[ Latin American Studies ]


Women, Fiestas, and Everyday Life in Central Mexico

By Maria Elisa Christie

A pioneering ethnography of a crucial, yet often undervalued, site of family and community building—the kitchen.



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6 x 9 | 334 pp.

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Throughout the world, the kitchen is the heart of family and community life. Yet, while everyone has a story to tell about their grandmother's kitchen, the myriad activities that go on in this usually female world are often devalued, and little scholarly attention has been paid to this crucial space in which family, gender, and community relations are forged and maintained. To give the kitchen the prominence and respect it merits, Maria Elisa Christie here offers a pioneering ethnography of kitchenspace in three central Mexican communities, Xochimilco, Ocotepec, and Tetecala.

Christie coined the term "kitchenspace" to encompass both the inside kitchen area in which everyday meals for the family are made and the larger outside cooking area in which elaborate meals for community fiestas are prepared by many women working together. She explores how both kinds of meal preparation create bonds among family and community members. In particular, she shows how women's work in preparing food for fiestas gives women status in their communities and creates social networks of reciprocal obligation. In a culture rigidly stratified by gender, Christie concludes, kitchenspace gives women a source of power and a place in which to transmit the traditions and beliefs of older generations through quasi-sacramental food rites.

  • Foreword by Mary Weismantel
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • A Taste of Three Places
  • Introduction
  • Points of Departure
  • Part One. Women of the Circle
  • Chapter One. Xochimilco: "Short on Days to Celebrate Our Fiestas"
  • Chapter Two. Ocotepec: "Not Letting the City Eat This Town Up"
  • Chapter Three. Tetecala: "Here Mangos Used to Be Like Gold"
  • Part Two. Kitchenspace Narratives
  • Chapter Four. Women of Tetecala: "You Have to Be Ingenious in the Kitchen!"
  • Chapter Five. Women of Xochimilco: "It Is Better for the Pots to Awaken Upside Down"
  • Chapter Six. Women of Ocotepec: "We Used to Have a Lot of Pigs"
  • Food for Thought
  • Notes
  • Glossary
  • Bibliography
  • Index

In the spring of 1986 I wandered into an alley in one of the traditional barrios of Xochimilco looking for a place to live. The acute housing shortage that followed the September 1985 earthquake in Mexico City—and the birth of my first son two months earlier—had made it difficult to find a reasonably priced rental, and I had been searching for months just outside the city. That day several women had congregated around a makeshift kitchen full of enormous clay and aluminum pots over firewood hearths on the side of the street or, more precisely, at the end of the main alley. They were enjoying the camaraderie, talking and laughing as they waited for the tamales to finish cooking, stirring the pots as needed. The celebration, which they called un ocho días (an eight days), marked the one-year anniversary of a man's death. Like the year before—and many to come—it involved neighbors, family, and extended kin sharing food and drink over an entire week. Moments after I arrived, a teenaged girl plucked my baby from my arms and I was welcomed into the barrio with a plate of tamales and a cup of atole (a hot corn drink).

Little did I know then how frequent ritual celebrations were in Xochimilco, always involving food. A relative newcomer to Mexico, I had been in the country for nearly a year; but my Spanish origin and years in Central America and the Caribbean did little to prepare me for the food and fiestas that I would find there. In my years of residence in the barrio, the sight of women cooking together outdoors—and the sound of fireworks announcing a parade or fiesta—formed part of the texture of everyday life. If not for the massive quantities and mouth-watering quality of the food, and the otherwise closed nature of the neighborhood, I might have come to take Xochimilco's elaborate fiestas for granted. Instead I thoroughly enjoyed the pleasure of joining in as a guest at the consumption stage of fiesta after fiesta for the next six years and on many recurring visits after that. When I returned in 2000 as a graduate student intent on carrying out a year of ethnographic fieldwork for my dissertation, I was committed to participating in earlier stages of the fiesta. I hoped to join the women preparing the food, something that proved much more difficult to achieve yet infinitely more rewarding.

Living in Xochimilco may have provided me with an exaggerated appreciation for the importance of food and women's role in community celebrations; but later, when my dissertation committee encouraged a comparative approach including two other sites, the focus on food preparation spaces proved to be a unique and fertile approach to exploring nature and society relations in central Mexico. It also allowed me to explore gendered spaces too often left out of such studies.

Despite the key role of women and food in community celebrations, however, it would be misleading to portray these as the only essential factors. For this reason, this book includes many "ingredients" that fall outside the parameters of kitchenspace. As with cuisine, each element is important in combination but irrelevant alone. I also present individuals and events as interrelated with others: I hope to make clear that women are members of households and communities, special events are part of the fabric of everyday life, and particular activities combine with others that give the ensemble meaning within their social and spatial contexts. When one family hosts a celebration, extended social networks in the community are activated to provide the necessary labor and resources for success and are strengthened in the process.


This book offers glimpses of women's lives and community celebrations in Xochimilco, Ocotepec, and Tetecala from the perspective of kitchenspace, a term I coined to describe my research site. For the purpose of this book, I define kitchenspace as the place where food is prepared, whether indoors or outdoors—usually a combination of the two. Kitchenspace is a privileged and gendered site of social and cultural reproduction, where society's relationship with nature is inscribed in the patterns of everyday life and ritual celebrations.

It became clear soon after initiating my fieldwork that "kitchen" or cocina—as used in Mexico as well as in the United States—was too narrow a term. The word "kitchen," defined as a "place with cooking facilities" (Webster's Ninth Collegiate Dictionary) or a "room or part of a room or building in which food is prepared and cooked" (Microsoft Word dictionary), and its contemporary connotations fail to incorporate the complexity and nature of the multiple spaces in which I found women preparing and cooking food. Describing the kitchen in an Andean village, Mary Weismantel (1998: 3) says that it is "the warmest and most central place in the Zumbaguan household, the heart of daily life." She puts "kitchen" in quotation marks to point out the inadequacy of the term in her study site.

