Gender roles in Totonac culture within coffee production. The case of Zongozotla

Received: January 25, 2018

Acceptance: April 2, 2018


In this study we analyze the gender roles assumed by some men and women of Totonac origin who are dedicated to the cultivation of coffee in the municipality of Zongozotla, in the Sierra Norte of the state of Puebla, to see what traditional practices are still observed and evidence those values and beliefs that have been modernized. We used the participant observation technique, we conducted fifteen interviews with Totonaco-speaking women accompanied by their husbands. We interpret our results from a gender perspective, but respecting the indigenous worldview of the interviewees. We find traditional patterns of behavior and some elements that force us to rethink gender from the perspective of original people.

Keywords: , , , ,

Totonaco Gender Roles in Coffee Production: Zongozotla

The study analyzes gender roles that certain Totonaco-origin men and women who raise coffee in the Zongozotla municipal jurisdiction, in Puebla's Sierra Norte, take on, as a means of seeing which traditional practices are still being observed as well as to shed light on values and beliefs that have modernized. To reach our goal, we used the participant observation technique and undertook fifteen interviews with Totonaco-speaking women, in the company of their husbands. We interpret the outcomes from a gender-based perspective while respecting indigenous worldviews of all interviewees, women and men alike. We discovered traditional behavior patterns and certain elements that oblige us to re-think gender from first peoples' perspectives.

Key words: gender, Totonaco, first peoples, coffee, worldviews.


TO Throughout the development of society, people learned, through the process of socialization, how to behave according to whether they were men or women. This differentiation includes norms of behavior, attitudes, values, tasks, among other things. However, historically the masculine has been privileged over the feminine.

Sex / gender systems have been the broadest object of study to understand and explain female subordination and male domination. The category of gender recognizes a dimension of social inequality, different from the economic dimension, from class theories and social stratification (De Barbieri, 1993).

Postcolonial feminism states that particular situations must be studied in order to provide explanations based on contextualized specificities (Brunet and Pizzi, 2011). There is no single way of being a man or a woman, since their activities, their limitations and their possibilities vary from one culture to another (Lamas, 1986). We could not analyze gender without contextualizing it in a specific time, in a specific place and in a given society, because its characteristics are established by cultural guidelines, norms, values, and the gender division of work established by each society. (Alberti, 1999).

Due to the above, since the seventies, and with greater intensity in the eighties, studies were carried out incorporating the category of gender in order to describe how relationships between men and women are constructed and conceptualized within the value systems and beliefs of ethnic groups (Sánchez and Goldsmith, 2000).

In native peoples, tradition and modernity are two constants that interact permanently. Modernity can be interpreted as a purely relative concept whose meaning lies in being the opposite of "tradition", or, more exactly, "non-tradition." Modernity is understood as an external factor that would affect traditional native cultures (Pitrach and Gemma, 2012).

In this way, indigenous women and men value elements of modernity, acquiring some and rejecting others. Belonging to an ethnic group defines gender; women are included in an ethnic group and from their symbolic referents they understand others, the world and themselves (Alberti, 1999).

In this study we analyze the gender roles assumed by some men and women of Totonac origin who are dedicated to the cultivation of coffee in a municipality of the Sierra Norte of the state of Puebla, to see what traditional practices are still observed and evidence those values and beliefs that have been modernized, as well as the factors that are modifying them.

Methods and techniques of investigation

The field work took place in the first semester of 2016, within the framework of the days of outreach with the community of the Intercultural University of the State of Puebla (uiep) in the town of Zongozotla. The brigade was made up of the students of the uiep Ambrosio Juárez Esteban, Alejandra Vázquez Guzmán, Alfredo Bautista Juárez and Luz Yaneth Esteban Cruz, all of them bilingual (Totonac and Spanish speakers) under the direction of Dr. Luis Roberto Canto. The data were collected through the participant observation technique. A total of fifteen interviews were conducted with women in the Totonac language. The transcription and translation of these interviews were carried out by Luz Yaneth Esteban, a language and culture student.

The age range of these women ranged from 40 to 50 years. The testimonies were taken by following the women to their places of work. Many of them allowed us to repeat the route that they follow day by day.

