Oaxaca History Notes


Oaxaca, the Historical Setting—Continuity and Diversity

Martha Rees

Figure 1. Gabina making tortillas (San Agustin Yatareni)Gabina making tortillas yatareni



Table 1. Language and Maize Domestication

Table 1. Language and maize domestication


Compiled from Mangelsdorf, MacNeish and Galinat (1964) and Josserand, Winter & Hopkins (1984).



Environmental Setting

First Settlers (10,000 BCE-1500BCE) 

Empire (1200 BCE-800CE)

City-States (800CE-1500CE)

Conquest and Colony (1521-1810) to Independence (1810-1910)

Revolution and Reform (1910-1940): Tierra y Libertad

Boom and Bust (1940-1990s)

Globalization (1990…)

Cochineal Production

Continuity and Change

Oaxaca is theoretically important because ecological, linguistic and economic diversity facilitate a regional comparative study, so dear to the anthropological heart. For over 10,000 years, people in the central valleys of Oaxaca have collected and produced crops, crafts and other products, as well as labor for regional, national, and international markets. This overview of the history of Oaxaca from the first human settlements shows how work and production have changed, not in a linear progression from ‘traditional’ use to ‘modern’ exchange production, but back-and-forth in numerous combinations. Oaxaca’s crafts, as well as its rich archaeological and historical record, contribute to Mexican national discourse, that, like international tourist discourses, use ‘tradition’ to characterize Oaxaca. Both discourses see ‘tradition’ as unchanging, indigenous, mystical and primitive. Renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks, in his book Oaxaca Journal (2002), gives these misconceptions a layer of scientific legitimacy with his romantic vision and errors of fact: the mysterious ‘trance-like’ state of the tourist guide (p. 125), and their “primitive” lack of the wheel (p. 151), among others (Rees 2005). Anthropologists, including this author, can only avoid the tendency to exoticize and stereotype the ‘other’ by questioning our assumptions, including our perspective on the past. We romanticize the past by creating an imaginary of positive images; at the same time, we separate ourselves from that past by constructing differences between then and now. We create, transform, and reject ‘tradition.’ This chapter starts with a discussion of tradition and custom in order to analyze the historical record in terms of women’s production of use and exchange values. This analysis shows that in the history of Oaxaca, there are both continuities and change, and that tradition is a dynamic process.

People invoke tradition to refer to a practice or object that exists in the present in an unchanged, ‘authentic’ form that represents the past. Every practice and tradition undergoes constant interpretation and change. García Canclini (1995) criticizes the romantic tendency as conservative of the status quo and elitist, and notes that anthropology has tended to study ‘tradition.’ He goes on to point out that the tension between tradition and modernity is especially strong in Latin America, since many in Latin America see it as backwards and traditional. The search for the authentic primitive and traditional is a search for meaning at the same time that it is resistance against the hegemony of western cultural values. The very dichotomy between traditional and modern is a way of creating and emphasizing difference. García Canclini is talking about cultural production such as crafts, but his ideas are relevant to the study of tradition in general.

All traditions change. Imputing stasis to them is a political position than historical analysis. Take Thanksgiving, for example. The food, the justification or origin myth, the participants, the division of labor—all of these have changed dramatically since the first Thanksgiving. In the case of practices labeled ‘traditional’, the label may represent desire more than reality, a fantasy about the past and a way to characterize the ‘other’ as not us (e.g., not ‘modern’). Peoples or groups are not ‘traditional’—everyone today is modern, and those we call ‘traditional’ often behave more ‘modern’ than we do.

So-called “traditional” characteristics are dynamic and persistent. For example, community assemblies grant land to male household heads, who must cultivate it continuously as well as keep up with community obligations like cargo and tequio (p. 80), or risk having those rights taken away. Male children inherit rights as long as they, in turn, continue to meet their community service obligations. This system keeps people in line and encourages migrants’ return. Structured reciprocal exchange (guelaguetza, see p. 86ff) leaves everyone but the richest in debt to everyone else. Children inherit the guelaguetza debt of their parents, so this, also, encourages people to fulfill their obligations and encourages migrants to return home to fulfill their obligations. These ‘traditional’ community institutions support ‘modern’ practices such as migration, just as migration supports ‘traditional’ fiestas. Tradition (community, crafts, language, ethnicity, fiestas, and labor exchange) is not the opposite of, but part and parcel of “modernity” (e.g., wage labor, migration, and urbanization). Tradition is a symbol of community, but individuals, households and communities contest its practice, resulting in the formation and reformation of identity over time.

Customs are part of tradition; like tradition, they are dynamic, and respond to changes in external conditions, to style and to resources. Food and dress vary around the valleys, but there are important commonalities—and these are similar in both Spanish- and Zapotec-speaking communities. The same goes for food. The triumvirate of maize, beans, and squash has been the staple in Mesoamerica for over five thousand years. Foods like the tortilla, tejate (a delicious nutritious drink made of maize, cacao, the seed of the mamey fruit, flower of the chocolate vine, and sugar), tamales, salsa, and mole have not changed much, but many new foods—including instant coffee, cola drinks, bread, and potato chips—are found in the most remote stores. If food were an indicator of ethnicity, then everyone in the valleys is Zapotec, and everyone is global: eating the ubiquitous local version of the tortilla, the tlayuda, downed with a Coke. This extends to the city, where middle class urban folks claim that they ‘hardly ever eat tortillas,’ and eschew chile even though they eat toasted tlayudas with black beans every day. In rural areas, local food may be devalued as “poor people’s food”—for example the addition of garbanzo to tortilla, initially done to make maize go further, but incidentally providing a complementary source of protein, making the tlayuda with garbanzo, not only a tasty, but nutritious food. In 1997, Inés in Tilcajete told me “before when we were poorer, we stretched the maize by adding garbanzo.”

Squash flowers, chapulines (grasshoppers), and field greens (quelites) are much-appreciated seasonal delicacies. These play an important role in diet and in ecology, since all three are abundant in the summer. The summer is the period of highest nutritional stress, because households have eaten up or planted all that was left of last year’s harvest and the rains increase gastroenteritis (Kappel 1977). With little food, people eat quelites, greens that grow in the fields, excellent sources of protein, iron and vitamins A and C. Their harvest fills an important nutritional need during the summer months, as well as clears the fields for the squash and maize crops. Male squash flowers (revered from the southwestern US to Mexico) are another good source of vitamins and protein (Gijón 1996). Their harvest does not decrease the squash yield. Grasshoppers are small mobile packets of protein (think of them as land shrimp) that can seriously damage the maize crop. Their harvest in July alleviates nutritional stress at the same time that it rids the crop of pests. (Almost) everyone savors unique local chiles—the chile de agua and the Oaxaca pasilla, yellow mole, the guaje—concentrated packages of vitamins A and C. These food customs reflect local environment, history and economy.

History conditions how we look at women and their work. Anyone who visits the central valleys of Oaxaca, Mexico, or practically any place in Mexico, sees women working in the fields, making and selling tortillas, tending goats, weaving straw mats, carrying out a world of activities. Aranda (1985) first reported data on this for Oaxaca, in a book of papers presented at the first national meeting of research on Mexican peasant women. Women in rural or urban Oaxaca engage in a multitude of productive activities. Subsistence and commercial crops are the most important, but crafts and other small production, wage labor (mainly domestic service, described by Howell 2000), petty commerce such as taco stands on the street corner, as well as migrant labor—all are important women’s activities (Murphy and Stepick 1991; Cook and Binford 1990). Women’s activities have changed over time, as is shown in this review of Oaxaca’s history. The thread that runs through this description of resources and history is use and exchange value.

