Q&A with Pink Gold author María L. Cruz-Torres on women, confianza, and labor solidarity in Mexico

The “shrimp ladies,” locally known as changueras in southern Sinaloa, Mexico, sell seafood in open-air markets, forming an extralegal but key part of the economy built around this “pink gold.” Over time, they struggled to evolve from marginalized peddlers to local icons depicted in popular culture, even as they continue to work at an open-air street market. In a new book, María L. Cruz-Torres delivers a rich, long-term ethnography of these women seafood traders in Mexico, documenting their resilience and resourcefulness, from their early conflicts with the city, state, and federal authorities and forming a union, to carving out a physical space for a seafood market, and even engaging in conflicts with the Mexican military. She argues that, amid intense economic competition, their success relies on group solidarity that creates interlocking networks of mutual trust, or confianza, that in turn enable them to cross social and political boundaries that would typically be closed to them.

We asked Dr. Cruz-Torres a few questions about her research in Sinaloa, how local and global forces impact the lives of these women, and how the networks of mutual trust, or confianza, that these women have built can inform organizing efforts and protections for women who perform labor. Pink Gold is available now wherever you buy books! Browse other anthropology titles here.

What were some of the challenges you encountered conducting long-term ethnographic fieldwork among women shrimp traders in Mazatlán, Mexico, which entailed establishing relations of mutual trust in a stressful field site in the state of Sinaloa?

I had many challenges while conducting this book’s fieldwork, which required establishing long-term relations of mutual trust or confianza with women shrimp traders. Gaining their trust was in itself a main challenge, because fieldwork is a collaborative process that depends a lot on the kinds of interactions and relations that you are able to build with the people you are working with. For fieldwork to be successful, one needs to be fully engaged and committed, which can’t happen without the necessary confianza. The women often looked at me closely as I passed their various tests. For example, as part of their social examinations, they observed how I dressed, used the formal forms of address, and accepted invitations in layered ways. Thus, gaining the women’s trust was a first step I took during fieldwork since I wanted to learn more about the various facets of their lives. Building mutual trust or confianza takes time and lots of patience since people also need to get to know you and understand your intentions. Women shrimp traders have been stigmatized because of the work they do and have previously been negatively portrayed in the media. So, of course they are very cautious and suspicious when people approach them to ask questions about their work. Many of the women believed that I was a journalist when I first approached them, and expressed to me that in the past journalists did not treat them very kindly. Some did not want to talk or evaded my questions. But once they understood that I wasn’t a journalist and that I was genuinely interested in learning more about their lives as shrimp traders, they opened up and invited me to go out with them to eat at restaurants or at their homes and to attend family events. Gaining women’s trust was also important in order to deal with the uncertainty and danger posed by the drug-related violence that characterized the region during most of my fieldwork. Once they got to know and trust me, women shrimp traders became very protective of me and would advise me to avoid certain communities and places until it was safe to go.

Your book tells an integrated narrative of the emergence of a commodity (seafood) that has both strong local and global social relations. How are these local and global networks often in conflict with each other, and how do tourism and sustainability complicate these networks?

Shrimp in Mexico is produced for local consumption but also for global markets. Shrimp is called “pink gold” in Mexico because it is a highly profitable commodity. Social relations are created during the various steps of the commodity chain linking producing communities with consumers in other Mexican states or other countries. Because of shrimp’s economic importance, there are tensions to satisfy its local and global demands. So, a main challenge is to ensure that there is enough shrimp to satisfy both demands, which sometimes put more pressure on the resource and local coastal and marine ecosystems. Moreover, because shrimp also has a valuable and unique cultural dimension, its commodification is often perceived to be at odds with its cultural value. Consuming shrimp is also an integral part of the tourist experience. Tourists come to Mazatlán and Southern Sinaloa to enjoy the beaches and striking sunsets but also to taste its traditional cuisine, which includes a great variety of shrimp-based dishes. Thus, the tourist industry also relies on shrimp for its own economic development. Sustainability is key to guaranteeing the future of the shrimp industry in Mexico and to ensuring that future generations can enjoy the many traditional dishes that are unique to the region. But the path to a sustainable shrimp industry has proven to be very challenging because of its high demand and the amount of profits its consumption generates. However, there are some ongoing efforts by the Mexican government and the private sector to make shrimp fishing a more sustainable activity. For example, there is much hope that by promoting and highlighting the value of artisanal shrimp fishing as a more sustainable alternative, people will better understand its significance and contribution to the livelihoods and overall wellbeing of local fishing communities.

