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JuchitÓn: A Completely Special Society.

This is a machine translation of an interview by a German magazine (taz) with Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen.

In Mexican Juchitán the women hold the economy together for centuries: They carry on the trade, they administer the money, they supply to the society. With the introduction of globalizationthis this matriarchy is threatened to disappear. A discussion with the scholar on women's studies Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen

taz: Mrs. Bennholdt Thomsen, which is the special at Juchitán? 

Veronika Bennholdt Thomsen: The fact that within Mexico - a country, which is known for the Machismo, the"male-madness",   women have clearly visibly a strong social position.
Why is that so? 

That was the question, which we placed ourselves. Beginning of the nineties I lived one year long with a larger research team locally, in order to investigate. It is on the one hand because of it that the economy is real in woman hand, in the sense that the women are more or less all merchants. Also a teacher is merchant in adition, like for gold jewelery for example, and also woman barristers or female dentists always stand with a leg also in the trade. That comes along that the women of this area understand themselves as particularly talented for the trade.

As the economic life in Juchitán looks: Are the men at home, while the women work? 

No, not at all! There is a sexual division of labor. The men are farmers, fishers, salaried workers or craftsmen. Also the women operate in the long run a handicraft, above all the food handicraft, but general consciousness is that women can deal best with the trade. Therefore fishers, farmers and craftsmen supply their raw materials to the women, and provide for processing and marketing. In contrast to other regions of Mexico the women have that of the men not only their own money, but administer the money altogether - also in Juchitán. The salaried worker usually gives his wages to the hands to the woman, because he is convinced that she makes the best of it.

Why did this system develop straight in the country of the Machismo - and besides at such a traffic junction such as Juchitán, which is because of the narrowest place between Pacific and Atlantic -? 

That was the large question, which is not really answered until today, because so far too little historical and archaeological sources were evaluated. But it stands firmly that the special position of the woman in this area has deep historical roots. The Spanish sources of the Conquista about make clear that in before-Spanish time many women were particularly already political and religious representative inside in this area. Juchitán was always a passage area, and the trade here always played a large role. From the outset thereby the women were important. They played also a large role in the rebellions of the colonial age - in the sources they are described as particularly insubordinate. Also the Mexico travelers 18. and 19. Century speak in their reports of particularly self-confident women, who were noticeable to them in this area. It pulls itself by history.

Would you the economical form, which exists today still in Juchitán, designate as a matriarchy? 

Not only the economy, but the entire society. However it makes little sense to argue about whether it is a matriarchy or is not. However, in order to sharpen the senses for the correct questions, it is extremely important to analyze this society under the comparative criterion of the matriarchal studies. Because it is not only an ethnographic characteristic, as is otherwise simply apostrophized.
It is a completely special social structure, which is to be found in the present only rarely, a motherly coined/shaped, with a supplying and evenly woman-coined/shaped economy. In the center is not the abstract exchange, the competition and the profit, but humans and the exchange between them. Only if one regards in such a way, one can understand and reconstruct the processes, which run off there. As I state now that with the solid introduction of the globalization, many of these matriarchal structures are increasingly undermined.

What consequences has this special economic form for the sexes living together? 

For living together man and woman it has as a consequence that the suppressive exercise of power is missing, which in other places the Machismo brings with itself. Even traveling women notice that. It is in Mexico the only place, at which they are not constantly put on as the blond, looking-for-Latin-Lover  women. European travelers, above all Germans, are coming here  again and again exactly for this reason - it is really not a beautiful area for tourists. In addition woman's work does not become here small estimated - on the contrary. Men and women estimate themselves mutual in their work.

You also describe a third sex, the so-called „Muxe" in your books (speak: Moo-she) … 

Also for this Juchitán is famous. Homosexuality exists everywhere in Mexico, but it is discredited in the Machismo. In Juchitán it is the opposite: Men, who understand themselves as women, are there highly respected and are considered as particularly industrious. They do the woman's work and that particularly well, in order to be established thereby as the sex, which is them, that third: the Muxes. Whereby I warn of the fact that one equates this simply with homosexuality.


Because the partner of a Muxe is really understood as a man, thus not as homosexual or as Muxe. Belongs completely normally to the heterosexual structure. If one wanted to interpret that heterosexual, one could say, the Muxes position themselves on the women's side.

