The Juchitecas proudly call themselves Zapotec women, descendants of the indigenous people of Mexico. Their power in society is rooted in trade, with the market of Juchitán as its hub. On behalf of their families, the women collect and manage money, a duty they perform with care and responsibility. They hold property and pass it on to their daughters, a system that has proven its value in the City of Flowers for centuries.
Juchitán de Zaragoza on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Mexico
The very name Ixtaxochitlán in Zapotec offers a foretaste of the joie de vivre that Juchitán de Zaragoza exudes: Ixtaxochitlán translates as “City of Flowers.” Located in the southern part of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Mexico’s narrowest point, the city has about 75,000 inhabitants. Life here is colorful, vibrant—and dominated by women.
“It’s a girl!” is a cry that evokes elation among those waiting and spreads like wildfire. The birth of a girl is cause for celebration in Juchitán—and celebration is frequent here. Unlike the rest of Mexico, which follows patriarchal structures, the isthmus is organized matriarchally: Women determine economic life, manage the household budget, hold property and pass it on to their daughters.
While the Juchitecas engage in trade or handicrafts, the men work in the fields, catch fish or earn money in manufacturing—a supplement to the family income, as the women are the main breadwinners. The market—and thus the economic center of the town—is in their hands. This is where the women do the shopping for their families and also get everything they need when there is another occasion to celebrate. In Juchitán, it seems, this is the case every day. Be it holidays honoring saints or professions, birthday celebrations or weddings: everyone brings something, the market benefits from the purchases, the local economy benefits, and so, again, each individual benefits. A very special celebration is held when a girl turns 15: her day as reina, queen, prepares her for her status, for her role as head of her clan. In anticipation, everyone helps out, cooking, gossiping, laughing, and then finally celebrating together.
In the colorful hustle and bustle, certain women stand out: muxes were born as men, but feel like women. Among the Zapotecs, they are considered the “third sex”. Traditionally, they carry out activities that are customarily the responsibility of women, working in the market or running other businesses. At festivals or in everyday life, they also wear colorful clothing and mingle with the throng of women. This juggling of gender roles does not cause a stir in Juchitán, where it is a privilege to be a woman. Muxes choose their own family path: whether they stay in their mother’s house or start their own family is up to them.
The hierarchies in Juchitán are flat; respect is granted to those who give the most, not to those who have the most, for quality counts more than quantity. Life expectancy here is higher than anywhere else in Mexico, while infant mortality is low. Perhaps this is due to a mutual sense of responsibility for each other. Or maybe it’s because women in Juchitán enjoy great respect even in their old age. Very probably, social cohesion is a contributing factor as well—Juchitecas rarely travel alone. You usually meet them in groups, laughing, chatting or eating, and they always give the feeling that they’re devoting time to whatever they’re doing.