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The Journey of a Tzotzil-Maya Woman of Chiapas, Mexico

Christine Eber
Antonia
Copyright Date: 2011
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7560/726659
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  • Book Info
    The Journey of a Tzotzil-Maya Woman of Chiapas, Mexico
    Book Description:

    Most recent books about Chiapas, Mexico, focus on political conflicts and the indigenous movement for human rights at the macro level. None has explored those conflicts and struggles in-depth through an individual woman's life story.The Journey of a Tzotzil-Maya Woman of Chiapas, Mexiconow offers that perspective in one woman's own words. Anthropologist Christine Eber met "Antonia" in 1986 and has followed her life's journey ever since. In this book, they recount Antonia's life story and also reflect on challenges and rewards they have experienced in working together, offering insight into the role of friendship in anthropological research, as well as into the transnational movement of solidarity with the indigenous people of Chiapas that began with the Zapatista uprising.

    Antonia was born in 1962 in San Pedro Chenalhó, a Tzotzil-Maya township in highland Chiapas. Her story begins with memories of childhood and progresses to young adulthood, when Antonia began working with women in her community to form weaving cooperatives while also becoming involved in the Word of God, the progressive Catholic movement known elsewhere as Liberation Theology. In 1994, as a wife and mother of six children, she joined a support base for the Zapatista Army of National Liberation. Recounting her experiences in these three interwoven movements, Antonia offers a vivid and nuanced picture of working for social justice while trying to remain true to her people's traditions.

    eISBN: 978-0-292-73539-2
    Subjects: Anthropology, Sociology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Prologue
    (pp. xi-xviii)

    My backpack and duffel bags sit by the door, bulging with what remains after paring down to essentials. I couldn’t bring myself to eliminate any gifts. They are my most important cargo, a way for me to reconnect with friends and share something with them from El Norte. This time I’m carrying photos of my godson for his parents. He has been in the United States for almost a year working on farms and in Chinese restaurants in five different states. A few months ago I sent him a disposable camera to take photos of his life. When the photos...

  5. Background Notes
    (pp. xix-xxvi)
  6. Notes on the Book’s Two Voices and Key Terms
    (pp. xxvii-xxviii)
  7. People in Antonia’s Life
    (pp. xxix-xxx)
  8. Time Line of Key Events Mentioned in the Book
    (pp. xxxi-xxxii)
  9. Map of Highland Chiapas
    (pp. xxxiii-xxxv)
  10. Part I. Becoming a Batz’i Antz (True Woman)
    • Chapter 1 A Childhood Memory
      (pp. 3-4)

      When I was a little girl I got sick with an illness. I don’t know what they call it. I don’t know if I was six or eight years old. My whole body swelled up. I was going to die from swelling. My hair fell out, and when it began to grow back it was coarse and thick.

      Each morning I felt so cold from my sickness. My feet couldn’t get warm in the bed. I didn’t have a blanket, just a thin one that didn’t warm me. My legs were swollen—my feet, too. I could hardly sleep in...

    • Chapter 2 Parents
      (pp. 5-8)

      Over the years I had heard bits and pieces about Antonia’s childhood, especially about her father’s drinking and the lack of food. None of what I heard was remarkable, not even the story of her illness. Most everyone in Chenalhó remembers some illness that almost killed them. Everyone has experienced hunger. Far too many recall their fathers drinking up any cash that the family managed to acquire. Adults remember being afraid, as children, of their fathers, and sometimes their mothers, when they came home drunk on market days. Their parents would demand food, and if it wasn’t fast enough in...

    • Chapter 3 Learning to Work
      (pp. 9-12)

      Since I was a little girl, the only chore that I liked in my life was to carry water and wash clothes at the waterhole. But to work in themilpa, carry firewood, I didn’t like that.

      When I first learned to wash clothes, I really didn’t know how. The dirt didn’t come out and my clothes didn’t look white. But little by little I learned. At that time my mother used soap made from a plant calledchupak’ (amale).¹ To make soap they removed the root ofchupak’ and then took off the skinlike part and a stick would...

