Urban Rarámuri Women. Gender Reconfigurations From Ethnicity

Receipt: April 7, 2021

Acceptance: June 9, 2021

Gender and Rarámuri ethnicity in the city of Chihuahua. Organization and participation of women in congregate settlements.

Marco Vinicio Morales Muñoz2020 Secretaría de Cultura - INAH - Escuela de Antropología e Historia del Norte de México (EAHNM), Mexico, 256 pp.

The book Género y etnicidad rarámuri en la ciudad de Chihuahua. Organización y participación de las mujeres en asentamientos congregados analyzes the sociocultural and gender transformations experienced by indigenous Rarámuri men and women who have settled in the city of Chihuahua in search of alternative livelihoods. From an ethnographic and culturally situated perspective, the author offers a comprehensive look at gender relations that are redefined in the urban context as part of processes strongly linked to ethnicity, inequality and subalternity. It is a hopeful book that puts at the center the creative responses of Rarámuri women and men to reconfigure their lives in spaces very different from those they have traditionally occupied in the Sierra Tarahumara and accounts for their enormous capacity to reproduce their identities and the cultural control of their institutions (Bonfil, 1987), despite the inequality, exclusions and systemic racism that characterize their relationship with the larger society and the State. The focus of the analysis are the cultural and material practices and representations of Rarámuri women in the different spheres that mark their daily life and their collective life in the city, highlighting their leading role in facing challenges and assuming new roles in the public space without ceasing to affirm their ethnic identity. Marco Morales combines in this book a political economy perspective, which emphasizes material transformations as the basis for the social reproduction of the Rarámuris in the city, with an approach to cultural meanings in the style of Pierre Bourdieu (1980), to highlight the way in which these social transformations force them to redefine the practical meaning of life from schemes of representation and action that adapt to the new circumstances, among which the reordering of gender relations stands out. When moving to the city for different reasons, the Rarámuri men and women face contexts radically different from their traditional ways of life in the Sierra Tarahumara and in their new habitat spaces -the urban congregate settlements- they redefine their forms of organization to ensure their material survival and they do so from their cultural grammars, that is, from their own habitus. The novelty is, undoubtedly, the identity force that allows them to reproduce themselves as urban Rarámuris, in which their worldview and cultural models play a fundamental role. From these grammars they construct new gender roles and the meanings of being a Rarámuri woman in the city.

The work of Marco Vinicio Morales contributes to a very prolific line of studies on urban indigenous women in Mexico and Latin America, works that have made visible the accumulation of violence and discrimination they face in the cities and their adaptive strategies. These studies have highlighted the politicization of identities as indigenous women and the use of a language of rights that strengthens their agency. In contrast to these studies, according to the author, in the Rarámuri case the changes in gender orders that place women in new roles cannot be dissociated from ethnicity. Marco Morales's meticulous work invites us to take a cautious look at the transformation of gender orders in order to understand them within their cultural logics and from there analyze their effects on the lives of women and domestic groups.

The book gathers a long term study carried out by the author in the Sierra Tarahumara, product of more than fifteen years of committed research with the indigenous peoples of the north of the country, which serves as a basis to establish the necessary contrasts to understand the reconfiguration of the Rarámuri gender orders in the city. The study shows the power of ethnography to approach the point of view of the actors from their context and to document processes of social transformation of great complexity. A further contribution of the book are the photographs taken by the author that illustrate the themes and reveal the richness and cultural distinctiveness of Rarámuri life in the city.

In the following I highlight what I consider to be the substantive contribution of the book and the parts that structure it in order to finally put his work in perspective.

The author affirms that Rarámuri social organization is characterized by a tendency towards horizontal relations in gender relations, by a principle of complementarity and relative autonomy and equality among its members, especially when compared to other indigenous groups in central and southern Mexico. He also points out that this horizontality does not escape the hegemonic male model, which means certain privileges for men. Social changes are motivating the readjustment of gender roles in urban spaces by putting women at the forefront, which has meant gaining power and prestige; however, this does not mean confronting hierarchies nor does it mean that they are committed to gender justice. This interpretation is in tension with liberal feminist perspectives that relate the agency of indigenous women to the questioning of patriarchal domination and the advancement of a discourse of rights. Are Rarámuri women agents of transformation or not; in what sense are they contributing or not to questioning male authority or renegotiating their place as women?

