Lynn Stephen’s new book Zapotec Women quickly sweeps the reader up into the complexities of textile production in the Mexican town of Teotitlán, a major weaving center for centuries. An important focus of the book is the fact that there are two different classes in the town: the people who are weavers and those who are merchants.

Stephen argues that the dynamics of women’s roles in the town—their roles as mothers, wives, and of workers—are most clearly understood in the context of whether they are part of households that weave textiles or of households that buy and sell the weavings to outsiders. The Teotitlán women themselves constantly mention the status issue—weaver or merchant—whenever they discuss women’s issues. They are class labels that articulate continuing differences and inequalities.

While the book focuses on the women of just one town, it also can serve more broadly as an introduction to the social structure of Zapotec communities. The author reviews the basic concepts of the compadrazgo (ritual kinship) system that ties families together throughout the community, and the guelaguetza system that fosters ritualized reciprocation of goods and services.

She also reviews the Zapotec concept of respect, an important belief that is based not so much on relative wealth but on the person’s age, number of fiestas sponsored, the number of godchildren sponsored, and the number and type of civil cargos the male head of the household has completed. Respect is demonstrated by the deference people will show when they meet those who have a higher status in the community.

This fine book especially comes to life in chapter 3, which discusses the lives of six representative women of Teotitlán. Their stories illustrate many of the themes that the author develops throughout the rest of the book. For instance, we learn from Julia, the wife of a textile merchant, that she controlled the household labor and the development of fiestas, but her husband prevented her from taking a role in making business decisions. Julia talks about putting up with physical abuse by her husband and living with constant hard work. For most of her life, she says, “I worked like a burro” (p.66). Her discussion of her husband preventing her from learning to read and write is pathetic, especially since her illiteracy hinders her from effectively operating their store.

One of the best aspects of the book is the discussion of the changes prompted by the formation of the weavers’ cooperatives beginning about 20 years ago. They have demonstrated that women in Teotitlán can modify the ways they see their roles as wives, mothers, citizens, and artisans. Even women who are not part of the cooperatives can easily see the benefits for those who are members. But the new structures fostered by the cooperatives also allow women to see more clearly the inequalities and challenges that still confront them in the community. While some women weavers in Teotitlán have become well recognized for the quality of their work, in some phases of craft production they are still paid much more poorly than men for comparable tasks.

The women typically incorporate their weaving work into the rhythms of their days, which also include child-care, food production, animal care, and ceremonial functions. In addition to their work, they can now go to meetings, take up leadership roles, and even stay overnight at their exhibit stalls in Oaxaca City. They have marched in parades, met periodically in each other’s homes, and founded support networks. Perhaps most significantly, they have opened up new relationships with their husbands, children, and in-laws. They have mostly won the fight to leave the house un-escorted.

The struggle, in sum, seems to be going well. One woman told the author, “it was a huge battle with our husbands. We had to break our chains with them there in the community. Thanks to all our struggles, now they help us. Our husbands understand us. They understand that what we’re doing isn’t just for women, but for the whole family” (p.224).

Stephen concludes, however, that the experiences of Teotitlán women are contradictory. For instance, while they do not yet fully participate in formal politics, they have made “a shaky beginning” (p.323). The women emphasize their right to a life without violence, to their own identity as indigenous women, and to a say in their economic production. They believe they should have fundamental political rights and the right to make decisions related to their own bodies. They agitate for the right to attend municipal meetings and for the recognition of their cooperatives as part of the governance structure of the community. In short, they are making demands and raising issues similar to the ones being raised by indigenous women throughout Mexico.

A minor problem early in the book is the way the author sometimes makes very interesting statements, but then seems to bog down with tedious summaries of the research and opinions of numerous other scholars before making her own conclusions clear. Also, the book would have been enhanced by a more substantial discussion of the violence the women have endured and whether or not the evolving changes in their lives have also fostered more domestic peacefulness.

But these are minor gripes. The book is graced with many very good black and white photos, more than were included in the 1991 edition, though unfortunately the maps page is messed up. The publisher repeated the overall map of the State of Oaxaca in the space labeled as the close-up for the vicinity of Teotitlán. While the work is listed as a second edition, revised and updated, it has so many significant changes that it could be considered as an entirely new work. The author presents an effective, nuanced analysis that should be refreshing to anyone who enjoys really exploring the reality and identity of women in another culture at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

An exhibit of weavings by the women of Teotitlán, opening tomorrow in Salem, Oregon, is the subject of today’s news story in this website.

Stephen, Lynn. Zapotec Women: Gender, Class, and Ethnicity in Globalized Oaxaca. Second Edition, Revised and Updated. Durham, NC., and London: Duke University Press, 2005.