"Yo No Soy Nada"
Juana? "She's a pleasant woman. She works hard, she goes to church on Sundays, and she's honest. Sh sells shoes to help her husband out. He's a goodman, doesn't drink, doesn't smoke."
"She is respected in the village. She has a smile for everyone, her dress is always impeccable, and she helps out the poor when she can. It's not that she's rich - her sons own everything."
"Which Maria? No, I don't know her.
...You say she's a tomato picker. Oh, you must mean the chivera (goatherd). Why would you want to interview her?"
These three women, described by a fellow villager, live in Ayuquila, Mexico, a small town along the road linking El Grullo, the municipal capital, to Guadalajara, the state capital of Jalisco. At least half the women here combine household work with other family-based economic activities - running a small shop, selling milk, or making and selling tortillas. Some sell clothes, shoes, perfume, or prepared foods, while others are dressmakers. Many help their husbands with farm tasks, and most breed chickens.
Although Beatriz, Juana, and Maria live in the same village - and might all show up in a census as poor - they differ in their financial situation, access to resources, status, relationships, and alliances. Yet all three confront and reproduce subordination. They have differing ways of dealing with such situations, attribute different meanings to them - and devise specific specific strategies to take what advantage they can from them. The problems these women face in their everyday life show social how social constraints work in this rural context: how women themselves wield a degree of power but find themselves relinquishing it.
JUANA: CREATING SPACE
In 1987, a furious storm hit Ayuquila. A neighbor ran to Juana's house to warn her the river was rising rapidly and beginning to sweep away some of the hives a group of women had placed on its banks. Juana is one of 16 women in a Bee-keeping group that was started in 1984 with a loan from the Government Rural Bank.
Juana had just prepared a nice mole, a dish for special occasions. She likes to vary her cooking to keep her husband and her sons from getting bored with the same food,m although this means more work, especially with three men in the house who don't help with the household chores. Juana also looks after her unmarried brother, who lives on his own in Ayuquila. She washes and irons for him, gives him his meals, and cleans his house once in a while - claiming men are useless for such tasks.
Juana also organizes her household tasks to leave time to sew dresses for neighbors and friends, charging very little. As a complementary activity, she runs a small shoe store out of her home together with her sister-in-law, who provides the capital while Juana gives labor. Such ventures are increasingly important to sustain her household. Her husband has some cattle but no land.
Juana had intended bee-keeping to be a supplementary activity, but demands grew constantly. Soon after she joined the group, she became its president, a post she held for a little over three years. During her term, the group constructed a small building to meet in and store their tools and honey. Although the work goes smoothly now, the members must tend the hives at least once a week. It is a matter of all morning because they feed each hive with sugared water, and that means carrying a five-gallons can on their heads over long distances when they can't hitch a ride.
The day of the storm, Juana took the warm mole to her sons as they watched television. She served her husband and brother at the table and heated tortillas for the three of them. After they finished she sat down. It wasn't that she wouldn't like to sit with them, nor that she shouldn't. It was just that someone had to heat the tortillas, and she didn't want to interrupt her meal whenever the pile on the table ran down on her sons called for more.
When she heard the hives were in danger, Juana didn't wait for her family to finish eating. She grabbed a tortilla with a bit of food in its for herself and rushed to other beekeepers' houses. Soon a small band was organized.
Arriving home late and tired after saving the hives, Juana found the door of her house locked. It could have been an embarrassing situation, because she didn't want to alert the neighbors by knocking loudly. She retreated to the house of a friend, who helped her softly coax her husband to open the door. To avoid a quarrel, she placed the blame on herself, noting her husband doesn't like anyone arriving after 10 o'clock.
Juana's tolerance of his intolerance comes in part from growing up without a father. Although she had adored her mother, she is glad her children live with a father. To protect this, she conforms to unwritten norms, tolerating situations with which she doesn't necessarily agree. The price for a united family is to give her husband his "quota of power," subordinating herself to his likes and dislikes.