When I asked women to draw maps of their kitchens, they sketched an "everyday" kitchen (la cocina de diario) and a fiesta, firewood, or "smoke" kitchen (la cocina de humo), one usually overlapping the other. Several referred to the partially indoor, everyday kitchen as the "heart of the home," while the fiesta kitchen—usually outdoors in the house-lot garden—was periodically transformed into a center for community participation when they hosted a special meal. With the only water source and the firewood hearth usually located outdoors, everyday cooking activities for the family spill over into the house-lot garden, just as during fiestas the community spills over into the otherwise private space of the home (Christie 2004). Kitchenspace is vital to maintaining traditional forms of women's organization. Gendered and embodied knowledge, including when and how to prepare certain foods, is selectively transmitted from one generation to the next along with the grandmother's mole (traditional sauce) recipe and many beliefs and rituals unique to kitchenspace.

For me, coming from a Western European tradition, the word cocina or "kitchen" brought to mind an indoor space with four walls and a roof. Yet the food preparation sites that I explored often had no walls at all; and even if they did, some of the kitchen work was nonetheless performed outdoors in the house-lot garden. I chuckled when Esmeralda, a young woman in Tetecala, complained aloud about not wanting to spend her life "dentro de estas cuatro paredes" (within these four walls) as she felt her family wanted her to do, because the space in which she prepared food all day long, day after day, had three walls and not four. While she clearly felt trapped by the social expectations that restricted her movement and options in life, the physical structure of her kitchen did not match her mental image and the social reality of a closed space.

The boundaries of kitchenspace are evidently defined by social activity and gendered relationships rather than by physical structures. Kitchenspace is to kitchen as gender is to sex—both are social constructions. My definition of kitchenspace is not dependent on any structure or cooking facility per se. Kitchenspace is created and maintained by the food preparation activity carried out by gendered subjects. In this sense, it provides a framework for the exploration of what Judith Butler (1990:25) calls the "performative" nature of gender. At the same time, the shifting boundaries and temporal nature of kitchenspace indicate that it too, like gender, is constituted by performances (see Peake and Valentine 2003: 107-108). I consider various aspects of the interaction with nature in this gendered space, where changing cultural identities are negotiated, re-created, and celebrated as "tradition" is continuously redefined.

Kitchenspaces are women's domain. Men sit down to be fed, eat, leave their dishes on the table, and go out to the street to drink and talk. Inside the home, kitchens are not community spaces. It is there that individual women assert control over their world. The kitchen is one of the few places where men listen to women. And so women tell their stories over and over, to each other, to their children, perhaps to themselves. Kitchenspace, including the spillover into the house-lot garden, is women's space or, more specifically, women's territory.


The initial question guiding my research was "How is nature in the everyday lives of ordinary women?" By this I mean how the natural environment plays a role in their lives in a larger sense, including a particular cosmovision and its celebration through ritual fiestas: the tamales that women make to celebrate the first ears of sweet corn at harvest time; the herbs, ornamentals, chickens, and pigs in women's courtyards; polluted rivers, canals, and fish; domesticated vegetables and "volunteer" plants that sprout in kitchen dump heaps. It encompasses anything that the women I worked with contemplated when they referred to "la naturaleza," including changes that they often experienced and lamented in kitchenspace.

In their book on cosmovision and the ritual identity of indigenous peoples in Mexico, Johanna Broda and Félix Báez-Jorge (2001: 16; my translation) define cosmovision as "the structured vision in which members of a community combine in a coherent manner their notions about the natural environment in which they live and the cosmos in which they situate human life." In my research communities, the symbolic reaffirmation of human dependency on nature is expressed in celebrations based on the agricultural calendar and careful observation of nature for centuries. Society's relationship with nature is mediated in part by the saints and other dead, who help bring rain to the fields for a bountiful harvest. Ritual foods are offered to the spirits on multiple occasions, including the extensive celebration for Días de los Muertos (Days of the Dead) in November, to help ensure their intercession with the forces of nature on behalf of the living.

The Place: Three Communities in Central Mexico

The focus of my inquiry is the perspectives and practices of ordinary women in Xochimilco, Ocotepec, and Tetecala, all semiurban communities with roots in prehispanic Nahuatl culture. Reflecting the diversity that characterizes Middle America in general and Mexico in particular (West, Augelli, et al. 1989), each of these sites is unique in terms of ethnicity, physical geography, and cultural traditions, while sharing many cultural traits characteristic of Mesoamerica. Located along the Neovolcanic axis in the Mesa Central of the Mexican Plateau, they share a once-fertile lacustrine environment. Xochimilco, the northernmost of my three sites, lies just south of Mexico City. Tetecala, the farthest south, is located in the adjoining state of Morelos near its borders with the states of Guerrero and Mexico. Ocotepec, just outside of Cuernavaca, the capital of Morelos, is located adjacent to the Chichinautzin nature reserve, approximately sixty kilometers from both Xochimilco and Tetecala. Traveling at least part of the distance on the Autopista del Sol (the toll road that connects the nation's capital with Acapulco), it takes approximately two hours to drive from one end of my sites to the other. An extensive network of buses, rutas, and colectivos (collective taxis or minivans) connects the three as well—with Cuernavaca and Mexico City as obligatory transfer points—and is the most common form of public transportation for residents of the region.

Given the changing and heterogeneous nature of Xochimilco, Ocotepec, and Tetecala, my references to them as "communities" throughout this work by no means imply a homogenous unit of people with identical interests or behaviors (Agrawal 1997; Gujit and Shah 1998). To the contrary: gender, generation, ethnicity, class, and other differences are important and are reflected in food preparation practices and spaces, among others. I have not found a better word than "community" to use here. I would prefer the word pueblo (village) to community and also use it on occasion, but it does not have an appropriate counterpart in English and indeed can have negative connotations in Spanish: gente de pueblo (village people) implies something like "hicks" in American English, reflecting the antirural bias existing in the United States as well as in Mexico. In addition, "village" brings up the specter of the anthropologists' idea of poor, "primitive" people with quaint customs that have not changed for centuries and the classic studies of Tepoztlán, Morelos, by Robert Redfield (1930) and Oscar Lewis (1960, 1963). My research communities are bound together by shared practices and history, including centuries of mestizaje (mixing of Spanish and indigenous elements) and the discrimination of rural and indigenous elements that has long characterized Mexico.

