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Into the Hearts of the Amazons

In Search of a Modern Matriarchy

Tom DeMott

Publication Year: 2006

Into the Hearts of the Amazons is part rousing travel adventure through a little-known world and part popular ethnography, exploring how Zapotec women earned their legendary status in a remote corner of southern Mexico. To satisfy his curiosity about this culture, Tom DeMott journeyed to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, where he discovered a thriving modern-day matriarchy among the people of the Isthmus—a cultural crossroads, breeding ground for rebels, and home to a half-million Zapotecs. DeMott integrated himself into the culture by joining in the rites of spring (where women pelt the men with fruit); by interviewing the women who control the marketplace where men are rarely seen; and by honoring the saints with drink and dance at all-night ceremonies. Evoking these singular women and their culture, DeMott tackles a primal question: What would life be like if women, rather than men, had the advantage?

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix

Thanks to Howard Campbell, whose research, articles, and books on the Isthmus provided a platform from which to launch this book. To Julin Contreras for introducing me to the right women and for providing insight and historical perspective to Isthmus customs. I also owe thanks to Julin’s recently deceased father, Jorge Contreras, ...

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The Blue Mortuary

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pp. 3-17

MAY, 1997. The only photo I have of Rosa sits unprotected on my basement desk, and fleck-by-fleck it is disappearing. This began a year ago, when the same humidity that soaked and rotted the basement door began chipping off the pale olive of Rosa’s neck. And though I’ve been meaning to put the photo away for years, it has lingered, ...

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The Politician

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pp. 18-21

In 1859, sixty years before politician Jos

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Honoring San Vicente

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pp. 22-33

I had been asleep in my hotel room for less than an hour when I was jolted awake by the distinctive ring of a Mexican telephone. It was a sound that, despite my time south of the border, I’d never gotten used to, and hearing it again for the first time in half a decade conjured up the same old image: an Irish tenor gargling his way through ...

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The Apologist

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pp. 34-36

When he was still a teenager, the insider who would be the first to rise and defend the reputation of Isthmus women stood with his horse at Juchitán’s train station, weeping into its neck. His name was Andrés Henestrosa, and his mother, Tina Man, had been urging him to leave home for months. “Better yourself, go see the world, study, ...

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pp. 37-54

Two days after the dance, Rosa surprised me with an invitation to a lavada de ollas. The lavada is an event hosted by the mayordoma. It celebrates the elderly women who cooked and served the food at a dance associated with one of the many velas that take place in May or December. The mayordoma makes sure the elderly matrons eat, ...

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The Russian

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pp. 55-57

At the same time insider Andr

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Quintessential Isthmus Women

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pp. 58-66

Juana Cata Romero—the young beauty Bourbourg discovered playing pool in the barracks outside Tehuantepec—rose far from selling candy to soldiers to become a role model of excellence for Isthmus women. She began her flight from poverty and anonymity by becoming fast friend and ally of one of the pool-playing soldiers, ...

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The Kid

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pp. 67-69

Miguel Covarrubias was born in Mexico City in 1904. Like many who would come to study the Isthmus, Covarrubias came from the privileged class. His parents and relatives were high-ranking civil servants. “I came from a family of diplomats,” Covarrubias said, “but I was not one of them.” From the moment of his birth, two ...

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Vela Zandunga

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pp. 70-88

With my departure two and a half days away, I began feeling edgy about the fact that my luggage was still in Juchitán under Rosa’s watchful eyes. I also felt that a face-to-face goodbye was in order, so I walked to the public telephone at Papelería Esferas and called her. Her tone was upbeat; she seemed glad to hear from me. I invited her to lunch, ...

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The Spy

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pp. 89-92

Two weeks after anthropologist Beverly Chi

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The Other City Hall

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pp. 93-98

DECEMBER, 1997. If there is a single issue upon which insiders and outsiders agree, it is their appraisal of women’s role in politics. Women might provide the political muscle for strikes, highway blockades, sitins, and marches, but they are poorly accounted for as mayors or members of city councils. ...

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The Princess

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pp. 99-103

Born in Paris in 1932, outsider Elena Poniatowska was the child of two wealthy exiles, her mother Mexican, her father French. Early in her childhood, she learned that her father traced his ancestry to the last king of Poland. Elena saw little of her mother, Rosa. She liked to travel, and when World War II began, she was too busy driving ...

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Purse Strings

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pp. 104-120

NOVEMBER, 1998. Juchitán’s market is housed on the first floor of city hall, an imposing, two-story structure that occupies an entire block on the east side of the main plaza. The entrance to the market is flanked on either side by thirty-one broad arches that support a roofed corridor running the length of the first floor. ...

