COLUMN ONE : The Women Who Run Juchitan : Matriarchy flourishes in this Mexican town where wives and mothers dominate economic and family life. Residents defend themselves against outsiders who dismiss their society as being machismo in reverse.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The market in this town on southern Mexico's steamy Isthmus of Tehuantepec is memorable for iguana stewed in tomato sauce, sun-dried fish and a full aisle of earrings, necklaces and bracelets dripping with gold coins, a selection to rival any jewelry store.

But more memorable than the products sold are the women who sell them: women with freshly cut flowers and wide ribbons woven into their elaborate braids, who rest their fists firmly on ample hips and laugh, throwing back their shoulders to show fondly nurtured beer bellies under embroidered, cap-sleeve blouses they call huipiles .

They joke and flirt, calling out to potential customers--and men they happen to like--"Hey, handsome, come try my atole ," a thick, milky drink. They run the market and, by extension, the economic life of their town and their families, carrying on the tradition of the pre-Columbian Zapotec empire.

"Women are public figures here," says Marina Meneses, a sociologist educated in Mexico City who five years ago came home to raise her son in Juchitan, seat of a county of 66,000 people in the lowlands of Oaxaca. "Women are the main organizers."

In short, Juchitan is a matriarchy. In many ways, it is a matriarchy that feels besieged, caught between its own mythology and a patriarchal outside world that tends to dismiss this society as a mirror image of machismo , casting women almost in the role of bullies and their men as sissies.

The people of Juchitan insist that the reality is far more complex, that when women run an economy, they run it differently, with different priorities and more democratic decision-making.

"We have principles rather than norms," Meneses says. "Principles are less rigid."

In Juchitan, as in most small cities, she says, people's lives are public property, but the public is less judgmental and offers more latitude to everyone.

"We men do not feel oppressed," says Gaspar Cabrera, the town priest, who is from a nearby village. "This is simply a more egalitarian reality. In this aspect, Zapotec culture is more advanced, and European culture is catching up."

Cabrera says he was shocked to see how far behind other cultures were, when at 13 he was sent to school in Jalapa, the capital of the Gulf Coast state of Veracruz.

"In my village, our life revolved around my mother and my grandmother," he says. "When I got to Jalapa, I found out that women had to wait until their husbands got home to decide whether children could have permission go to a party. Women went out to run errands and came straight home."

He was even more surprised to learn that the rest of Mexico is more like Jalapa than Juchitan--especially odd, he says, because "the atmosphere here is much healthier, and we are happier."

In Juchitan, women are always out--walking arm in arm down the street, chatting in the town square and, above all, selling.

Girls become vendors almost as soon as they can walk and talk.

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Florinda Luis Orozco, 49, a teacher, was selling homemade tortillas by the time she was 5. Antonia Lopez, 36, recalls filling a tray with enchiladas from her mother's market stall and walking through town selling them.

"Learning to buy and sell is part of a girl's upbringing," Meneses says. "It's not just buying well and cheap, but also learning how to treat people."

"That is why Zapotec women are rarely shy," Cabrera says. "From the time she is 8 or 9, she is out selling."

Boys sometimes help out with sales. But by the time they turn 10 or so, they are embarrassed to do what is considered women's work here. By extension, men tend to be more reserved, because the outgoing personality that goes with selling is considered a feminine trait.

"A man is looked down upon if he goes into retail sales," Meneses says.

Jacinta Perez peddles hammocks that her husband weaves at home. And until Cecilia Carrasco's husband died five years ago, he embroidered the huipiles in her market stall; now she hires a man to sew.

"Everyone thinks that men are kept by the women here," the 55-year-old widow says defensively. "That is not true. We help out. We work to have our homes and our jewelry."

In most societies, however, what a Juchitan woman does would be considered more than helping out. She is expected to take responsibility for the day-to-day running of the household--from shopping to disciplining the children.

"Fathers are usually too soft, especially with their daughters," says Cabrera, the priest. "If a girl gets home late, the fight will be with her mother."

If a man does not like the way his children behave, he normally discusses this with his wife and expects her to correct the problems.

But the men generally are not idle. They have their own responsibilities: farming, fishing or working at a craft.

In fact, says Luis Orozco, "when a woman sees that a man is not doing his share, she prefers to be alone."

No one blames or criticizes a woman for separating from an unreasonable husband, unlike the rest of Mexico, where the ability to aguantar , or to put up with things, is a mark of feminine virtue. And the definition of what is reasonable in a marriage is heavily weighted toward a woman's autonomy.

In addition, says Lopez, who is single, women are under no pressure to marry.

"If you get to a certain age, your mother will say, 'Dear, it is fine if you do not want a husband, but it is time you had a child so that you will not be alone,' " she says.

Cabrera nods as Lopez speaks. As in many parts of rural Mexico, in Juchitan the parish priest recognizes the realities of the local culture, which often differ notably from the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church.

"Here, motherhood--all motherhood--is respected," he says.

To be a single mother is acceptable. The father of a single woman's child is expected to pay her a sort of dowry, then leave her alone.