Despite the pervasive economic hardship in my region of work, I do not like to use the term "poverty" or "poor" to describe the communities or people who live there. Such a term seems to deny the resourcefulness that I observed. In the context of central Mexico, poverty is often defined by urban standards and carries an implicit condemnation of traditional culture as well as an assumption that anybody with sense should aspire to new technologies, rampant consumerism, and other components of "progress." By U.S. standards most of the people with whom I worked would be considered "poor," and indeed many of them considered themselves pobres (poor people), gente humilde (humble people), or simply trabajadores (workers). But they differed considerably in terms of resources (income or otherwise), which was always evident in kitchenspace. Significantly, however, all of them drew on rich extended family and community networks for support and had unshakable faith in their ability to survive in the future.

My sites are more representative of Latin America's increasingly urban society than are the tropical rainforests often targeted for environmental research and conservation by the international scientific community. Tropical biodiversity is concentrated in northern and southern Mexico, but the majority of the population historically has been concentrated in the central highland. Together with industrial and agricultural activities, this puts tremendous pressure on the natural environment. Research about people's relationship with nature in this region can provide insights into comparable Latin American contexts where indigenous and mestizo peoples face new challenges upon migrating to urban centers in search of a living. The growth of nearby cities—aptly called la mancha urbana (the urban stain) in Mexico—transforms their communities into suburbs, bedroom communities, or periurban areas (Ávila Sánchez 1997, 2005; Canabal Cristiani 2000; Losada et al. 1998; Rueda Hurtado 2001; Torres Lima 2000). In a world now over 50 percent urban—with Latin America in particular an overwhelmingly and increasingly urban society (Doolittle et al. 2002)—scholars and policymakers alike will have to grapple with new dimensions of human interaction with the natural environment. "Urban" populations in developing countries often retain many aspects and spaces of nonurban culture (WinklerPrins 2002), creating what scholars in Latin America have called la nueva ruralidad (the new rurality) (Ávila Sánchez 2005; Giarracca 2001).

Perhaps no category is as important in Xochimilco, Ocotepec, and Tetecala as whether a person is de aquí (from here). "Belonging" or not is a matter of significant tension and reflects some of the complexities and contradictions inherent in any notion of collective identity. In all three sites, belonging is defined to a great extent by the relationship to the land. In Xochimilco and Ocotepec it is reaffirmed through participation in community fiestas. People whose ancestors worked the land for generations under traditional land tenure systems (communal, ejido, chinampera) consider themselves and are considered by others to be members of the community. Whenever I interviewed people who were not born in Xochimilco, Ocotepec, or Tetecala, they would immediately clarify that they were not legitimate spokespersons. "No soy de aquí" (I am not from here), I heard many times over from people who had spent most of their life in the community in question. People who are "from here" make it clear to people who are not that their voices are not representative of local interests.

Particularly in relation to decisions over local land—exacerbated by the 1992 amendment to Article 27 of Mexico's Constitution that allowed for the sale of previously inalienable ejido (collective) land (Nuijten 2003)—locals deny "newcomers" the right to participate in community forums, regardless of how many years they may have lived in the town. Xochimilco and Ocotepec share a history of organized resistance to changes in land and water use resulting from the growth of the city—Mexico City or Cuernavaca, the capital of the state of Morelos (Canabal Cristiani et al. 1992; Rueda Hurtado 1998, 2001). The struggles of Tetecala, far from urban centers and surrounded by ex-haciendas and large expanses of private land devoted to agriculture, have been different. Producers large and small have suffered from economic restructuring and deteriorating market conditions. One person there said to me that mangos used to be like gold, whereas returns are so low now that most townspeople have had to abandon their orchards and fields.

Nonetheless, the three communities share an agricultural tradition with a diversity of expression. People in Xochimilco have been producing flowers, vegetables, and corn in raised-bed agriculture for over five hundred years; the chinampas are still the basis of the region's intensive agriculture (Crossley 1999; Ezcurra 1990; Rojas 1990) as well as cultural identity (Canabal Cristiani 1997). In contrast, Morelos, and especially the agricultural region surrounding Tetecala, has been known for its rice and sugarcane plantations since shortly after the arrival of the Spaniards in the sixteenth century. Its smallholder agriculture and campesino (agrarian) tradition gave rise to the national agrarian hero of the Mexican Revolution, Emiliano Zapata (Sarmiento Silva 1997; Warman 1976). Tetecala is considered to have had significant agriculture as early as 1594, and it was a market for the sale of locally grown sugarcane, banana, jicama, Mexican plum, watermelon, mamey (Pouteria sapota), corn, and beans by the late nineteenth century (Rangel Montoya 2000).

In each of my sites, multiple economic crises and disastrous agricultural policies of the type that have crippled much of the Mexican countryside have forced many people to abandon their land. The population pressure and urbanization in the first two sites have led to tremendous land speculation, from which many locals have been able to profit. Few people in Tetecala today can afford to make a living from the land unless they rent it out to foreign companies or plant cane for the nearby Bacardi plant in Zacatepec—an economic activity that is less common than before. Because of the rise in the price of land as well as the distance from large markets (centrales de abasto) and the collapse in agricultural prices, many people there have been reduced to hiring themselves out for low wages on their own land alongside cheaper labor from the south of Mexico. Surprisingly (and probably due to its history as a political center), Tetecala has a more urban character and identity, even though 80 percent of the economically active population in the municipality is involved in agriculture and animal husbandry, according to an internal report by the municipal government in 2001.

The geographic location of Xochimilco and Ocotepec, on the periphery of large urban centers, is important here. People's discourse in the first two communities upholds the values of their rural and indigenous roots even as they benefit from downplaying such roots in order to benefit from their relationship to the city and modernity. Townspeople's historical and ongoing resistance to the "theft" of their water and land by the neighboring city as well as, paradoxically, the benefits that they receive from its proximity help sustain their fiestas, which they view as a clear expression of who they are and who they are not. They complain that the city "is swallowing" them—and indeed housing is undoubtedly replacing agricultural lands and urban values are infiltrating their communities. Most people in Xochimilco and Ocotepec are able to stay there, however, thanks in part to the employment (however marginal) and markets provided by Mexico City and Cuernavaca.

Meanwhile Tetecala, though still the commercial and political center of its region and historically at the trade crossroads for merchants from the states of Morelos, Mexico, and Guerrero, is increasingly off the beaten path. It has lost most outside visitors to the Acapulco toll road, which bypasses the town and thus discourages people from visiting the springs and a historic resting place for the Empress Carlota, Tetecala's main tourist attractions. More importantly, now people rarely pass through on their way to the Grutas de Cacahuamilma and the popular silver-mining town of Taxco in nearby Guerrero, which were once reached by the old highway that goes through Tetecala.