You have been recently again in Juchitán. What has changed? 

I was after five years for the first time again in Juchitán and was quite frightened and sad over what takes place there now. Our study („Juchitán - city of the women “, 1994) we accomplished from 1990 to 1992, before occurring Mexico the Common Market with Canada and the USA 1994.
A result of it is that now the market level, which carried so far the matriarchal structures, is undermined and becomes also increasingly perceptible. That e.g. the fast consumer goods and world market products found its way into Juchitán. One finds a junk shop beside the other one now in the city. I was there in the Christmas season, there were booths full of world market products - not even „made in USA “, but from Hong Kong, Taiwan etc. In December opened a Wal Mart - in a city, in which there was until recently still no supermarket. The Wal Mart was closed on the first day at one o'clock at night and made a turnover of one million Euro just on this day.

Isn't it naive to scourge the introduction of globalized capitalism and believe that the women in Juchitán are not interested in profit maximization, too? 

To them its about trading, its about an income and making a living. That is however something else as profit maximization. Wagework was not introduced there, yet. Even merchants, who are very wealthy, do not aim off to employ salaried workers  who would only make the expansion and a profit maximization possible for them.
Trading for the women is still a craft they are proud of. Thus, one of the important conditions for profit maximization, is void - plundering workers.
But unfortunately there is no consciousness at all in the area over what constitutes the characteristic of this economics and this culture. There is naturally pride on the characteristic, but the coherences are a little known. Therefore the Wal Mart is not frighten the women on the market - not yet.
But the 'fall of man' already happened long ago: In Juchitán too the abstract criterion of the cheap price was introduced. So far it was about with whom I buy something - because I know from where their products come, because I trust her, because I have a certain social relationship with this and that merchant - one was socially obligated to each other. Thus purchase and sales were a relationship between humans. The cheap price abstracts from humans and relations, the process becomes however abstracted anonymous, also regarding the products. It doesn't matter from where it comes and who manufactured it.

In your book „Juchitán - city of the women“ you wrote Juchitán is no model, can however another understanding of economics obtain. What can one learn from Juchitán? 

With the word model I always get the crisis! For a long time it was always about forcing the whole world to the western development model, and it entailed the coercive measures, which the international currency rear and the World Bank exercised, that humans is world-wide into many areas substantially more badly.
The enlightened left naturally knows about the imperialism of the development policy. Allegedly! Because it is nevertheless only the other side of the same medal, if one asks for a new obligation model which makes everybody happy. In addition this is and remains racistic, if one turns and asks it simply: Where are the good savages? Where is the ideal world? Could those be perhaps our model? Where remains the genuine respect for the other, the respect for variety? Where does the same eye level remain and where the active responsibility for the organization of the own society? Our book was also often taken up in such a way, unfortunately - despite all warnings, which we wrote in - after the slogan: There is the sound, matriarchal world. Those we want to save now, they shall remain for us reservation-like unbroken.

O.k., it is not a model. But what can one learn from Juchitán? 

We have nowadays not a clue at all, how non-patriarchal structures could look like. And this illustrative material Juchitán still offers to us. Therefore it is so important to look at it under the criterion of the matriarchal studies. It concerns the social mechanisms, not only around the economics - the separation between society and economics is in itself already a taper of patriarchal conditions. Juchitán still gives us possibilities to energize our fantasies as a society, in which it concerns the  priority around exchange processes between humans and not profit maximization. And how humans therefore can be very well.

Would you designate a society, in which women work in the socially most recognized positions, also as matriarchy - for example a country, with a Mrs. Chancellor?  (Note: Currently Germany has a female chancellor for the first time)

Good gracious! How did you get this idea? Only because the Federal Chancellor is a woman? The biological sex alone is absolutely no guarantor for nothing at all. It is always, everywhere, in all times defined as social-culturally, especially economically. Also biological mothers can be extremely patriarchal. The matriarchal sits in the belly and in the head, but particularly in the relations between humans and between humans and nature.


Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen, 61, is sozial anthropologist and „researcher on women's studies of the first hour “. She studied in Mexico and travels the country since that time regularly. At present she teaches at different universities in Germany and Austria and operates in Bielefeld, germany, the „Institute for theory and practice of the subsistence “ (Institut für Theorie und Praxis der Subsistenz).



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