As part of the fieldwork for my thesis on the role of women in traditional indigenous usos y costumbres-style governments in Oaxaca, Mexico, I had the opportunity to flex my participant-observation skills and attend the fiesta for the Virgen de Asunción in Santa Catarina Lachatao. Lachatao is a small town with few educational or job opportunities in the Sierra Norte mountains of Oaxaca state, but community members have a fierce loyalty towards their hometown. Many of those who have migrated to Oaxaca City or Mexico City for school or work return for the fiesta on August 15th.
The fiesta highlights how the usos y costumbres system is based on giving or donating services for the common good. It is planned by a special August 15th party committee in conjunction with the Temple Committee whose members are named through the municipal government and work for free. Every community household is asked to donate $300 pesos to cover the costs of the event, and a member of the Temple Committee told me that everyone does. Some households volunteer to provide food for the band or donate a particular part of the event, such as the band fees, on top of giving $300 pesos.
Fatima Antonio Gonzalez at her desk in her office in the Municipal Palace of Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca
“I am the first female municipal secretary in my town,” Teotitlán del Valle, says Fatima Antonio González. She was named to the position by the current municipal president at 23 years old in 2010. As municipal secretary, she deals with community records and documents.
Teotitlán del Valle is one of 418 towns governed by the indigenous system of usos y costumbres in Oaxaca, Mexico. While Antonio González earns a small salary, government posts in usos y costumbres systems are considered service to the community and are done to give back to the community and not for money.
At the time that she was named to the post, Antonio González was collaborating on Teotitlán del Valle’s Plan for Municipal Development, which identified community needs and goals for the current government’s 3-year term. She was one of the few in her generation to earn a college degree in economics. She says that only 5 or 6 out of the 30 or so community members her age have a college degree.
I’m in Oaxaca, Mexico for the summer doing research for my thesis on the role of women in traditional indigenous usos y costumbres-style governments. Oaxaca has 418 towns that are run by usos y costumbres, a form of government recognized by the state constitution. In these communities, only 18 women have ever become president (the highest office), and in about 80, women have not been allowed to vote.
Sergio Beltrán stands in front of a mural in his shared office space at The Hub, Oaxaca.
My first interview is with Sergio Beltrán, who just co-founded a new NGO in July called Herramientas para el buen vivir (Tools for Living the Good Life). Beltrán has spent the past 15 years working with towns run by usos y costumbres. He has collaborated on projects relating to technology, such as community radio stations, ecology, such as dry bathrooms, and the economy, like ecotourism. Most recently, Beltrán has been doing workshops on gender equality in Santa María Yucuhiti, a Mixteca indigenous community in southwestern Oaxaca state.
The Oaxacan state government passed laws in the late 2000s guaranteeing gender equality and freedom from violence, and Beltrán helps educate community members on what those laws mean. “The most urgent work is with the men,” says Beltrán. “The women are already informed.”