and having her stand
for selling henequen daisies in Cozumel, returning to the
village regularly to replenish her supplies. The answers
they arrive at will depend on many things, not least their
ability to throw aside centuries of tradition but even
more to become aware of opportunities either within
the rural sector or in the modern sector.

Chan Kom "the village that chose progress" has its
road, and rapid change is already taking place. We already
see the attraction of outside wage earning for the young
people and that for the women this is immediately a loss
in status as they receive less-often half of the salaries
paid to men. And this new work will probably be added to
her existing household chores because "domestic work is con-
sidered a secondary sexual characteristic rather than an
economic category." (Larguia 1972:19).

For the men their jobs may offer limited upward mobility
as they learn new skills but for the women one wonders if
there will only be "nepantla" and the deadend low paying, deni-
grating jobs. In spite or maybe because of many outside
pressures defense mechanisms have been built up, and feelings
of self esteem and cultural identity have been maintained
by the women which can be assets to being about changes
truly beneficial to the group. (Leon-Portilla 1975:10). The
women of Chan Kom, the young and the old, are seeking ways
to relate creatively to consumer society without being con-
sumed, as they try to maintain a quality of life they value
in which each individual has human dignity and worth.

The women are traditional in many ways but they not only
accept change but will initiate and agitate for change even
against their husbands wishes if it seems best for them and their
children. Their Mayan culture has given these Indian women and
men a relationship which is less machoistic and more equalitarian
than the mestizo world outside. Are these cultural roots capable
of sprouting in a new form or must they become vestigial?


1/ Within Latin American cultures, Mexico falls into the
Indo-Mestizo grouping along with the Andean countries, parts
of Central America and the Caribbean. On the other hand,
"the only countries where the feudal class system, and more
particularly feudal class attitudes, have disappeared
to any extent are the European countries and Mexico". (Beals
1965:355). A cultural pattern similar to that of countries
with strong Indian heritages but with European overlays
persists in Mexico with more vertical and horizontal mobility
than most other Latin American countries.
Somehow Mexico does not seem to have welded her two
dominant- cultnmal heritages -- the Indian and the Spanish.
The Spanish "woman is a domesticated wild animal, lecherous
and sinful from birth, who must be subdued with a stick
and guided by the 'reigns of religion'". From the great
pre-Columbian Indian religions based on nature, which are
a good deal more pagan than the Catholicism of the Spaniard,
came an acceptance of the natural world. So in Mexico
"sexual love is not tinged with grief and horror..."
(Paz 1961:36). Among some of the Indian cultures there
is still the mystery of sex with women's bodies "commanded
not only by men but by mysterious powers that periodically
cause bleeding and gestation. Barriers of shame leave
the maturing female unprepared for the crisis of first
menstruation, her wedding night, and the birth of her
first baby." (Paul 1974:229).

2/ The Mexican Revolution and the War of Independence one
hundred years earlier, accomplished many things including
a new image of the Mexican peasant as hero -- and heroine
to some -- but many Mexicans among the growing Mestizo
class assumed much of the rigidity of the stratified class
system of the colonial period. Mexico still has areas
in which Indians and non-Indians interact in what have
been termed caste systems. (Stavenhagen 1970:266-270).

3/ Chroniclers such
as the Spanish Conquistadors and, later, the friars,
Bishop Diego de Landa and Bartolomeo-de las Casas and
others, presented detailed views of the indigenous cultures,
but with a religious, cultural, and, it must be noted,
sexual bias which make their findings open to question.
Historians and anthropologists disagree radically, even
about specific Indian groups such as the Aztecs. For
instance Gamio (1916) and Leon-Portilla (1958), as anthro-
pologists, have written that women had high prestige


and played vital cultural roles. Some historians, however,
have argued that women had an inferior place, both in
Aztec and Mayan societies, based on their circumscribed
duties. One historian, for instance, concluded that among
the Aztecs, "the most degrading epithet that could be applied
to any Mexican, aside from calling him a dog, was that of
'woman'". (Macias, 1971:1)

4/ According to the
codices, a woman's husband was selected by the gods, so that
she had to accept the choice. She was to remain a virgin
until she married, for, if she lost her virginity before
marriage, her husband would never forgive her or trust her.
Once married, she was urged to be a submissive and self-
abnegating wife. A "good" woman was reserved and patiently
bore the reproaches of her husband and her in-laws. She
treated her husband tenderly and calmed and pacified him,
even when he no longer wanted to live with her. "You are
to stay inside the house" reiterates an Aztec source "as
the heart remains inside the body". (Hellbom, 1967:90,91).

Both men and women were killed for committing adultery,
she, by hanging, he by stoning. (Peterson, 1959:123).
Women who died in childbirth were called "valiant, strong
and bellicose, and went to a special heaven after death
with the warriors." (Hellbom, 1967:91).

5/ The hierarchy of god and goddesses, and the relation-
ships of their positions with the men and women of the time
also suggest a respected place for women in society. Among
the Mayans, the importance of one of the principal female
deities, IxChel, the Earth Goddess, is indicated by the
many representations of her which have been found. More
vital to the understanding of Mexico today, however, is
the Aztec goddess Tonantzin, also known as Coatlicue or
Cihuacoatl (serpent mother, mother of the gods, weeping women),
whose ancient hillside shrine is now the site of the Basilica
of the Virgin of Guadalupe.- This ubiquitous Mother Goddess
provided the early Christian Fathers with an ideal transfer
figure for the Virgin Mary, many of whose characteristics
she already possessed.

It must be remembered that a mere ten years passed
between the original conquest and the miraculous appearance
of a Virgin on a hill near the shrine and dwelling of the
Aztec goddes, Tonantzin, ancient mother of deities, to
Juan Diego, a poor and humble Indian peasant convert.
This apparition left proof of her faith-arousing visitation
through roses and, even more dramatically, through her
own image, which appeared on Juan Diego's carrying net.


That image (in whose eyes, if one looks carefully, can
be seen the reflection of an Indian man) is now called
The Virgin of Guadalupe, Our Lady the Mother of God, and
hangs on display above the main altar of the great Basilica
on the outskirts of Mexico City. In a sense, there were
two conquests of Mexico, one by the Conquistadores, and
another by the Church. And, as the Indians lost their
temples, idols and customs, many of them turned to the Virgin
of Guadalupe.

Women who wanted an education and a chance to work
outside the home, had opportunities on a scale that had
previously not existed. In her personal life and actions
Margarita Maza de Juarez, was a symbol of the "austerity
and vigor of democracy." (Alatorre, 1972). Many of Juarez's
plans were thwarted by the French interventionn. By the
end of the Porfiriato, attitudes toward women, the sex mores,
and the role as "good" or "bad" women were expected to
p&ay in society had changed somewhat,

Y Even though women had proved themselves equal to men
both in the ranks and as officers during the years of con-
flict, they were not recognized or given political power
afterwards. The constitution of 1917, adopted at the end
of the Revolution, included several articles and provisions
legally supporting the rights and privileges of women, such
as equal pay for equal work, shorter hours for night work,
paid time off and job security for pregnancies, and obli-
gatory day-care arrangements where numbers of women were

- 4 -

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