Notes on "Blossoms of Fire," by C. Kray
Maureen Gosling and Ellen Osborne, 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."

Questions 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 figures?
**What other cultural activities might indicate a high social status for 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 or women? 
**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 empowerment?
**Does high status for women lead to greater acceptance of alternative genders and sexualities?

A matriarchy?

Isthmus of Tehuantepec, state of Oaxaca, Mexico.  Juchitán, pop. 100,000.
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 description?
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 matriarchy.
[Women have a strong cultural presence, in that they are responsible for 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's Work
Women have a major role in supporting the household.
One woman runs a business selling rum made from plums and the marinated fruit.  With 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 a father.
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 children.]
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.

Women's 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 women. 
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, libraries, etc. 
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.

Does 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 more accepted.
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 Traditions
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 carry the veils and flowers.

Fiestas as 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 cultural identity.
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.