Juana's social networks are strong in Ayuquila, and they are crucial to her varied enterprises, but to maintain them, she must comply with existing standards or negotiate her way out of them. If she accords her man "his place," she is considered a good woman. She chooses conformity to create a space for herself, but in so doing she legitimates the very norms and behavior that limit her.
BEATRIZ: SEEKING LEGITIMATION
Beatriz is a relatively affluent widow whose kin networks in Ayuquila are weak. Her husband, a policeman in Guadalajara, had been disliked for his arrogance. Her father-in-law, a man deeply involved in local politics, is hated and feared, and her parents live in another town. On the other hand, Beatriz has built her own relationships and alliances both in Ayuquila and with regional and state authorities. Beatriz is commodore (ritual kin) of many people, who speak of her with respect and affection. And expanding on one of her strongest economic resources - land and cattle she inherited - she has acquired more of both on her own and makes a good profit from her holdings.
Communication with Beatriz comes easily. When I met her, she immediately told me how happy she had been with her husband, about his good relations with people in the state government, and what a shock his murder had been for her. She narrated her difficult life, how her family gave her no help after his death so she had to go to the United States and work as maid to a woman who counted the pieces of bread she ate. Eventually, she returned to Ayuquila with a little capital, fetched her children from her parents, and recovered the land, which she had rented out. But it wasn't easy to reorganize her networks, and her padrino (god-father), a man withe a high post in the state government, wouldn't help her: she was turned away when she approached him through his secretary.
These days, Beatriz's sons assist her. One is married, lives in Ayuquila, and helps with the work; another sends her a little money regularly from the United States. All she has belongs to them, she says. A "casino" she recently built - a large building for parties, dances, and other events - is for her sons, and the land is in their name, as are two pick-up trucks and a small tractor. (Still, she confides, she doesn't have everything in her sons' names: she can't trust them completely.)
Beatriz tells her story often, especially to newcomers like me. She uses her image as a single woman yearning for the support of her dead husband to gain favor and prestige as she acquires credit and negotiates reasonable prices for the milk she sells and decent contracts for land she rents out. Yet she never presents herself as a successful entrepreneur and often speaks of herself as ignorant of bureaucratic paperwork and legal issues.
By downplaying her own abilities, she enlists others in her cause. In addition, her good nature and willingness to help others has won the approval and sympathy of neighbors and friends, especially outside the village. She sometimes visits local authorities and rich families when collecting money for people in need - as she did for families left homeless when the river flooded.
Although Beatriz projects the image of subordinate widow and portrays her property as her sons', she makes the decisions and manages the enterprises. She visits regional authorities to get permits to hold parties and sell beer. She organizes events in the casino and sells drinks at them, buys and sells cattle, hires workers, and coordinates the use of the tractor and the pick-up trucks. She even participates in political meetings. After all, important decisions are made there, for example concerning land rights - she ensures her sons aren't left out - and fiestas - which can take place in the casino. And it is her own good relations with influential people that help her reach her aims as she negotiates decent contracts for renting her land, acquires credit, and maintains her herd of cattle and sells full-grown calves and milk at reasonable prices.
MARIA: MOCKING SUBORDINATION
At least one-fifth of Ayuquila's women, including Maria until she died of measles in 1991,work as day laborers for tomato companies. These are the lowest status jobs in the village.
Living with her parents and brother in a two-room, borrowed adobe shack on the outskirts of Ayuquila, Maria's networks were weak because the family isn't from the village. They came to Ayuquila to tend the toast of a local entrepreneur, but he cheated them. Since then, her father has worked sporadically - when he is sober. Sometimes Maria's mother and brother also work for the tomato companies. Her mother helped with the children when Maria worked, but it was Maria's task to support them.
