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MEXICO CITY - Once a week after school, a group of girls from well-to-do Mexican families troops to a meticulously kept house in the south of the capital for a class in how to become the perfect wife.

Girls aged 13 to 18 sit eagerly through lessons in cooking, sewing, ironing, dressing, folding napkins, serving a formal dinner and adding feminine flourishes to a home, like a posy of flowers in the bathroom or initials embroidered on the towels.

Such skills, according to teacher Tota Topete, risk becoming a lost art as Mexico's young women join a global trend of focusing on careers rather than housekeeping.

"Now all women want to go out to work, but working an eight-hour day when one is a wife or a mother is just not possible," Topete, a vivacious and impeccably groomed 60-year-old, said after one of her evening classes.

"It means neglecting one's husband. He could start looking elsewhere for affection and that could mean divorce," she warned.

In Mexico, one in three women works outside the home, up from one in five in the 1970s and not including the millions working illegally as domestic helpers or selling street food.

As macho attitudes about women working and Catholic ideals on large families are eroded, women are also having fewer babies.

And yet for the millions of Mexican women eking out a living in grim city slums or dusty rural villages, running a household is more of a hard slog on a tight budget than an art.

In poor communities, girls are whisked out of school at age 10 or 11 to help around the house. They marry young and embark on a lifetime of cooking and cleaning, many also having to put up with philandering husbands.


But a world away, highlighted hair and trendy clothes labeling them as part of Mexico's small but disproportionately wealthy upper class, Topete's wide-eyed students fire off questions as they watch her mix a carrot cake batter.

"It's important to know all this before you get married. We don't learn it at school," says Jimena Ramirez, 17, who hopes to marry at age 24, once she's completed studies in marketing.

Meanwhile Topete, resplendent in pearls, satin blouse and scarlet apron, has whisked the class from kitchen to dining room for tips on how to serve up and clear away a dinner.

"You must never, ever scrape the plates in front of your guests -- and never pile the plates up with food squashed between them," she says, rolling her eyes with horror.

Her well-manicured disciples study from folders with sections on everything from etiquette and flower arranging to dress sense and color coordination. Students pore over color charts to decide which tones best suit their complexions.

A photograph of Britain's Queen Elizabeth is used as an example of a woman who wears enough jewelry to impress -- but never too much.

"If you are going to see a boy, go dressed in the color that suits you best. Brush your hair. Think earrings, think necklace. You must be well presented," Topete says.

"Not depilating your armpits or legs makes for a horrible sight. And if you wear sandals, please look after your feet."

Toward the end of the year-long course Topete broaches the subject of sex -- a major topic in separate classes she runs for married women whose relationships need sparkling up.

"Sex is a big problem today. The stress of living and working in a big city can inhibit libido," she said.

"I tell them they must do it -- and with passion, even if that means taking a siesta before their husband comes home."


Topete is battling a trend in developed countries where women spending more time in the office than at home. Scare statistics abound showing skills like cooking and child-care dying out as working women relegate such tasks to maids and nannies.

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