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focussed on the habit of public bathing and nudity and their skill in balancing large loads on their heads (carried in shapely pots or colourful gourds).  The load bearing requirement accounts for the erect posture and relative height of Tehuana women, contrasting with the stooped quality and smallness of Indian women elsewhere.  Height and erect posture also contributed to their matriarchal image.

Mathew Fossey, 1832:

“The first time….

Colonial and 19th century accounts comment on the rebelliousness and "insolence" of the isthmus Zapotecs; their unwillingness to submit to the Aztec, colonial or republican states. Oaxaca state governor and later Liberal President, Benito Juarez, faced in the indomitable Zapotec cacique, Che Gloria Meléndez, who dominated this area during the 1840s and 50s.  Porfirio Diaz’s brother, Oaxaca state governor Felix Diaz, was brutally assassinated and dismembered by Juchitecos in 1874, in revenge for his destruction of a religious image in Juchitan during the Reform wars.1  Diaz was only able to control the isthmus through a mistress and informant, Juana Cata Romero, whom he met while serving as military governor of Tehuantepec in 1859.  The epitome of matriarchal power and heavy drinking, Queen of Tehuantepec’s pool halls, Juana Cata Romero became the great cacique of the Isthmus until her death in 1915.  See Brasseur's description of her in 1864 and Miguel Covarrubias’s in Mexico South p.227:

Hence, long before the Revolution, the Isthmus of Tehuantepec was already firmly established as the exotic “other”; a dangerous, yet inviting kind of a place.  

It is hardly surprising, then, that when Mexican artists and intellectuals began look away from Europe and inwards for aesthetic stimulus and the roots of national identity, Tehuantepec was one place they could turn to.  Tehuantepec offered a variety of established stereotypes from which to draw: eroticism, tropicalism, Indianness of an approachable kind, female emancipation, defiantly

1 Distinguish between Juchitan and Tehuantepec. There is still much rivalry between the Juchitecos in Juchitan, where males were dominate the political (through not the economic) sphere, and are noted for their hostility to outsiders, and the Tehuanas in neighbouring Tehuantepec, where women rule, but were noted for their friendship to foreigners and strangers.

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