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The Blase

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pp. 121-125

Insider Obdulia Ruiz was born in San Blas to a family of many children and little income. Her mother was a self-sacrificing, hard-working woman who could turn centavos into daily meals for her six brothers and sisters through ingenious administration. When she was not stretching money, she was making it by raising pigs and selling tortillas. ...

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Tirada de Frutas

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pp. 126-137

JANUARY, 1999. One of the great disappointments during the early years of my visits to the Isthmus concerned a curious ritual called la tirada de frutas (the throwing of the fruit). According to what I read, the ritual takes place when a religious procession reaches its destination at a church or cathedral. ...

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The Radical

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pp. 138-142

Anthropologist Howard Campbell was born in Lansing, Michigan, to a middle-class family of academics. Every male member of his family— from his grandfather to his father and both of his brothers—pursued PhDs in math and the sciences as though they were one of life’s necessities. And it was clear to Campbell from an early age ...

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Day of the Dead

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pp. 143-156

NOVEMBER, 1999. When I attended the festival of San Sebastian in Jalapa earlier in the year, someone—I can’t remember who—suggested I return there on October 31 for the Day of the Dead. Not only was the all-night ritual celebrated in new Jalapa’s cemetery with brass bands and tequila, but there would also be a ritual to honor the dead ...

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The Italian

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pp. 157-161

Social anthropologist Marinella Miano Borruso was born in 1948 to an upper-middle-class family in Napoli, Italy. Her father was a physician, and her mother was an ethnologist and writer, and there was little lacking in her upbringing in terms of comfort and attention. Despite this privileged childhood, Miano Borruso declared herself ...

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pp. 162-172

Several days after the Day of the Dead, I boarded a bus to Juchit

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The Journalist

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pp. 173-176

Jocasta Shakespeare—the journalist who wrote the most controversial article ever published on Isthmus women—was born in the quiet of Wales, England. She was still a child, however, when her father accepted work at the foreign office in Lebanon, and the family lived in Basra, Baghdad, Ur of the Chaldees. ...

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Marketplace Tehuantepec

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pp. 177-195

January, 2001. “Whether the men go to the fields or work in town,” wrote Covarrubias in 1946, “from dawn till sunset Tehuantepec becomes a woman’s world. Everywhere they are busy selling, gossiping.” Although the single-story, brick and wood market of Covarrubias’s day had given way to a much larger, two-story building ...

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The Filmmaker

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pp. 196-200

Maureen Gosling couldn’t have picked a worse time to begin filming Blossoms of Fire, her feature-length documentary on Juchitán’s women. In February of 1994, several days before she arrived in the Isthmus, Elle magazine delivered its premier Spanish edition to the news racks surrounding Juchitán’s market. ...

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Inventing Santa In

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pp. 201-218

The bus from Oaxaca did not arrive in Juchit

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The Grad Student

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pp. 219-222

In a paper she published while studying for her doctorate in anthropology, insider Edaena Saynes-Vázquez writes about an experience many Isthmus women endure when they travel outside the Isthmus. “So you are Zapotec!” the conversation begins, “You know how to control men!” Saynes-Vázquez decided to write her paper because of her ...

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Green Mangos

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pp. 223-235

José and Rita’s house was shuttered and dark when we arrived, but Cristina knocked anyway. A clever-looking woman with fast eyes and black hair answered the door. Her husband, whose glasses had slid halfway down his nose, stood behind her, peering over her shoulder at the late-night intruders. Cristina introduced us, and we ...

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The Investigator

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pp. 236-240

That night, I finished reading Ernest Shackelton’s South in my room at the Oasis. South was the last of the three books I brought with me from San Francisco, so I paid Julin a visit, and she lent me Juchitán, la ciudad de las mujeres. It was an odd-looking book. The brick-colored jacket featured a photo of a cocky Istmeña ...

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The General’s Daughter

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pp. 241-250

General Heliodoro Charis—the same general whose loyal patronage and troops brought the fledging Casa Verde to life—had but one legitimate daughter. Christened Lugarda Charis, she was born at home in the general’s mansion on May 2, 1938. Her earliest memories were centered around dolls made with twigs called pancha yagas. ...

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pp. 251-258

The epiphany I experienced on reading Juchitán, la ciudad de las mujeres’s redefinition of matriarchy deepened when I returned to San Francisco. The more I researched, the more I learned that everyone but Bennholdt-Thomsen relied on a common understanding of the term matriarchy when no such understanding existed. ...


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pp. 259-262


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pp. 263-268

E-ISBN-13: 9780299216436
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299216405

Publication Year: 2006