Report from the Island of Women: #BringbacktheGoddess

Aug. 3, 2015

I’ve been living on Isla Mujeres for a month now and I’m feeling the presence of the Mayan goddess, Ixchel. Well, maybe that’s just wishful thinking. People love to think that God or the gods are a constant presence, but here on the island, it’s not hard to imagine. And while #Goddess may be now banned on Instagram, she is alive and well here on the Island of Women.

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When the Spaniards first arrived on this little island in the 1500s they noticed an abundance of images of women in the carvings and paintings. Being good Catholics, it never crossed their minds that they might be images of goddesses. They probably thought it was just Mayan porn. But, in reality, most of those images were of Ixchel, the Mayan jaguar goddess of fertility. She was also known as the goddess of medicine and midwifery.

That makes sense on a couple of levels. Islands often have feminine deities because they symbolize emergence from the sea, just like a baby emerging from her watery womb. There is a pantheon of goddesses across the seas that represent creation, from Huamea in Hawaii to Agemen in the Philippines, Rangda in Bali and Erzulie in Haiti.

We come from the water so it all makes sense in contrast to those land-locked nomads who butchered each other in the name of their male warrior gods. My favorite book to assign to my students is Riane Eisler’s The Chalice & the Blade: Our History, Our Future (1988). It’s a rereading of the history of the construction of God and how evidence shows that thousands of years of goddess worship was re-written by the image of God as male. At the peak of the Reagan Cold War she asked readers, what if the dominate icon of God was of a woman giving birth instead of a man being murdered on a cross.

To be fair, the Mayans were pretty patriarchal. Their kingdoms were ruled by patrilineal kings who often engaged in violent bloodsport, including human sacrifice, like heart extraction. (Ouch!) It’s believed that much of this was learned from their psychotic Azetec neighbors to the north, but once the idea of chopping people’s heads off to appease the gods becomes a fad, it’s gonna be hard to top that trend. Watch Mel Gibson’s 2006 film Apocalpypto for a fairly decent (if debated) portrayal of these fun times.

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But I don’t think anybody was sacrificed for Ixchel, even though she was viewed as a warrior goddess. On the south end of the island, Punta Sur, there was a Mayan temple dating back over 500 years. Unfortunately, in 1988, Hurricane Gilbert knocked it off it’s foundation and there is only the base left. But the area is still known as Ixchel’s hangout. It’s the eastern most point of Mexico, so pagans and sun worshiper’s go there at dawn to watch the first rays of sunshine touch the nation. But those aren’t the only people who go there.

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Because Ixchel is the Goddess of Fertility, Punta Sur is a popular place to conceive children. Legend has it that if even the most infertile of couples takes a stroll on that end of the island, they will be blessed with a baby. The best place to go is the “womb of Ixchel,” a little cave at the end of the point. And yes, I took Andrea there. But more aggressive baby-wanters don’t take any chances and just strait up do the mambo right there by her statue. There are plenty of stories of lovers caught buns-up, paying tribute to the goddess. That seems a bit risky as the iguanas, giant flying frigates and Israeli tourists might be a bit distracting. But some people are just committed. And when someone gets pregnant on the island, the common refrain is, “Blame Ixchel.”

I love uncovering the hidden goddess cultures of the human race. There is a direct connection between Ixchel, the Aztec goddess Toci, and the worship of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico. According to Mary Daly’s groundbreaking 1973 book, Beyond God the Father, when the Conquistadors came to Mexico pushing Catholicism, the locals asked “Where is your goddess?” Their replay was, “We don’t have a goddess but we have the Mother of God.” And that’s why you see more images of the Virgin in Mexico than you do of Jesus. There is an undying devotion to Nana Guadalupe, the holy mother.

