The Social and Economic Position of Women in the Ciénega

women workers.jpg (118179 bytes)Women tomato workers, 1982

Uneducated women generally lack opportunities to earn incomes comparable to men in the local economy around Guaracha. There has been a substantial amount of work for women and children in commercial agriculture, but pay is low relative to male wages, and in national terms. Another outlet for female labor has been the strawberry packing plants in Zamora. This type of work entails the movement of women outside the immediate confines of the village, and beyond the range of direct supervision by parents or husbands, contradicting patriarchal conceptions of the female role. Women with more education also work in professions such as nursing in the towns of Jiquilpan and Sahuayo, although they are likely to continue living at home.

Ciénega women have, however, also long had the opportunity to participate in long-distance internal migration, since the predominant form of emigration from the region since the 1940s has been movement to the metropolitan cities and young people have been able to lodge with kin in the cities whilst studying and/or seeking entry into the labor market. One type of urban work, domestic service, could be seen as preserving the character of a ‘‘domestic container,’’ but still tended to undermine parental control. Migrant women achieved freedom in selecting their own partners from outside the community, often preferring consensual unions to legal marriage. There have been various cases of illegitimate births and divorce and separation. Although such problems sometimes bring women back to the community, it is more common for them to form a new relationship, once any children of the first have been deposited with their grandparents.

The contrast between the position of women who remain resident in the villages and those who migrate out of them is substantial. The participation of unmarried women in local commercial agriculture increased through the years of crisis, but its importance to household survival continued to be understated, through its classification as temporary work. Female participation rates in local farm work are higher in Cerrito Cotijaran than Guaracha, in line with Cotijaran’s greater poverty, but because the women work for men from the village acting as subcontractors for larger commercial interests, their paid labor is readily classified as work done under the supervision of a male kinsmen. In Guaracha, the few men whose mature wives continue to work in the fields or packing plants are downgraded in social estimation.

Mature women who work in local agriculture or agroindustry are mainly women who have been abandoned or had children out of wedlock. Even widows and abandoned women who remain in the community still tend to search for ways of making income which do not force them to work outside the house----sewing or taking in washing, for example----or rely on the support of working children.

Greater participation in the outside labor market is not necessarily an unmixed blessing for women. For poor women with young families, this often, though not invariably, leads to daughters having reduced opportunities for education, because they take on their mother’s domestic burdens, as Sylvia Chant has noted. In the case of the rural Ciénega, however, male fears about the consequences of women escaping the tutelage of fathers or other male surrogates continue to influence their choices, since fathers frequently pressure their single daughters not to leave the family home.

Women are thus faced with real dilemmas in the face of misfortunes or in seeking a better future: staying in the village has different implications to various migratory options which are made available through kin networks connecting villages to distant communities. Even young women with little education can change their lives radically (for better or worse) by going off to live with an aunt or a married brother.

The early internal migrant strategy remains the choice of a minority. Within the communities, married women may make a decisive economic contribution to the household economy, by raising animals and engaging in forms of domestic production which provide a direct cash income, such as making and selling foodstuffs for sale in the village. There is even some participation of women in domestic outworking for manufacturing concerns. Yet objective circumstances and male ideology combine to promote a strong devaluation and domestication of the female economic role. Within the communities, women are drawn towards seeking male support. Men have little incentive to remain in a relationship which they find uncongenial, unless a notorious inadequacy as providers makes them unattractive to other women, and women who decide to leave an unbearable union face a difficult choice. They have limited opportunities to maintain themselves locally, and are unlikely to be able to marry again while their first partner is alive, unless they migrate and leave any children of the first union with kin in the village. Men, on the other hand, do enter into ‘‘parallel unions.’’ The women who enter into such relationships and bear illegitimate children suffer some social stigma, but if the male is a capable provider, even young single women, as well as those who are abandoned, may be willing to pay the price in terms of reputation. Irma was the eighteen year old daughter of the Cotijaran woman abandoned by a husband from Guanajuato whom she met working in the fields in Zamora. She had two children by a prosperous Guaracheño, Eduardo, one of four brothers known as the ‘‘broncos.’’ Eduardo’s interest in the relationship was to project his social persona as a ‘‘man of power,’’ and Irma’s acceptance of it was more than simply a response to being trapped in poverty. Her mother, Juana, aged thirty-four, came from a poor landless family, and her older brother went yearly, still undocumented, to Merced. Juana and her younger brother took what work was available with the local tomato growers. This family’s particularly low social status in the community reflected the way Juana’s history seemed to confirm negative stereotyping of women who go to live in Zamora to work in the fields or congeladoras. She had given herself to a treacherous stranger. Irma’s behavior confirmed that Juana’s lack of morals had rubbed off on her daughter, but Juana and women like her choose to stay in the community in conscious defiance of prevailing attitudes, and Irma had little more to lose in accepting the proposition which Eduardo made to her one day after she had been picking his tomatoes, because she was already stigmatized by her mother’s reputation.

Not all wives will tolerate their husbands maintaining another family, particularly when it is close at hand, but their reactions are tempered by pragmatism and the underlying weakness of their position. The second family generally resides in a different community, and men may divide their time between households on a regular schedule tacitly or even explicitly accepted by all parties. That abandoned or poor women who bear children out of wedlock are downgraded but not ostracized, reflects the way female views about the viciousness of men create space for negotiating tolerance. It is evident, however, that women’s options are limited if they remain in the community, whereas men with economic resources can benefit from female dependence. A less dramatic exemplification of this principle is the way widowers who are merely comfortably off by local standards consistently succeed in remarrying women decades younger than themselves.

When a wife leaves her husband over another woman, this is often because he is failing to provide for her and her family adequately. Such women can often depend on migrant remissions or other forms of economic support from children. They may even migrate themselves. Men from the Ciénega are likely to cease to support their original families altogether if the wife proves difficult. They see wives more as a burden than an economic resource within the villages, and may only think twice if the wife’s kin are in a position to make trouble for them in the community. One of the implications of extensive international migration is that men can form parallel families in the United States, and fear of abandonment has motivated many women to seek to accompany their husbands to the North in recent years.