Villagers, looked down on Maria or ignored her, criticizing her relations with men and labeling her a "woman of the streets" because she was an unwed mother. Although many young girls in Ayuguila become pregnant out of wedlock, most families try to coax the progenitor to marry their daughter, or else they send the girl to relatives in the United States. A few women - generally those with strong networks and economic backing - manage to stay in the village and maintain their "respectability" by living with their families or start a life of their own. This wasn't precisely the case of Maria, whose parents accepted her in the household grudgingly.
Maria spoke of working at the tomato companies with pleasure. She got bored the three months a year when there was no work. Being very skilled, she never failed to have a job during work seasons. And while others switched companies often, Maria worked steadily for one employer. She chose not to work in the packing plants, which other women favored, or the greenhouses because she preferred open air, even though this meant she had to work harder, toiling all day under the sun, squatting to bury the delicate plants, securing larger ones with strings, and cutting the fruit when it was ready.
In the fields, Maria, one of the youngest and weakest-looking women, was extremely fast. This gave her an edge over the rest, which she used to mock the image of the submissive woman who must give men their place. Just before finishing her row, she would stand up, joke with her friends, and challenge the boys to go behind the sugarcane grass with her. The overseer couldn't move her to the next row until she finished the one she was working on. Nor could she hurry Maria - after all, the other workers were far behind. The boys were obviously intimidated by Maria, and the overseer pretended not to notice.
Within these specific circumstances, Maria withdrew from a particular form of subordination, paying for her exit the price of stigmatization and gossip. Maria could create her own space to maneuver partly because the company needs capable, fast people like her. That the overseer, as well as the head of the farm, feared mockery in front of the others further served her purpose. Not only wouldn't she give the company more work than she had to, but she resisted authority - within the possible limits.
POWER, NEGOTIATION, AND CONSENT
Yo no soy nada - I am nothing, I am worth nothing - is a common expression among women in rural parts of western Mexico. It is incorporated into everyday language to such an extent that it is almost taken for granted.
In much the same way, development projects and planners alike tend to takewomen's "subordinated condition" for granted. They view women as inferior in society, as victims of an institutionally perpetuated social order. Indeed, although Juana, Beatriz, and Maria are unequal regarding their economic resources and political power, they all accept male dominance, adjusting their behavior to scripts that set clear boundaries on their projects and identities.
Yet the experiences of these three women illustrate the diverse ways in which gender scripts are delay with in social life. Maria, for example, emphasized that she had a husband in Guadalajara, thus disowning her local image as a woman of the streets. While Juana accords priority to the well-being of her sons, husband, and brother, her own enterprises contribute significantly to their financial situation. Beatriz is careful to mask her transgressions of her notion of women as the weaker sex, although she could be identified as a strong, enterprising woman. And both Juana and Beatriz, in their attention to maintaining the image of good woman, consolidate their networks.
Thus, the women of Ayuquila maximize space for themselves but at the same time recreate constraints on their struggles for survival. Juana bestows power on her husband, subordinating some of her needs to the role of good mother, wife, and sister, roles that she perceives as relevant. This restricts her but also gives her authority to influence household expenditures, decide her sons' careers, and demarcate the behavior of her husband and brother.
Nor are power relations fixed. Beatrizbuilds her alliances and uses her resources to participate in the decision-making arenas of the village. She enrolls others in her own projects, capitalizing on her identity as a widow. The subordinate-woman image she depicts accommodates to social expectations but lets her defend her interests.
Similarly, Maria, while working hard to make ends meet and fulfill her responsibilities toward her children, mocked the image of submissive women. She freely challenged both her "superiors" and her peers as she established her own rhythm of work and even taunts men.
In the world that Ayuquila women inhabit, making room to maneuver involves independence in some spheres, and it means dependence in others. More than a generalized lack of authority, one can speak of struggles for space that imply power, negotiation, and consent.
Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.
Our website houses close to five decades of content and publishing. Any content older than 10 years is archival and Cultural Survival does not necessarily agree with the content and word choice today.