What does it mean to you personally to be able to commit your research and scholarship to narrating resiliency and community power in Mexico, especially with regards to gender and the lives of women carving out their own authority and economic success?

There is much research in anthropology, especially in the Global South, that feeds the trope of the poor suffering woman. I think that what we need are refreshing new stories highlighting women’s own efforts and agency to empower themselves and advocate for their own wellbeing and that of their communities. As an anthropologist I am motivated to learn about and understand the many ways in which people struggle to build resilience and create communities despite the many threats and challenges they must confront daily. Committing time and effort to listen and analyze these women’s experiences made me more aware of how gender shapes the creation and access to livelihoods that are linked to the cultural significance and commodification of natural resources such as shrimp. In a way, I engage in developing the basis of the historicism of a neglected and unsung population too easily missed by facile disregard because of gender and class. I considered myself very lucky to have had an opportunity to get to know these women not only as informal workers but also just as women, mothers, sisters, wives, daughters, and historical figures. The women shrimp traders portrayed in this book had to deal with poverty, gender inequality, stigmatization, and violence, among many other issues. Their resilience and strength transformed them from ordinary and “invisible” street vendors into recognized workers and agents of the local and regional popular culture. Writing about these women also encouraged me to reflect on my own life growing up in a large extended family in which women have important economic and social roles. I dedicated this book to my mother because, like many of the women shrimp traders I met, one of her main aspirations was to see me and my sisters graduate with university degrees. Being a first-generation college student also allows me to appreciate the efforts these women make to encourage and support their children, who are also first generation, to pursue university degrees.

Because of the acts of courage changueras have shown in conflicts with city, state, and federal authorities (even the Mexican military), these women shrimp traders are celebrated in Mexican popular culture. What is one of your favorite moments of resistance that you encountered during your ethnographic research?

Women shrimp traders have a long tradition of practicing everyday acts of resistance. They are active agents who advocate for their own social justice in the midst of changing economic, political, and environmental processes. The sole fact that they have been able to continue operating their street market in Mazatlán is a clear example of their perseverance and resistance to the local and global forces of neoliberalism and capitalism. But my favorite act of resistance that they enacted while I was conducting fieldwork was the time when they organized a shrimp giveaway in order to regain the trust of their customers and increase their sales. This moment took place when a group of people became ill after eating shrimp and everyone assumed that the shrimp was contaminated. So, when people stopped eating and buying shrimp, their sales stalled dramatically, threatening their livelihoods and the wellbeing of their families. In order to protect their livelihoods, the women shrimp traders, together with a group of shrimp wholesalers and a local marisquero, or seafood chef, prepared and gave away traditional Sinaloan seafood dishes such as ceviche and cooked shrimp. To me, this event showed these women’s ability to spontaneously engage in collective action while leaving behind their personal differences and conflicts.

With an emerging labor movement happening globally in a variety of labor sectors, what lessons can the interlocking networks of mutual trust, or confianza, that these women have built teach us about unionizing and how issues of gender and labor specifically might inform other movements for women who perform labor?

Women shrimp traders began organizing informally for many years before their union was legally recognized. The confianza they built among themselves was the engine that powered their struggles for social justice and gender equity. With little formal support, women had no other options but to rely on themselves to carve their own path toward unionization. Sharing a common goal motivated the women to rely on and support each other. Their individual daily acts of resistance soon became a collective effort that allowed these women to contest local and national policies and regulations regarding the use and allocation of fishing resources and the use of urban public space. As women continued claiming their space and place within the regional economy and culture, they also continued expanding their social and economic networks beyond the confines of their street market. These networks fueled by confianza were crucial for many of them to achieve success as shrimp traders and to gain the legal recognition of their work. As the forces of globalization and neoliberalism continue pushing women toward informal livelihoods, it becomes more crucial for women to organize and demand better working conditions and social and economic benefits. The gendering of social movements, especially in the Global South, is not new, but rather is becoming a dynamic and defining characteristic of various and diverse groups of people seeking social justice to improve their daily lives.

This is, in fact, a crucial historical moment that is increasingly recognized by close ethnographic attention rather than by statistical representations only. It is my hope that this work contributes to that recognition.

María L. Cruz-Torres is an anthropologist and associate professor at Arizona State University’s School of Transborder Studies. She is a coeditor of Gender and Sustainability: Lessons from Asia and Latin America and the author of Lives of Dust and Water: An Anthropology of Change and Resistance in Northwestern Mexico.