The Prism

Women Impel Change in Chiapas

by Lea Clayton

Rights for indigenous women is a part of the Zapatista philosophy for social reform. How much are the lives of indigenous women changing in the wake of the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas and how much of this movement comes from the hearts of women in communities far removed from politics and media?

The line of women slowly advances. Side by side and each with a hoe, 13 indigenous women break apart the earth with machine-like efficiency. Their laughter and gossip betray how hard they are actually working--and have been--since 6:30 this morning. This cavalier attitude toward the work must come from the knowledge that they will soon plant rows of cabbage, peppers, carrots and Swiss chard and other greens. These women have organized an organic market garden cooperative to feed their families and hopefully make a little cash. And they have invited me, the only gringa for miles around, to provide technical support and, of course, seeds.

These women are from Morelia, a Mayan village in the heart of Chiapas, Mexico's southernmost state. They speak Tzeltal, one of six Mayan languages in Chiapas, and most of them speak Spanish. At the moment, they are gossiping in a curious mix of both languages, which gives me enough of a clue to know that they are talking about me. A weathered and sweet-looking grandmother judges me. When I catch the eye of a pregnant young mother, she smiles and looks down at the earth.

Bodies made strong by childbirth and physical labor sweat beneath floral dresses and dangly shiny earrings. Cracked toes sink into the black soil. Leathered hands grip hoes. These women of Morelia are the seam that keeps their society from unraveling in the face of poverty and war.

The mothers and wives wake up in the morning before their husbands and children and are the last to go to sleep at night. Most of their work is in the house beginning at 4:30 when they start the morning fires and begin patting out corn tortillas and cooking beans for breakfast. Only men gather in the village center in the evenings to shoot the breeze or a couple of hoops. Men and women sit on opposite sides of the church during mass and other meetings. Women cook the food for the family over open fires, raise the children, clean the house, and wash all the clothes by hand. They chop and carry firewood, often with a nursing baby strapped to their heavy breasts.

I look up from the hoeing and out towards the green mountains cloaked in mist. I wonder, what do these women think of me? Everything about me must seem soft to them--my blue eyes and white skin. Even though my hands also work the earth, they are not leathered from cooking beans and tortillas over an open fire. I have no husband, and in the opinion of these women, lack the domestic skills to even begin to attract one. In a society where getting enough to eat is the focus of every day's work, it is domestic skill, more than love, that usually attracts a man to a woman. As a woman without a husband, I have no context in the traditional life of the village. I decide this must be the subject of their discussion about me. I marvel at their invitation for me to be a part of the women's communal life. Perhaps the women are truly embracing change in their personal lives.

The women of Morelia are organizing. They hold marches in the nearby town of Altamirano against the prostitution and alcohol abuse brought by the Mexican Federal Army into their region. They stand up to soldiers that cruise by town to harass the indigenous communities. They set up cooperative projects among themselves for the town--like this organic gardening project. Other women are planting soybeans and new types of corn. But for the moment, all of this work is done above and beyond the daily tasks required by traditional family life.

"What married women want most is to have their husbands share the workload women face in the home. And not to be treated badly by their husbands by being verbally or physically abused," said Marcela.

Marcela is an indigenous woman who lives with her family on the outskirts of San Cristobal de Las Casas, the spiritual capital of Chiapas. Her family along with some 30,000 others are refugees from Chamula. This nearby indigenous community and tourist spot has been ravaged by internal religious and political strife for nearly two decades.

Marcela is 17 and is trying to finish her high school education--a rare and difficult thing, she tells me, for an indigenous woman in Mexico. She tells me of many young women who drift from the classroom into the expected roles of the wife and mother. Survival in the form of gaining a husband has priority over school. Marcela says that she has no plan to get married at the moment; for her, a high school diploma is the prize.

The hoeing women continue chattering as they work. I look back and see that we have tilled a lot of ground in a short time. But in their collective form of working, these women don't look back to see how much they've done--only forward to the next plot of land waiting to be worked.

Lea Clayton is the Prism correspondent in Chiapas, Mexico and works with the Children's Community Garden, Inc., a non-profit organization dealing with environmental education and organic agriculture. CCG has an on-going volunteer program in Morelia, Chiapas. For more info: CCG, 109 Plant Rd., Chapel Hill, NC 27514. Phone/fax: 919-932-3766.

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