What We Needed was a Good, Hard Boost
The first I ever heard of Juchitan, I was working the streets of Mexico City as a craftsman; sort of. The country was deeply entrenched in the peso crash. You couldn’t really make much money twisting wire around leather and stones, fashioning jewelry and hand bags; you had to have a side business. The easiest side business for a traveling artist was carrying the maize from the small towns into the big city. That’s what we called it; the maize; the one collateral as sure to sell as tortillas and beans.
You could buy it cheap as dirt in the small towns as long as you knew the right people. That was Victor’s skill; knowing the right people. Small towns didn’t have a large stoner crowd. The life style was Provincial Mexican, which is to say it had a prevalent middle class respectability that didn’t include staying up all night, jamming down on Black Sabbath and Deep Purple. Our black market remedies for survival met with very little social approval, even if the small towns were struggling with similar economic problems. We lurked in quiet hovels that seethed with suppressed rebellion and resistance for our contacts, homes that reeked of bitterness and a willingness to take desperate measures.
We visited the homes of revolutionaries; not the gun toting kind; but students or just people who were trying hard to provide for their families and chose the avenues of rebellion as a means of voicing their discontent. I was looking at the posters in the home of one of these dissenters; posters I had by now grown very familiar with; portraits of Che, the leaders of Central American rebels with gun belts strapped from shoulder to hip, Zapata standing rigidly at attention, when a new one caught my eye. It was a black and white sketch that showed hands covering the eyes, ears and mouth, with another pair strangling the throat of an undetermined portrait. Above it was one word; Juchitan. I asked the host about Juchitan, but he wasn’t very implicit. He said it was a place we’d have to find before we could understand it. Our main objective was conducting business. Finding Juchitan was our least priority; or so we thought.
The peso crash deepened, the small towns became more lenient, but so did the use of the maize. It began to disappear. Consequently, our search took us into more and more remote areas; Indian villages whose fragile existence depended on just two crops; whatever the wealthy land owners paid them a meager ration to produce; and the maize. The maize was by far a more profitable business, so street artists were very welcome visitors. What we couldn’t pay for with cash was carried out in trade. Almost anything with a trade value would do; clothing, jewelry, cheap make up, pocket knives, radios, even ceramic good luck Buddha’s. They were easy to pick up in Mexico City but practically worth their weight in gold within the villages.
We nestled so deeply into the jungle of connecting villages, we no longer had a concept of where we were until one day our host casually mentioned to us that today he was going to Juchitan. Both Victor and I were stunned. “Are we close to Juchitan?” One of us asked. I can’t remember whose tongue came loose first.
“Why yes,” said our friend. “Matter of fact, it’s only about thirty kilometers from here. Matter of fact, there’s a truck taking out everyone with goods to sell at the market today if you want to come along.”
We certainly did. Suddenly the poster of Juchitan loomed in our minds and we were intensely curious. We decided further trade could be put on hold until we’d seen this mysterious place that had inspired a conceptual vision. We packed our bags and left in the back of a pick up truck filled with farm laborers.
At first glance, Juchitan looks like any other small, Central American town. The buildings are eighteen century Spanish Colonial, the streets are brick, a central plaza graces the interior with a pavilion, wrought iron benches scattered along the edges of the walk way, and graceful mango, magnolia and palm trees rustle in the surrounding park.
We didn’t anticipate any real differences between Juchitan and any other town. Most of them had rules about where you could and could not sell, and a police force that made sure these rules were obeyed. We decided the first thing we should do was find out where it was permitted. We asked a candy vendor who shrugged. “Sell wherever you like,” she said. “No one will care.”
This was a little surprising, but after some encouragement, we opened shop in the plaza. It was late afternoon and people were only just beginning to stir from their siestas. Anticipating small returns, we began discussing the possibility of finding a hotel room for the evening, when the plaza began to fill.
The entire town of Juchitan must come out at night. Just as the last of the sunlight spread exhausted across the sky and cool breezes sprang up from the nearby ocean, a wave of citizenry strolled by, then stopped to gawk at our display. Bracelets were examined. Perfumes were tested. Earrings were dangled cautiously in front of ears with demands for opinions. They began to buy anything and everything we had on our stand. By the end of the night, we’d sold nearly half our merchandise. It became obvious to both of us we needed to stick around for awhile.
Sticking around was also surprisingly easy. The town folk were accommodating. They pointed us in the direction of a hotel on the outskirts where all the vendors went. It charged half the price of the more centralized hotels. We took a taxi that first night. It rumbled down a dirt road imprinted more with the tracks of ox carts than of automobiles. It stopped in front of a tall, faceless building with bolted double metal doors. We knocked and stated our business. There were some shuffling sounds, the rattle of keys, then the doors swung wide. We didn’t know it at the time, but as we stepped inside, we entered the most incredible world we’d ever seen.