Environmental Setting

Oaxaca’s ecology is the most diverse in Mexico because it lies at the junction of two mountain ranges, the Sierra Madre del Sur and the Sierra Madre de Oaxaca (Nahmad et al. 1988: 153). These create a multitude of micro-ecological zones tucked into small valleys (Alvarez 1982:30). The central valleys, in the center of the state, are the largest expanse of arable land in the highlands. Mountains surround the valleys, block rain clouds from the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific, and create a rain shadow that keeps much of the valleys dry even in the rainy season. Deforestation, erosion and deep wells lower the water table. In Huitzo, “there were two more meters of water [in the wells] in 1970” (1989). Unpredictable rainfall and scarce water affect all economic activity; these are the main limiting factors in agricultural production. People need multiple sources of income or food as insurance against drought and crop failure. Crafts, vending and wage labor in Oaxaca, as well as elsewhere in Mexico and the US, make up the survival strategies for individuals and households.

Agriculture is the basis of subsistence, but most households do not have enough land to support their families. Because of land shortage and inheritance practices, parcels are small (they average under one hectare) and most households have no more than three parcels. Land fragmentation (minifundismo) is obvious from the many different colors of green visible in the fields in the summer. People in rain fed areas tend to have more, but drier, land, while those in irrigated zones have smaller plots. Land ownership is highly stratified—almost 90% of the population lives on a third of the total area. The richest 1% of landowners hold over 100 hectares each and as a group, control 23% of the private property (Piñón 1988:305-307). Land was not scarce until the 1800s, however.

First Settlers (10,000 BCE-1500BCE)

In Oaxaca, the earliest evidence of human occupation is Clovis-type points used to hunt large mammals from at least 10,000 years ago (Winter 1989). As the climate got drier and warmer, in the Archaic period, large animals became extinct, people hunted smaller animals, and increasingly relied on collecting wild plants. First were gourds (to hold water) and avocados, starting about 9,000 years ago (Flannery et al. 1986). The domestication of the maize-beans-squash triumvirate began about 7,000 years ago and evolved with language into the myriad of languages and races of maize found today. Table 1 shows how the evolution of domesticated maize from a small grass seed to the cobs we know today parallels changes in stone tool technology from choppers to advanced grinding stones and pottery. Overlain on this time-line is the parallel estimate, using glottochronology, of the initial separation of Otomangue languages found in Oaxaca starting about 6,500 years ago (Josserand, Winter and Hopkins 1984).

The first grinding tools, manos and metates, necessary for processing maize, appear at the same time that languages began to separate, nice support the Mayan saying that “we are people of maize” (Tedlock 1985), since speaking Maya (or Zapotec, or any other language) goes with cultivating maize, living in permanent settlements, and speaking a localized language. In this period, the Formative, people produced mainly for use. The evolution of grinding tools measures the growth of women’s role in food processing.

Grinding tools were only possible once people lived in permanent settlements, and made necessary by agriculture, since humans have trouble digesting whole grains and nomads cannot carry around heavy grinding tools like metates. The grain diet increased stratification because storable surplus could be accumulated or exchanged. Women use metates to grind maize into tortillas, the dietary staple since 800 BCE. Metates are so central to women’s roles that even today in rural Oaxaca, a woman’s main wedding present is a metate; a well-ground metate is a sign of a long marriage as, over the years, the metate wears down, getting smoother and smoother (see Figure 1). Even today, Juana says that women are “born for the metate.” Working with the metate is women’s work, but making the metates is men’s work—an arduous process involving mining, cutting and finishing (Cook 1984).

Compiled from Mangelsdorf, MacNeish and Galinat (1964) and Josserand, Winter & Hopkins (1984).


There is early evidence of production for exchange in traded goods from far and near—obsidian (volcanic glass), salt, conch shells, and quetzal feathers (Winter 1989). Common cultural symbols, including the jaguar and the feathered serpent, traveled with trade goods (Blanton et al. 1993). The Mesoamerican creation story expresses common ideas about gender and the universe, including references to the feathered serpent creator, the first father/mother (father sun and mother moon), jaguars and caves—elements that pre-date the development of separate languages and cultures. The Mesoamerican creation story, the Popol Vuh, tells it well:


And here is the beginning of the conception of humans; and of the search for the ingredients of the human body. So they spoke, the Bearer, Begetter, the Makers, Modelers named Sovereign Plumed Serpent….

After that, they put into words: the making, the modeling of our first mother-father with yellow corn, white corn alone for the flesh, food alone for the human legs and arms, for our first fathers, the four human works….

And these are the names of our first mother-fathers

(Tedlock 1985: 163-165).


Words for maize, on the other hand, developed in a multitude of languages in each sedentary population, telling us that languages split before maize became the main staple food.

Ethnographic analogy with contemporary gatherers and hunters suggests that early gatherers may have organized labor by gender and age, where men hunted large animals and women collected and processed wild foods as well as hunted smaller game. Production for exchange may have existed all during this time, as the best flint knapper or best potter could exchange his or her goods for others. Specialists produced metates and pottery for exchange, but the dominant form of production was kin-based.

Empire (1200 BCE-800CE)

The earliest evidence of a centralized power is public architecture built with surplus labor and food, at San José Mogote in 1200 BCE. The presence of the first glyph writing in Mesoamerica at Mogote reflects jaguar and other symbols from the Olmec on the Gulf coast to the north. With the rise of states, production for exchange increased, especially products, including labor, to pay tribute.

Esoteric calendar knowledge to predict eclipses and astronomical events, in addition to control of scarce goods such as obsidian or salt, may have played a role in convincing people to give up their surplus. In July 1996, I sat by the road up on the continental divide as the moon obscured the sun in a full eclipse. The sky got darker, a cold wind blew, the birds chirped and the cows headed home. I imagined how I would feel if I had not known the sun would come back.

It wasn’t until 850 BCE that the comal, or maize griddle, became the basic tool women used to make the maize they had ground into tortillas, the ‘original fast food’ according to Steven Kowalewski—a portable meal to carry up to the pyramid construction site. By 500 BCE, the empire of Monte Albán ruled the valleys from its hilltop site. Trade and the market for trade items expanded—jade, obsidian, shell, quetzal feathers, and other goods moved throughout Mesoamerica. Monte Albán developed into a true urban center, characterized by full-time artisans, priests, and warriors. In the Classic period, Monte Albán continued its expansion by conquering smaller polities, commemorated with dated conquest glyphs that would read in English as ‘On this day, we conquered [this place].’ The expansion of the empire brought population growth, probably because people needed more labor (more children) to produce tribute goods (Blanton et al. 1993).

City-States (800CE-1500CE)

The Post-Classic period, from fall of Classic Monte Albán in 750 CE until about 1250 CE, is not the poor relative of the Classic, as the name suggests. Smaller city-states, such as Dainzu and larger centers, such as Yagul, as well as a regional network of markets distributed goods such as obsidian for knives (Winter 1989, Blanton et al. 1993). This was not a period of population decline, but there was less stratification: elite households were smaller than before. Architecture was less elaborate, but ceramics were better (measured by the number of steps in production), since they were mainly produced for use, rather than for exchange (tribute). The example of the rise and fall of the Monte Alban empire example illustrates how a powerful state can encourage both population growth and mass production.

Marriage was an important political tool in the post-Classic era. Elite women were not necessarily hapless pawns (Jansen and Pérez Jiménez 1998, Sten 1999), but players in a network of political alliances (Blanton et al. 1993) between Zapotecs from the valley capital of Zaachila, to Mixtecs in the western highlands, and the Mexica from the valley of Mexico (Spores 1983). For example, Lady Cotton Flake, a sister of Mexica ruler Moctezuma II, married Zapotec Cosijoeza (Oudijk 2000:21). In Cuilapan in the valleys, the Xipe dynasty merged Zapotec and Mixtec lineages with the marriage of Zapotec Lord 5 Flower and Mixtec Lady 4 Rabbit, nicknamed quetzal (precious/feather). Other noble females had sacred attributes: Lady 3 Flint becomes a feathered serpent to make offerings (McCafferty et al. 1996).

