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
"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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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,
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.