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Ontario Backroads


Mexico's Red-Hot Mamas

In macho Mexico, the extraordinary Zapotec Indian women of Juchitan dominate their men, celebrating fatness and fertility. British journalist and journey woman, Jocasta Shakespeare reports.

Rosa raises her skirt, embroidered with yellow sunflowers, to expose lace underskirts and fat ankles. Swaying to the oapaca music, her face is flushed and distracted like a somnambulist in an erotic dream.

For seven days and nights during the spring Velas (Candles) fiesta in Juchitan, southern Mexico, Zapotec Indian women dance in a celebration of ancient fertility rites and to confirm their matriarchal power. The women of Juchitan are very different from their Mexican sisters. Here, it is the women and not the men who rule. They are the head of the household, they control the finances, and they dominate the men physically, too. Huge and sensual, their size is a status symbol and not a reason to feel ashamed.

Rosa weighs 14 stone and is considered to be a local beauty. "We like plenty of woman here," says Jose, her lover, who is half her size. "Fatness is a sign of a woman's sexual energy and lack of inhibition in bed"

"We are not like all the whimpering little housewives of Mexico," says Carmela, Rosa's sister. A string of medieval gold coins, symbolizing her erotic merit, cascades between her enormous breasts. "Our men do what we say," she declares, passing me a piece of iguana meat, rolled in its shriveled green skin and roasted in red chillied tomatoes. This delicacy is also said to be an aphrodisiac.

Around the dance floor (a tarpaulin on swept earth) wooden chairs are arranged in rows. Families from the surrounding villages have travelled here to show off, gossip and dance.

The first four rows are occupied by the women of the Morales family, who sit solid as a female Mafia. Abrisa, 63, is head of the family and sits in the center.

Behind the women sit the Morales men, wearing sombreros, dull, black trousers and white shirts. Two dance to the oapaca music: a hopping step with hands held behind their backs, while the women sway and turn, their skirts fanning and nickel-capped teeth glittering.

"We are the frame of the picture," Miguel says, when asked if the men felt overshadowed by such flamboyance. Around the edges of the arena they sit, some gazing from stools at the back, not daring to penetrate the multicolored female ghetto to ask for a dance.

Marina is a single mother which, she says, is "not a problem'. Religious restrictions controlling the sexuality and the lives of so many Mexicans have been repulsed here by a traditionally rebellious spirit.

This rebelliousness, that has also kept the spirit of the Velas alive, has not diminished. Outsiders are not welcomed here and can provoke rare outbursts of aggression in these normally quiet and henpecked men.

In the Juchitan marketplace it is the women who run the show, buying and selling as only they are allowed to. While men work in the fields, hunt iguana, fish or weave hammocks, it is wives and daughters who sell the produce, watchful of every half-peso that changes hands.

Barter and repartee are the hallmarks of a good marketeer. Girls inherit a stall from their aunt or mother when they have learnt to trade.

Marita sells coconuts pierced with a straw to suck the juice "like mother's milk". She sorts through sheaves of wilting coriander and says, "This is a woman's world. Men can't buy or sell - they don't have the mentality. They are soft and need the guardianship of women. I give my husband Luis pocket money every week to buy beer, get a shave or a shoeshine. Only women know how to look after money. Men have a different kind of brain. They are good for nothing but making babies."

That night, when Delia Fuentes goes out with her mother and her aunt, Delia's husband Jorge and her father Raul are left at home to babysit.

When Delia gets up to dance with her cousin Amelia, she says, "Girls dance together. We won't care if no men turn up tonight. What's important is that the women turn up."

The show of women is kitsch and gaudy: fake flowers and fake gold, fuchsia lipstick, sweaty huipil blouses with their symbolic blank squares embroidered over the heart, and cavernous white lacy olane underskirts.

A lot of time and money has been spent on clothes and cosmetics for the fiesta. Competition is fierce. "Gloria wore that huipil last year, so business can't be good," bitches Delia.

Giselle, who is visiting from Oaxaca says some women buy boy lovers. "Once you're married, you can do anything." Later, Anunciata, 28, tells me: "A woman's got to be rich to keep a good boy. My Manuelito costs me about 60 pesos a month. But he's worth it. He's only 16 but he knows plenty of tricks in bed. Isabella tried to steal him from me but he says that she's too skinny for him."

Only the wisest women of Juchitan , the curandero witches who heal with the aid of elemental energies, are both thin and respected. Na Paula, whose magic lives inside a fragipani tree, is 85 and owns a twig in the shape of a human hand which she says contains special powers.

Some curadera use the cactus-derived drug peyote to see into the spirit world and contact a person's "tonal" or spiritual animal, whose welfare parallels the patient's. They also believe illness is caused by "loss of soul" and regained by rituals using hallucinogenic mushrooms. Na Paula uses the spirit of her sacred tree to heal. Delia Fuentes took her son to Na Paula when he had a stomach ulcer which doctors were unable to treat and "in two weeks he was better."

Na Paula's eyeteeth are capped with gold and she speaks in a high sing-song voice full of elongated vowels. Interpreted by Delia, she shows me the temple inside her house. On an altar against a backdrop of purple cloth, crucifixes and portraits of saints, sits a stuffed doll, an antelope head, a piece of pink cloth, the healing twig hand and a large, gold-painted egg.

Taking me outside to her sacred tree, Na Paula shows me how its trunk fans out into three branches with a deep cleft in between. "This is a female tree," she says, stroking the bark to receive her power. Then she puts her wrinkled palms on my arm and touches the pulse points, prescribing basil, lemon and lime tree and muttering a certain charm under her breath. "You need to be fatter," she says.

The dates for fiestas in Juchitan including San Isidro Labrador and Las Velas are variable and should be checked with the Mexican Ministry of Tourism. Ask the ministry to confirm with the Casa de Cultura in Juchitan, or contact them yourself in Mexico City.





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