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Mexico - South Of The Border
( Article orginally published June 1957 )
I had always thought that stories about Amazons were strictly fiction. Women who ruled their men by force were automatically classed with mermaids and all other mythical creatnzmes as far as I was concerned. But that was before I had spent a week in Tehuantepec!
The collecting bug had driven me deep into Mexico. I had left a comfortable home in Puebla in search of some stone carvings and jade necklaces in the ruins near Oaxaca. There was the usual long bus trip and after bargaining with the old women who make their living selling fragments from the ruins of Mitla and Monte Alban, I got that old wanderlust feeling. Someone had told me that if I wanted to see picturesque natives and beautiful costumes that I was not to miss the town of Tehuantepec. So I hopped on another bus and rode 158 miles deeper into the wilds of Mexico. When I arrived I was in a village out of another era. A village in complete contrast with everything I had seen so far.
The first thing that caught my eye was the dress of the women. To say they were colorful, would be to use a very weak adjective. Fabulous would be a better choice. All the women looked as if they were going to a party. They had blouses made of fine hand woven linen, brightly colored and embroidered. They were worn loose, open at the neck with short sleeves and hanging free at the waist. Their skirts were of a heavier material and another bright color, usually red or brilliant blue. These were full, with a white ruffle that skimmed over the bare earth as they walked. They had woven designs into the cloth. Designs of eagles, flowers and ancient symbols. These figures were of gold thread. They wore their hair in long black braids with scarlet ribbons woven into them. These braids served a purpose that was more than just ornamental. When they wished to carry a basket of fruit or vegetables they simply placed these pigtails on top of their head, formed a cushion, and balanced the basket. They were always barefoot. They carried themselves straight as a ramrod and in full skirts they seemed to glide rather than walk.
These things alone would have been enough to make them noteworthy, but the fascinating item was their jewelry. They wore U.S. gold coins! I saw one woman with a bracelet of fifteen ten dollar gold pieces. On a silver chain about her neck she had a fifty dollar gold piece. And this was an ordinary day in the market, she wasn't dressing for a holiday.
This jewelry intrigued me and I sought out an English speaking guide for the story. He had lived in Tehuantepec all his life, and so it should be a factual tale. If it sounds like fiction, I'm sorry.
It seems that a hundred years ago the village was just like any other village in Mexico. The women did all the work. They tilled the earth, planted the seeds, hoed the young plants, harvested the crops, took them to market, and when sold returned and gave their husbands the money. It must have been quite an effort on the part of the man to lift up his hand to take the cash. They sat around all day having fun, putting what was left of the cash in the local bank. One day the bank fell. The manager had pocketed the net assets and left town. Everyone was broke. There wasn't a peso in the village.
The women got together, in what must have been the first meeting of the Suffragettes in the Western Hemisphere, and did a lot of discussing. They blamed the failure of their wealth on the men. They weren't fit to handle money! They weren't fit to do anything at all where money was concerned. So then and there they decided that from that day on, every cent they earned they would keep themselves. No more handing it over to the husbands. The men were upset about the new plans but the women were bigger than they were, and they were overruled. As soon as they had a few dollars saved, the women would buy a U.S. gold coin. They figured that the United States would always stand behind their money and that they would be making a safe investment. Then in order to keep hubby from taking it while they were working, they decided to wear them as jewelry. After all the coins were bright and shiny, and they did look good against their brown skin. So ever since then the men haven't had a chance to bankrupt the town. The women wear the family bank account and the men get allowances.
This guide told me that at a fiesta, it is not unusual to see women with $2,000 face value in U.S. gold. Some of these women are millionaires when you consider how far that amount would go in an economy such as Mexico has. He said that when he needed a down payment for an automobile to go into the guide business he went to see an old woman who lived in a grass hut on the edge of town. He told her his story. She believed that he would be able to repay her, so she took off the bracelet she was wearing and handed him a thousand dollars in gold coins.
What a place for a coin collector! But only if that collector is a female. There is not much love for the male sex in that village. I tried to take a picture of one old woman who was dressed in a brocaded costume and wore a few pieces of gold. I complemented her on her beauty. She didn't want me to take her picture. I told her, her dress was very pretty. She said it was very ugly. I said "please" and smiled my nicest smile. She said "Go away, man!" the way we would say "Go away, dog!"
Needless to say, I didn't get any pictures, but I did come away with some pleasant memories of a fantastic village, in that fantastic country called Mexico.