To contribute to Marco Morales' approach, I take up the reflections of Jane Collier and Sabba Mahmood on gender oppressions in non-liberal societies, which invite us to critically analyze women's agency and to situate them in their contexts. Jane Collier, in her book Del deber al deseo. Recreando familias en un pueblo andaluz (2009), questions the evolutionist interpretations linked to liberalism on the concept of personhood, which promoted the idea that modernity means moving towards more egalitarian gender relations in the face of customs considered backward in non-liberal societies and subject to the duty to be. Through dense ethnographic studies in rural societies in Spain and Mexico, Collier points out that modern subjectivities imply new gender subordinations under the cloak of rights and the discourse of equality, for which she appeals to look critically at the liberal feminist agenda applied as a yardstick. In a similar vein, Saba Mahmood, in her research on Muslim women in Cairo, considers that liberal feminist views to discuss women's autonomy prevent seeing the way in which non-liberal traditions have shaped the desire, affects and organization of many women's lives; and it is from those language and contexts that the changes that women themselves operate must be understood. She thus suggests considering "social agency not as synonymous with resistance to relations of domination but as a capacity for action that is enabled and recreated in historically specific relations of subordination" (Mahmood, 2008: 168).

These analytical frameworks seem to me suggestive and complementary for analyzing the type of subjectivity constructed by urban Rarámuri women and the concept of person involved in their social fabrics, to the extent that they help to emphasize the contextual meanings and life horizons linked to social practices, and not in previous definitions referring to a gender should be and its transformation.

Based on these references, in the following I take up Marco Morales' approach developed in this book. Specifically, the author analyzes the strategies of material and sociocultural reproduction of domestic groups in urban settlements in the city of Chihuahua, focusing on the differentiated responses of Rarámuri women and men to the new realities they face in the city. Through a dense ethnographic work, she documents the process of change and continuity of the Rarámuris and highlights the sense in which ethnic and gender identities are reconfigured, without neglecting to consider the daily plots of power in their relationship with the larger society and the State. I refer below to some of these particularities portrayed by Marco Morales throughout the four chapters that make up his book.

Urban settlements and the reconfiguration of generated social space: What do urban settlements mean for the sociocultural organization of the Rarámuris and gender relations? The settlements are housing spaces of the Rarámuri located in the periphery of the city of Chihuahua, built expressly by state actors for their better governance; they are the result of welfare policies that respond to logics of segregation, concentration and marginalization of the Rarámuri population. The spatial distribution, the architecture of the houses, the rules of operation of the settlements have been defined by the State, however, the Raramuris have managed to take possession of these spaces from their own cultural grammars to adapt them to their ways of life. Currently there are 17 settlements in the city of Chihuahua, among them the Oasis, the first settlement created in 1957, where Marco conducted his research as a priority. From these spaces he analyzes how domestic groups operate, their subsistence strategies and the way they reconstruct their ethnic and gender identities. He especially highlights three fields of action that translate the logics of complementarity and horizontality that structure gender relations and their transformations: the field of work, the sociopolitical organization of the settlements, and the ritual and festive dimension of the Rarámuris in the city.

1. The labor field is a key area for analyzing the social reproduction strategies of the domestic group in the urban space and the changes it involves in relation to life in the highlands: Thus, men earn their livelihood working in masonry, as laborers on cattle ranches and in planting, among other activities -which sometimes means being absent for months from their families- while women are usually employed in domestic work, selling handicrafts, or looking for korima -requesting help- in the streets of Chihuahua, together with their children. Here we observe a first labor differentiation marked by gender that contrasts with the activities carried out by the domestic group in the highlands, where men and women share the different agricultural tasks, animal care, domestic space care, etc. Now, women are forced to ensure the daily subsistence of their families and to face the risks of working in the street. By following the productive activities of men and women, Marco shows not only how they earn their income but also the weight of the stigma of being Rarámuri in their relations with mestizos, which is especially experienced by women. He also analyzes the distribution of domestic work in the settlements from a subsistence logic, and shows the increase in tasks and responsibilities assumed by women, who see their workloads increase.