If a woman does decide to marry, her husband is not supposed to be jealous or authoritarian. Most of all, he is not supposed to handle the household money.

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"Women here do not accept a man running the household economy," says Luis Orozco, the teacher. "If a woman permits that, she is criticized. It is looked upon badly.

"Where men run the household, they live in debt," she adds, expressing a belief that is nearly universal here. "A man will spend all his money in an afternoon at the cantina."

Despite the conviction in her words, she whispers them, looking warily across the terrace of their home at her husband, Gregorio Guerrero. He is from the neighboring state of Guerrero, where she says, derisively, "the women are terribly submissive."

Those cultural differences have caused problems in their 15-year marriage, she acknowledges. They finally reached a compromise: He gives her what he considers an allowance and she calls his share of the household expenses. He keeps the rest of his earnings.

"I had to work hard to convince him," Luis Orozco says. "But he has his money spent two days after he is paid. That is the way men are."

Money management is the most common cause of divorce for women from Juchitan who marry outsiders, Cabrera says.

"There are families here where the man manages the money," he says, "but it is almost always a disaster. The money just disappears."

However, a woman would never make a major purchase, such as a refrigerator, or take on an important financial obligation without discussing it with the family, residents insist.

"The activities of men and women are complementary," says Vicente Marcial, who runs the town cultural center. The issue is not dominance, but division of labor.

"Men are involved in production and women in sales," he says.

The system appears to work reasonably well. Even though Juchitan's per capita income levels are among the lowest in Mexico, the town and surrounding villages have few of the outward signs of poverty--such as malnutrition--common in other rural areas.

And neither poverty nor matriarchy has provoked the massive migration that has struck many impoverished regions when peasant television viewers see the prospects for a better life and move to the city in pursuit.

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"People here do not automatically think that everything from outside is better," Meneses says.

Marcial adds that there are few misfits in Juchitan: "We are a truly tolerant community. It is not just relations between men and women. There is respect among people of all lifestyles. For example, homosexuals are respected here," often not the case in rural Mexico.

"Other people could learn a lot from the way we live here," he adds. But often instead of learning, outsiders tend to speculate.

The economic independence of Juchitan's women has given rise to a lot of speculation about what they do with their money.

Part of the spending is obvious in the richly embroidered huipiles , wide lace skirts and gold chains and coins that women wear to weddings and other public occasions. But it is the supposed hidden uses of money that have attracted the most outside attention.

People are still fuming over an article last summer in the Mexican edition of the French magazine Elle. It said that women here routinely keep two husbands and employ male prostitutes.

"A caption under a photo of two women at a party drinking beer said that," Meneses recalls. "Of course, their husbands beat them."

Even in a matriarchy, there are lines a woman cannot cross.

Juchitan perceived the article as an attack from an outside world that does not understand this society and still, after more than 500 years, wants to conquer it.

"We are proud of who we are," Marcial says.

The Zapotecs beat back the Aztecs, the Spaniards and the French to keep their cultural identity.

According to one legend, after a French ship was wrecked during the French occupation of Mexico in the last century, women from the isthmus went to the shore and picked which soldier they wanted to nurse back to health. Many of the soldiers stayed.

In this century, Juchitan has been under attack from a centrist government in Mexico City that routinely imposes governors and mayors on the rest of the country. The isthmus has been a main center of rebellion against that system.

Juchitan, in fact, has an opposition party in City Hall. But few women are in local politics and no one can recall a female mayor. The last female governor was appointed just before the Spaniards arrived.

Women here are divided over whether that should change.

"Politics has never interested us, but it is time we started to participate," Luis Orozco says.

However, Meneses believes that traditional politics takes up more time than women have to waste.

"Meetings go on for hours and the men just keep talking," she says. "Women would have the matter resolved in a snap of their fingers, because we have other things to do. These are the mechanisms of a patriarchal state, and they take you away from real life."

Besides, she says, "the presence of a woman in the government apparatus does not guarantee that women's issues will be addressed. Look at the women who are in government now. They act just like men."

On the other hand, when women hold economic power, they can influence politics, she says. She cites her mother as an example, a respected merchant who can call the mayor at any moment and have a problem resolved.

"What no one wants to understand is that the economy here exists thanks to women and that, thanks to women, (people) can relate to the national economy without losing our identity," Meneses says.

She also recognizes politics as one of the few areas where men can develop leadership; as the mother of a son, that concerns her.

"The mechanisms to reinforce women here are much stronger," she says. "Often, young men have trouble finding their place here."

However, the economic dominance of women gives men the chance to excel in other areas such as the arts, people note.

It is no coincidence that one of Mexico's preeminent living artists, Francisco Toledo, is from Juchitan, although he no longer lives here.

"Arts, literature and formal politics are in the realm of men," Marcial says. "Women develop their talents in commerce."

Men might as well enjoy the freedom they gain when women run the economy, because the women of Juchitan are not about to cede an inch.

"The women in other places are submissive," Luis Orozco says. "They are tied to a man.

"Well, I am not going to beg a man to give me money to buy bread. Women here work. That is the base of our economy."

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