The narratives of the women were interpreted from the gender perspective considering their worldview, their history and their national, community and family traditions. The gender category is suitable for analyzing and understanding the feminine condition and the situation of women, and it is also suitable for observing the masculine condition and the vital situation of men. That is, gender allows us to understand any social subject whose construction is based on the social significance of their sexed body with the burden of duties and prohibitions assigned to live, and on vital specialization through sexuality (Lagarde, 1996).

Regarding the geographical context, the municipality of Zongozotla borders to the north with Zapotitlán de Méndez and Camocautla, to the east with Zapotitlán de Méndez and Huitzilan de Serdán, to the south with Cuautempan and to the west with Tepango de Rodríguez and Teptzintla (Encyclopedia of Municipalities and Delegations of Mexico, 2018). It is one of the 217 municipalities in Puebla, a territory where coffee is mainly grown and harvested. This area is cold 365 days a year. The slopes of the mountains, and the mountains themselves, are "the parador" of the crops. Peaches, corn and beans are also produced. Its main economic activity is agriculture (Encyclopedia of Municipalities and Delegations of Mexico, 2018). The streams of the Zempoala River also cross this municipality. The cold is more intense during the winter and rains are common in the municipality for a good part of the year, especially from August. The streets of the community are variable, as some are downhill and others on very high slopes. During the rains, the Zempoala River, which crosses several municipalities in Totonacapan, usually rises.

According to the National Council for Evaluation and Development Policy (coneval, 2010), the total population of this municipality is made up of 2,258 men (49%) and 2,341 women (51%), and only 721 people speak Totonac (16%). Of its population, 56.5% lives in conditions of moderate poverty, while 29.9% is in a situation of extreme poverty, and 11.6% is vulnerable due to social deprivation. Regarding schooling, the average grade of the population aged 15 years or more in the municipality of Zongozotla was 5.9 in 2010, compared to the average grade of schooling of 8 in the state (coneval, 2010).

On average, the size of the households is 4.5 members (coneval, 2010). In 2010, the percentage of individuals who reported living in homes with poor quality materials and insufficient space was 23.4% (1 019 people) (coneval, 2010). In our anthropological field work, we realized that houses in general have been able to have a concrete ceiling and floor thanks to the “dignified floor” and “dignified roof” programs of the Puebla government in the last seven years, but there is still much to do .

Life passes there with few shocks, almost everyone knows each other in the community. The municipal presidency has a loudspeaker from where announcements or calls are given in the native language of the place: Tutunaku, and also in Spanish.

Part of the life of the inhabitants passes in the community square because it is the main socialization niche, the different generations of the population of Zongozotla go there for different reasons (one of them is the internet signal that allows them to young people enter "cyberspace" with their cell phones). The church groups Catholics, however, there is also a plurality of Christian beliefs. Cultural performances are common in schools and in the main square.

Men and women. Daily routine

As observed, in field work, men go ahead of women everywhere, leaving the woman behind them on the path that they repeat both back and forth. This fact was perceptible wherever we saw the women.

The only way to know beyond what was observed in the field diary is to complement it with interviews with the informants. The women interviewed generally agreed that "the man must go ahead to open the way, that is his place, so we protect ourselves."

What the women did not tell us in the interviews is that of all the dangers that men have to overcome when opening their way, the most common is the presence of poisonous snakes, such as the nauyaca and the coral, for whose poison there is no close treatment except in the hospitals of Puebla.

A woman who identified herself as Dona Mary1 She was found walking with her husband near the exit of the municipality where the fresh water spring is located next to the river. The woman was intercepted on the road; At the moment we asked her if we could do an interview with her. Before answering, she looked at her husband, who lowered his head, shaking his hat downwards and then upwards as a sign of approval.

She, like the other women, answered us the following: "We walk alongside our man, because he is the sustenance of our home."

Doña Mary, like the other women located on the banks of the river, was collecting firewood to carry on her shoulders, because mules and donkeys cannot enter this difficult terrain, and she indicated:

Without the man the family does not work ... that's why I get up early to heat the coffee, and the table is left with hot bread, beans and a little scrambled egg ... that's what the dawn of each day is like for us.

In our research we observed that the work of the field begins very early in the morning; women should stand up long before the sun rises and men wake up, as coffee must be ready with the first meal.

Women have a role in the production of coffee, since they not only accompany their husbands, but also help them to till the humid soil and to deposit in it the seed that will germinate and produce product after a while. Women work alongside men, they do not leave all the work to them; Indeed, just as they carry the firewood on their backs, they also do it. In the same way that they take the plow and the machete to till the forest land, they carry out the same thing.