The antiurban discourses of Xochimilco and Ocotepec reflect their location at the periphery of urban centers that have historically encroached on their lands and water. In contrast, Tetecala finds itself in the paradoxical position of being at the center of a region that is increasingly weakened by its peripheral relationship to important economic and demographic centers. Unlike the other two communities in my study, its agrarian identity is not buttressed by a contradictory relationship to a city that offers painful but patently beneficial economic alternatives to living off the land.

One woman from Tetecala called it a sad town (un pueblo triste). Indeed, unlike my other sites, which have increased opportunities despite the chaos of rapid growth, Tetecala seems to be a town in decline. Construction of a new university campus there was halted soon after it began, leaving a scar on the landscape, emblematic of the lack of options for young people; most of them leave town to seek opportunities elsewhere. In many ways, my research communities reflect the urban bias characteristic of national policies and the painful transition that Mexico is attempting in its aim to be a "modern" nation able to compete with others in an era of free trade.

Residents in each of my sites purchase the majority of their food. In all three, however, some people—primarily older men—still plant subsistence corn and beans and a little produce. A man in Ocotepec told me that planting your own corn today has more sentimental value than economic value. People grow corn for ritual use as well (as we will see in the harvest for the Niñopa in Xochimilco) and attach tremendous symbolic and emotional significance to their cornfield or milpa. Many people women in particular—raise animals for food, primarily as an economic strategy in preparation for a particular celebration. In all three sites, most people recognize and appreciate the taste of truly fresh food.

The changing nature of the population, particularly with rural to urban migration and migration to the United States, constantly redefines the boundaries of each of my communities. Sometimes, as in the case of Don Miguelito in Chapter One, rural migrants come to the city (Mexico City, Cuernavaca, or Tetecala) in search of work but end up as agricultural laborers in the semiurban periphery. The collective identity in each of my sites—to the extent that they have one—is based in part on marking the boundaries not only in relation to relative newcomers but in contrast to neighboring towns such as Tepepan in the case of Xochimilco, Ahuatepec in the case of Ocotepec, and Coatetelco in the case of Tetecala. In all three, this contrast with the "other" nearby community is often described in terms of culinary traditions, though it is based in part on historical conflicts over territory and natural resources.

For the purpose of my work and in relation to collective identity, the barrio (neighborhood) is more important than the town or pueblo. All of the collective food preparation activities for community celebrations that we explore in this book are linked to a particular barrio, not a town. Traditional barrios have their roots in the prehispanic calpulli (land of the clan), in which residents held land in common. These barrio-like units formed the basis for territorial organization and the extraction of tribute (tequitl). More importantly, the calpulli were of sacred origin and linked to the "gods called calpulteteo, whose intervention guaranteed the fertility of the land" (Rueda Hurtado 1998: 17). Not all of these barrios are traditional or based on a calpulli, but the mayordomos in barrios that are not (for the Santa Cruz celebration in Ocotepec and the Candelaria celebration in Tetecala) nonetheless use traditional forms of barrio organization in order to host the meal.

All three of my sites are prehispanic in origin, with names derived from Nahuatl. Xochimilco means "where flowers are sown" (from xochitl, "flower"; mil-li, "cultivated earth"; and co, "place"). Ocotepec means "hill of the pine tree" (cerro del ocote, from ocotl/ocote and tepetl/cerro), as illustrated by its prehispanic glyph. Tetecala means "place with many houses with stone vaults" (tete, "stone"; tecali, "house with vaults"; la or tla refers to a large quantity; or Tetekalla, from tete, plural of "stone"; kalli, "house"; tlan, a contraction meaning "abundant place").

The historical record shows that the Xochimilcas, one of the eight original Nahuatl groups to migrate from the mythical Aztlán to the Valley of Mexico, settled on the edges of Lake Tenochtitlan just after the collapse of the Toltec Empire in 1156 AD (Carlos Martínez Marín, cited in Maldonado Jiménez 2000: 244). From there, they spread to parts of Morelos beginning in 1300 and were one of three groups to settle in what is now Ocotepec. According to several accounts, the Tlahuicas—another of the eight groups from Aztlán—founded the first barrio in Ocotepec, which existed prior to the arrival of the Spaniards in the sixteenth century and is still known by its original name, Tlalnihuic, as well as its official Spanish name, La Candelaria (Maldonado Jiménez 2000; von Mentz de Boege 1995). A sixteenth-century map of the parish of Cuernavaca shows Ocotepec to be one league outside of the city.

First founded by the Xochimilcas during the Aztec Empire in the last five hundred years before the arrival of the Spaniards (Hernández Cortés 1999), Tetecala first appears on a 1583 map referring to the pueblos that compose part of the alcaldía mayor (district) of Cuernavaca (Oriak Villegas 1997). Vestiges of prehispanic human settlement from the Olmec, Chichimec, and Tlahuica period have been found in the region. Years after an earthquake destroyed the town, the current settlement of Tetecala was founded in 1680 by mestizo and mulatto immigrants from Guerrero, fleeing abuses at the hands of the Spaniards. Becoming a municipality in 1821, it was officially declared a city by the government and acquired its current name of Tetecala de la Reforma in 1873.

The populations of the three sites differ in size, among other things. Xochimilco is much larger than Ocotepec and Tetecala put together. For this reason, and due to the prior relationships that facilitated my research, I chose to focus on only one of its seventeen traditional barrios (though I follow its inhabitants' networks where they lead me). It is a barrio considered particularly traditional by locals, a place where people maintain their customs ("ahí guardan las costumbres"). I have kept the name of the barrio out of this book, just as I have changed people's names to respect confidentiality. All three communities show an increase in population in recent years, even as they lose local population to outmigration. Xochimilco's population of 369,787 in 2000 (INEGI 2000a) had risen from 332,314 five years earlier and 116,493 in 1970 (Secretaría de Industria y Comercio 1971). Those numbers refer to the population of the Xochimilco delegación (including the town proper and the smaller villages). Tetecala's official population count in 2000 was 6,917 (INEGI 2000b), up from 4,514 in 1970 (Secretaría de Industria y Comercio 1971).