The absorption of Oaxaca into the Mexica (Aztec) empire from Tenochtitlán in the Valley of Mexico turned most of the valleys of Oaxaca into a tributary of Tenochtitlán just before the Spanish conquest in 1521. Oudijk (2000:13) lists tribute goods paid to the Mexica: labor and goods—turkeys, dogs, blankets, huipiles (women’s blouses), quetzal feathers, maize, manta (unbleached cotton cloth), gold, and cochineal (an insect-based red dye, described on p. 53ff).

Sixteenth century documents, or codices, describe genealogies as well as beliefs in community and female sacred beings. Community is created by reciprocal bonds—the person who does not participate in community (reciprocate) is worse off than an orphan (Jansen and Pérez Jiménez 1998)—an ideology of community that still operates today. Ritual and reciprocity gave people access to the vital forces of the wind and rain. Two out of 13 sacred beings are female: one of rivers, fish, and pregnancies; the other of the devil, sacrifice to whom could save the sick (Marcus 1983). Calendars, caves, jaguars, feathered serpents, and twins are common elements of Mesoamerican culture. In the central valleys of Oaxaca, tales of snakes and explanations of the influence of snake-shaped clouds on rain represent the contemporary version of this origin myth (see the San Pedro Mártir community case study, p. 156). The continuity of beliefs about rain in the valleys tells us that rain is still an important limiting factor in agriculture.

Agriculture never exceeded the carrying capacity of land in the valleys of Oaxaca during this period—there was no over-population, and areas of fertile land were under-utilized even at the height of Monte Albán’s power. Even though there was unused land, some areas of marginal soil fertility, e.g., the slopes surrounding and within eyesight of Monte Albán, were densely populated, leading Blanton et al. (1993) to conclude that it was political control, not agriculture, that determined land use. They go on to note that during periods when Monte Albán was strongest, for example from 350 to 200 BCE and during the Classic period from 300 to 500 CE, ceramic quality (determined by the number of production steps) was lower than during periods when Monte Albán was weaker or smaller, for example, after 1250 CE (Blanton et al. 1993). Strong state structures resulted in low quality (fewer steps in production) crafts. This belies the common assumption that states and civilization encourage the highest quality of art. At least in the case of Oaxaca, women who produced vessels to pay their taxes (for exchange) took less care than when they produced them for their kitchen (for use). This variation in quality illustrates the shift back-and-forth from production for use and production for exchange (tribute) over the course of the rise and fall of empires in Oaxaca.

Production for exchange was important in the Classic and Post Classic periods in Oaxaca, and became more important after the Spanish conquest in 1522. Through all these periods, tribute organized much of production for exchange. Producers exchanged their surplus production and labor, but they owned their land and tools.

The availability of unused fertile lands supports Feinman and Nichols’ well-argued thesis (1992) that local ecological crisis, such as drought, did not cause the fall of Monte Albán. Blanton et al. (1993) conclude that political crisis brought Monte Albán down. Struggles based on tribute, information control, threats from marauding armies and other factors have brought more than one empire to its knees.

The history of Oaxaca from the Archaic to the Post-Classic is not a story of isolation progressing in linear fashion toward a connected, civilized society, of production of use values to the production of exchange values. Rather, there were ups-and-downs in the process, struggles for control over resources, periods of greater connection to the market and periods of isolation (Blanton et al. 1993). In the early periods people domesticated maize and other crops. As agriculture became more important in subsistence, they settled in small villages. The empire based at Monte Albán and the city states that arose after its collapse depended on tribute. By the time of the Mexica (Aztec) and Spanish conquests in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, the central valleys were broken up into small city-states with less stratification than during the Classic period. We do not know whether smaller polities spoke separate languages or identified as Zapotec or another ethnic group, but with the conquest, they all became ‘indios.’

Conquest and Colony (1521-1810) to Independence (1810-1910)

By 1530, the Spanish had conquered the valleys and established the city of Antequera (Oaxaca) on the site of the Mexica garrison (Esparza 1993), without realizing that they were in the shadow of the abandoned city of Monte Albán. The conquest did not extinguish indigenous cultures. Indigenous nobles continued to influence land use and held large extensions of tribute-bearing land, for example, in Cuilapan, through the sixteenth century. Indigenous peoples resisted taxes, labor levies, tribute, and other forms of extraction of wealth by the state, by large landholders and by the church (Romero Frizzi 1988:118). These struggles continued until the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1921 brought the formal breakdown of the hacienda system of controlling land and labor, paving the way for industrialization and wage labor. They continue today.

Examples of resistance to Spanish domination abound. Many beliefs, symbols, and practices persist, transformed and transforming at the same time. These include language, beliefs and practices about water, rain and agriculture, building style, agricultural practice, crafts, and market structure. Early on, conflicts between conquerors, including Cortés, other Spanish groups and indigenous nobles arose. The (unnamed) cacica (female chief leader) of Cuilapan was arrested and hung upside down in chains for allegedly robbing gold from graves. The first alcalde mayor (judge) of Oaxaca, Juan Pelaez de Barrio, was convicted of having intimate relations with Iñesico, an indigenous woman (Esparza 1993). These struggles for power weakened the indigenous nobility.

Indigenous elites tried to hold on to their privilege and assets using the discourse and laws of the conquerors. Where Post-Classic documents established rulers’ legitimacy through genealogies, post conquest ones focused on land rights (Romero Frizzi 2003). Male as well as female progenitors were important for the validation of inheritance, illustrating the cognatic structure of the kinship system (in which the ancestor with the highest rank is recognized). This pattern was different from the Spanish system that favored patrilineal descent and primogeniture (Whitecotton 2003:329).

As the indigenous nobility disappeared, the Spanish filled the vacuum at the top end of the social scale, but not without creating new social groups, mainly through marriage to indigenous women, because few Spanish women came over in the first century after the conquest. Academics call this new population mestizo—mixed American (indigenous), African and European. Most Mexicans today refer to themselves as mexicanos and classify themselves according to intricate color, not racial, scales. Language largely determines racial or ethnic classification, but skin color is also an important criterion, creating Mexico’s own brand of racism (Montes 2002).

The conquest caused a demographic holocaust: the pre-conquest valleys population of 350,000 declined to 45,000 by 1630 (Romero Frizzi 1988:136)—a 94% decline in 100 years. Not all the decline was due to war—epidemics accomplished what conquest did not. Acuña (1984:170) records that half of the 2,000 indios in Teitipac had died by 1580 because of disease and pestilence. Population decline meant that many communities became ghost towns. The Crown’s congregación policy consolidated these reduced communities into concentrated settlements near a church for easier control and conversion. Resettlement fueled conflicts, many of which continue today.

Up-rooting people from their historical settlements finished off what was left of Post-Classic social organization, memory, and knowledge (Romero Frizzi 1988:145). Contemporary communities are not long-standing historical entities; many or most are the results of colonial resettlement. Barrios, or named neighborhoods, may be the remnants of two or more blended communities. In the community of San Lucas Quiaviní, barrios are not residential units, but sound like clans in which everyone knows which barrio they belong to, regardless of where they live (Padrón Gil 1992).

Conflict between indigenous elites and commoners and between both of these and Spanish colonists continued (Romero 1996:117). Of 52 land disputes recorded in the valleys in the seventeenth century, 37 (71%) were between communities, and 13 (25%) between communities and haciendas (landed estates) (Taylor 1972:83). Many conflicts were between the richest communities and their neighbors. For example, Tlacochahuaya, a community in the valley of Tlacolula with rich land and high water table, extended its borders from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries. Almost all communities continue to have border conflicts today (see Dennis 1987).

