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Where Every Day is a Party

January 20, 2011

I was in Tehuantepec for less than 48 hours.  I didn’t know anyone when I arrived.  I got invited to 3 parties (fiestas), and I went to 2 of them. 

The women are funny, curious, confident and very friendly.  This is in striking contrast to the other parts of Mexico I’ve been to so far where women are quite shy with strangers.  In general they’re quiet and polite until they know you a bit.  But in Tehuantepec they wanted to know all about me – am I traveling alone, where I’m from, if I’m married, how many kids, what do I do, how old am I, etc.  Women at the parties and in the markets would call out to me Guera (pronounced where-a), which I take to mean Whitey. 

One of my Spanish teachers mentioned the towns of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec as interesting places to visit because of the people, but that there wasn’t must in the way of tourist attractions.  The towns he mentioned were Tehuantepec and Juchitan.  He said that the women were very strong and worked outside the home, and that the men worked in the fields and at home, taking care of house work and children.  The women are curious and friendly, and if they see a stranger will likely ask them what they’re up to.  It’s important that the women remain virgins until they’re married, and the town of Juchitan in particular is famous for openly gay cross dressing men who hold the important role as sexual partners for local men before they get married.  It’s not uncommon for older married women to have young lovers.

From Lonely Planet:  “The southern half of the 200km-wide Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Mexico’s narrow waist, form the eastern end of Oaxaca state….in 1496 the isthmus Zapotecs repulsed the Aztecs… and the isthmus never became part of the Aztec empire.  An independent spirit continues to pervade the region to this day.  If you stay around, you’ll encounter a lively, friendly populace, whose open and confident women take leading roles in business and government…..even though Tehuantepec is a friendly town, most travelers blow by here on the way to somewhere else. “

The women wear elaborately embroidered and brightly colored tunics called huipiles.  They are loose, made of thick fabric, and not figure flattering to anyone with a defined waist.  The women in general are quite stout……….as my aunt Lauren would say, they are “voluptuous”.    It’s refreshing to see women dressed up in pretty clothes though they don’t have girlish figures – no mom jeans here.  

There is a joke in Tehuantepec that goes something like: a circus comes to town.  There are acrobats, dwarfs, clowns, and the fattest woman in the world.  The people in Tehuantepec look at the “fattest women in the world” and laugh, and say no way, here is the fattest woman in the world.

There are several vendors selling huipiles and matching skirts in the upper level of the local market.  I went to check it out, and the ladies dressed me up as Tehuantepec Barbie.  Now you may be looking at this picture and thinking “Sariah looks like she ate a cow since the last time I saw her”.  I’m wearing jeans under the very thick velvet skirt, and a shirt under the very thick velvet huipil.  So ya, I’m eating really well in Mexico, but not that well.  The skirt and tunic are entirely hand embroidered and cost a small fortune.  The jewelry (necklace, bracelet and earrings) are made of gold coins.  I ended up buying a much more economical machine embroidered huipil.   

dressed up as Tehuantepec Barbie


These towns have many fiestas during the year.  Even during non-fiesta times, there seems to be an endless succession of fiestas anyways – smaller neighborhood ones.  I heard that the party for a wedding can last up to three weeks, and everyone in the neighborhood chips in to help with the preparations for everyone else’s parties by building shelters, cooking food etc.

The first party I went to was a “reconnocido de xhuana”.  The xhuanas of a neighborhood are a married couple who are “respectable and moral” and traditionally they act as judges or authority figures in the neighborhood.  The xhuanas change each year.  In January, each neighborhood church hosts an event where all the other xhuanas of the other neighborhoods come to the church and give money.  In exchange they are given one flower for each peso donated, and sweets, and every man and women greets each other.  The female xhuana of the church, along with the former xhuanas, counts the money and distributes the sweets and flowers. 

reconnocido de xhuana


counting the money donated by the other neighborhood xhuanas


The second night I want to a “Sentada del Nino Dios”, which means something like Baby Jesus Sits Down, hosted by Luz del Carmen.  This happens every January 14th.  There is a corresponding festival on December 24th where Baby Jesus Gets Up. 

