Between the Past and the Present: Three Women in Tenancingo
Narrative by Belinda Vázquez
Photographs by Yecenia Méndez
Mexico is in an era of transition. The traditional roles of women in Mexico are radically transforming. According to the Mexican National Institute for Statistics, Geography and Informatics, 2 out of 10 Mexican families are headed by a woman, and the numbers are growing. In Tenancingo and other small towns throughout the country these changes are evident in the generations of women living side by side, each generation having faced its own challenges to women’s equality and opportunity.
Esther Robledo puts on her work boots and denim jeans. She ties her hair using a rubber band, leaves home and heads for her photography course. She takes a picture of El Desierto church while she strolls with her classmates then hurries off to a folk dance rehearsal. “I don’t lock myself up at home,” Esther says as she adjusts her rebozo (a fine scarf made in a distinctive local style) and walks into the forest. Esther is 57 years old.
As a young woman Esther moved from Tenancingo to Mexico City to study. Years later, she got a degree in Agronomy at the Autonomous Metropolitan University (Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana).
“I left home when I was 14 years old and started working when I was 18,” Esther says. “When I first arrived in Mexico City I discovered a brand new world and learned to solve problems all by myself.”
In addition to the courses she’s enrolled in as a student, Esther also teaches English and literature. She’s a writer for a local newspaper, and next week she’s starting a writing workshop.
Esther’s husband passed away seven years ago, and since then she’s taken care of her daughters. She’s always worked, so she’s managed to get by with them. “I married my husband on the condition he allow me to work,” she says. “When he died I was worried that responsibilities would lie now on me, because decisions were always agreed on between us.” It’s been difficult for Esther to find work lately. She believes her age and her comparative disadvantage as a woman in a man’s world are barriers for employers.
In the afternoon Esther wears a flowery patterned skirt in front of the mirrors at the Casa de la Cultura (House of Culture) dance room. She taps her feet to the rhythm of son jarocho in songs like‘El Fandanguito’ and ‘La Rama.’ She rehearses the choreography over and over again. She vigorously moves her skirt and shows off a big smile on her face. She has younger classmates, but they do not push themselves as Esther does.
“We first have to be aware of our value as individuals and as women in order to realize what we want in this life,” Esther says. “I believe that you have to enjoy whatever you do and do it well.”
Josefina Rosales stands over her stove staring at the boiling cauldron. She stirs the candy with both hands. She tightens her mouth, straining with the force. Her golden earrings and the skin of her arms move around. Doña Jose, as she is known in town, is 87 years old and hunchbacked.
Doña Jose is also the head of a household. She was born 30 years before Esther, when conditions for a woman’s independent development in Mexico were even more limited. Doña Jose as she is called lives in Tenancingo on Lerdo Street. She makes dulces de leche (milk candies), which her grandmother taught her to prepare when she was a child. She spends most of the day in the kitchen over a firewood cooker.
Doña Jose says that she never considered devoting herself to anything else because “a woman’s place is in the kitchen and household.” Doña Jose never married, and she was able to support her son Hector all by herself since age 16. Hector’s most persistent memories are of his mother working all day long. “She was tough and strict with me. She was not the typical all-loving mommy,” he recalls.
When she was a child, Doña Jose’s grandmother did not allow her to play outside because she had to learn to cook. “That’s what women do,” says Doña Jose, as she flicks her white hair with one wrinkly, shaky hand, the other hidden inside her apron pocket. Doña Jose has been a pioneer as an independent businesswoman, but she clings to some traditional beliefs nonetheless. She believes that a woman must stick to her household, even when she has experienced other ways of living.
Doña Jose doesn’t spend much time thinking about these issues. She’s more concerned about the state of her soul which, she says, will eventually be all she has left. But as a businesswoman and role model to other women in her neighborhood, Doña Jose leaves of sort of feminist legacy, whether she intends to or not. She has been a mentor for several women in Tenancingo, including Maria Rosales, her niece. “We can learn many values from her,” she says, “honesty, hard-work, and above all, perseverance.”
Alejandra Lara peels garlic quickly. A lady asks for tomatoes. Alejandra picks them up with her weary, dirty hands. She doesn’t like her job. She’d rather be studying. But she knows that she has to support her family. Alejandra is barely 21 years old.
Alejandra works full time, seven days a week, in a vegetable stand at the Riva Palacio market. “It is very difficult to find a part time job in Tenancingo,” she says. Like many women these days, Alejandra entered the labor force at a young age.
Alejandra is short and skinny, and she looks younger than she really is. She wears dirty, worn-out clothes. Her long hair looks tangled, even when it’s tied in ponytail. Her big, honey-colored eyes reveal melancholy.
Alejandra frowns while she does her chores. She wears a blue apron, like her co-workers. She’s the youngest of all of them. The rest are 25 to 40 years old. In spite of that, she stands out for her devotion to her job.
“There are not many opportunities for women in Mexico’,” she says. “Here in Tenancingo either you study or you work. You can’t do both,” Alejandra says in her trembling voice as she laces her fingers together. “Machismo is still prevalent,” she adds.
When Alejandra was a child, her mother was a housewife until she separated from her husband because he beat her. Alejandra’s five-year-old brother’s death was another cause of the divorce. She had studied nursing, but she hadn’t worked in that area while she was married and found herself unable to find a nursing job without experience. She found other small jobs, and Alejandra started getting more responsibilities at home, like picking up her sisters from school or cooking.
Her parents’ breakup lasted just a few months, but things were never the same again after they got back together. Her father worked the land and arranged flowers. He had not been educated because school was considered a hobby or a luxury when he was school aged. In order to earn a little more money, her father decided to open a flower shop. While transporting a shipment of flowers, Alejandra’s father died in a car crash.
“I was left with nothing. Everything my dad had worked for was taken away from us,” Alejandra says with tears in her eyes. Seconds later, she looks down. “After that loss, I didn’t go out or talk to anybody. I was scared of going out. I didn’t dare anymore.”
Alejandra had been enrolled in the first semester at the School of Medicine when her father died. She had to decide whether to keep on with her university studies or assume her father’s role and support the family. She chose the second option.
“My mom never persuaded me to quit studying, but how was I supposed to do so with no money?” Alejandra asks. “I quit studying so my sisters would have a chance to. My family is everything to me. They are my fuel now. Without them I would not move forward. There’s no one to look after us. We have no support. I work for them.”
After some time supporting her family and in hopes of betterment Alejandra re-took the entrance exam for the School of Medicine for re-admission. This time she did not pass. “I really would like to study,” she says. “To me, to keep on studying means having a better life, knowing more, meeting new people.”
Alejandra’s dreams will have to wait. Her priorities have changed now, and she continues to support her family. She has not given up though, and she says she will not lose courage.
For Alejandra, Esther and Doña Jose working has become the engine for their independence and changing roles in society. In many areas of their lives women throughout Mexico are making decisions that define a generational change.
In a country with more than 110 million inhabitants, 95 percent of women between 6 and 14 years old attend school. Many more Mexican women can now become professionals and choose careers to their liking without having to depend on anyone. Still, Esther says there is a long way to go. “We cannot brag that we’re moving forward. There are still many women in many places who are not free to be.”