    • Chapter 4 School
      (pp. 13-18)

      Primary school was a time of exhilaration for Antonia. School, more than anything else in her early life, fueled her desire to find her own way of being in the world, different from that of her mother and other women in the community.

      Schooling in highland Chiapas in the 1960s and ’70s, when Antonia was in primary school, was a nation-building project aimed at assimilating “backward” Indian children into mestizo culture. Mexican educators saw “defective” cultures, not poverty and racism, as the major obstacles keeping indigenous people in their backward state. Teachers were young indigenous men, and a few women,...

    • Chapter 5 Making One’s Soul Arrive
      (pp. 19-25)

      In 2006, when we were working on this book at Heather Sinclair’s home in El Paso, Antonia quietly announced, “Since I was a little girl, I always knew I had value.” Antonia’s affirmation of her own worth didn’t seem strange to me in that moment, but later I thought about how odd those words would sound coming from the mouths of most Pedranas—and many women in the United States.

      Heather and I told Antonia that we couldn’t say the same thing about ourselves. Although we had felt self-confident as little girls, puberty brought a barrage of messages about what...

    • Chapter 6 Listening to the Word of God
      (pp. 27-30)

      Antonia didn’t read the Bible or learn about the life of Jesus Christ until later in her teens. “Making her soul arrive” before that time involved respecting people, working hard, and reciprocating with the Maya deities and Catholic saints in a variety of household and communal rituals. The aim of these rituals was to maintain harmony with the natural world and beings-other-than-humans with whom traditional Pedranos considered themselves to share the world.

      In traditional Pedrano cosmology, Mother Earth is a principal deity, along withtotik(Sun, Our Father),me’tik(Moon, Our Mother),jpetum-jkuchum(supporters-protectors), andtotil me’il(father-mother-ancestor-protectors) (Arias 1973;...

    • Chapter 7 Courtship and Marriage
      (pp. 31-34)

      Antonia married Domingo when she was eighteen in the traditional bride-petition process,joyol, with a few new twists influenced by Domingo’s involvement in the Word of God. The ceremony included reading some verses from the Bible and inviting a group of men to play their guitars and sing hymns.¹

      Domingo was very poor, but he had earned Hilario’s and Maria’s respect, and they weren’t surprised when he came to visit one day in the company of his mother and two respected elders. Domingo brought soft drinks and food to his future in-laws as a symbol of their daughter’s value to...

    • Chapter 8 Learning to Be a Wife
      (pp. 35-42)

      This evening Antonia comes as close as I have ever seen her to slamming the lids on the pots on the fire. She and Domingo have just had a fight about money. I sit as small as I can on my little chair near the fire, trying not to make any more problems for her. Memories of similar scenarios involving pots on my stove and fights over money flood my thoughts. I sigh, thinking of the common bond that Antonia and I share. We are both married to men who are struggling to overcome addictions and keep their emotions on...

    • Chapter 9 Learning to Be a Mother
      (pp. 43-48)

      Antonia has six children, and none of them has died. While living with her, I never took this fact for granted. Among forty-five women I interviewed in a household survey in a neighboring community in 1988, twenty-five had lost seventy-five children between them. Antonia attributes her children’s survival to luck and God’s grace.

      Although none of her children were gravely ill in childhood, Sebastian, Mariano, and Paulina each had operations when they were young adults. Antonia went into considerable debt to pay the clinic bills. One factor contributing to her children surviving childhood may be the relative equality in her...

    • Chapter 10 Learning to Manage a Household
      (pp. 49-53)

      By the time I came to live with Antonia in 1987, she was a married woman with three children. She was an experienced cook and household manager whose competence with the tasks of daily life often made me envious. Her movements around the fire reminded me of a dancer making each outstretched hand mean something, each bend of the knee a graceful bow to Earth. Despite the hard and repetitive work involved in cooking, Antonia seemed to care about the task at hand, to value it as an important action.

      Antonia might find my movements just as graceful in my...