Indigenous communities did not disappear, but changed in many ways. Their internal political structure changed as political office opened to commoners rather than only nobles (Romero Frizzi 1988:172). Economic changes weakened communities, as dependence on external markets transformed the list of products with exchange value as new tributary structures demanded. Before the conquest, flint, maize, quetzal feathers, and cotton cloth were important tribute products. Some of these remained important, but the Spanish colonists introduced new products, including wheat and cochineal. New products, and money as a medium of exchange, as well as horse drawn carts accelerated communication and changed commerce in the valleys without altering forms of production (Romero Frizzi 1988:119-125), which continued to be based in the household. Some marketplaces rose and others fell in importance (Appel 1982:140), but this goes on today, as new highway routes isolate some pueblos, and put others on the map. Changes in land tenure law that encouraged privatization also weakened community control of resources (Romero Frizzi 1988:169). Indigenous communities became more homogeneous as indigenous elites lost power and status and everyone became an ‘indio’ (Reina 1988:183).

The Spanish system did not replace indigenous forms of organization and belief. Often indigenous people accepted Spanish forms while giving them indigenous content. For example, the colonial convent in Cuilapan has a cornerstone dated in both the Mixtec and the Gregorian calendar. Indigenous peoples resisted the Spanish both physically and passively. They quickly learned to use Spanish laws and rhetoric to their advantage. For example, in 1799, a Zapotec “insolently” cited the Recopilación de Leyes de Indias that supported his right not to pay when a representative of the church tried to collect a tithe (Romero Frizzi 1988:178).

The Spanish introduced and often imposed new products; market forces and the need for money reinforced these changes. Cochineal, gold, labor and agricultural products such as wheat created the wealth that built the ornate churches and monasteries seen today in Oaxaca City and throughout the valleys. Demand for dyes—cochineal, indigo, púrpura—and other products strengthened ties between Oaxaca and European markets in the colonial period (Hamnett 1971). The case of cochineal production illustrates how political conflicts over land and women’s labor relate to global economic demand (see p 53ff).

Haciendas needed workers in order to produce wealth. Spanish hacienda owners met their labor needs through encomiendas, or forced labor grants, from the Spanish Crown. They recruited workers from all over, and Spanish became the lingua franca on haciendas. Today, communities formed around former haciendas speak Spanish (for example, Tilcajete, La Compañía, Villa Rojas de Cuauhtémoc), and communities that were never part of haciendas (mainly in drier areas) speak Zapotec. Contact is the main predictor of contemporary indigenous language use, not resistance to domination or remoteness: In Teotitlán only twenty minutes from Oaxaca City, Zapotec is the lengua franca, while in Sosola, which is hours away but on a colonial trade route, no one speaks an indigenous language.

Oaxacans did not take to forced resettlement or work for haciendas and tried to get away whenever they could. Haciendas meted out harsh physical punishment to recalcitrant workers and used debt slavery and other kinds of chicanery to turn peasants into sharecroppers (Reina 1988:202-3), resulting in a number of revolts and protests in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Indigenous forms of organization stymied the colonial government’s attempts to punish and control. They could not find leaders to punish because of the indigenous government by consensus. The local priest blamed one uprising in Zimatlán in 1772 on their “perverse style of government” in which “everyone governs, including women and children” (Reina 1988:204). Women led at least one fourth of the uprisings (Taylor 1972:176). Most protests were against abuses, tribute, taxes, tithes, forced labor, and punishment by hacienda owners to force women to process the important export crop, cochineal, especially in 1770-1780 (Reina 1988:205). Spanish control of New Spain weakened and the nation of Mexico was born in 1810.

Creole (Spanish-born) land holdings continued to increase in extension after independence, until, by the end of the nineteenth century, their haciendas held almost half of the land in the valleys. In 1889, a new law ordered municipios to divide the land among residents, including widows and unmarried men, in taxable lots valued at $200 pesos. Communities generally refused to divide their common lands and resisted attempts by outsiders to take over (Esparza Camargo 1988:281-2).

Peasants continued to protest throughout the independence period, but they were not successful at stopping the growth of haciendas, commercial production, and taxes. Conflicts between state, church, landowners and peasants increased, especially as the population recovered from the conquest holocaust. Landlessness increased, partly because of land privatization reforms in the mid nineteenth century, promulgated by Oaxacan Benito Juárez, the Zapotec president. Conflicts between communities also increased, especially where there was good land and more economic activity. Over 40% of the conflicts in the state were in the valleys (Reina 1988:206-7). These conflicts may have contributed to the re-emergence of community autonomy in the nineteenth century (Reina 1988:240) which is one of the reasons why Oaxaca, especially the valleys, has more municipios than any other state—almost a quarter of the total number of municipios in Mexico. Almost every community forms its own autonomous municipio, and most have some kind of boundary dispute with their neighbors, making it difficult to forge regional alliances against the haciendas. Oaxaca’s municipios represent the extremes of atomization, not just of land, but also of political structure.

Without land, the only alternative for many was to sharecrop. Hacienda residents exchanged their labor for various combinations of housing and land. For example, Manuel Mimiaga y Camacho, the owner of the Hacienda El Vergel, did not charge his lucky hacienda residents for the land they lived on, for grazing their domestic animals or for the firewood they collected, but they had to work on his ranch. In Yaxe, mineworkers could live on the hacienda in exchange for 24 days of work per year. In La Compañía in Ejutla, sharecroppers paid for seed and did the work, and the owner harvested and kept half the harvest (Ruíz Cervantes 1988:350). As a result, there were conflicts between hacienda owners and workers over debt, water, and land. The fact that any communal lands in the valleys survived hacienda encroachment is partly because they did not want scrubland, but also because campesinos continued to use resistance, sabotage and lawyers to defend their interests (Ruíz Cervantes 1988:354). In Yogana in Ejutla, sharecroppers burned the forest. Residents of Magdalena Ocotlán complained about the abuses of the hacienda of San José la Garzona. Some owners, like the magnanimous Manuel Mimiaga y Camacho first mentioned above, were ‘hard-liners’ who recommended kicking complainers off the land and drafting them into the army (Ruíz Cervantes 1988:353). These conflicts continued to grow in the early twentieth century, setting the stage for the Mexican Revolution.

Revolution and Reform (1910-1940): Tierra y Libertad

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, wage work increasingly organized production. The numbers of agricultural wageworkers, or peons, and textile and sugar factory workers grew. Increasingly, people depended on wages to buy food. Under tribute-organized production, struggles are over the amount and kind of tributes; in this period of wage-based capitalism, struggles are over access to the means of production (principally land in Oaxaca) and working conditions (wages). The decline of the economic viability of the hacienda, the growth of industry in the north of Mexico, as well as pressure on campesinos set the stage for the Mexican Revolution. In 1910, peasants followed Emiliano Zapata’s lead and demanded Tierra y Libertad (land and liberty) (see Womack 1969). The army drafted men from Ixtepeji into the army and women and children were exiled to Quintana Roo—those are not necessarily “ancestral” Mayans cleaning your hotel room in Cancun, they could be Zapotecs.

The revolutionary Constitution of 1917 is a progressive document: Mexico is the first country to establish legal equality between men and women (widows) under agrarian law. Communities could petition to get back lands taken by haciendas. The Secretariat of Agrarian Reform redistributed this land, when granted, to communities as ejidos or certified as comunal land. Communities hold rights to land, and cannot sell, title or use it as collateral for loans.

