Now in her mid-30s, María Isabel packs about a hundred rugs, place mats, bedspreads and shawls into giant plastic laundry sacks each morning, loads them into the back of a pickup truck and drives less than a mile to Teotitlán’s small plaza, or zócalo, where she joins about two dozen other women (and the occasional older man) in open-air stalls next to city hall. It takes her about 90 minutes each morning and evening to unpack her pieces, stack them on tables and hang them on poles.
Seven years ago, María Isabel’s father died suddenly at age 55 from a heart attack, leaving her devastated and unprepared to take over the family business. But she taught herself how to package and ship the rugs, how to drive a car and, eventually, how to process computerized credit card transactions. She has only six years of formal education but a PhD in street smarts. “I can tell from 50 yards away,” she says, “if someone is from France, Germany, Italy. A European will want a smaller rug, something that represents the town, with scenes of cactus or churches. They’re more hesitant to spend than Americans.”
With responsibility came an epiphany: perhaps her life wasn’t a disaster just because she wasn’t married. “I’m not sure there are any men intelligent enough for me,” she teases, trying to keep a straight face. “I look around . . . but it’s not a high priority right now. I know how to survive.”
University of Oregon anthropologist Lynn Stephen, who is famous in town for having learned Zapotec—it’s a difficult tonal language—and for writing the groundbreaking book Zapotec Women, says prosperity has given women more choices. “Many more women simply aren’t getting married,” she says. “They’re now thinking, ‘Why should I just marry any guy? If I can weave, I can make my own money.’ ”
Elena Gonzalez would likely agree. “I’m happy being by myself,” she says. Gonzalez, who spends six months a year in a Colorado ski town, living with a family who runs a craft store, says she’s not about to trade independence for marriage just to be married. “I think some girls here, when they hear about my life in Colorado, want to be like me. In Teotitlán, when you marry, you’re expected to do the cleaning, fix the meals, care for the children. Maybe I’ll find the right person in Colorado.”
As Elena spoke, sitting at the foot of her family’s century-old loom, a slight, gray-haired woman in her 60s joined her. Amelia Vásquez, who runs a ten-year-old weaving cooperative for single mothers and widows, listened to what would have been radical ideas when she was Elena’s age. “It was very hard for us at first,” Vásquez says. “A lot of us weren’t taught to weave, but we thought we could do everything that men were doing.” She says men initially opposed women traveling into OaxacaCity to sell rugs, but relented when they realized women consistently outsold men.
“Men are always out front on everything in this town!” Vásquez goes on. “But things are changing. Before, we had all these designs only in our minds and hearts, but we couldn’t let them out because our husbands and fathers always did the designs. Now we are gaining our independence.” —B.S.