JUCHITAN, Mexico — The market in this town on southern Mexico's steamy Isthmus of Tehuantepec is memorable for iguana stewed in tomato sauce, sun-dried fish and a full aisle of earrings, necklaces and bracelets dripping with gold coins, a selection to rival any jewelry store.
But more memorable than the products sold are the women who sell them: women with freshly cut flowers and wide ribbons woven into their elaborate braids, who rest their fists firmly on ample hips and laugh, throwing back their shoulders to show fondly nurtured beer bellies under embroidered, cap-sleeve blouses they call huipiles .
They joke and flirt, calling out to potential customers--and men they happen to like--"Hey, handsome, come try my atole ," a thick, milky drink. They run the market and, by extension, the economic life of their town and their families, carrying on the tradition of the pre-Columbian Zapotec empire.
"Women are public figures here," says Marina Meneses, a sociologist educated in Mexico City who five years ago came home to raise her son in Juchitan, seat of a county of 66,000 people in the lowlands of Oaxaca. "Women are the main organizers."
In short, Juchitan is a matriarchy. In many ways, it is a matriarchy that feels besieged, caught between its own mythology and a patriarchal outside world that tends to dismiss this society as a mirror image of machismo , casting women almost in the role of bullies and their men as sissies.
The people of Juchitan insist that the reality is far more complex, that when women run an economy, they run it differently, with different priorities and more democratic decision-making.
"We have principles rather than norms," Meneses says. "Principles are less rigid."
In Juchitan, as in most small cities, she says, people's lives are public property, but the public is less judgmental and offers more latitude to everyone.
"We men do not feel oppressed," says Gaspar Cabrera, the town priest, who is from a nearby village. "This is simply a more egalitarian reality. In this aspect, Zapotec culture is more advanced, and European culture is catching up."
Cabrera says he was shocked to see how far behind other cultures were, when at 13 he was sent to school in Jalapa, the capital of the Gulf Coast state of Veracruz.
"In my village, our life revolved around my mother and my grandmother," he says. "When I got to Jalapa, I found out that women had to wait until their husbands got home to decide whether children could have permission go to a party. Women went out to run errands and came straight home."
He was even more surprised to learn that the rest of Mexico is more like Jalapa than Juchitan--especially odd, he says, because "the atmosphere here is much healthier, and we are happier."
In Juchitan, women are always out--walking arm in arm down the street, chatting in the town square and, above all, selling.
Girls become vendors almost as soon as they can walk and talk.
Florinda Luis Orozco, 49, a teacher, was selling homemade tortillas by the time she was 5. Antonia Lopez, 36, recalls filling a tray with enchiladas from her mother's market stall and walking through town selling them.
"Learning to buy and sell is part of a girl's upbringing," Meneses says. "It's not just buying well and cheap, but also learning how to treat people."
"That is why Zapotec women are rarely shy," Cabrera says. "From the time she is 8 or 9, she is out selling."
Boys sometimes help out with sales. But by the time they turn 10 or so, they are embarrassed to do what is considered women's work here. By extension, men tend to be more reserved, because the outgoing personality that goes with selling is considered a feminine trait.
"A man is looked down upon if he goes into retail sales," Meneses says.
Jacinta Perez peddles hammocks that her husband weaves at home. And until Cecilia Carrasco's husband died five years ago, he embroidered the huipiles in her market stall; now she hires a man to sew.
"Everyone thinks that men are kept by the women here," the 55-year-old widow says defensively. "That is not true. We help out. We work to have our homes and our jewelry."
In most societies, however, what a Juchitan woman does would be considered more than helping out. She is expected to take responsibility for the day-to-day running of the household--from shopping to disciplining the children.
"Fathers are usually too soft, especially with their daughters," says Cabrera, the priest. "If a girl gets home late, the fight will be with her mother."
If a man does not like the way his children behave, he normally discusses this with his wife and expects her to correct the problems.
But the men generally are not idle. They have their own responsibilities: farming, fishing or working at a craft.
In fact, says Luis Orozco, "when a woman sees that a man is not doing his share, she prefers to be alone."