Fully sovereign queens, not wives of kings: women of Juchitán, the Zapotécas nicknamed the Técas, live in the Mexican province of Oaxaca.
During the feasts of San Vicente Ferrer, which begin on May 21 every year, witness their coronation. For the occasion, and despite the temperatures reaching 50°C, the Técas put on their most beautiful huipil. This traditional dress with colored flowers on a black velvet background, with a magnificent white lace hemming the bottom of the skirt is reminiscent of the image of a strong and radiant woman depicted by the artist Frida Kahlo.
These women also demonstrate strength by embodying all possible roles, economic, religious or simply guardians of traditions. They transmit all forms of heritage: the material heritage passed on from mother to daughter such as the family home, gold jewelry and a cabinet full of embroidered huipils which cost small fortunes; and the immaterial heritage through their power to take important decisions, or that of curing that is mastered by the curandera who knows how to cure illnesses with plants.
Out of a population of less than 100,000 inhabitants, 48,000 women govern over 46,000 men, who are always introduced as "a father, a son or a husband of such and such “woman””. In Juchitán, men only govern in municipal offices - political power is the world of men. In recent years, however, some women have also been municipal councilors.
Nothing new in the image of a powerful and radiant woman, as portrayed by the artist Frida Kahlo, who was fascinated by Zapotec culture. Back in 1866 women kept the city of Juchitán, capital of the Mexican region of Oaxaca, from falling into the hands of the French expeditionary corps sent by Napoleon III to support Emperor Maximilian. Women galvanized the men of Juchitán into fighting and trapped the soldiers in the lagoon area. Doing so, they became the heroines of the September 5th national holiday.
Between 1979 and 1989, Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide produced images of Juchitán’s women. One of the best known is titled "Our Lady of the Iguanas" (Nuestra Señora de las Iguanas). It depicts a market vendor carrying half a dozen live iguanas, Juchitán’s totemic animal, on her head. Iguana stew is part of the local traditional cuisine.
The annual feast of San Vicente Ferrer, Juchitán’s patron saint, begins on May 21. During this ancestral festival, women are celebrated together with the earth and agriculture. Dressed in their most beautiful huipil, both women and young girls engage in all parties that last three days. Thus recalling that for over a thousand years Juchitán was called the "City of Flowers" (Xochitlán).
The birth of a girl in a house is copiously celebrated, but it is only at the age of 15 that the adolescent enters the society of women and receives, from her mother, gold necklaces which will later constitute her dowry when contemplating marriage. For now, Zuri enjoys wearing the gold jewels of her mother Marlene.
The parade or regada (watering), is just the first out of three acts of the San Vicente Ferrer celebration. A family from Juchitán makes a solemn commitment in front of the whole Juchitéca society to buy hundreds of small gifts, ranging from a bag of pasta to a roll of toilet paper, including little dresses, T-shirts, plates, cutlery or plastic buckets… and to collect them in huge bags that a dozen women, sitting on the back platform of the truck, will offer by throwing them to the crowd at the time of the parade.
His first name is Antonio. Muxes (pronounced mouché) dress in women’s clothes and enjoy decorating or embroidering. Counting a muxe in the family was commonplace and considered an asset, because she would take care of the parents when they got older, much like the last of the family's children is expected to do, in the process inheriting the house, the business and the gold. The muxes (which the Zapotec considered to be part of a third sex) participate in every important moment of community life like any other citizen. Homophobia is very strong in the rest of Mexico, although marriage between men is legalized in the capital. Even in matrilineal societies, virility is a normative dogma.
During the regada (parade), managing this distribution is a matter exclusively for women - Catholics, of course, although this manifestation is mostly the result of syncretism.
The regada (parade), then the velas (evenings) are a way for women to educate young people, to show them their solid roots in Zapotec culture, while paying homage to the Sun and to the crops, as their farming ancestors did.
The omnipresence of women in Juchiteca society is visible in all activities, whether it is economic, religious or simple tradition, such as the transmission of the Zapotec language, whose survival is threatened.
After the parade, evenings dedicated to a fruit of the earth or an animal become a pretext to eat and dance. Tonight, the vela viaxhi (pronounced viatchi) celebrates prunes, yesterday it was the sweet potato, tomorrow the iguana or the lizard… A female “butler” organizes the vela where everyone is invited. All that is needed is a woman's contribution, the limozna (the obol), and hands it to her wrapped in a handkerchief. The man will buy a case of twenty-four bottles of beer.
The qualities of the Tecas, their sense of feminine solidarity and the elegance of their huipil are known beyond the borders of the city. These viajeras (travelers) move not only in the neighboring municipalities but also as far as Chiapas and throughout Mexico, occasionally reaching Guatemala, where they arouse the admiration of men and the jealousy of other women.
Whether a fisherman, a farmer or a craftsman, a man brings home the gross product of his labor, and the woman processes it to increase its value tenfold. A kilo of fish is only worth 40 pesos (2.50 euros), a kilo of crabs 15 pesos (0.89 euros), prices that can be multiplied by three or four, once cooked and spiced by women. In return, men get fed and given pocket money.
Locked in a country like Mexico where men are often deemed “omnipotent”, Juchitán does not live in a bubble. Just the opposite. The legendary strength of its women, which represents a "sure value" for most Zapotecos - even for the youngest - attracts men from neighboring provinces such as Chiapas. But some Zapotecos emigrate out of frustration, especially to the north where they find rewarding jobs and women less endowed with discretionary power.
The Juchitán market is mainly run by Zapotec women, whose qualities as traders are renowned throughout Mexico. Transforming the raw material, they enhance it and get the best price from it.
The curandera woman holds the power to heal. She knows how to prepare balms and syrups from plants. Her homemade altar is highly respected.
Festivals like that of San Vicente Ferrer are supported by the Catholic Church. Evangelical groups, which have been gaining more and more ground over the past thirty years by tackling alcohol head-on and supervising families, are clearly showing their opposition to these feasts, which are too frivolous for their taste.
Often, before getting married, the groom kidnaps the girl. Then the couple takes refuge at the groom's mother who prepares a room for them with a bed with fresh sheets. The next morning, a ceremony is organized to prove that the future wife was a virgin: lying under a white sheet covered with rose petals, she keeps her eyes riveted on a red-stained handkerchief prominently displayed in a silver cup.