Cuernavaca (whose numbers include Ocotepec) went from 160,804 in 1970 (Secretaría de Industria y Comercio 1971) to 338,706 in 2000 (INEGI 2000b). Ocotepec's official population count stood at 8,451 in 1995 (INEGI 1995). While city authorities today consider it to be a poblado (small community) and subunit of Cuernavaca, Ocotepec is a community on the outskirts of the city known for its elaborate Days of the Dead celebrations and other traditional fiestas. A sign on the outskirts of town indicates that Cuernavaca is two kilometers away by road, though the city has recently grown to the edge of Santa Cruz (Holy Cross), one of the barrios explored here.

Common elements in all three places include changes in land use and livelihoods, markets replacing fields as a source of food, and changing gender roles, particularly as more young men and women obtain higher education or take jobs away from home. Yet many food traditions persist, even when the details of their preparation have evolved over time. Older women play an essential role and take pride in preparing food for their families and communities. Corn and beans remain fundamental staples in these once rural towns, and firewood is still used in cooking, if only for tortillas and fiestas.

Xochimilco, Ocotepec, and Tetecala all have been urbanized to different degrees. Their relationship to city life has changed over time, with an increasing insertion of the population into the urban labor market, the arrival of wave after wave of migrants from poorer regions in Mexico and refugees from the smog and pace of Mexico City, and heightened crime related to drugs, poverty, and government corruption. Despite the differences among the three sites, stemming in part from their proximity to Mexico City and relationship to the land, population growth and urbanization combined with inheritance patterns have had visible impacts on the traditional kitchen in all three. Nevertheless, each retains many rural traditions and attitudes that are in part maintained and revitalized through the constant arrival of campesinos from other regions.

"!Aquí Es el Mole!"

Sense of place in Xochimilco, Ocotepec, and Tetecala—as in much of Mexico and indeed many parts of the world—is rooted in the flavors of culinary traditions that people associate with home—both pueblo and family. "!Aquí es el mole!" (Mole is the thing here!) people would inevitably respond with gusto when I asked that they "tell me about this place" (cuénteme de este lugar). Regardless of the multiple variations, including mole negro (black mole) from Oaxaca, mole poblano (from the state of Puebla), or the many red and green moles in my research communities, mole is believed to have originated in a convent in Puebla during the colonial era. It is traditionally served with guajolote (turkey) and tamales for weddings and other important celebrations, including key agricultural fiestas and rituals. It may also be served with chicken or pork.

Mole (from the Nahuatl word molli, meaning concoction) is a thick, rich sauce made from various chiles (usually including pasilla, ancho, and mulato but sometimes even guajillo chiles); bread and tortillas; chocolate or cacao beans; almonds, sesame, and other seeds; raisins; cloves, pepper, cumin, cinnamon; and many other ingredients. (See the mole recipes in Chapters Two and Six and others in Hernández Cortés 1999; ISSSTE 1985; and Kennedy 1986.)

Mole is considered the quintessential Mexican fiesta dish throughout the central and southern part of the country. Yet several young women told me that they do not know how to make mole, because their abuelita (grandmother) always managed to send them away from the hearth on some errand at a crucial point during the elaborate process. Often the elderly guardians of the family recipe only relinquish it when they are ready to give up their strategic position in kitchenspace. Despite some young women's complaints about being kept out of the kitchen, plenty of others groaned at the excessive amount of work that mole requires and swore they would never stir the huge mole pot again. Preparing traditional fiesta food in central Mexico is unquestionably an arduous task that many women today are not inclined to take on, although some consider it an honor.

Fiestas, Reciprocity Networks, and Ritual Kinship

Food is at the heart of ritual celebrations marking life-cycle and seasonal transitions in Mexico. Women prepare special dishes for community fiestas revolving around representations of religious figures, quinceañeras (celebrations of a girl's fifteenth birthday; see Chapter Three), family and community celebrations marking planting and harvest time, and more. Such celebrations depend on women's reciprocity networks for the various meals at their center and play a significant role in integrating different sectors of the population and forging or maintaining critical alliances within and beyond the community. They serve a social redistributive role; enhance the reputation of the host family, barrio, and community; and help maintain regional reciprocity networks. While the majority of people in each of my communities are Catholic, one of the relatively recent changes causing tension is the rise of evangelical groups, whose converts cease to participate in traditional celebrations. While this situation has led to violence in some rural communities in Mexico, in this region it has not done so, though some of the women I met expressed animosity, suspicion, fear, and sadness regarding the ensuing loss of traditions and changing alliances.

Hosting a fiesta is a serious commitment requiring extensive social networks for support. Both the ritual fiestas of folk Catholicism which dominate the countryside and the life-cycle fiestas allow hosts to expand their support network and alliances through the system of ritual kinship or compadrazgo (godparenting). Besides blood relatives, women's networks include comadres (co-godmothers). Initially associated with sharing the responsibility for raising a child, the system of compadrazgo is an institution adopted from Spain and the Catholic church in the sixteenth century. It has evolved into a system of long-lasting reciprocity upon which people draw for support for a variety of things, including the preparation and costs of a special meal.

The fiesta is the result of months or years of accumulating necessary resources. This can be done by planting crops or raising animals, stockpiling ingredients, saving money, and obtaining formal commitments from others to share in the labor and expense. The final period of intensive work extends over several days or even weeks and involves various tiers of meals in addition to the principal comida (meal) around which women's organization revolves. Women gather in the house-lot garden, sitting in a circle around a table or a sack of dried chiles, tamarind, or hibiscus flowers, exchanging stories, strategies, and jokes as they work. The mayordoma (hostess in charge) supervises all tasks carried out by the women, who come together to volunteer services through formal arrangements. Each one fulfills her comisión (prearranged task) with a solemn sense of duty; I was never allowed to join in just because extra hands were needed. Instead I was always directed to the mayordoma so that she could use me as she saw fit. The mayordoma has the final word when questions arise and is responsible for the meal that will bring honor or shame onto her household and community, depending on its success. At the same time, she may personally cook a less expensive and simpler meal for the women who have come to help prepare the fiesta food; indeed she is required by tradition to feed them—and any accompanying children—for as long as they are providing what must be seen as community service.

