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oaxaqueños y sus monumentos arqueológicos, contain 49 portraits of different racial types.  Of these five are of Pre-Columbian Zapotec rulers and 16 are of contemporary Zapotec types from Zaachila, Mitla and Tehuantepec.  Of these 16, 8 are portraits of Zapotec women from Tehuantepec; two from the “clase popular”, one from the “clase media” and five  “Tehuantepecanas de la clase superior”, burdened with jewellery and expensive embroidery.  Martínez saw the wealth and beauty of these “Tehuantepecanas” as proof of the survival of the aristocratic civilization of Zapotec Oaxaca:

“For Martínez…the Tehuana held out a different sort of hope for defining a Oaxacan identity that was neither  (in the language of the day) racially degenerate nor lacking in the all-important civilizational attributes of class stratification, sumptuary display, and wealth.  The Tehuana thus offered Martínez a means to imagine an indigenous, Oaxacan culture that was simultaneously autochthonous and aristocratic, while banishing the messy realities of the surrounding indigenous population to the realm of ethnological curiosities.”

During the 1920s, as we have already observed, Mexican intellectuals and politicians were keen to construct a indigenous basis for a common national identity, in the words of Manuel Gamio to “forge” a Mexican nation from the multiplicity of “patrias chicas” (from the Spanish iron and the Indian bronze). The Tehuana was particularly useful in this regard.  Already before the Revolution, the Zapotec Tehuana had become a symbol of Oaxacan regional identity, a subject for travellers’ fascination, and an example of an assertive patria chica.   Moreover, the markers of Tehuana identity were primarily cultural – dress, jewellery, dance (La Llorona and La Zandunga) – rather than racial.  Hence, for Mexico’s non-Indians in search of an Indian identity to imitate and to appropriate (without looking too folky or ridiculous!) the Tehuana was an ideal subject to imitate.

Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Portrait of Isabel Villaseñor


Tehuantepec’s assertive, economically independent even matriarchal women contrasted starkly with the subordinate position of women throughout much of the rest of Mexico (whether you look at Indian or non-Indian society).  In 1910 W E Carson wrote in Mexico Wonderland of the South that "Tehuantepec would be a blissful abiding place for the sufragettes".  Here was chance for the Revolution to leap to a stage of social evolution – the emancipation of women - which the Liberal revolution of the 19th century had not even addressed and which even 20th century revolutions often side-stepped.  Tehuana women were already liberated.

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