Women of Clay
by Marcela Taboada
I drove up one day to San Miguel Amatitlan in 1999 and as soon as I stepped a foot in this village, I knew that I had entered to the heart of a Mexican truth: women feed this earth and their life is made of clay. Clay ovens for clay pans and pots, everything is touched and transformed by hands which are also the colour of clay. As they told me when I asked whether they owned some land: “Our land is inside our fingernails”. The Vatican gave these women 17,000 pesos to help for their living and they decided to do something constructive with the money as they lived in ramshackle dwellings, to build proper new houses. They altogether started building walls and roofs out of clay. This brought scorn and derision from the men and elders; now that they have built twenty houses of excellent quality, they are looked upon with great admiration.
San Miguel Amatitlán is a small Indian village in the southern state of Oaxaca. It belongs to the Mixteca Baja, and hides high up in the mountains of the Sierra Madre where the drinking water does not last any longer than four months a year. The soil is dry, hard and bare; there are neither beans nor cornfields in sight: water must be carried from many miles in order to drink, eat, wash and make those indestructible clay bricks.
All the strong men have left the village and have gone far away to the other side of the northern border, where they will try to earn a few dollars picking fruit in Florida or some other state of the USA. Their worn out grandparents, their restless children and newborn babies remained to be looked after at home.
When their husbands come back to the village, they are most probably infected by AIDS, since many women have died from this disease, ignoring what was. Some twelve-year old girls have been sold to a man, not to become prostitutes, but to become a lover, wife, mother and servant all at once loosing forever the first part of their life.
Due to this appalling social and economic situation, some young women have decided to cross the northern border, swimming to the other side of the river either with their baby in their arms or leaving them behind. The young men who are still living in the village are deep alcoholics and cannot do much to help the rest of the inhabitants. Since the Catholic religion plays such an important role in their daily life, the use of contraceptives are obviously unheard of, and the families are over crowded, it is an almost impossible task to feed and educate so many children. There is a small primary school but the secondary school is either given through television or the children have to go to a bigger town by bus and it would take many hours to get there.
The history of these women is a lesson of life for all of us: with a little help (17,000 pesos may easily be spent by a six people-family in two months on food only), great project can be achieved. With this small amount of money, they bought pick-axes, shovels, hammers and wood. They dug deep holes through this rocky land, filled them with heavy stones, they climbed on ladders to raise walls, carried tiles to shelter the roofs. They walked miles under the sun with full buckets on their shoulders to mix water and earth, and made the bricks for their clay houses.
In order to support themselves and the rest of the family, they sew footballs and receive seven pesos apiece for this work: they can make two balls per day if they sew from sunrise to sunset. Old people also make palm hats and are paid two and a half pesos for each. They have to make four hats to buy a litter of milk. Yet, these very same hands never stopped creating the finest dresses for their daughters or ironing a man’s shirt, never forgot how to give a caress to a young child or console a grief. They have always found the time to put flowers in the church: these women believe in Mother Earth because it is inside their fingernails.
Thousands of families are dependent on remittances to make ends meet. Indeed, remittances are Mexico's second largest source of foreign income after oil, and Mexico receives the most remittances of any country in Latin America and the third most in the world after India and China.
In 2008, remittances to Mexico began to fall for the first time in 13 years, with some months showing a decrease of 36 percent. After peaking in 2007 at $26 billion, remittances in 2008 fell 3.6 percent to $25 billion. Poor or low-income families, headed by women left behind in Mexico, are the most affected by a drop in remittances. Experts believe the drop is a result of the global financial crisis, as more immigrants in developed countries are losing jobs. The U.S. crackdown on immigration also is thought to be a cause of the drop. To learn more about remittances to Mexico, read our Mexico Essay.
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Marcela Taboada is a self-accomplished independent photographer living in Oaxaca, Mexico. Her work is included in different art collections in Mexico and overseas, and has been exhibited in various museums and galleries. Her photography has received international awards, including the National Geographic All Roads Photographers Award.
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