Women perceive that most of the work falls on the man, who in a traditional way within this town of Totonacapan has the role of providing and protecting the home. However, in our field work it was observed that women also participate in field tasks together with men, who certainly does most of the work, but not all. Women don't see all of this as a burden; they consider it as part of their collaboration in favor of the family. In addition to this, women are more focused on raising children and also on housework. They, therefore, must assume various roles that have to alternate.

Children tend to grow up watching their parents work the land, but when they are young they leave home for various reasons. Two of the women indicated that their sons and daughters no longer live with them:

They grew up… they left, they forgot their roots, they live in the city because they are already professionals, one is a doctor, and the other two are engineers… my two daughters got involved with married men and have already formed their families.

Longing is a feeling that can be seen in the testimonies of these women, who look down and then lose their eyes in the sky. They know that their daughters and sons have already left, that they formed a family and that they even forgot their roots.

Migration is a very common human phenomenon in all societies, it is often related to the departure of daughters and sons towards new horizons, which almost always have to do with finding job opportunities that are not available within the community. With longing, the man and the woman, high up the mountain, claimed to be the legal owners of said land. One woman stated:

Our children here played when you grew coffee and peaches with your brothers, their toys were branches, firewood and farm implements, they all wanted to be like their mother and father, but school changed all this. They studied and left, it is the law of life.

It is for this reason that, at present, schools are viewed with some suspicion by some of the women interviewed, since with the study many of their daughters and sons changed their mentality and saw the countryside and rural life with contempt, preferring the western along with the fashion. The bond that exists in the family is diluted with distance, and over time the visits of the daughters and the sons to the parents are lost.

Another phenomenon that is observed when children leave the town of origin is the forgetfulness of the original language, as seen in the testimonies of two women interviewed:

They have already forgotten to speak like their grandparents, as well as us in our language.
They no longer speak to their mother in our language, they even say “mother” to us. My son went to the “gringolandias” (United States).

Migration, according to some of the stories, always takes the daughters and sons to the capital of Puebla or to the capital of the country. Those who did not study or do not have land or the opportunity to receive it by inheritance leave the country and go to the United States to seek other opportunities and do not have legal documents to prove their stay in the neighboring country. In this regard, one of our interviewees said the following:

I no longer remember his face much ... I look a lot at his old photo of when I was a boy to remember him ... my son is good and heaven take care of him ... I don't know much about him, I know that he is alive because a little money arrives that he has not stopped sending me ... he increases it on May 10 ... so I know he's alive ... I don't know what kind of dangers my child faces ... but I know he is doing well because I educated him with a lot of discipline to form a good man as with his other brothers.

During the interviews, the men continued to work but kept an eye on their wives, and sometimes intervened in the interview, not to interrupt it but rather to prop up the women's story. Eye contact, as we could see, is very important between them. At the end, the women leaned on the ground to gird their foreheads with a braided noose that helped them go downhill with all the firewood they carried on their backs. The men also carried a similar load, plus farm implements.

All our interviews ended in more or less the same way: returning home with the firewood, with the body fatigued because of the agricultural work that begins as soon as the sun shows its first rays of dawn. Also the return home begins when the Astro Rey is placed completely above the sky. A break is normal, and then lunch comes.

Violence at home

Between men and women, within affective relationships, there are always difficulties. In this sense, women, in their role as wives, often have to be the support for their husbands, who sometimes cause problems inside and outside the house.

Six of the women interviewed explicitly reported experiencing violence in their homes by their husbands when they were intoxicated. They do not complain and remain silent, and do not dare to denounce them to avoid the gossip of the people; therefore, the violence that occurred in the home does not usually reach the knowledge of the corresponding authorities in Zongozotla. A woman who was located at the bottom of the mountain said something very revealing:

The husband does hit us, slaps us or hits us with his hat, but if we denounce him he can go to jail, and if he goes to jail he loses the livelihood of our family, what will we do without our man? Sometimes he has another woman, and we know it, but we better not say anything because he can also reprimand us ... we do not lose our place as the legitimate woman before others ... the other is the other and we are the happiness on the altar before the eyes of God as ultimate judge.

This interviewee indicated that this type of problem is solved within the family so that it does not take on other dimensions. In other words, the woman's brothers and the father of the woman speak with the husband to ask him not to behave like this with her and to treat him more cordially. The man usually assimilates this and changes his behavior, until again the "water from the cane vineyard" meets his palate and the violent actions are repeated.

