"Blossoms of Fire," by C. Kray
Maureen Gosling and
dirs. New York: New Yorker Films, 2000. 74 min.
VH453. In Spanish and Zapotec with English subtitles. Closed captioned.
Advertisement: "A dazzling,
whirling dance of a film that celebrates the extraordinary lives of the
Isthmus Zapotecs of southern Oaxaca, Mexico, whose strong work ethic
and fierce independent streak rooted in their culture have resulted not
only in powerful women but also in the region's progressive politics
and their unusual tolerance of alternative gender roles."
to consider while watching the film:
**While people in the U.S. often hear that Mexico is a "machista"
society, is this an accurate description?
**What would a "machista" society look like? In other words, what
would male domination look like? How would it be expressed in
different cultural practices, structures, and ways of speaking?
**What are different activities that can contribute to male or female
status and power? Political position? Productive work (making goods,
selling goods, earning an income)? Roles as healers or religious
**What other cultural activities might indicate a high social status
men or women? Controlling the household finances? Major
role in public ceremonies and festivities? High value placed on
their artistic achievements? High social value placed on
motherhood or fatherhood? Freedom of movement? Ability to
command respect in public settings? Choice over entering into and
dissolving marriages? Control over decisions affecting
children? Ability to ensure faithfulness of one's spouse?
**What cultural activities might indicate a lower social status for men
**Do men and women have to perform the same jobs to be equal? Do
they have to share equally in housework and childcare? Do they
have to participate equally in military endeavors?
**Is there a relationship between political empowerment and women's
**Does high status for women lead to greater acceptance of alternative
genders and sexualities?
Isthmus of Tehuantepec, state of Oaxaca, Mexico. Juchitán,
Juchitán is an indigenous city, in that people of all classes
wear indigenous clothing and speak both Spanish and Zapotec.
Juchitán has been called a "matriarchy," but is this an accurate
Juchitán gained international attention when an article in Elle
magazine called Juchitán, "The Last Matriarchy." Many
people were angry about the article, saying it distorts what life is
really like in Juchitán. Groups of women demanded that a
local storekeeper stop selling the magazine issue. Many refused
to talk with this film crew suspecting they were connected with the
journalists who wrote the article. Their resistance to this media
depiction of themselves is another example of their resilience and
pride, and another example of the strength of women in the culture.
Woman embroidering a blouse with very bright, multicolored
flowers. One woman comments on how she loves this embroidery
because it is so beautiful and so cheery. "It cheers up the
people around me."
Mariachi song about the beautiful Juchitecan woman. Photos,
paintings, historical writings illustrating and commenting on the
beautiful Juchitecan women with their colorful embroidery.
Different people comment on whether the word "matriarchy" applies: One
man says it does because the mother has the final word.
One woman says that men work a lot (men up at 4:00 to go to the fields;
fishermen fish through the night), she says that "The woman
administrates," not dominates.
One woman says that in industrializing societies, patriarchy takes
hold, but that didn't happen in Juchitán. She says that
they retained some matriarchal structures, that she has some weight to
steer her own destiny. She says that they have enough influence
that their activities are respected in society. Having a child is
valued. Women support one another. They don't call it a
[Women have a strong cultural presence, in that they are responsible
carrying on cultural traditions. Women also have a creative
presence, in that they make and wear the
most distinctive art.]
Women dance with other women at weddings.
One man comments that Juchitecan women are very "authentic" in their
indigenous dress, that they are very shapely, don't wear make-up, and
are very natural.
Women have a major role in supporting the household.
One woman runs a business selling rum made from plums and the marinated
this business, she has been able to put her children through the
preparatoria (high school). [In Mexico, only primary school is
free. Beyond that, tuition has to be paid, usually rendering
higher education unaffordable for poor families.] She was the
primary caretaker of the children because she was divorced.
At the local market, women are the vendors. They get up at 4:00
a.m. to go to the market. A sense of solidarity is shown among
women at the marketplace. They are proud of their work.
One woman (speaking Zapotec) says that she's been going to the market
to sell for 28 years, since she had her first child. She would
take her kids with her to the market (and watch after them there).
Women say that one cannot support a family with just one paycheck,
which is why women's work is so important.
Men usually turn over their income to their wives, who are thought to
have skills in saving and planning. There is a common belief that
men spend money frivolously, going out having fun with their friends.
Man weaving hammock.
Women and men perform complementary activities. From their work,
both get a sense of self-confidence. For example, a man may fish
and the woman process the fish.
Example of one man who helps his wife with housework. When they bought
a ranch, they named it after the wife. They talk about the work
required in farming.
Woman singing folk tune in Zapotec language.