    • Chapter 11 Animals
      (pp. 55-56)

      Animals are an integral part of Antonia’s life and household economy. Before Antonia first came to my home in New Mexico in 2002, I worried about how she would feel about how we treat our cats and dogs like members of the family. I shouldn’t have been surprised that she became a cultural relativist par excellence in relation to our pets. About the second day into her visit, she was sitting in the kitchen in a big chair with armrests, the chair where Memur, our old and deaf cat, spent most of his time. When I realized that Antonia was...

    • Chapter 12 Water
      (pp. 57-60)

      Our pump stopped working today. No water. I’ve only been back from Chiapas a month, and already I’m so dependent on running water that I can’t imagine going a day without it. It’s Saturday, and we worry that no one will come to fix our pump on the weekend, especially in the rural area where we live.

      I find the section in the yellow pages under “pumps” and make some calls. Finally we try Hooper Pump Service, and a young man answers. He sounds as if he’s out and about, I hope fixing pumps. “Sure, I can come,” he says....

    • [Illustrations]
      (pp. None)
    • Chapter 13 Working with Coffee
      (pp. 61-65)

      In the mid-1980s Antonia and Domingo began to plant coffee with hopes that it would provide a more stable source of cash than they had found selling animals or bananas and other produce. When the plants were still young, the couple had great hopes of selling their coffee at a good price, even though harvesting and lugging heavy bags down the mountainside was back-breaking work. Antonia felt confident that soon she wouldn’t need to depend on selling her weavings to buy the food and other necessities that they didn’t produce.

      But the timing of their coffee venture couldn’t have been...

  11. Part II. Contesting the Status Quo, Creating a Different World
    • Chapter 1 The Time of Fire
      (pp. 69-74)

      By 1962, when Antonia was born, most indigenous people in highland Chiapas made a living by alternating between farming corn and beans on family-owned plots and working for wages for a few months at a time on Ladino or foreign-owned plantations. Leaving their home communities to pick coffee or cut sugarcane provided the cash needed to buy additional food as well as to purchase medicine, blankets, and other basic commodities (Rus and Collier 2003).

      The Chiapanecan pattern of indigenous migratory labor had its roots in the expropriation of Indian land during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which created both...

    • Chapter 2 1997
      (pp. 75-80)

      The violence that began in Chenalhó in 1996 and culminated in a massacre at the end of 1997 was the direct result of the spread of a low-intensity war in Chiapas. A major component of this war was the creation and maintenance of paramilitary groups in communities such as Antonia’s with large bases of support for the Zapatistas. During this time, paramilitary groups were supported by funds channeled through municipal offices and development programs, and protected by the police and the military. Members were mostly young indigenous men without land or hope of obtaining it. Time spent outside of their...

    • Chapter 3 International Encounters
      (pp. 81-87)

      In the years right after the uprising in 1994, the Zapatistas organized several intercontinental gatherings that Antonia and Domingo attended as part of their participation in their local support base. Domingo was more enthusiastic about these meetings than Antonia. She almost didn’t go to the meeting she describes below because it meant leaving her youngest child with her mother and the rest of the children at home alone. But in the end she went.

      When Antonia told me about the experience, I was moved by her concern for the older women from different countries who attended the event. She empathized...

    • Chapter 4 Sons
      (pp. 89-98)

      All the seats are filled in the University Museum at New Mexico State University as Antonia, on her first visit to the United States, narrates a slide show about life in her community. She didn’t know what a slide was until we put the show together last night, and tonight she is giving her first public talk to a group of foreigners in their own country.

      She’s a natural. She seems to know what people need to hear. I show a slide of Antonia weaving, and she talks about how women must weave in between their other labors to make...

    • Chapter 5 Daughters
      (pp. 99-111)

      I’m advising my daughters about how to take care of the house and to weave so that in the future they can earn some money like me. My mother taught me to weave and embroider, and my daughters are learning what she taught me. I don’t remember how old Paulina was when I began to teach her. But I think I’m different from my mother because I haven’t been teaching Paulina and Rosalva very well. Rosalva just watches and begins to weave and then asks how it’s done. That’s how she does it. Sebastian’s wife, Juana, has helped Rosalva a...