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On our last bus trip from Morelia to Mexico City, we saw hundreds of cyclists on the highway. It wasn’t a fitness ride. They were all following icons of the Virgin.  At the basilica, you will see people who have crawled hundreds of miles on their knees on a pilgrimage to see the cloak of Juan Diego, emblazoned with the famous image of the Virgin Mary. I’ve seen it and as a committed agnostic, it’s humbling. It’s a moving reminder of the resonance of the goddess in the psyche of Latin America. It’s not the vengeful god of the Apocalypse, waving a Confederate flag, it’s a pregnant woman and author of kindness, forgiveness, and new life.

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There is such a fear of the sacred feminine in our male dominated world. I’ve written about the conspiracy of silence around breast feeding that is now cracking. The latest assault is by Instagram, where #Goddess has been banned because women were posting pictures of themselves nursing their children (#slut and #tits are still approved.) There’s plenty of porn on Instagram (Um, #Thotsbelike), but women nurturing their children is somehow offensive. But women are no longer silent to this stupid shit. #BringbacktheGoddess already had 5000 mentions on Instagram. (#Stopcensoringmotherhood has 6000 hashtags.) Instagram deserves to be publicly shamed for trying to shame women for being women instead of “hos.”

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I don’t know if there is a downside to all this fertility worship. It is not uncommon to see 12-year-old girls who are pregnant here. While this is pretty common everywhere, it may have a link to the early adulthood of islanders that Margaret Mead wrote about in Coming of Age in Samoa in 1928. Artist Paul Gauguin had three teenage brides while in Tahiti and Martinique in the 1890s who became the subjects of his most famous paintings. On Isla Mujeres, only grade school is paid for by the state. Most 13-year-olds are already working on fishing boats and planning their own entry into parenthood. So there is this great clash of cultures between competing ideas of motherhood and when it should happen.

One of my students this summer is studying local conceptions of fertility and the role that Ixchel plays in people’s lives. She’s finding that younger girls have lost the connection to Ixchel and are focussed on having C-section births which are now the norm in nearby Cancun. She’s also finding that the goddess has become more of a marketing tool to attract tourists instead of a deity. But she did mention asking a 14-year-old girl at a teen pregnancy meeting about Ixchel and the girl said, “Who is Ixchel?” To which another pregnant teen piped in, “Don’t you know why you’re pregnant?”

Motherhood is a sacred thing. On one hand it seems completely bizarre that things like birth and breastfeeding are met with such revulsion and censorship. Ask a teenage boy to pick up some tampons at the store and see how visceral the opposition will be. But when you look at the long campaign to vilify the sacred feminine as original sinners (“That bitch Eve was a ho!”), you can see the long history of the banishment of the Goddess. Hebrew texts banished Lilith from the Garden of Eden and Instagram has banished “goddess” from its hashtags. It’s all part of the same thing. Why do you need the sacred feminine when you have Caesarean Sections? But Ixchel is also the Goddess of Storms, so maybe she’ll have something to say about it.

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Isla Mujeres Field School Class of 2015!

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Gender Notes: A Short Note About Mexico

July 21, 2015

I’m loving my time in Mexico and we’re not even half-way through the adventure. Every day holds a dozen new sensations and the people are so generous here, it puts self-absorbed Americans to shame. Mexico is a complex country, existing in the high tech modern and almost feudal rural worlds at the same time. My feminist brain has noticed some deeply gendered realities, but I have to remind myself that it’s not just Mexico that can get caught in the past. I’m sure that rural Alabama is basically the same.

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I’m back with my family in Andrea’s grandmother’s town. It’s a little place called Puente de Ixtla in the state of Morelos, near Mexico City. The house is really a group of houses for the family. Andrea’s abuela lives in the house in front and some of her dozen children live in other houses on the property. It’s like a family compound known as a vecindad and it keeps the family close to each other. That means there’s a host of uncles that can help take care of grandma.

But in reality, it’s the uncle’s wives that do most of the work. In a classic gender division of labor, the women stay in the house cooking and cleaning constantly. As a guest, it’s wonderful to be the recipient of such hospitality. I can’t say no to all this amazing food, but when I helped Andrea wash the dishes, there were some laughs. What’s a man doing washing dishes?

