Isabella Tree explores indigenous feminism
By Isabella Tree Original Print Publication: February, 2009
Read more travel writings by Isabella Tree in her book Sliced Iguana: Travels through Mexico (Palgrave Macmillan).
Among other Mexican encounters in those pages, you’ll find arm-wrestling mariachis, exorcisms in Chiapas, and a Día de Muertos vigil.
Tree is an award-winning travel journalist and author, whose titles include The Bird Man: The Extraordinary Story of John Gould. Her books are available through amazon.com.
“How about some chicken, gringa? Or better still, a nice big cock?” A mountainous woman shakes a naked carcass, with its trembling red comb, at me as I make my way along the overflowing food stalls of Juchitán, a small but important market town on the Pacific side of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. She’s shaking with laughter, and her stall shakes with her as if rocked by some distant terremoto.
Image:Photo by Isabella Tree
Muxes in Juchitán, Oaxaca.
“Or you want some real meat, sister?” roars her beefy neighbour, slapping down a fistful of fat sausages on her butcher’s block. There’s no stopping them now. I’m a conspicuous target, and I’ve set them off.
“Perhaps she’s after one of these”, the fruit-seller joins in, screaming with laughter and lifting up a bunch of gigantic bananas, known here as plátanos machos. I feel a flush, hot as chilli peppers, burning my cheeks and try to raise a smile.
“Come to learn how to keep your man in order, have you, how to make love to him like a Juchiteca? You need to fatten up, girlie. Give your man something to hold on to at night.”
There’s certainly plenty for their husbands to grab on to. They are formidable, these ladies—built like Sumo wrestlers, biceps like basket-balls, breasts like the Sierra Madre. When they laugh (which seems to be most of the time) they dazzle you with a sparkling éclat of gold- and nickel-capped teeth.
They’re not the kind of women I’d ever imagined I would find in Mexico. Not in a country that prides itself in a culture of machismo, where for centuries the ideal woman has been the mujer abnegada, a self-sacrificing slave who suffers the iniquities of life and her husband’s beatings in silence, following the Stations of the Cross every Sunday on bleeding knees. It’s not hard to find people in the rest of the country who regard feminists as las locas: crazy women.
But there’s nothing retiring about these mamas, nothing submissive, puritanical, or guilt-ridden, and certainly nothing virginal. These Juchitecas are proud mistresses of their universe. The only men in the market, I notice, are pushing trolleys or humping boxes, though one brave chap does dare to penetrate this matriarchal realm to beg his wife for pocket money.
There’s something so seductive, so self-confident, so subversive about these Juchitecas. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been ignored in Mexican restaurants as waiters feigned deafness, only to come rushing when a male companion so much as twitched a finger. I’d started, for my own amusement, collecting slogans on motorway billboards, like the one on the Wonderbra ad with the model whose breasts are like melons in a clamp: “Give him a good reason to come home”; or the one for a famous Mexican department store: “All women do is cry and buy shoes.” But now, suddenly, all that has been turned on its head. I realize that the Wonderbra has not yet been devised that could possibly contain these women.
Stopping on the edge of the market at a flower stall I find myself gawping again. There’s something different here. The Juchiteca presiding over buckets of tube-roses, arum lilies, and hibiscus has her hair in long braids like the others and wears the same voluminous skirts reminiscent of a super-sized Frida Kahlo, but above her traditional embroidered huipil blouse protrudes a distinctive Adam’s apple, and the hand that returns my change to me is enormous—and hairy.
The penny drops when I encounter a basketball game on the other side of the square. The gorgeous, long-legged players—“The Intrepid Ones” vs. “Come Dance With Me”—skipping around the court in short skirts and crop-tops are not, despite their shrill peels of excitement, teenage Juchitec girls, but transvestites. Though they’re dripping in sweat they all refuse to use the towel in case they smudge their make-up. When they shriek for the ball they do so in their native Zapotec tongue.
Zapotec Indians have dominated this region for centuries, controlling the Isthmus bottleneck, cashing in on traffic travelling north and south between the Americas. Despite the efforts of the Spanish—and before them, the Aztec Empire—to crush them, Zapotec culture remains supreme here, a unique life force undiminished. Here, women are so revered that if you’re not female, your best bet is to become an honorary one. “Better luck next time,” mothers soothe each other when one of them has the misfortune to give birth to a boy, “or perhaps he’ll turn out to be gay.” At least a third of Juchitán’s male population are homosexual. Here, unlike the rest of Mexico, where putos— faggots—are famously targeted, there’s no stigma attached to sexual preference. Sex is simply a matter of natural impulse. As one Juchiteca explains to me, “God puts the heat in different holes, that’s all.”
Dusk falls in Juchitán like a gauntlet. I’ve been invited to a transvestite party and the Juchitecas have insisted on dressing me for the occasion. I have a long, thick plait coiled around my head and a yellow satin rosette pinned above my ear. I’ve been lent a traditional huipil and a long colourful skirt by a woman three times my size, and plied with enough beer and tequila to banish any lingering remnants of British reserve.
While the transvestites (known as muxes) snake around each other in skin-tight mini-skirts and boob-tubes, loaded with bling, I find myself clinched bosom to bosom with a matronly Juchiteca, and we sail around the dance-floor like a Spanish caravel. I feel suddenly, liberatingly, androgynous. Sexual conventions, all the uptight social mores imposed on the Americas by Europeans, seem ludicrously neurotic and remote. The spirit of Mexico, pre-conquest, pre-Christian, pre-historic, pulses through the night like the Juchiteca’s heart-beat pounding against mine.
Reeling round and round, dizzy with tequila, all the conflicts and contradictions, the neuroses and passions of Mexico, fall into place, soothed by the great maternal bosom, retracted into the dark and welcoming womb that gave birth to the North American continent.
At last, as the party grinds to a halt, when the last bottle has bitten the dust and the last transvestite has trailed away to bed for her beauty sleep, I stagger blurrily off to crash at my hotel. The Juchitecas, always the last to leave, drag their comatose husbands to their feet, hoist them up under the arms and, swaying slightly like ships on a swell, plough home with them through the darkness.