Gender and Religion

Contemporary Zapotec for the most part practice a syncretic type of Catholicism that involves strong engagement with local pantheons of saints and virgins that in some cases are thin overlays for pre-Colombian deities. Both female icons in the form of virgins—most importantly in the Virgin of Guadalupe who is the patron saint of Mexico—and male icons in the form of a variety of saints are important in family and local religious life. While all Zapotec communities and hamlets in Oaxaca have churches and chapels, relatively few have resident priests. Local men and women who take on the cult sponsorship of community patron saints as mayordomos are seen as religious leaders and custodians of the community.

The celebration of a mayordomía involves a male-female pair of mayordomos, usually but not always husband and wife, who organize and carry out rituals and festivities associated with the saint in their charge. Often the set of festivities extends over an entire year, with a concentrated period around the particular calendar day identified with the saint. In the Isthmus region, these celebrations are called velas and are elaborate celebrations lasting a week or more that involve processions, masses, food preparation and blessings, drinking, and dancing organized around neighborhoods and families. In addition to the cult celebrations of local saints, people in Zapotec communities also engage in ritual activities at times of change in the life cycle including birth, baptisms, marriage, and death. More recently, more secular celebrations such as individual birthdays, quinceaneras for 15-year-old girls, and school graduations have been incorporated into the ritual calendar and often have some of the same elements as traditional religious ceremonies associated with the saints—special food, drink, music, and dancing. All of these ritual occasions—religious or secular—involve dozens or hundreds of guests, cooking large meals, and entertaining. Those in attendance are linked by kinship as well as compadrazgo (often called ritual kinship) and form important social networks within and outside communities (Cohen, 1999; Peterson Royce, 1975; Rubin, 1997; Stephen, 1991).

Ritual space associated with the ceremonial occasions is segmented by age and gender. In both the velas of Juchitn and the mayordomias and other life cycle events such as marriages, funerals, and baptisms celebrated in the Central Valleys and northern and southern mountain regions, the division of labor is gendered, as is eating, drinking, and dancing. Exceptions to this may occur in celebrations of more secular rituals such as birthdays and graduations. In Juchitn, during velas, women eat, drink, and dance together. Men eat and drink together and sometimes dance with women. In the Central Valleys, men and women dance in pairs in formal dances, but all other activities in ritual space are segregated with men and women eating, drinking, and talking in separate groups.

During the pre-Lenten celebrations of carnaval in the Central Valleys, gendered ritual space is further complicated. In Teotitln del Valle, for one week in February, rotating households sponsor dancing for a troop of male dancers who are dressed as ghul, masked clown figures who are also prominent during the Dance of the Conquest. During this topsy-turvy ritual, about half of the hosting men are cross-dressed as women and wearing masks. The cross-dressers ask other men to dance and the men who are not cross-dressed ask women to dance. Within this ritual space of carnaval, the gendered order of "normal" ritual space is played with and partially inverted.

Pregnancy And Childbirth

Pregnancy And Childbirth

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