This isn’t just a rural Mexican thing. Dorothy Smith wrote about this over forty years ago. Women are relegated to the domestic realm while men exist outside the house. Virginia Woolf wrote about it long before that. There’s really no reason for the woman here to leave the house except for an occasional trip to the market. There’s even a whole army of beeping trucks and honking bikes who will deliver everything from tortillas to propane to your door. The streets are filled with a barrage of these sounds on the lookout for housewives who will flag them down.

You could make the case that this system exists because it works. But who does it work for? Just like Betty Friedan addressed in The Feminine Mystique in 1963, these women are fully formed human beings, not domestic robots. Just maybe, at one point in their lives, they imagined themselves pursuing their own dreams and goals. Of course this way of life is so deeply rooted, being a “good wife” may be the only objective.

This gender dynamic played out last night. I got pulled in to a drinking contest with an uncle we will just refer to as Tio Diablo. I let my own macho desire to not be shown up get the better of me. I didn’t want to be the “American wimp” with this hard drinking lot (and I’m paying for it today). A group of us were sitting outside drinking 40s and Grandma, 84, was chugging the Coronas. One of the uncles’ kids is a beautiful 4-year-old girl and Grandma gave her a sip of her beer. I was a bit shocked but then she started just sharing the beer with this child who was enjoying it way too much. I asked the girl if she was OK and she just smiled. It was a case of bystander apathy. Later, I was angry at myself for not intervening right away. Children’s brain development can be seriously compromised by alcohol. What if grandma thinks it’s “cute” to give Cozy beer?

I don’t expect Andrea’s abuela to be up on the latest research on pediatric cognitive development, but there’s bigger issue at work. This girl is on a trajectory to be another housewife and if she loses a few brain cells, it shouldn’t interfere with her ability to get supper on the table. Added to it is an element of racism. Because this little girl has more of an indigenous Mexican look she is also devalued, as opposed to Cozy who is fawned over because she is so “white” looking.

I talked to Andrea about the beer thing and she talked to her mom and there was a little chat with Grandma. So I think the beer thing is dealt with. I did get an epic evil eye from her for bringing my Yankee values to her casa, but who cares, this little girl deserves every possible chance to do whatever she wants to in life.

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I’ve often lectured about how we can be ethnocentric when viewing other cultures, but sometimes it make sense. I have wonder what it would be like if a wave of feminist consciousness swept Puente de Ixtla like it did America fifty years ago. Men might have to start washing their own dishes! And maybe women would get dressed up and go out on the town for a bit of fun.

I don’t want this post to sound ungrateful for all the wonderful hospitality I’ve enjoyed here.  Andrea’s family is vibrant and hilarious, singing and laughing. It really is like a dream to be here. And Cozy Valentina loves all the attention. Family is so important. I just want everybody in the family to be fully valued.

Vivimos en dos mundos (We live in two worlds)

July 4, 2014

This is my first time blogging from another country. We arrived in Mexico two days ago so I could teach a research methods class on an island in the Caribbean. I’m not doing it for money, just to live on a tropical island for six weeks and get my Ernest Hemmingway on. Cozy will have her first birthday on Isla Mujeres and probably celebrate it by riding away on the back of a dolphin.

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But first we’ve come down to the city Andrea is from, Morelia, to spend time with her family. We’ve been here together before and I wonder if last time we were here, her mother imagined us returning with a child. I love seeing my wife in her native land, returning to the house she grew up in. And Cozy’s eyes are wide at all the new sites, sounds, smells, and flavors. While her dad and her uncle do shots of mescal, she watches kids play soccer in the alley.

We made a decision early on that our daughter would spend as much time in Mexico as possible. She is “bi-racial” and certainly, at least, bi-ethnic. On the 2010 U.S. Census, nearly 3% of the population identified themselves as being more than one race. The number of biracial children increased 50% from the 2000 census. While the white-supremacists I study see all this “race-mixing” as the end of the white race as we know it (a race that never actually existed until slave-traders invented it), most of us see it as a beautiful door that opens to more goodies. Postmodernists tell us that collision is production. You bigots can keep your chocolate and peanut butter separate, but give me my damn Reeces.