The man does exert violence towards his partner, but he also protects her, since he usually goes ahead. Men are the ones who face the dangers that nature hides, such as snakes and thieves, and with machetes around their waists they go ahead on the road to face them.

Men are in charge of disciplining their children, and in fights, they indicated, they have "hot blood", since they are always ready to respond aggressively to an intruder or invasion; especially when alcohol is with them.

The women interviewed say that, among men, force is usually an important resource to say "who is the boss", and it is also vital to choose a partner:

How much firewood they lift, how much they can carry, and what they can do ... that determines many things for us ... and also for those who have a relationship on par with our men ... the children know each other and they know it, but they say nothing so as not to increase neither our sorrow nor his. The man will not be judged by us. (Lantla xlilhuwa sakkgoy xtasakgnikan, lantla xlilhuwa kukanankgoy, chu tuku tuku katsini tlaway ... lhuwa kinkalimasiyaniyan ... chu nachuna ukxilhkgoy wantiku xakgatlikgoy kilakchixkuwinkan ... lalakgapaskgoy Kamanin katsikgoy kaxman chu pi nitu wankgoy xpalakata or nakinkamakgalipuwankgoyan chu or nalipuwankgoy. Neither akxniku ktilichuwinaw chixku).

We have to point out that between translation and translation from one language to another an important fact could be noticed. The word judge refers, in Spanish, to issue a sentence. But in tutunaku there is no equivalence as such, the only thing that is said is that they cannot say, from the mouth out, anything that evaluates the behavior of man.

It is worth mentioning that this testimony is also revealing since it shows that the women of this community expect men to be strong, an obvious symbol of masculinity, and this will give the man a certain status before other women.

On the other hand, we also asked ourselves if women exercised violence against their partners. After talking with a woman on the banks of the river and away from the presence of the man, we captured very interesting information that can help us understand that women do apply violence, but in a different way.

The violence exercised by women, according to the testimony of three of the interviewees, is a revenge for what they suffer, but they asked that this information not be recorded, so we took field notes to rescue part of what they said.

The women indicated that sometimes the food is poorly cooked on purpose, to upset the man's stomach, or they hide their things to make him angry and waste his time. Another resource is to spoil the clothes or some other object that is to the taste of the man. According to the testimony of one of our interviewees, men's alcoholism also offers them another possibility:

When men are drunk they don't know what's going on around them, so we call them insults… we also pull their hair or hit them in the face… and the next day they think this is because of the hangover.

From the foregoing, the idea that there is a whole series of events that involve violence between both parties can be deduced. One man stated that violence “is the spice of a relationship… it gives it flavor” (Wa xli maskgokgenat uyma talakxtumit… maxki liskamat).

The difference in the exercise of violence between men and women is that some of them also exercise violence, but they do it differently, silently and inadvertently.


According to our results, we find different elements that must be recovered from a gender perspective. At the same time, we will try to analyze them from a vision that respects the Totonac indigenous worldview; As Díaz (2014) mentions, spinning the categories of ethnicity and gender seeks to reveal the symbolic context of the particularities and processes of indigenous construction and significance, in addition to reviewing their significance for both women and men (Díaz, 2014) .

The role of man in Zongozotla remains the traditional one, as he is considered provider and protector of the home and family. The stronger he is, the more man he is. A present fact in the community is the alcoholism of men, "because when they are drunk they do not know what is going on around them." This is a factor that contributes to the exercise of violence against women and a constant in indigenous communities (Valladares, 2007).

One of the actions against violence is that the brothers and the father of the woman make the husband see his bad behavior so that he can correct it. This confirms that the patriarchy system is still in force. Man is also violent in fights, in the face of intruders and dangers, especially under the influence of alcohol.

However, in the exercise of Totonac masculinity, in this original town the man risks his physical integrity (Ministry of Health, 2006), but for the well-being of his family. They are leading the way not to denigrate women but to face the dangers of going into the mountains.

For her part, the woman remains generally submissive, requires the approval and accompaniment of the husband wherever he goes. Household chores correspond to women, this coincides with various investigations that have been carried out in other coffee-growing regions (Cárcamo et al., 2010). Our interviewees interpret their work at home as a positive contribution to their proper functioning. The man has to work to support the household and the woman has to cook for him so that he can be fed to the fields.