    • Chapter 6 Daughters-in-Law and Grandchildren
      (pp. 113-114)

      Becoming a mother-in-law increased the number of people under Antonia’s guidance. For a couple years both Magdalena and Juana lived with her. Initially Antonia didn’t look forward to being a mother-in-law, but becoming a grandmother soon followed, and Antonia embraced this role fully. Felipe and Magdalena had a boy and girl, Sebastian and Juana two girls, and Paulina and Antonio a son.

      My two daughters-in-law didn’t know how to weave when they married my sons. But when they came to live with us, they decided to learn. They asked me if I wanted to teach them, and I told them,...

    • Chapter 7 Cargos
      (pp. 115-121)

      As an academic, stepmother, and grandmother, my story is the story of most women in the United States who struggle to balance work and family. At times our struggle is so self-absorbing that it can come as a surprise when we learn that poor women in “developing countries” confront similar challenges. I came to Chenalhó valuing women’s perspectives and viewing their household-based work as socially and economically valuable. I was also ready to appreciate women’s collective work from studies I had done of women’s participation in revolutionary movements in Latin America. But I did not anticipate that women would be...

    • Chapter 8 Cooperatives
      (pp. 123-128)

      In 1987 Antonia and Domingo worked with about twenty other members of the Word of God to start a general store cooperative in the headtown of Chenalhó. To my knowledge, this was the first cooperative in Chenalhó’s history.

      I enjoyed hanging out in the store with Antonia and other co-op members. Once I accompanied members as they held a special prayer session to counteract envy from people who opposed the creation of a cooperative store. Antonia matter-of-factly recalls problems with the store.

      Domingo always went to the meetings there. I just went to support him. Sometimes he didn’t have time...

    • Chapter 9 Traveling
      (pp. 129-135)

      In fall 2002 I had a sabbatical from teaching and was thrilled for the chance to bring Antonia to New Mexico and give her the opportunity to get to know people from a different nation in their own cultural and social contexts. Bringing Antonia to the United States was a project with many steps. The first was obtaining funding for her trip. At the time I was a member of Corazón a Corazón (the social justice committee of Saint Albert the Great Newman Center), which raised funds for her travel. The next step was obtaining her visa. I had never...

    • Chapter 10 The International Folk Art Market
      (pp. 137-143)

      Antonia’s second visit to New Mexico was in 2005 in order to attend the International Folk Art Market in Santa Fe. Las Cruces-Chiapas Connection held numerous fundraisers in the spring of 2005 to raise the money to bring Antonia to represent two weavings cooperatives, Tsobol Antzetik and Mujeres por la Dignidad.

      Hoping to make the visa application process less painful this time, I accompanied Antonia to Mexico City, along with her sister-in-law Marta and Marta’s daughter. We hiked around the city, visiting the National Palace, the Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and a market called Tepito where Antonia and...

  12. Part III. Gains and Losses, Lessons Learned
    • Chapter 1 Envy
      (pp. 147-151)

      During my initial fieldwork I found that talking about envy and witchcraft with Pedranos was difficult. Most people acknowledged that it was a part of life, but many in the Word of God and Protestant religions seemed to feel ashamed of it, to regard it as a part of their ancestral heritage better forgotten. Nevertheless, envy in Chenalhó seems to be connected to a moral discourse related to promoting egalitarian and cooperative relations, which Pedranos have continued to rework in the context of their changing lives. In the 1980s, when I lived with Antonia, Pedranos valued conformity and viewed unbalanced...

    • Chapter 2 Suffering
      (pp. 153-158)

      When I was conducting research in the 1980s, I accompanied Antonia and other Pedrano friends as they crossed geographic and ethnic boundaries. Traveling from their rural communities to the city of San Cristóbal, they entered a cultural world where indigenous people were second-class citizens. I was haunted by stories from anthropologists who had conducted their fieldwork a couple decades before me. They told of mestizos swatting indigenous people off the high sidewalks, if they were bold enough to walk on them. The sidewalks were for mestizos, the streets for dogs and Indians.