Say Hello to Woman’s Rights
The hotel was set up in typical Spanish Colonial style, with an open court yard in the middle, and the walls of the two story building surrounding it. The upper story had balconies. A stairway continued on to the roof where sheets flapped lazily in the breeze. The door to nearly every room was open and the occupants rocking in hammocks strung out between the balcony supports. Juchitan is a hot climate. It has a yearly average temperature that rarely wavers between eighty-six and a hundred four degrees. As we lay sprawled on our beds with a noisy fan sweeping the air, we wished we had a hammock, too. We finally took our blankets and went up to the roof to catch the night air. Here, in the ocean breeze, sweetened with the perfumes of mangos and magnolia blossoms, under a sky sparkling with sharply cut stars, we slowly became immersed in the magic of Juchitan.
We walked back into town early the next morning, eager to learn more about our new clients. The walk was enhanced by a pleasant array of white cotton dressed farmers on donkeys, calling “da-li!”, which is Zapotecan for “hello” as they passed by. The delight increased with the sight of small children running freely along the path, chasing each other through the meadow at the side of a single arched bridge that also included a merrily bubbling creek below it. It was a good spot to refresh yourself, and the pedestrians often did, sitting on the railing of the bridge a moment, balancing their market baskets on their knees, chatting with their neighbors.
What intrigued us most were the women. From the poorest fish vendor to the most elegant ladies, there was a uniformity about their looks and manner of dress. They were all tall, beautiful and strong, like the depictions of early Hawaiians. Their hair was elaborately decorated with flowers. Their dress consisted of a square bodice blouse and long, flowing skirt. The humblest women wore plain, thin cotton material, while the wealthier ones wore silks and linens with cascading, hand embroidered designs. They all wore jewelry; lots of it. They all displayed at least a little gold. They all seemed larger, healthier, more commanding than their male companions.
It took us awhile to find out why this was so. When we returned in the evening, after twisting wire all day and selling all afternoon, the same gentleman unlocked the door who had the previous night. We assumed he was the proprietor and called him, “Senor”. It took an incident to change our perception.
We had already made several trips in and out of Juchitan and had grown accustomed to the wild buying sprees that invariably occurred upon our arrival. The business had become so profitable, we barely made time for the maize except as an after thought to bring back to our friends waiting in Mexico City. Juchitan was our adventure and our growing love affair. We had made friends with the maid, who was an openly gay twenty year old young man with a love for earrings. He was one of my best customers and I would have loved him even better if he wasn’t constantly wheedling me into lending him my best blouses.
We had just finished closing a sale with him and were preparing our merchandise to go out into the street, when Pacifico, the maid, held up a hand and warned us not to go out just yet. “The Senora is angry,” he said. Sure enough, a commotion floated down from the upper level of the hotel. In a few minutes, we saw the Senora march down the stairs, hauling a young woman by the hair. “Disgrace!” She said. “Cabrona! Shameless whore.” The piteous woman gathered about her a few things that had fallen from her woven straw bag; some stockings, a rag or two, a bottle of shampoo. She let herself out, thin, miserable wretch of a woman, before the Senora could inflict more damage.
If we thought the Senora was finished yet, we were sadly mistaken. She raged back up the stairs that the Senor was cautiously climbing down, and grabbed him by the ear. “You are worthless,” she screamed. “All you do is eat, sleep and fornicate. This is what I’ll do with you. This is what I’ll do…” She pushed him into a hammock, disappeared for a minute, then returned with two small children. “All you are good for is taking care of babies. This is what you’ll do.” The Senor idly rocked and amused the little ones for a few minutes, than placidly fell asleep.
After a bit of bribery which included a new bracelet, we got Pacifico to tell the whole story. It seems the hotel didn’t belong to the Senor at all, although he pretended it did. The girl who had been thrown out into the street was from Chiapas and didn’t know that in Juchitan, the men rarely own anything. The women ran it all; the businesses, the schools, the administration. The men simply did as they were told. The girl didn’t know, so she slept with the Senor in place of paying rent; that is, until the Senora found out. By all appearances, it was an unhappier day for the prostitute than it was for the Senor.
Now that the Senora had decided she’d better manage the hotel herself, I began to see more of her. She invited me to her private quarters to visit. She thoughtfully asked me questions. “You make your own jewelry. This means you have your own business.”
“Yes,” I agreed.
