How the Women of Tehuantepec Inspired a Nation

Statue of La Tehuana | © Adam Jones / Flickr
Statue of La Tehuana | © Adam Jones / Flickr
Photo of Stephen Woodman
15 September 2017

The women of Mexico’s Isthmus of Tehuantepec have achieved world renown for their colorful traditional dress, which was famously adopted by the artist Frida Kahlo. Women traditionally dominate the local markets and the economic life of the region, often earning more money than their husbands. This unconventional matriarchal organization has sparked international interest, and is a cause for celebration in Mexico and beyond.

The Market and the Matriarchy

The cultural and economic center of life throughout the steamy isthmus is the marketplace, and the town of Juchitán de Zaragoza offers the most impressive market in the region. Here, you’ll find stall after stall offering elaborate, locally made jewelry, folk art, and even the local delicacy – iguana tamales.

Tehuana in traditional dress | © Antonio MaloMalverde / Flickr

Unlike other markets in Mexico, the vendors here are exclusively women. They tend to be outgoing and forthright: smiling, haggling, and occasionally teasing passersby. Most women in Juchitán are of Zapotec indigenous origin and are experienced vendors, having started selling from a very early age.

“Women are public figures here,” the sociologist Marina Meneses told the Los Angeles Times. “Women are the main organizers.”

Gaspar Cabrera, the local priest, said that Juchitán was far ahead of wider Mexican society. “We men do not feel oppressed. This is simply a more egalitarian reality. In this aspect, Zapotec culture is more advanced, and European culture is catching up.”

However, the notion that Tehuantepec is a matriarchy has not gone unchallenged. Outside observers have pointed out that women rarely hold political power in the region. What is not disputed is the profound influence of the economic organization of Tehuantepec. Women are typically in charge of the money in their households and often earn more than their husbands, who tend to work as farmers, fishers, or craft workers.

This affords women certain important freedoms. Remaining unmarried or filing for a divorce is possible, as women are economically independent. Many locals argue that this contributes to a general atmosphere of respect and tolerance among men and women in the Tehuantepec isthmus.

Tehuana dolls | / Flickr

Famous Festivities

Along with the much-debated and celebrated matriarchy of the region, the women of Tehuantepec have had a massive cultural influence in Mexico. The region is noted for its velas, traditional parties where women dress up in extravagant costumes and parade through the streets. The huipiles (blouses) that women wear for these festivities are famous for their vibrant colors and elegant patterns.

These costumes also famously inspired Frida Kahlo. The flamboyant Mexican artist wears a huipile in many of her self-portraits. She is even featured on the country’s 500-peso bill in traditional Tehuana costume.

The Mexican singer-songwriter Lila Downs has carried the tradition of donning Tehuana clothing into the 21st century. The Grammy award-winning artist pays homage to both the Tehuanas and Kahlo with her traditional costumes, and has even recorded a version of “La Zandunga,” the unofficial anthem of the Tehuantepec region.

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