In Oaxaca, haciendas kept the best land after land reform—98% of the irrigated and 99.5% of the high water table (humedad) lands. The Revolution did not bring meaningful land redistribution in Oaxaca. First, the process of requesting redistribution was complicated and long. Second, hacienda owners, often supported by state or federal governments, violently resisted decrees that expropriated their land. For example, administrators of the Hacienda El Vergel wreaked terror on the Rancho El Toro after they requested land. Backed up by the army, men from El Vergel took 14-year old Manuel López from his sick bed, his mother begging for him, “lo hicieron colgar por tres veces de un árbol de sauz” (they hung him three times from a willow tree). The hacienda administrator, Pedro Núñez, told witnesses “Look in that mirror, and see that you don’t … go around asking for land.” Still barely alive, they hung Manuel from yet another tree until he died. In her statement, his mother said that they killed him because he helped the surveyors from the local agrarian commission. His body remained hanging for 14 days because no one dared to take it down until the alcalde got an order from the judge of Ejutla. A similar fate awaited Crisófero Núñez, 20 years old, who was beaten and tortured. He was found dead 12 days later. His crime: he requested, with other campesinos, an ejido grant. Hacienda owners formed private armies to defend their interests, beating people up to the cry of “que mueran los agraristas” (death to the agraristas). In 1925, they “visited” the local Agrarian Committee, pulling them from their houses, shooting, burning their homes, taking their plows and oxen, “forzando” (raping) women, wounding one and ending by threatening to come back and kill them all. In 1925, federal soldiers assaulted the community of San Martín de los Cansecos, raped a 12-year-old girl, and arrested 20 peasants, who they called bandits (Arrellanes Meixueiro 1988:36-40). Violence, political influence, and bribery failed to stop campesinos from requesting land, or from complaining about non-compliance with the law. In 1931, 81 ejidatarios from Santa Martha Chichihualtepec signed or left their thumbprint on a document that states:


Life in the ejido El Vergel has become impossible, given the malevolent actions of Mr. Rogelio Gómez. The undersigned request, in the name of the sacred principles of the Revolution, that Article 23 of the Constitution be applied to Mr. Rogelio Gómez (Arrellanes Meixueiro 1988:39).

The Revolution gave peasants more rights and protection, at least on paper. A 1917 decree abolished sharecropping and tequio (from the Nahuatl word for work, a labor tax owed to land owners) (Ruíz Cervantes 1988:399). Practices like these continue to this day, but now communities are the ones who demand tequio for roads, schools, and water works. Sharecropping is everywhere, since up to 10% of the population is landless, and many others do not have enough land. The Revolution did not change land concentration in Oaxaca, about 6% still own 90% of the land. As in the privatization laws of 1899, communities resisted take-over of their lands. In 1937, San Juan Guelavía divided up its land up among community members to keep it from being taken away. This community solidarity brought increased fragmentation of land, since some only got a few rows (surcos). It is no wonder that carrizo basket weaving, other crafts and migration became important complementary activities in this community (Ornelas López 1988:154-5).

Mexico’s post-revolutionary land tenure system that gives campesinos the right to petition for and (re)claim community land is an anachronism in the history of capitalist privatization. Neither did the Mexican Revolution give campesinos enough land to make them self-sufficient nor did it “free” them from the land. Campesinos must work for wages in order to survive, and they must work the land in order to keep it. Here capitalism co-exists with, and benefits from, unwaged labor that produces food and other goods for use. Many small producers today own their land or tools, but because they do not have enough land to survive on, they still have to sell their labor or products. The difference between truly “free” landless workers and Mexican workers with a small parcel of land is that Mexican workers work for less because they, like sharecroppers, grow some of their own food.

Migration was one response to the economic and political difficulties of the post revolutionary period: sugar mills could not get enough workers, so enganchadores (labor contractors) from Veracruz hired labor from the valleys; the employer paid for transportation and living costs, as well as a wage. Often the whole family went. Over 200 men from the valleys contracted to work the “La Oaxaqueña” mill in Veracruz (Arrellanes Meixueiro 1988:90-91).

Reported female participation in agricultural activity was low (0.2%), but this did not reflect the real participation of campesinas described by anthropologists (Alba and Cristerna 1949). Women also worked in the weaving industry. In Díaz Ordaz, Tlacolula, spinning, carding, cleaning, spinning wool and cotton and dying with fuchina (German anilines) was done by women so the men could weave blankets, por costumbre (according to custom) (Ornelas López 1988), using European treadle looms.

Early post revolutionary community organization continued to evolve, as communities took over the roles of haciendas, including public works using tequio, a labor tax (see p. 83ff). New civil cargos (unpaid service posts, see p. 80ff) arose to manage literacy programs and schools, build potable water systems, petition for electricity, and organize fiestas (Ornelas López 1988:185). In spite of land reform, the post revolutionary period probably saw as many land conflicts as before. In the next period, Mexico’s boom years, land and rural issues took a back seat to industrialization and the growth of wage labor, even though land conflicts did not go away. In sum, in the post revolutionary period, communities fought to keep their land in the face of pressure to privatize, and women were politically active, even though they did not have voting rights in their communities.

Boom and Bust (1940-1990s)

For three decades after the end of World War II, Mexico went through a period of sustained economic growth, moving from a rural nation to an urban industrial society, boasting the tenth largest industrial plant in the world. The Mexican ‘miracle’ did not help peasants much, and as a result, campesino movements continued throughout the 1960s and 1970s (A. Bartra 1977) and were duly repressed (Rubio 1987). More than 50% of the communities of the Central Valleys had an on-going land conflict (Piñón 1988:371). Sharecroppers from La Ciénaga, Zimatlán, Santa Gertrudis, El Trapiche, Santa Catarina Quiané, San Jerónimo Zegache and Telixtlahuaca took back land within their títulos primordiales (their original communal land) from families still prominent today: Acevedo (114 hectares), Abascal (350 hectares), Candiani (22 hectares), Asunción Gatica (48 hectares) and Alfonso Arnaud (80 hectares) families (see Zafra 1980). When Zimatlán, Zaachila, Santa Gertrudis, Xoxocotlán and Juchitán opposed the state party, the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional), the army moved in (Piñón 1988:348-349). So all was not well, but things were about to change, with a world accumulation crisis and consequent restructuring on the way.

In 1971, the law granted women the right to be ejidatarios and enjoy legal rights within ejidos. In practice, though, each household is represented by only one ejidatario, usually male—only 15% of ejidatarios are women (Deere and León 2001:54). Women only represent the household in community assemblies if they are widows (with no son over 18) or their husband is a migrant (see discussion of 1992 reforms below, pp. 43ff).

In the late 1970s, the pattern of capital accumulation pattern prevailing since World War II broke down, bringing lower rates of profit and economic growth (Nash 1994:10-11 is a good summary; also see Castells 1980, Boyer 1984; for Oaxaca, Cook and Binford 1990:216, Murphy and Stepick 1991; and case studies in Rees and Smart 2001). In response, employers lowered wages and moved production to areas where labor is cheaper, e.g., from the Detroit to Alabama, from the United States to Mexico. In the United States and Canada, wages fell and new jobs were mainly in the (minimum wage) service sector. This created demand for a cheap and docile working underclass in the primary industrial nations, a demand often met by undocumented immigrants (Portes and Walton 1981).

In Mexico, the crisis had dramatic effects, beginning with the power of debt. In 1982, Mexico avoided a massive default with secret bridge loans from New York banks. In 1986, the price of oil collapsed and Mexico suffered negative economic growth. The state responded by printing money that brought triple digit inflation (INEGI 1992). The peso and living standards fell, scaring off foreign investment when, as happened to me, Mexican deposits devalued by a third overnight (and then some more). The price of recovering international confidence was high: frozen wages and decreased social services. Pressure from international financial institutions encouraged land privatization, elimination of agricultural programs and trade liberalization—the neoliberal response to crisis is to let the market fix it. The poorest sectors of the population paid the price in lost health care, schools, roads, and agricultural support.