Luz del Carmen’s street was closed, lined with plastic chairs filled mostly with men drinking beer.  The women and children were inside and I was ushered in and introduced to each lady.  The living room had bright pink walls and red velvet sofas.  There was a floor to ceiling nativity scene decorated with Christmas lights and a big lighted star.  The ceiling was hung with balloons and trailing moss.  We drank horchata (milky rice drink) and cookies.  

Baby Jesus and other dolls in Luz del Carmen’s house


A woman with her head covered by a lace shawl was the lead singer.  She sang several prayers, after which all the women and children responded by singing the answering prayer.  This lasted about half an hour, then a few little boys and girls – the god mothers and god fathers of Baby Jesus – were given the Baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph dolls to carry.  They lead us on a parade out into the street and around the surrounding blocks.  We all followed with tiny plastic whistles and confetti.  Everyone sang the Mexican version of Christmas Carols, someone spontaneously choosing one after the previous one finished.  When we got back to the house it was piñata time. 

piñata action


The street has a rope hung across it with a pulley that’s always there to receive piñatas.    There were 3 piñatas.  The first one was the target of the mainly chubby young boys……presumably chubby from gorging themselves on piñata candy every night.  The second was for the girls, and the third was a free-for-all.

hunting for the last of the piñata booty


This is Clara in the hot pink.  She demanded that “Guera” sit next to her.  She’s 66, has 12 children, and will celebrate 50 years of marriage in 2 years.  She asked how long I’d been married.  I fudged it a bit and told her 5 years (it’s actually 8) because I knew what was coming next – she wanted to know why I didn’t have kids yet.  I told her I would start very soon.  She complimented me on traveling alone, that it showed my husband and I have a lot of trust in one another.



If you’re like me, you dread going to a party where the only person you know is the hostess.  But I had no awkward moments of being a wallflower wishing I could drop through the floor and disappear.  Everyone was super friendly, and I didn’t get stuck listening to a blow-hard who likes to hear the sound of their own voice which is a fate even worse than being a wallflower.  After the final piñata scrum I said goodbye and promised to send Luz del Carmen some pictures.  She walked me the few blocks to get a taxi, and I couldn’t thank her enough or find the words to tell her how I lucky I felt to be the beneficiary of such warm hospitality.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. January 20, 2011 7:13 pm

    Hey Sariah, a culture that is as colourful as their wardrobe. I love that they are aloud to eat
    openly and take pride in being well nourished. Loving food and sharing it is an excellent basis for
    good hospitality. Please don’t waste any space to bring me home an outfit if your don’t mind!!! Lxo

  2. January 21, 2011 6:45 pm

    Hi Lauren…….absolutely, Mexican´s really love to eat and share food. I think you would find Oaxaca really interesting because of the high quality art, baskets, embroidery and carpets they make by hand throughout the province, and most (all?) of which can be bought in Oaxaca city. Really lovely stuff. The fact that I no longer have any space left over in my backpack stopped my from buying more. But I´ll definitely be back someday……, the list of places I need to go back to is getting out of hand.

  3. Marlene Tambre permalink
    January 29, 2011 7:31 pm

    Sariah, I have decided you are like me, you cannot pass up exotic or interesting fabric … any idea where you will wear your huipil? Maybe I can be at the same party and wear my Estonian Folkloric Headdress!


    • January 30, 2011 11:36 am

      Hi there! Hopefully I can wear the Huipil as something other than a Frida Kahlo halloween costume, but I really don’t know yet. Actually I’m pretty good at not buying lots of stuff……..having to carry everything on your back is a good deterrent. Hehe, that would be funny to have a party where everyone has to wear traditional clothing they bought on vacation.

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