      Even in the headtown of Chenalhó, where many...

    • Chapter Three A Difficult Trip
      (pp. 159-165)

      Antonia’s words break my concentration as I tally earnings from the weavings we’ve sold over the past two weeks. She’s leaning toward me, a wry smile on her lips as her eyes widen and then narrow. Although she laughs a little as she speaks, we both know that she means what she says. She is rarely this honest with me. Although it hurts, I need to hear how she feels. I have been worried about her since she got off the plane. I would never have asked her to come to New Mexico had I known that she was still...

    • Chapter 4 Faith and Love
      (pp. 167-173)

      Antonia didn’t have a cargo dream calling her to work in the Word of God, as her husband did. When Domingo was still single, he would often get drunk and end up in jail for fighting. One day not long after leaving jail, he met a catechist who invited him to enter the church to hear the Word of God. Although Domingo didn’t take him up on his offer, about a month later he had a dream that he considers his calling to become a lay preacher.

      In Domingo’s dream, Saint Peter found him in the town square and brought...

    • Chapter Five Exodus
      (pp. 175-184)

      The phone rings. It’s Alberto, Antonia’s son and my godson. I haven’t heard from him in a while. He’s in North Carolina now, in Cherokee country. Each time he moves to a new place, I wish I could help him get to know the people, especially now, when he’s around other Native Americans. But he tells me that he stays pretty much inside his apartment and the restaurant where he works. He always seems to meet one or two locals, young men with motorcycles, who give him rides to the store or the emergency room.

      Last time he called, he...

    • Chapter 6 Death
      (pp. 185-188)

      Of all the topics in this book, death embodies how alike, yet different, Antonia and I are. One of the greatest differences between us is that death is much more a part of Antonia’s life than it is of mine. Antonia never lost a child, which makes her fortunate among women in her community. But since childhood she has spent countless days and nights accompanying sick and dying relatives and neighbors of all ages. In contrast, my life has not involved daily contact with illness and death.

      I was visiting Antonia when Domingo was gravely ill in 2002 and witnessed...

    • Chapter 7 Life So Far
      (pp. 189-196)

      A writer from the New Mexico State University Communications Department wrote an article about this book when I was finishing the first draft. Daniella Deluca tried her best to present the complexities of Antonia’s life in her article and was not in charge of what happened to it after it left her desk. The day it came out in the Las CrucesSun-News, it was also on New Mexico State University’s web page. I decided to check it out online and was shocked to see the caption under a picture of Antonia and me: “Professor Christine Eber returns to chronicle...

  13. Epilogue
    (pp. 197-198)

    In June 2010 I went to Chenalhó to go over the final draft of Antonia’s words with her and catch up on all the changes in her life since my last visit in early 2009. As this book goes to press in 2010, Antonia and her family are continuing their passage over the Earth.

    Felipe now lives in a new house he built on the foundation of the house he shared with Magdalena, who received the house boards in the divorce settlement. There he lives with a new woman and their infant. Felipe’s six-year-old son lives with Antonia, and his...

  14. Afterword
    (pp. 199-208)

    Antonia’s story is part of the larger story of how Chiapas and Mexico are changing in this era of globalization and, especially, the important roles of women in these changes. Her words speak to the particular ways that women are creating and bearing witness to change, and in the process expanding their worlds beyond anything that their foremothers could have imagined. Few sectors of Mexican society have been more silenced than indigenous women. Most of them live out their lives under the weight of poverty, racism, and patriarchal beliefs and structures. Yet, many, like Antonia, resist this oppression and find...

  15. Appendix A. Antonia’s Words to Alberto
    (pp. 209-210)
  16. Appendix B. Life Histories from Chiapas and Other Places
    (pp. 211-212)
  17. Notes
    (pp. 213-222)
  18. Glossary
    (pp. 223-224)
  19. References
    (pp. 225-232)
  20. Index
    (pp. 233-244)