The line I’ve always heard from people (especially racists) is that bi-racial children suffer because their identity is somehow split in two. There was the famous 2009 case of the Louisiana judge, Justice Keith Bardwell, who refused to marry an interracial couple because of the harm it would do their future children. Tell that to Barrack Obama. There is no scientific evidence that shows that biracial kids have it harder because of their status. The only evidence of harm comes from the racists themselves who stigmatize such children as “half-breeds” (Cue Cher song.)

Most anti-miscegenation appeals are by racists who fear the blurring of racial boundaries. There has long been a fear of “mulattos” making it hard for whitey. Just watch the 1915 epic Birth of a Nation. “Is he black or is he white? Quick! Call the Klan! Stay in your racial box, boy!” But the other side is about the loss of culture. For example, the more Native Americans assimilate with American culture, the less of their own culture they have to hold on to. I went to a wedding on the Warm Springs reservation between members of two different tribes and there was an awareness that the children would be less than full-blooded members of any one tribe.

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Cozy isn’t half anything. She’s full on human. Like most of us, her parents bring different pieces of ethnic culture to her party. I’m far from 100% Czech and my Czech relatives were probably from Poland anyway. We’re all mutts to some degree. And we know that genetic diversity makes us stronger. I’d like to convince some inbred white supremacists who think the “white race” is going to disappear of this, but they’re too inbred to understand that it’s all just shades of flesh color.

Anyway, the point of this blog post (and this trip) is that we want our daughter to know the vibrant Mexican culture her mother comes from. When I grew up watching TV,  I thought Mexico was a big desert filled with banditos, siestas, and mice that ran really fast. The reality is much different. My wife had never even heard of Mexican jumping beans. And don’t go looking for burritos here. Huaraches y micheladas, si. I love Mexico and I want Cozy to know the real deal, not the fear of rapists and murderers that morons like Donald Trump spread. Or the reports of narcos chopping off people’s heads that pop up in the news and then end up on Breaking Bad.

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Mexico is a colorful land filled with endless music and food and generous people. (Can I please pay for something? You payed for the last ten things!) Sure, it’s had its recent struggles with corrupt police and narco syndicates who exist solely to feed America’s drug appetite, but there is also a beautiful resistance. Just watch the brilliant film Hecho en Mexico (now streaming on Netflix) to witness the true soul of this land, defiant to generations of colonizers. I want my daughter to know the vibrance of this spirit.

In many ways, Mexico is like los Estados Unidos. People are addicted to their smart phones and crappy TV shows. They just wear more Hollister gear and don’t believe in car seats. But they do have movies in 4-D. We just saw the new Terminator film and were, quite literally, blown up and down. (C’mon, USA, catch up!) And Mexico has its own issues with gender fairness just like us. But for every macho ranchero there is a budding feminist rapper, like Mare Advertencia Lirika, bubbling up from below the ground.

The big question for us is will baby Cozy get her ears pierced while she’s here. (It’s the culture, OK?) She will be baptized in a Catholic church in two weeks, which will give her something totally valid to rebel against later. 11356677_1464214720555714_304303057_n

How can anyone be less for sharing in two cultures? Our daughter will learn how to eat Velveeta from her white dad and make abuelita from her brown mom. Being from two worlds will give her options. How Latina does she feel today? Culottes or an escaramuza? She can travel widely as 450 million Earthlings speak Spanish. Summers in the Philippines or Costa Rica? The future looks a lot more like her mother than it does me. She will be a richer person because she is bi-racial and I’m excited for her to have both worlds to enjoy.

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But for now she is going to enjoy two weeks in Morelia being gushed over by her family here while I head off to Isla Mujeres to start my teaching job. When I rejoin her I’m sure she will be a little darker and a lot more spicy. My little Mexican jumping bean.