A couple talk about a difficult time in their marriage when he had an
affair. The woman's family put a lot of pressure on the husband
to be faithful in the
marriage. She wanted him to come back because the children needed
Shots of fathers holding their children in public.
Most children are delivered by skilled midwives.
The infant morality rate is lower here than in comparable parts of
Mexico, reflecting the fact that children are well-nourished.
[The implication is that women have strong control over family finances
and are able to invest money in their responsibilities, including the
Example of one man who watches over his grandson.
Example of one man, wife, and children working together in making
fireworks by hand.
Woman talks about the family working like a unit. Everyone is
responsible for helping out. She refers to a saying that, like
two oxen pulling a yoke, the man and
wife have to pull together.
Strength Rooted in Indigenous Resistance
The Isthmus Zapotecs have a sense of inner strength that derives from a
deep cultural pride that goes back centuries. This has been
fostered through "times of triumph and adversity." They refer to
themselves as "people of the clouds."
In prehispanic times, they controlled the Valley of Oaxaca with its
center at Monte Alban. The ancient Zapotecs developed
hieroglyphic writing. In the 14th century, Mixtec invaders pushed
Zapotecs into the isthmus. For the next 700 years, they defended
themselves against one invader after another. Following the
Spanish invasion, in
1660, the first Zapotec rebellion was started when a Zapotec woman
beheaded an encomendero. There are many tales of fierce
In the Juchitecan defeat of the French (1866), women
participated. They filled their petticoats with rocks and pelted
soldiers from above. Photo from the Mexican Revolution includes
women bearing rifles.
"The Zapotecs are still struggling to control their destiny." In
1981, a major activist coalition formed: COCEI (the Coalition of
Workers, Peasants, and Students of the Isthmus). The COCEI put
forward a candidate who won the position of mayor. This was the
first major challenge to the one-party PRI system which had ruled for
60 years. The COCEI
organized large numbers of people to protest the lack of public works,
schools, roads, hospitals, irrigation works, etc.
Political empowerment empowers women, too.
With COCEI candidates in office, they put in roads, clinics, schools,
The COCEI promoted Zapotec culture, through Zapotec-language radio and
promoting native-language literature and poetry.
The PRI government repressed COCEI organizing; there were attacks,
imprisonments, and some activists were
disappeared (kidnapped and killed).
Paintings of the COCEI and Zapotec resistance feature women prominently.
In 1989, COCEI again came into power, putting into place candidates at
various levels, even a federal
senator. Their successes showed that the indigenous and poor
could organize and gain power.
higher status and power for women lead to greater acceptance for
alternative genders and sexualities?
A woman comments that there is a strong respect for the individual,
that each person has his/her own gifts, and those gifts are valued.
Lesbians, gays, and other people of alternative gender/sexuality roles
are more accepted. According to one lesbian, they didn't need to
march against repression (as gays did in the U.S.) because they were
Transvestites can live openly.
In the Americas, prior to the arrival of the Europeans, gender was much
more fluid. (Photo of the third gender berdache.)
Some parents and teachers don't
approve of transvestism.
A gay man usually stays with his mother as an adult. They are
interdependent and very close.
One gay man says there is an adoration of mother, and men want to be
around for years.
Women's Role in Guarding and Transmitting
One woman talks about the death of her mother, how it was sad because
she was so important in her life.
Photos of mothers decorate the home.
Mothers have a strong role in raising children: they provide their
taste in cuisine, they transmit the language and teach children to
value the culture.
In many Isthmus schools, the Zapotec language is taught, in order to
reaffirm and valorize the language.
In one major religious/social festivity, called Las Velas, people
prepare for months, and the festivities can last for weeks. They
make the veils out of cut tissue paper. In the parades, most of
those who march are women and girls, who are all dressed up and who
veils and flowers.
a Social Glue
There is an increasing influence of outside cultures (especially
through the consumption of goods and cultural products from the
U.S.). Example of video games. Juchitecans have always
incorporated things from outside, but have held onto their unique
Many are concerned that exposure to outside cultural influences will
erode their traditions. Traffic cuts down on visiting between
households. Some are concerned about language loss. Stalls
in the marketplace offer many manufactured items.
Outside investors often consider the isthmus for the construction of
large-scale projects because of its strategic geographical
location. Plan for a trans-isthmus corridor. Some of the
big development projects are opposed by
social movements. Instead, they want to see local production for
local markets. They don't oppose development, but they want
development to be useful for the people
of the Isthmus. They are concerned about the environment, and
that enough resources are left to sustain the people.
A lot of production in Juchitán is geared to subsistence and
fiestas (in part for the unity they inspire). Constant round of
celebrations, including weddings, baptisms, quinceañeras, and
funerals. All celebrations depend upon the help of the guests
[hence reinforcing a sense of interdependence]. Guests contribute
different things and help out with the work.