In Xochimilco, where not a day goes by without a collective celebration, fiestas clearly form part of everyday life. Yet even in places that do not have such a hectic rhythm of celebrations, fiestas mark the communal social life and require extensive organization and preparation throughout the year. In his book on public celebrations and popular culture in Mexico, William H. Beezley cites a 1977 survey reporting "5,083 civil and religious occasions throughout the year in which no more than nine days go by without a fiesta somewhere in Mexico" (Beezley et al. 1994: xiv). In a scene typical of the region, the members of a neighborhood council meet on the day after a celebration in Ocotepec to make plans for the following year, writing down specific commitments and names and reading aloud the names of those who contributed to the fiesta that has just concluded (Chapter Two). A meal called the recalentado (reheated), made of the previous day's leftovers, is a key component of the event in this town. Among other things, the list compiled that day notes who will be responsible for cooking meals for the musicians and other special guests the next year.

Food preparation for fiestas forms part of an elaborate and traditional cargo system. The cargo system in indigenous communities in Mexico and its relation with traditional fiestas and cosmovision have been amply studied, though scholars tend to focus on men's role in political and religious cargos (Aguirre Beltrán 1991; Broda 1971, 1982, 1988, 1991a, 1991b, 1993; Broda and Báez-Jorge 2001; Cancián 1976; Korsbaek 1996; Medina 1987; Neurath 2000; Padilla Pineda 2000; Sepúlveda y Herrera 1974; Villa Rojas 1947). Those undertaking women-centered research in traditional communities, however, bring attention to women's roles as cargo holders, as in Lynn Stephen's Zapotec Women (1991) and Christine Eber's study of women in highland Chiapas (1995). Catharine Good Eshelman's paper on ritual food in an indigenous community (2001b) in the state of Guerrero, Mexico, also looks at the key role that women play.

Beverly Chiñas (1973, 1993) focuses on the Isthmus Zapotec region in southern Mexico, which has important differences from my region of study, including the relatively egalitarian relationship between the sexes there and the lack of steady income from wages or salary in most households at the time of her research. Her discussion of ritual contributions to fiestas as a form of mutual aid and means of gaining status is similar to what I found in Xochimilco and Ocotepec, however, though less so in Tetecala:

Every ritual contribution, voluntary or otherwise, represents either the payment of ritual obligations or the prepayment toward ritual obligations the household anticipates at some future date, an on-going system in which a balance is never struck. But it is more than simple economic expediency which motivates people to make voluntary ritual contributions. Perhaps more importantly, contributions are a means of maintaining the household's status in the community. People who cooperate, who contribute as often as possible, even the poorest, will be spoken of as buena gente while households who refuse to participate or participate with reluctance will be ostracized. "No corresponde," Juanecos say of such persons. "When he dies, there will be no one to carry him to the cemetery." To Isthmus Zapotecs who value so highly the security of kinsmen and neighbors a worse fate would be difficult to imagine. (Chiñas 1973: 77)

Chiñas concludes that despite attacks on the fiesta system by members of the mestizo culture who saw it as "wasteful and senseless," hosting what she refers to as "public fiestas" (for the saints) was still an important means of gaining the highest respect in the community. Later (Chiñas 1987: 10) she went so far as to call women "the heart of Isthmus Zapotec ceremonial exchange" and noted that the wife was the major initiator and instigator of fiesta sponsorship in all but one case known to her, even though the cargo was held in the husband's name. Chiñas (1987) reported that women's contributions in money and labor were much greater than men's and had increased in recent decades while men's had decreased. In part because of men's waning enthusiasm and participation, Chiñas (1973: 79) predicted that the reciprocal relationships behind the fiesta system "would probably decline," which she thought would be "especially tragic for the women."

Sponsorship of religious fiestas is the result of a promesa (vow) by the hosts to the religious figure. When the celebration is for the neighborhood patron saint or other key figure such as the Niñopa in Xochimilco (Chapter One), however, such commitments are formalized in writing in community forums. Individuals often make their vow in a time of crisis when praying for a holy figure to intercede on behalf of a family member or in thanks for what they consider a miracle or special gift resulting from divine intervention. The fulfillment of the vow brings prestige to the fiesta hosts and provides opportunities for other community members to contribute regardless of their wealth (with labor in kitchenspace, for example) and gain favor as well. Such promesas and further reciprocal aspects of the fiestas link Xochimilco, Ocotepec, and Tetecala with other communities in their region as they exchange commitments in support of celebrations. While some mayordomos agree to prepare food for a large number of guests or even to host a religious figure for an entire year, others make smaller commitments and may receive a group of pilgrims from another community with food or provide tortillas, fireworks, or candles for an event. In Tetecala, for instance, a neighboring community traditionally contributes the giant papier-mâché statues called gigantonas for an annual parade (Chapter Three).

A family's prestige is on the line when it hosts a fiesta for a popular religious icon; the entire barrio is judged by the decorations, fireworks, and food. The men organize to clean the streets, hang colored lights and streamers, and sometimes even paint the outside of the neighborhood houses in preparation. The women from the host barrio and the social networks of the hostess come together to prepare the food. Given the importance of food in the ceremonial cycle and collective identity and the gendered nature of ritual space, it is important to study women's role in fiesta food preparation, including not only the mayordomas who take on formal responsibilities in this area but the gendered networks that provide support. As stated in different words by many of the women whose voices I present here, without women's knowledge, networks, and hard work, collective celebrations—both sacred fiestas centered on religious figures and life-cycle celebrations such as baptisms, weddings, and ceremonies for the dead—would not have the meaning or form that we encounter today and an important community space would be lost.


It is difficult to access either the semipublic space of the fiesta kitchen or the private space of the everyday kitchen on the more intimate terms required for ethnographic work. One senior researcher at the Morelos Institute of Culture warned me that it would be impossible, telling me that the "kitchen is the most reserved place of the home." Personal connections, recommendations, and introductions were critical to my success, as were my patience and persistence, though I certainly did not always get what I wanted. Throughout my fieldwork, I was plagued by the contradictory sense of powerlessness on one hand, given the obstacles I sometimes encountered, and disproportionate power on the other. I was acutely aware of my option to leave behind the difficult circumstances of so many of the women I met and return to the material comforts and relative security that they would never know.