“In Juchitan, we buy a piece of gold to wear each time we’ve made a successful business venture. You’ve been successful here. You should wear gold.”
I nodded. The thought appealed to me. The next time Victor and I went to the market, we stopped at the gold vendors and bought a pair of small gold earrings. The Senora approved. “Now you’re becoming a Juchitan woman.” She thought deeper. “You are an American, right?” I nodded. “I am an American, too,” she said. “I was born in America. You are educated. You speak two languages. I also speak two languages; Spanish and my native tongue, Zapotecan. We are a lot alike, you and I.” Again, I had to agree.
Immersion into Juchitan is an ongoing process. Several months went by, spring rolled around and May was on the brink of spilling all its particular fresh, new joys. “You must come and sell in Juchitan throughout the month of May,” advised the Senora. “This is when the velas come out.” I asked about the velas, which is Spanish for candles, and she only answered, “you’ll see.”
We prepared our merchandise like never before and set up shop in the Juchitan plaza for the month of May. The velas were the highest women in the social order of Zapoteca hierarchy. They were more than candles. They were regal. They were queens or goddesses or angels. To this day, I’m not sure; the sensation of their beauty and majesty is so overpowering. They drifted casually through the park, passing treats and coins among the children. They stopped by vendors, giving their blessings and making purchases, that were handed into the baskets of loyal servants. Their skirts rustled with their fineness, their perfume lingered, the colorful splashes of embroidered flowers danced in the air. The velas weren’t something you aspired to; they were something that was. They were something so fine it left you with a conscious feeling of linage, carefully handed down from generation to generation. They were breathlessly beautiful, gentle and wise.
If You’re not Gay, You might as Well be a Warrior
There was something peculiar about Pacifico that had nothing to do with the fact that he was flamingly gay. For a maid, he was treated more like a pampered, spoiled pet. He was obviously well-paid and the Senora generously fed him from her table, yet he was one of the laziest maids I’d ever seen. He was constantly recalled to wash the sheets a second time as they still looked dingy and each room cleaning was by necessity supervised, or he’d just sweep the room around on the floor. He was scolded often, but she never fired him. She never even threatened to fire him. I finally asked her about this. “Because he brings me good luck,” she answered. While I pondered about this, she went on to explain, “I live well. My business is prospering. I have many gold bracelets and pairs of garnet earrings to prove this. I have been brought you! An American who speaks two languages. Could there ever be such marvelous luck?”
“I was lucky as well,” I answered awkwardly.
“Of course you were!” She agreed. “Do you know why you are lucky? I’ll tell you. It’s because you’ve found your place. Where you come from, men are very important. They are the ones who are considered strong and must make all the decisions.”
I tried to interrupt her, protesting our equal status, but she continued. “This is why you are small. In Juchitan, we rejoice when we have a girl. We know she will be industrious. We know she’ll be able to handle her affairs, her home life and her business with good judgment. We give her the best of everything, feed her the best because we know that men are weak. They eat too much candy when they are children, and their teeth rot. They get drunk and fornicate. They do foolish things with their money so we have to take care of them. You already understand that you are able to make your own money, run your own business. That is a good beginning. One day you’ll become a Juchitan woman.”
Since I didn’t think discussing my size in terms of hereditary traits was going to do much good, I asked her how she had known Pacifico would bring her luck. “Why it’s as plain as day,” she said. “He’s a homosexual. Juchitan women know at a boy’s birth, whether he will be homosexual or not. We can tell by which way the head was turned. Mothers know that it’s the most wonderful thing in the world to have a homosexual child, for the other children may all wander off and marry, but the homosexual child will always take care of his parents. The mother is lucky. She gives a little of her luck to a business when she consents to allowing her son to work for it. Pacifico is not a good worker, but he’s always been very lucky.”
Victor reflected a long time on the new information I had relayed to him. He finally asked Pacifico, “what happens to a man who does feel strong, doesn’t chase alcohol and women and has good business sense?”
“Why he joins the revolution,” said Pacifico.
We didn’t see the revolution until some time later, in snaps and crackles, shots in the night. It slid along the walls of the market square. It lurked in the shadows of the zocalo. It came to us in small glimpses; all of which make up another whole story. Which struck me as odd and wonderful then, still strikes me as peculiar today. The seat of the revolution rested in a tropical paradise, unaffected by the peso crash. No one was enormously rich, but no one was without food or shelter, either. It blossomed among a society run by women, perhaps the only true modern Amazons, a culture that felt having homosexual sons was lucky, and expressed not just tolerance, but an avid curiosity about people’s differences. Perhaps it’s time to take the hands away from the eyes, mouth, ears and throat of Juchitan and let her have her say.