As someone who closely follows issues related to gender and sexism, I would argue that we are far from having full equality here in the US. That being said, after traveling to our less-developed-neighbor Mexico, I came to appreciate the freedoms that we do have and the progress the civil rights and women’s movements have made for us.
Last year, I spent about two months volunteering with ProWorld in Oaxaca, Mexico. (Oaxaca is pronounced “Wa-haca.”) I chose to spend two days a week with a women’s group at a local learning center. The group, made up of about 12 girls ranging from age 14 to 23, was started by an inspiring college student named Betsy and aimed to give these young women a safe and supportive space.
Every Sunday, we would take a group field trip to a nearby village or market. The purpose was to learn about women in different walks of life while taking photos showing women in their daily roles and speak to them about their lives. One location we visited still stands out in my mind – Teotitlán del Valle. Teotitlán is a small village at the foothills of the Sierra Juárez mountains about 20 miles outside of the city ofOaxaca. Teotitlán is best known for its artisan weavers, who create the most beautiful handicrafts, rugs and textiles.
We made two stops in Teotitlán where we were able to sit down and talk with local women. First was the small shop and home of Maria and her family. Although Mexico is a patriarchal society that still celebrates machismo, we found that Maria’s household was more of a matriarchy – much like almost every household in Teotitlán. How did this happen?
“Many children in our village don’t know their fathers,” Maria explained (in Spanish.) “Many of the women here do a wonderful job of raising children on their own and supporting each other along the way.”
The women of Teotitlán have taken a potentially sad situation and turned it into an empowering one. No one would disagree that children and families benefit from the support of two parents, but that is not an option for some. Maria lives on the property with her two children, her sister, and her parents. Her father, a quiet man, spends his days weaving like many of the men in the village. Her mother, who only spoke the native indigenous language of the Zapotec people, spends her days cooking, cleaning and working with wool as well. She was stirring a large outdoor pot of tamales as we arrived.
Maria translated for us as her mother told us what it was like to see the younger generations grow up. She was proud to tell us about the accomplishments her family has made and about the growing opportunities for children in their village. Young people are traveling outside of thevillageofTeotitlánto get an education for the first time. These changes in this small Mexican village are indicative of the progress made for human rights over generations.
Our second stop of the day in Teotitlán was at La Vida Nueva, an all-female weaving cooperative. I was especially excited to learn about this community of women who support each other and their creativity. We learned about how women from all walks of life came together to support each other at the weaving co-op. Their beautiful rugs and tapestries represent the hardships that these women have overcome; their determination to make the best out of every situation really had an impact on me.
Our group had such a great time bonding and learning from each other and the people we encountered each week and I will never forget those girls. While volunteering in Mexico, it’s hard to see and understand the impact you are making. For those who are currently volunteering abroad, don’t give up! There are lessons to be learned and changes to be made in unexpected places. In the end, I realized the girls I volunteered with influenced and changed me more than I could have ever helped them.