Spending so much time with people in the trenches, so to speak, and writing a doctoral dissertation on the food preparation activity that took so much of their time and energy was a way of validating women's work and experience. Some women remarked to others with pride that our conversations were to become part of a university tesis. Nonetheless, the bottom line is that the women's lives became fodder for my work, while I only contributed my friendship, a pair of hands, a few photographs, and answers to their questions about myself and about other towns' fiestas. Out of a desire to "give back," I wrote my first article on this work in Spanish (Christie 2002) and shared it with them so they could see and show others that their stories were in print, a testament to the importance of their contributions.

With many women, I earned their confidence in part through my participation in laborious kitchenwork activities during fiesta preparations. Building relationships took time, even in Xochimilco, where some never forgave me for having moved out of the neighborhood years before to go to the United States; they were further upset after my return that I left frequently to visit other communities. In fact, the greatest difficulty about working in three different sites was not the logistics of travel—further complicated by my childcare needs—but people's jealousy and desire to claim me as their own. This situation reproduced itself within each community as well, where a close relationship with one woman or household sometimes precluded a relationship with another. Not being fully immersed in one site was a constant reminder of my power to leave and avoid fully committing to any one group.

Gender roles weighed heavily in my research and my relationship with the women in this study. Sharing time and spaces with them included balancing different roles and joining their families with my own for recreational activities. Having children facilitated my relationships in the field, although my responsibilities as a single parent impeded the immersion I wanted. Parenting duties were fully acceptable and understandable to my hosts, much more so than my intellectual aspirations. My sons were present even when they did not accompany me, because of their importance as an organizing principle and common cultural denominator. When I could not stay to eat after spending the day preparing food in one household, my inappropriate and untimely departure was acceptable only because I was leaving to pick my kids up from school and because women were able to send food along for them. Not having children in the cultural context of my research sites would have made my work more difficult. Not having a husband was not so uncommon, though on occasion it created suspicion that I sought to prevent early in my fieldwork by wearing a wedding ring bought at a pawnshop before I left Austin.

My fluency in Spanish together with my own ethnic and religious identity helped me to overcome barriers as well. Born in Seville, Spain, I speak Spanish as my native language, though my accent long ago blended into something closer to Mexican than anything else as a product of having lived in Mexico for years. In the communities where I worked—and indeed throughout Mexico I was usually called la güera—the Mexican term for light-skinned or blonde. While my father is American and I spent most of my school years in the United States, people identified me as Spanish and insisted on calling me la españolita (the diminutive makes this a term of endearment for a Spanish woman). Raised Catholic, I was comfortable with the expressions of faith that formed the context for most of the fiestas I was involved with. My experience in saying the rosary in Spanish—a practice I found painfully tedious as a child—turned out to be especially helpful.

Finally, I believe my willingness to learn from the women in my research communities as I blundered through tasks that fully revealed my incompetence helped people gain confidence in me or at least amuse themselves with my efforts. I laughed with them when they teased me about my lopsided tortillas and poorly wrapped tamales. When I helped make bean tamales for Palm Sunday in Ocotepec, the women giggled gleefully and told me that I was earning a degree in soaking corn husks.

My enthusiasm and interest in people's food customs and the pleasure with which I ate what they cooked facilitated friendly relations with both men and women. They were pleased and usually surprised that a person they identified as urban, educated, and of higher social status appreciated their food, including the blood sausage made from a freshly slaughtered pig. My early years in Mexico spent overcoming my vegetarianism at the hands of a carnivorous father-in-law from Michoacán—a state known for its excellent carnitas—paid off. Without a doubt, sharing a part of our lives and especially kitchenspace allowed us to get to know each other and overcome some of the distance separating us.

Writing This Book

Little did I know as I made the long drive back to Texas following my year of intensive fieldwork that the greatest challenges lay ahead. Indeed, they seemed to multiply as I attempted to organize my findings into a coherent text. I wanted to transmit the richness, complexity, and vibrancy of kitchenspace without contributing to essentialized notions of "the Third World Woman" (Mohanty 1984) with my own language of power and claims to knowledge. Over and over again I turned to feminist ethnographers such as Lila Abu-Lughod (1991, 1993) for ideas on how to "write women's lives" and write "against culture." My intent is to portray partial perspectives and situated knowledges grounded in women's embodied experiences in kitchenspace (see further discussion in the next chapter).

Like Abu-Lughod, Laura McClusky (2001), Ruth Behar (1993), and others, I settled on women's narratives and edited versions of my fieldnotes to tell women's stories, presenting them in a nonlinear fashion, offering fragments of time and space. I aim to communicate "the ethnographic present" (Hastrup 1990) while inviting my reader to question my interpretations and conclusions. Drawing on Carter Wilson, author of Crazy February: Death and Life in the Mayan Highlands of Mexico (1966), McClusky (2001: 14) says that "spirit, missing in traditional ethnographies, . . . is narrative ethnography's strength." This form of writing, which does not break a work into chapters with thematic titles such as "Religion" or "Kinship," she says, "can allow ethnographers greater room to describe the holistic nature of social systems by demonstrating how culture works" (2001: 19). Despite criticism to the contrary, McClusky (2001: 15) notes that "authors of ethnographic novels process and analyze their raw data, or field notes"; they "choose to include certain things, in certain ways, and they choose to exclude other things altogether."

The complete contents of my box of ethnographic notebooks, reflective journals, and typed transcripts of interviews and analysis of my participant-observation experience are certainly not included here. In addition to choosing which things to leave out, I did not observe or understand many elements, such as aspects of their lives that the people I interviewed chose not to share and occurrences that took place before and after my study. When I replayed the tapes of my interviews while writing this book, I was surprised to hear how much I missed the first time around and did not include in my neatly typed transcript: I focused on respondents' answers to my questions—however irrelevant these may have been—and ignored interesting "side comments" and sounds such as roosters crowing, trucks roaring by, or children yelling.

I would betray the honesty and vulnerability with which women shared their stories with me if I processed and reprocessed them to suit my ever-changing ideas. This narrative ethnography documents a moment of rapid social and environmental change, "frozen in time" but I hope alive, capable of transforming my reader and generating new interpretations in the future.

To avoid rendering people's expressions and experiences sterile despite taking them out of their sociocultural contexts and placing them in a two-dimensional treatise, this book includes key words, phrases, and even some monologues in the first person and in Spanish. I believe that this makes it more useful to Spanish speakers and Latin Americanists, while the accompanying English translations render it accessible to others. In addition to the geographically specific style and vocabulary of the Spanish used in my three sites—which readers from Spain and from other regions in Latin America or even Mexico may find foreign or grammatically incorrect—the language of kitchenspace includes many terms in mexicano (Nahuatl). My translations are not always literal but seek to communicate the sense of what was said. The Glossary clarifies commonly used words and terms.