2. Other fundamental spaces are the political organization and those linked to the festive and ritual life, which constitute spaces of Rarámuri life where women assume a more leading role than the one traditionally assigned to them in the highland communities, largely due to the absence of men and a certain passivity or lack of interest in participating in the public space. Marco documents the increased presence of women in the settlement's tasks by responding to the demand of state officials who require their participation in the school, in the health field and in the different social programs; they are the ones who go to the meetings, take care of cleaning the classrooms and meeting spaces, attend to the requirements of the schools, among other activities. This has opened up new spaces and knowledge for them as managers of the settlements and has broadened their competencies. But in a notorious way, women are assuming public functions of authority, occupying the main positions of Siriame/ Governor -traditional figure of the Rarámuri government- in the settlements, playing a central role in their administration, in the resolution of conflicts between neighbors and in the attention to diverse needs. Through vivid testimonies, observations and interviews, Marco conveys what this has meant for the women and how they have had to assume these responsibilities. Such is, for example, the testimony of Juana, the first Governor in the El Oasis settlement:

I asked to be second because I am a woman, because in the Tarahumara culture the man is always ahead and I do not want to be the first governor. I asked to be the second, because of the culture, true, because we always give more importance to men. So for that reason I asked to be the second. Before being governor I never thought that one day I would be one, that I would have that title; I do not feel I am governor, I simply feel I am a servant of the community. And maybe I am the one who moves more than the man, "but I do it to help you," I tell him. He relies on me, he doesn't decide anything unless he goes and consults me.

In her testimony, Juana reveals her willingness and commitment to assume tasks for the collective good without displacing male authority, for which she expresses respect. These processes of transformation undoubtedly affect gender hierarchies, especially if women are more trusted than men to assume positions of authority, but they do not seem to generate confrontational male opposition, or men feel threatened. The meanings of being an authority in the settlements and in the highlands appeal to similar principles: "a person who knows how to give advice, who knows how to speak", among other sensitive criteria that women must follow, to which are added other requirements imposed by urban life, such as the very fact of mediating in the relationship with state officials and being managers. In any case, positions do not seem to be a focus of gender dispute among the Rarámuris in the settlements, which contrasts widely with what has been recorded by studies in other contexts where indigenous women dispute access to positions, which usually generates tensions, threats and violence, especially when it comes to positions of representation and authority.

But in addition to public positions such as governors or committee members, women have entered to occupy spaces that traditionally they did not assume in the sierra, referring to ritual and festive practices central to the cosmovision and identity of the Rarámuris. This is especially true for Easter Week celebrations and winter religious festivities. Thus, women participate in the dances that they themselves organize and finance, as is the case of the dance of the matachines in the winter celebrations, a dance of great symbolic force now also under the organization and responsibility of women; something similar happens with the hoop and ball races, distinctive of the Rarámuris, in the city, where women also have a notable participation. This leads them to assume new roles and an important protagonism with economic consequences, of accumulation of prestige and especially of organization and personal enjoyment. With dense ethnographic accounts and testimonies, Marco Morales shows us the role of women in central spaces for the sociocultural reproduction of their lives as Rarámuris in the city and what it means for them to assume these roles. He shows, for example, that when women organize the hoop and ball races, they are also in charge of the bets, based on multicolored skirts that are arranged in a space as trophies, just as in the sierra, and they assume the commitment to see that the races are conducted on good terms; they have thus become cho’kéame, who give advice to the participants and have the responsibility to take care of the rituality of the races and to watch out for conflicts.