The crisis resulted in a number of legal and political measures that restructured Mexico’s economy, and the political system followed along, sort of. These measures focused on (de)regulating land and trade. The first measure in restructuring affected the rural campesino sector, as a policy of “triage” cut off state agricultural programs for all non-profitable (e.g., campesino, unirrigated, small, indigenous) production units. In 1982, when I participated in an evaluation of agricultural development programs in Oaxaca for the Instituto Nacional Indigenista, I did not realize that these programs would be no more. Not a big loss, as we found that over 80% of the budget went to salaries, including our own (Sierra Mondragón and Rees 1992).

The second step, in 1992, amended Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution to permit privatization of ejido land (DeWalt et al. 1994). There never were long lines of foreign investors waiting to buy up rural land; certainly, that was the logic behind the plan. As Topalov (1979) illustrates for urban areas, private interests only invest in profitable enterprises (like cash crops); certainly not rain fed maize agriculture! The new law has not brought an influx of foreign investment in land but probably has increased land concentration at the local level. Quesnel and Del Rey (n.d.) show data from Veracruz that indicates that ejidatarios finance US migration by borrowing against, or selling, newly titled land. Modifications in property relations are not likely to transform the chronic inadequacy of credit and technical assistance available to marginal agricultural producers, but rather will increase the distance between rich and poor.

While the 1917 agrarian law reinforced the community by tying land and other rights to community service, the 1992 law breaks down the tissue of rights and reciprocity that holds communities together, because they can no longer require service of landholders. As in 1899 and in 1937, many communities in Oaxaca refused to privatize (Pisa 1994, Stephen 1994a and 1994b), preferring, like San Juan Guelavía in the early twentieth century, to hold on to community control of land. In 1993, local officials in the Tlacolula valley uniformly rejected land titling and certification. Presidente Municipal Arnulfo Méndez Méndez of Guelacé said, “The ejido will become private property (that’s what they say). People (here) will not sell. We have thought it over. If people sell land to outsiders, it will bring problems. It [the new law] will not affect us.” Presidente Felix López Cruz of Lachigoló said almost the same thing: “It hasn’t affected us, but a lot (of people) think that they can sell and they’ve started to sell.”

The first rush to title was in urban and resort areas, where outsiders already had possession of the land. Then, PROCEDE, the Program for Certification of Ejidal Rights and Titling of Urban Patios, began to condition aid and loans on certification, with the result that by 2003, 80% had completed the first step. The poorest and most indigenous states of Oaxaca, Chiapas and Guerrero have the lowest certification rate (de Ita 2003).

The 1992 reforms weaken community control over resources by abolishing the ties between community service and access to land. Ejido and communal land, once inalienable, is now a commodity. These reforms had the effect of weakening women’s access to land; they do not guarantee them equal access, or give them the financial means to purchase land their husbands may sell. The law excludes women from access to land because of assumptions about work (that only waged work is work) and about women’s work (that it does not include agriculture).

The third response to the crisis affected trade. In 1994, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) joined the United States, Canada, and Mexico in a “free trade zone” to facilitate the movement of many products (except labor) across political boundaries (Stanford 1994). NAFTA did not affect jobs or migration uniformly. US auto manufacturers, and others, had already established a number of maquiladora (in-bond assembly) plants in Mexico well before NAFTA went into effect, it did not necessarily bring more production to Mexico, but it did facilitate the movement back-and-forth of raw materials and products. NAFTA left people, computers and some other ‘protected’ products out of the freeing up of trade. NAFTA brought neither the disaster nor the boon that many predicted (Castañeda 2004). Globalization, rather than NAFTA, appears to be the main cause of increased Mexican migration to the US (Marmora 2003). My data from Oaxaca also show that US migration increased starting in the 1990s, well before NAFTA (Rees 2006b, 2006c). Data from Atlanta also show that Mexican migration (not just from Oaxaca) began to increase dramatically by 1990 (Rees and Nettles 2000), before NAFTA.

The Mexican people did not accept the crisis and government responses to it passively. In the state of Chiapas, as NAFTA went into effect on January 1, 1994, the Zapatista National Liberation Movement (EZLN) protested with an armed uprising. The Zapatista movement changed the country and the nature of political action (Nash 2001), and the place of indigenous peoples in the national discourse. Another important effect has been the slow death of the PRI’s seventy-year grip on the state. The right wing opposition party, the Partido de Acción Nacional (PAN or National Action Party) won the governorship of the state of Jalisco, followed by Vicente Fox’s election to the presidency in 2002. His successor, Felipe Calderón, claimed victory in a close election in 2006. In Oaxaca, one of the few states where the PRI apparatus held on, there was intense, violent, political struggle as in the past (see Campbell 1990, Díaz Montes 1987; Gomezjara et al. 1982; González Pacheco 1984; Greenberg 1988). Political struggle continues to the present (Martínez 2007). Some of this conflict is between factions of the PRI: for example between PRI governor Ulises Ruíz and the PRI teachers’ union—SNTE (the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación) in 2006-2007 (Zafra 2007). This conflict overflowed the banks of its twenty-year cycle and became a massive popular movement—APPO (the Popular Alliance of Oaxacan Peoples) with, at times, at least 300,000 protestors (Waterbury 2007). Women occupied the radio station, formed a regional council, built and guarded barricades; their gender demands may play a crucial role in the future of the movement (Stephen 2007b). Their demands were few, other than the resignation of Governor Ulises Ruíz. The PAN, in an uneasy plurality forged with the almost-extinct PRI against their leftist opponents in the PRD, could not force Ulises Ruiz to step down and sent in the federal police instead. The tourist season and the academic year were canceled. Amnesty International and other international organizations registered mass arrests and other abuses. The PRI, in its death throes, continues to wreak havoc as it goes down, or struggles, like a phoenix, back to power. These struggles are mainly urban in nature: rural areas have been largely left out, in spite of a stated policy of informing and educating people in communities. Cohen’s (2007) survey of the attitudes of people in three communities in the valleys (a craft, an agricultural and a suburban community) shows that people are critical of teachers, the APPO movement, and the PRI governor, Ulises Ruíz.

Another effect of the crisis was increased poverty that drastically affected rural (Sesia 2002), and urban health (Triana 1998), shaming the Mexican government into using World bank loans to subsidize food and health care for the poorest of the poor. They founded an education, health and food program (PROGRESA) in 1997 to combat extreme poverty. The program was directed at the poorest 40% rural population (just over 10% of the population), and gave educational and nutritional subsidies and grants directly to women. PROGRESA resulted in increased school attendance, especially for girls in secondary school (years 7-9), and improved health statistics, specifically in lower rates of illness and stunted stature (Skoufias and McClafferty 2003). Adato et al. (2003), in their evaluation of PROGRESS, conclude that it empowered women by giving them increased control over resources and up to 22% of household income, especially in households where the woman has more education and speaks Spanish, because “…women’s roles may be more traditional in indigenous societies” (Adato et al. 2003:214). This analysis is based on essentialist and stereotyped views of women as non-working and indigenous society as ‘traditional’ (unchanging) and (more) patriarchal. The question of Zapotec women’s work, traditions, migration and earnings is discussed in Chapter 3. Not surprisingly, the World Bank’s evaluation of anti poverty programs concludes that none of them has alleviated poverty in Oaxaca (Nahmad 1999). They may be most effective in creating patron-client relations between the rural poor and the federal government.

The expansion of the market in general, combined with the new international division of labor manifested in maquiladoras (in-bond assembly plants) and Mexican immigration to the United States, has made it harder for households in rural communities to be “self-sufficient,” or even self-sustaining, without outside resources (Nash 1994). Households and communities depend on the market and the cash economy to buy goods or to sell their labor and products—both are commodities. Since their cash income is not enough to sustain a household, subsistence production and unpaid household labor is a major component of survival. The rural community needs the market (to sell labor or crafts) in order to reproduce, and the market needs the community, not as a market, but to supply workers.