Reading This Book

The following chapter describes various academic literatures that form the intellectual context for this book, including contributions from feminist scholarship that provide the conceptual framework. It introduces the three methodologies that I employed and my research questions. It also explains how preliminary fieldwork led to my focus on the gendered spaces of food preparation. Students, academics, and others interested in "the construction of knowledge" and the nuts and bolts of research within the parameters of university scholarship may find that chapter indispensable. Others with a more general interest in Latin America, Mexican cuisine, and kitchenspaces or women's lives and narratives may prefer to skip it entirely. Many of the methodological issues raised there are woven throughout the remainder of the book and addressed in the conclusions.

The nested scales of my inquiry begin with embodied and gendered subjects that are embedded in both household and community relations. The food preparation activity at the heart of household and community spaces is supported by, and in turn supports, extended social networks. The social and cultural aspects of production and reproduction in these social and physical spaces are geographically specific to the culture region of central Mexico. If we begin with the activity of food preparation, the order of these spaces starts at the center with the gendered subjects, then moves to the household, the community, and finally the region. Access (for outsiders such as the author and readers of this book), however, is exactly the reverse. For this reason, I introduce the reader to the semipublic spaces of the fiesta kitchen before entering the more intimate space of women's kitchen narratives.

The core of this book is divided into two main parts: one describes collective food preparation for particular celebrations; the other provides glimpses of everyday life and kitchenspace from the perspective of individual women. Both parts include a chapter for each of my three sites. The chapters in Part One are organized chronologically to reflect different stages of food preparation; I attempt to communicate their extended timeframe by using several entries for each celebration.

Food preparation activity may occur in the present, but fiestas are linked to the past through the long-term planning and preparation they require. They also represent the future: the celebrations often mark a new beginning and display people's faith in what the future will bring. The narratives in Part Two include much reminiscing about the past, an activity that seems inherent in the experience of kitchenspace in my region, where the ghosts or memories of people long gone crowd the tables they once shared with those still living. Together, Parts One and Two transmit a sense of place from women's perspectives and spaces.

A key difference between Part One and Part Two is methodological. The first part is drawn from my participant-observation experience, from the ethnographic journals that I took with me into the field every day, and from the typed or handwritten reflective essays that I wrote up every night. The second is based on unstructured and structured interviews (women's responses to my questionnaire), some of them recorded on tape. Part Two also includes descriptions of kitchenspaces based on my observations and some women's hand-drawn maps. The two parts share recurring characters: some of the women in Part One appear again in Part Two. The final chapter discusses some of the issues raised in Parts One and Two, including the dual and gendered nature of kitchenspace.

Portions of this book (including some of my photographs) have been published before in slightly different forms in the Journal of Latin American Geography (2002), Geographical Review (2004), and Gender, Place and Culture (2006). I thank the editors of these journals for granting me permission to reproduce them here. I have chosen not to provide date and place references every time I cite one of the women in my study, which would distract the reader and unnecessarily clutter the pages. Every quotation in Part One occurred on the date listed in the subhead of the section in question. Because each chapter in both parts is dedicated to one of my three sites, it is unnecessary to name the place. Women's narratives and monologues in the first person in Part Two are a compilation based partly on structured interviews and responses to my questionnaires but also on unstructured interviews and conversations that took place on repeated visits to women's homes between September 2000 and August 2001.

Some readers may prefer to focus on one community at a time, learning about Xochimilco's fiestas in Part One, for instance, and then immediately reading the Xochimilco section in Part Two to hear more from the women who live there. People particularly interested in folk traditions or fiestas might choose to read only Part One, while those exclusively interested in women's narratives and everyday lives may choose to read only Part Two; I suggest, however, that Parts One and Two complement and provide the context for each other.

My hope is that this book will bring attention to the contributions of women whose work and ingenuity in kitchenspace are generally taken for granted and thus rendered invisible. I think it is important to stress that they tend to be as overlooked in Mexico as in most other countries and certainly in the academic literature. During my fieldwork I was invited to present my research on several occasions at the national university (UNAM) and the Universidad Autónoma del Estado de Morelos (UAEM). Discussions following each presentation revealed that students from Mexico City and Cuernavaca were for the most part oblivious to the magnitude of the fiestas in their neighboring communities (Xochimilco and Ocotepec, respectively). Those who were aware of the fiestas, including students from the communities in question, sometimes confessed that they had not given a second thought to the women preparing the food. One professor told me that he originally thought I was attracted to "the exotic" in Mexico but came to realize that I was shining a light on an important aspect of Mexican culture that people take for granted and scholars ignore. While my focus is certainly geographically specific, I would venture to suggest that a study of kitchenspaces anywhere—including our own homes and communities—would also reveal significant but understudied aspects of culture, gender, and nature/society relations.

During my fieldwork I often marveled at the absurdity of my attempt to capture the essence of place and experience in a little spiral notebook or my micro-cassette recorder. Despite my inadequacies in this sense, I hope that the following pages provide readers with some idea of the flavors, smells, sounds, and images of kitchenspace in Xochimilco, Ocotepec, and Tetecala. If readers find the text a bit chaotic but full of life, it will begin to approximate the experience of being there.

Maria Elisa Christie is Program Director for Women in International Development at Virginia Tech's Office of International Research, Education, and Development.

"This book makes an important addition to the emerging feminist literature on culinary labour.... Christie has conveyed an invaluable perspective on society, ecology and even cosmology through the words of hardworking Mexican women."
Journal of Latin American Studies

"This beautifully written book focuses on women's experiences in kitchenspace, an understudied social space in Mexico and throughout the world. Turning the pages of the book, I felt as if I were savoring a creation. . . . The book documents the creative ways in which women deal with poverty and tears in family and community bonds in the context of migration and globalization. Like artists, the women in this book use objects and symbols to tell us to pay attention to the role of food in social life; their words and experiences have the effect of reminding us of important understandings we have mislaid or forgotten."
—Christine Eber, Associate Professor of Anthropology, New Mexico State University