Notoriously, these processes highlight the agency of Rarámuri women, their greater visibility in the public space, as well as the control of ritual processes and practices. These are important changes that are redefining gender relations from the cultural grammars. What is notorious is that, by assuming new roles, women are updating the logics of complementarity between genders, making women visible without confronting men, while reproducing collective bonds. Their contribution in tasks so important for the social and cultural reproduction of the Rarámuri is made visible; however, as I have emphasized, this greater protagonism of women does not seem to generate tensions with their partners, who do not dispute the traditionally masculine spaces of power and seem to accept that it is women who assume these tasks. This does not mean that Rarámuri women do not face conflicts and gender violence from their partners, especially within the families and generally linked to alcohol consumption, as the author rightly points out.

The new gender roles assumed by women are bringing about important changes and positioning them in collective decision-making spaces and domestic groups vis-à-vis men and, to that extent, are generating new subjectivities as women who make decisions and act for the common good. It is to be expected that this, in the long run, will destabilize male hegemony and thus redefine the logics of complementarity in practice, without necessarily explicitly confronting male authority. We must be cautious with quick interpretations that do not show the complexity of the contexts and social interactions to reach conclusions that could be schematic and not do justice to the important achievements of the Rarámuri women in their living spaces, and in this their being women is fundamental, which cannot be separated from their being Rarámuri, as Marco Morales rightly points out.

In sum, we see in operation material logics and practices that transform gender relations from contexts marked by inequality, exclusions and racism, combined with strong identity grammars that offer the language to translate life alternatives. Urban settlements have not prevented the reproduction of Rarámuri life, despite the systemic and structural violence faced by these groups in their relationship with the majority society and the State. Marco Vinicio Morales Muñoz's book offers a dense ethnography to observe processes charged with social innovation, where indigenous women are the main actors, even if their horizons do not consider disputing male authority. Something similar seems to happen with men, who do not stand in the way of women either, but allow them to advance in their tasks and commitments. In terms of contrast, the cultural matrices that the Rarámuris activate and that allow them to reproduce their lives and maintain control of their institutions in a semi-autonomous manner come to light. Even in their condition of subalternity and marginalization, Rarámuri women assume a leading role to continue activating their culture and reproducing their social organization.

There will probably be changes with the new generations of young Rarámuris born in the city, and, in particular, women will see in the language of human rights another way to synthesize their collective and gender identities from their worldviews and in the face of the multiple forms of violence they face on a daily basis.

I conclude by inviting readers to read Marco Vinicio Morales' book, which is undoubtedly a reference for understanding such complex processes of social and gender change and reproduction of urban indigenous people and for advancing contemporary debates on gender and ethnicity.


Bonfil, Guillermo (1987). Deep Mexico. A civilization denied. Mexico: Grijalbo.

Bourdieu, Pierre (1980). The practical sense. Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit.

Collier, Jane (2009). From duty to desire. Recreating families in an Andalusian village. Mexico: ciesas, uam and Ibero.

Mahmood, Saba (2008). "Feminist theory and the docile social agent. Some reflections on the Islamic renaissance in Egypt," in Liliana Suarez-Navaz and R. Aida Hernandez (ed.), Decolonizing feminism. Theory and practices from the margins. Valencia: Cátedra, pp: 165-221.

María Teresa Sierra Camacho is a full professor-researcher at ciesas-Mexico City. Specialist in the field of legal and political anthropology, gender justice and legal pluralism. Founder of the Latin American Network of Legal Anthropology (relaju). Member of national and international networks in defense of the human rights of indigenous peoples, anti-racism and against gender violence. She has coordinated several collective research projects on topics related to the study of indigenous rights, gender justice and multiculturalization of the State. Her latest publications are Nuevos retos del pluralismo jurídico en América Latina (coordination, special issue of the journal Cahiers des Ameriques Latines 94, together with Rebecca Igreja), La justicia penal indígena (coord. together with Héctor Manuel Guzmán and Jeannette Velázquez), ubijus, 2019, and Pueblos indígenas y Estado en México. La disputa por la justicia y los derechos, ciesas, 2017, together with Santiago Bastos.

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