The crisis brought decreased state support and increased privatization of land and services, a process resisted mostly unsuccessfully. Legal changes gave women some more legal standing on paper, but not in practice, even though women continue to be political active. Rural individuals and households responded to the crisis by intensifying their labor (working more): when men cannot find full-time employment, they migrate (and work two jobs or overtime), creating global households where women and children work in petty commodity and service work (Selby et al. 1990, Murphy et al. 1990).

Globalization (1990…)

Globalization refers to the structure of the economy after the crisis and restructuring of the 1970s and 1980s. Technological innovation brought the faster flow of information, goods, and people across former borders (Rees and Smart 2001), but this is not a new process, but rather has taken place whenever technology (horses, automobiles, roads, telephones, television, and more) has changed the way the world is connected. Today, global networks distribute basic foods, as well as labor (Nash 1994). The price of maize and labor is determined by global, not local, forces. For example, rising gasoline prices and demand for ethanol caused the price of maize in Mexico to almost double. In Tilcajete, Don Martín said that maize had gone from $12 to $20 pesos per almud (4 liters) between 2006 and 2007.

International migration is another response to the globalization of subsistence. Workers travel farther and farther from home, although transportation and communication technologies make it possible to maintain ties with home, culture, language and family. Their migration often requires a community where their families can live, as well as workers at home to help support the family. As a result, new cultures, symbols and practices arise. These are not necessarily ‘modern’; rather they illustrate the false traditional/modern dichotomy. ‘Traditional’ indigenous people act ‘modern,’ as ex-migrants go to herbalists in Oaxaca, but fly to the US for Medicare. Migrants pay fees of up to 20% to send money home, but know exchange rates better than many of us. Fiestas and other ‘traditional’ practices, such as dress, may become more elaborate with remittances, and immigrants videotape them to send to the US, or post on their website. Julio flew to Canada from Atlanta because he heard there were jobs there. Who is more (post) modern—a Zapotec-speaking migrant who commutes via plane to work and to the doctor, or a hip US metrosexual who has never lived far from home? The study of globalization shows us that tradition and modernity are not linear historical developments, but are two sides of the same coin. Indigenous peoples are post-modern actors just like the rest of us.

Indigenous people are still the poorest of the poor; physically and politically marginalized ever since they all became indios with the Spanish conquest. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, assimilation and progress, characterized by land privatization, Spanish language use, shoe use and white bread consumption, remained the goal of the state (Warman et al. 1970). Yet the unassimilated indigenous remain a symbol of Mexican national identity and a common referent in the national discourse, as in “we all come from the campo,” a political slogan from the 1980s. In 2001, President Vicente Fox spoke of nuestros hermanos indígenas (“our indigenous brothers”) (CNN-Español, 31 January 2001). Indigenous figures—eroticized, conquered and executed—symbolize “Mexico” on peso bills, calendars and art. Painter Diego Rivera represented brown and erotically naked indigenous women in his murals. State agencies market ‘indigenous’ production as part of their tourism programs. Romantic symbols of Mexican identity though they may be, indigenous people—decimated and dispossessed by conquest and assimilated into Mexican national culture with the Spanish language—have never received much concrete in the way of state support.

Yet, over 10% of the population of Mexico still speaks an indigenous language. Oaxaca has half of all indigenous language speakers. Some groups are growing. Table 2 (p. 61) illustrates this, as all Zapotec communities in the sample grew in population between 1960 and 2000, while Sosola, a Spanish-speaking community, lost population. This tenacity could be resistance to domination or the purposeful creation of a cheap labor force, or both. Certainly, indigenous peoples have never peacefully accepted the usurpation of their lands, language, social institutions and labor. Their resistance has met with violent response: the greatest number of human rights violations occurs in the most indigenous states of Oaxaca, Chiapas and Guerrero (Amnesty 2004).

Violent resistance is common—every 20 years over the past 500 years in Chiapas (Wasserstrom 1983), but there was a change in the 1990s with the uprising of the Zapatistas. First, the internet broadcast events from remote areas of Mexico to the world, probably preventing an even worse massacre. Second, the Zapatista strategy included national appeals, as well as international discourse. The Zapatistas’ march to Mexico City to speak to the national legislature in 2003 was a historic first. They said, “Nunca mas un México sin nosotros” (never again a Mexico without us), bringing indigenous demands to the national legislature.

Women as well have continued to sit on the center stage, as leaders of the Zapatistas and other movements, although it is difficult to see what else they have gained. International and national norms increasingly include women as rights holders and as constituencies, these have been included in the discourse of a number of movements. The 2000 elections in Mexico explicitly targeted women, who make up half the electorate (Frohling et al. 2001). International norms about domestic violence (do not do it), human rights (do it), safe sex (practice it), abortion (is a right), and gay-lesbian issues (be tolerant) have reached to most levels of society, even the Zapatistas speak of tolerance for all kinds of diversity (EZLN 1999). Globalization has brought new structures, new demands, and new forms of resistance.

This summary of Oaxaca’s history describes how women’s exchange production has changed over time. Social organization and production, including community and crafts are not static tradition, but are dynamic processes. Women and men primarily produce use values, even though archaeological evidence shows that there has always been production for exchange. Throughout the colonial and independence period, the organization of production did not change much: producers owned their tools and land. Production did change, however, from feathers and ceramics, to cloth and other goods for the European market as colonial tribute systems and markets made new demands. In the twentieth century, wage labor expanded as cities grew, but this process went hand-in-hand with continued or even increased reliance on unwaged household labor. The case of cochineal dye production illustrates the dynamics of the process of from production for tribute through contemporary wage labor.

Cochineal Production

Cochineal or cochinilla (dactylopus coccus) (Nahmad et al. 1988:188) is a small roly-poly type insect that lives on the prickly pear (nopal) cactus, hiding under a cottony nest. The crushed insect is deep red and makes a true dye. Cochineal grows in Peru, on islands in the Atlantic, and in Oaxaca, where there are more wild species than anywhere else. I have found wild cochineal on prickly pear cactus as far north as Texas. Harvested, processed and dried bugs are ground into a red powder used to dye wool and cloth—red Saxony blankets were dyed in the cloth and unraveled by the Navajo to re-weave into their blankets, leaving telltale white spots where the dye had not penetrated the woven cloth. The dye was in great demand by noble and wealthy Europeans in the colonial period for their shoes, clothing and (red) carpets.

The gender division of labor for making cochineal dye leaves most of the work to women. Men cultivate the nopal, a task that consists of planting a pad by sticking it in the ground and leaving it for a year or more. Women harvest and prepare the insects for dye (Young 1979). The process is labor-intensive and backbreaking. They remove the cotton covering over the insect, creating a dusty cloud that they breathe. Then, they pull the bugs off the nopal pad, and boil them to kill them before drying them out. Descriptions of cochineal processing in Zimatlán in 1777 by Esparza Camargo (1994) neglect to mention that it was women’s work (see Young 1979). Cochineal was a huge business in the colonial period and the source of the wealth that built the churches seen today in Oaxaca City. In 1788, Oaxaca provided 97% of Mexico’s cochineal exports (over 60% came from the valleys) (Barbro Dahlgren 1963:328). In the eighteenth century, women produced cochineal under the repartimiento, a system of forced labor granted to Spanish colonists. In the nineteenth century, women did not like producing cochineal and stopped as soon as forced labor was banned (Reina 1988:198-9).

In the late nineteenth century, cheaper, petroleum-based, aniline dyes caused European demand to fall (Hamnett 1971). Many cochineal-producing communities dropped out of the world market, although Ejutla, Ocotlán, and Zimatlán, and to a lesser degree in Etla and Tlacolula, still produced it during the late nineteenth century (Esparza Camargo 1988:310). The value of cochineal production also fluctuated widely during this period, but fell overall, due mainly to competition from cheaper African and Indian dyes (Reina 1988:230, 232).

