In Mexico’s Isthmus of Tehuantepec society works a bit differently. Unlike most civilizations around the world, from Western to Eastern, the Zapotec people of Tehuantepec have a matriarchal society, meaning women make the calls inside, and outside, the house.
The women of Tehuantepec are renowned around the world for their stunning traditional dresses. These Tehuana outfits, with their colourful, intricate patterns and large head pieces, are culturally significant in Mexico and the parades (velas) with the traditional garb have made the region is famous as women are celebrated and honoured for their craft. The costume was adopted by the famous artist Frida Kahlo, whom we suspect admired more about these women than just the way they dress. The Tehuantepec women are confident, capable leaders and their way of living has caught the eye of sociologists around the globe, and become a source of pride and celebration for those who strive for more equal societies.
In Tehuantepec women are the economic ‘breadwinners’ and often earn more than their male counterparts. They represent the economical and cultural aspects of life in the region, and they do it very well. The women are in charge of how and what the money is spent on in the home. They call shots and work in the markets while the men work as fishermen, farmers or craftsmen. In the town of Juchitán de Zaragoza the markets are awash with colour as the stall holders display their arts, jewellery and the local foods. The thing you’ll notice here though is that all of the vendors are women. All of them.
The women who lord over the markets, the Tehuanas, are something special. They dominate the markets in terms of buying and selling, and are unreserved when they speak, teasing and having fun with all who pass. They’re at the forefront of society and have no fear in being there, plain and simple. Marina Meneses, a sociologist, spoke to the Los Angeles Times about the unique matriarchy, “Women are public figures here. Women are the main organisers.”
Rumours abound about the true workings of society, with some writings over the years suggesting having a daughter was seen as a blessing, while having a son not so much, and that men came home and gave women all their wages at the end of the day. A priest in Juchitán, Gaspar Cabrera, says that’s not true and that it is a progressive society that others can learn from: “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.”
It’s worth noting that this region in Mexico is famous for equality. In Juchitán for example they recognise a third gender, Muxe, and they are widely celebrated and accepted there. You can learn more about Mexico’s third gender here, but suffice to say, the people in this region are extremely forward thinking and on the money.
Not all agree that the Tehuantepec region is a true matriarchy though, as women rarely hold positions in politics. Why this is could be a matter of education, as being a salesperson and owning a business is an expected career for women in the area, whereas politics is not. As it stands though, its clear women rule the roost when it comes to money and home life here. Perhaps there are some places in the world that would benefit from a little lesson in how to function as an equal society from the Tehuantepec women.