The participation of women in coffee production is an issue that is scarcely explored in Mexico (Vargas, 2007). The women of Zongozotla do not visualize their participation in the production of coffee as such, but they also till the land and sow along with their husbands, and have an active participation in the work of the fields; They have been present there since ancient times, and not only as companions, but also as wives and mothers, because the entire family participates in the production process.

Now, we observe that women have to play different roles throughout each day, and they will repeat this routine throughout their lives, accepting the changes that time imposes on them. A role that they will only leave because of widowhood is that of being wives, since that of mothers they will have it all the time until the children migrate to another place in search of work or with the hope of a better life.

Migration impacts not only those people who stayed in their towns but also those who left (Klein and Vázquez, 2013). The perception of some of the mothers about their migrant daughters and sons is interesting, they feel that they have already forgotten their roots.

Another factor that influences the change in behavior of daughters and sons is education, since customs that come from outside are valued more; not only do they leave the countryside, but they forget their families and they also put aside their native language.

Indeed, other research has confirmed that the main factors that influence new youth identities are migration, education and the media (Gavilánez and Pilaguano, 2015).

Regarding the violence exerted by their husbands, the women do not denounce them to avoid being in the comments of the people. Silence in the face of violence is a common practice in many Totonacapan communities, as has been documented in other studies; In the Sierra Norte de Puebla, the generic and family model gives the head the authority to “discipline” the other members of the family, physically punishing them when they do not comply with the obligations of service and obedience assigned by the model, so that beatings are seen as a legitimate prerogative of fathers and husbands (González, 2009).

Some women stated that if the husband goes to jail, the family's livelihood is lost. Infidelities are forgiven in order to maintain the family, as long as the man guarantees the sustenance of the home and remains strong, women seem not to mind “sharing” with their husbands if they are the legitimate wives.

On the other hand, some of the women interviewed also exert violence against men, apparently as revenge for the mistreatment they received. They make bad food, hide things to make them angry or even beat them taking advantage of them when they are drunk to pull their hair or hit them in the face. Apparently, the violent practices of women respond to difficult contexts, and are often the result of recurrent gender violence in the family (Beltrán, 2012).


In this research we analyze the gender roles assumed by some men and women of Totonac origin who are dedicated to growing coffee in the municipality of Zongozotla, Puebla, to see what traditional practices are still being observed and evidence those values and beliefs that have been modernized , as well as the factors that are modifying them. We observe that Totonac women and men who are engaged in coffee production adopt different gender roles. The cultural thing takes on vital importance within the roles that each sex is expected to fulfill, so that both men and women, as they grow up, know what they have to do.

The man continues to preserve the role of provider and protector of the home. It is interesting to analyze the perception of the strength of men by women. That force is what attracts them, but at the same time it is what subjects them to the blows of their husbands when they are under the influence of alcohol. In this regard, we do not envision any action on the part of the respective authorities or civil society to address the high consumption of alcohol that exists in the Totonacapan communities, so it is recommended to address this public health problem.

Another phenomenon that needs to be eradicated is the exercise of violence against women, which apparently in this case is directly related to alcohol, since the women declared that their husbands only beat them when they were drunk. An interesting fact to note is that men walk in front of women for one reason: to protect them from the dangers of the mountains; They do it because women are very important to them, so they must protect her from any threat. In this regard, they emphasized that this is what is expected of a man. This practice is different from the should be of Western thought, where both walk side by side facing the same dangers at the same time.

On the other hand, the woman represents submission. She takes on the role of mother, wife, domestic worker and farmer in her daily life. Her participation in the coffee production is active despite the fact that she herself minimizes her performance.

The women of Zongozotla suffer violence from their husbands, but it is a secret. The social burden imposed on women is significant: they are not reported because they fear the judgment of the community and the loss of the family. Some of the women have created means of revenge against their husbands, confirming that violence creates more violence. The means to execute it are different, almost imperceptible, "silent". We consider that these nuances should be taken into account when evaluating cultural patterns. The question arises: are daughters and sons also touched by a system of violence conceived within the Totonac worldview?

We distinguish two factors that are modifying interactions within families, and of course gender relations: migration and education.

Based on these findings, we urge that further research be carried out to analyze and deepen the gender relations of people of indigenous origin and the factors that are modifying the ties.


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