Today, women complain that the cottony nest irritates their throats, and they do not like the work. As a result, cochineal development projects in San Pedro Mártir and San Bartólo Coyotepec that I saw in the 1980s and 1990s shut down, even though it sells at retail for about the same price as marijuana (up to $131US/kilo in 2001), and it is legal. Producers do not earn much; intermediaries make the most profit because they sell it in weaving communities, like Teotitlán for about four times what they pay producers. In 1997, Mode explained how “a guy, a painter, came to buy the wild cochineal at $300/kilo (about $38US). But we do not have any more. It’s a lot of work.” Mode and her sisters, even though they travel to Mexico City, had never been to Teotitlán (about an hour away) where weavers dye wool for their tapetes (rugs). Tlapanochestli, a private enterprise in Santa María Coyotepec, produces most commercial cochineal today.

In spite of the difficulties in producing it, cochineal is in great demand. The Japanese seek to buy it, not by the kilo as weavers do, but by the ton, since it is organic and suitable for food coloring. In Teotitlán, weavers prepare and dye with cochineal to make natural dye rugs. In the Vázquez household, women grind the dried cochineal on metates to prepare the dye for the wool.

The case of cochineal exemplifies the historical, gender and market relations involved in Oaxacan production systems. An insect became an international commodity in the sixteenth century, produced by forced labor as tribute granted to conquerors by the Spanish crown. This re-organized women’s labor, as they became commodity producers for the international market. Local elites accumulated vast profits from the sale of cochineal, building huge churches and monasteries that survive to this day in the city of Oaxaca. Producers and communities were tied to the global market, and were buffeted by price fluctuations in places they had never seen. This all changed when technological change caused demand to fall off in the nineteenth century when aniline dyes replaced cochineal. Cochineal-producing communities returned to producing maize and other products.

The history of the rise and fall of cochineal production illustrates how products enter and leave the world market, transforming labor organization, use of resources, and value. This case also illustrates that characterizing ‘traditional’ activities of women as mainly domestic ignores the history of markets and the exchange of goods. Isolation and connection have come and gone. The ‘isolated’ communities in the anthropological imaginary were once bustling centers of international trade. Women, although classified as not working, were forced to produce cochineal, a luxury product that brought vast amounts to wealth to colonial traders. Cochineal is a rich bug, and its production by women maintains a high exchange value, but its producers are poor.

Continuity and Change

The history of the central valleys is one of periods of increased contact with wider systems, followed by periods of relative isolation; periods of highly stratified empires followed by smaller, less stratified, polities; then by new conquest empires, during all of which struggles for control met resistance (see also Murphy and Stepick 1991). As a result, even the most ‘traditional’ practices and goods have been transformed over time.

Common sacred symbols, such as the feathered serpent, are found from earliest times and throughout the region even today—these symbols, also transformed, comment on important things in people’s lives (e.g., rain). Humans give meaning to the events they live through and these events, whether rain or revolution, acquire symbolic importance that in turn becomes a rallying point for struggle. Throughout Mesoamerica, symbols of rain tell of its importance for survival; origin stories couch history in terms of both mothers and fathers, telling of the importance of both genders. Maize, the very flesh of humans, is also an important symbol, but with different names in each different language. Communities developed regional languages that divide them, but that also keep resources in the local group through inheritance, land use and preferred marriage practices. Probably after the fall of the empire of Monte Albán, just as today, the primary social group probably was the community—as marriage pool and landholder.

Many things changed with conquest, some more in form than in content. For example, grants of tribute rights to Spanish conquerors and settlers replaced Zapotec and Mexica tribute systems. Spanish forms and practices modified ancient forms of tribute, labor tax, and organization, and become ‘traditions’ in themselves. Their origins are hard to separate. Beliefs about the dead, about hot and cold, and predicting summer rains have ancient roots, but many also are demonstrably European. The conquest lowered women’s status as land privatization shifted inheritance rules from cognatic to patrilineal. The new religion reconfigured sacred female fertility figures into virgins. Tonantzin became Guadalupe; Centéotl, the sacred female of maize, became the Virgin of Carmen, celebrated at Lunes del Cerro (see the history of the guelaguetza, pp. 86ff). The Spanish introduced new crops and products to satisfy their dietary preferences and European demand: goats, cows, chickens, wheat, silk, coffee, and sugar. They introduced new technology such as the potters’ wheel, the treadle loom, the ox-drawn plow, pottery glazes, and metal tools (Romero Frizzi 1988:123). Gold and silver replaced cacao as a medium of exchange, and the demand for cochineal dominated the world economy. Conquest and colony eliminated many practices, but many others persist, and more became something new.

Tortillas, metates, comales, backstrap loom weaving, hairstyles, women’s huipiles and maize planting techniques—all are contemporary products and practices with roots in the past. Comales have been around almost unchanged for almost three thousand years, maybe these are truly ‘traditional.’ Up on Monte Albán there is an offering center with miniature ceramic pots, much like those used for the January 1 offerings at pedimientos (offertories) found in Matatlán, Teotitlán, and other areas of the valleys. Other continuities include ideas about planting, symbols about the origin and nature of the universe, as well as ideas about rain, lightening, and caves. Documents also show continuity in discourse about conflicts, beliefs, and customs (for example, Nader 1990, Romero 1996, and Dennis 1987). These continuities with the past, however, do not mean that nothing has changed. Cultural heritage is constantly transformed, reinterpreted, and invented, but communities continue to be the place where it happens.

From before the conquest, through the colonial period and the formation of the independent nation of Mexico, Oaxacans moved around the continent. They fled taxes and war, or were resettled by the church into new communities. Much of this movement was in response to labor demands—to build pyramids, staff sugar factories, and harvest agricultural products throughout Mexico and the US. In the twentieth century, the crisis and responses to it, such as the Reform to Article 27 and NAFTA, encourage migration and female waged labor. These changes change communities. Binford (2003) predicts that migration and wage (or petty commodity) labor spell the death of community. Cohen (2004) thinks that migration may support communities, through the remittances of migrants who still need a home to come back to (Cohen, Conway, and Jones 2005). Remittances may sustain communities, but family migration may break them up (Rees 1996), forming new communities in different places. Economic changes in the twentieth century brought changes for women and households, including both the need for women’s waged and unwaged work to support male migration. Women’s work has not historically been only for use or exclusively in the private sphere. Their history shows that they have always migrated. Tradition is not an unchanging past, but a dynamic process. The community is still the site of social and workforce reproduction for most people, including migrants. This is not an imaginary traditional community, but community transformed by histories of conquest, colonialization, nationhood, revolution, and globalization. Women’s work has changed as well. The case of the red cochineal dye illustrates the connection between women’s labor and the world market since the sixteenth century, although the form of that connection has changed with market shifts. Today, women participate in the global market through migration, through the reproduction of migrants, and by supporting households with absent migrants. Migration is not a recent phenomenon, as this summary of the history of the valleys shows—it has been going on for a long time, although clearly with different characteristics at different times and in different places. Equally, women’s work is not a recent addition to the economy; it has been part of household production since at least the beginning of agriculture. Women’s work has always been important in the reproduction of the work force and in the production of use and exchange values.

Compiled from Mangelsdorf, MacNeish and Galinat (1964) and Josserand, Winter & Hopkins (1984).


revolution, and globalization. Women’s work has changed as well. The case of the red cochineal dye illustrates the connection between women’s labor and the world market since the sixteenth century, although the form of that connection has changed with market shifts. Today, women participate in the global market through migration, through the reproduction of migrants, and by supporting households with absent migrants. Migration is not a recent phenomenon, as this summary of the history of the valleys shows—it has been going on for a long time, although clearly with different characteristics at different times and in different places. Equally, women’s work is not a recent addition to the economy; it has been part of household production since at least the beginning of agriculture. Women’s work has always been important in the reproduction of the work force and in the production of use and exchange values.


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