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Women and Alcohol in a Highland Maya Town

Women and Alcohol in a Highland Maya Town
Water of Hope, Water of Sorrow (Updated Edition)

Christine Eber looks at women and drinking in the community of San Pedro Chenalhó to address the issues of women’s identities, roles, relationships, and sources of power.

January 2000
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342 pages | 6 x 9 | 24 line drawings, 1 map |

This pioneering ethnography looks at women and drinking in the Highland Chiapas, Mexico, community of San Pedro Chenalhó to address the issues of women's identities, roles, relationships, and sources of power. In a new epilogue, Christine Eber describes how events of the last decade, including the Zapatista uprising, have strengthened women's resolve to gain greater control over their lives by controlling the effects of alcohol in the community.

  • List of Major Characters
  • Acknowledgments
  • On Translations and Aids to Reading This Book
  • Preface
  • 1. Frameworks and Methods
  • 2. The Time of Suffering: Pedranos, Ladinos, and Rum
  • 3. I Have Come: Crazy February
  • 4. Making One's Soul Arrive: Child Rearing and Household Relations
  • 5. "Before God's flowery face": The Feast of St. Peter
  • 6. "Now I am going like a branch and its leaves": Drinkers and Their Families
  • 7. Water of Hope, Water of Sorrow: A Processual Framework on Drinking
  • 8. "Beneath God's flowery hands and feet": Shamans' Cures for Problem Drinking
  • 9. "It's time to change": Mestizoization and Drinking
  • 10. "For ye are bought with a price": Traditions, Religions, and Drinking
  • 11. "Today we say: Enough!": New Voices, New Collective Action
  • 12. Conclusion
  • List of the Martyrs at Acteal
  • Epilogue
  • Appendices
    • A. Traditional Pedrano Gods
    • B. Non-Traditional Healing in Chenalhó
    • C. Brief History of Presbyterianism in Chenalhó
    • D. Revelation 21:3-8
  • Notes
  • Glossary
  • References
  • Index
  • Index of Major Characters

Christine Eber is Professor Emerita of Anthropology at New Mexico State University.




baby on her back,
small child pasted to her side,
ladles a bowl of cane liquor from her plastic bucket.

Every Sunday in a small town
she ladles for pesos.

Good Indian girls,
backs bent under sacks of corn,
step aside on trails.
Pass uncle, they say
and the man passes.

like Reina
sell chicha on the trails to town
and there's no stepping aside.
Enter uncle, they say
and the man enters.

At twenty-five
she has birthed two bastard babies,
mashed mountains of sugar cane
and hoed her father's fields
and every Sunday she ladles for pesos.

I knew her from the night her first son
dropped into candlelight.
Clutching the bed, instead of a husband, she was silent.
I nearly died,
she told me later.

I brought her tamales
a hat for the baby
and news from outside.

But the biggest news was Reina.

Did you hear the news about Reina?
Did you hear the news?
Did you hear?

It was the last day of a sacred fiesta.
Reina came outside with her children
to see the dusty saints squint in bright sun
and drink in incensed air.

How the mortals whispered
behind their woven shawls
and bowls of cane liquor.

Good Catechists
not wanting to cast the first stone
skipped little pebbles instead,

Did you hear the news about Reina?
Did you hear about Reina?
Did you hear?
Did you hear?
Did you?

Breasts swathing infant head
skirt sheltering her young child,
Reina heard only the saints,
It's time to change
It's time to change
dear Reina

It's time.

She buys a big metal pot,
12,000 pesos.
She will make a hot rice drink instead.
It's better, Reina tells me.

Now Reina
ladles up sweet rice
lulling the whispers within
and without her

every Sunday
in a small town.


I wrote "Reina" shortly after returning home from thirteen months of fieldwork in southern Mexico. I came back to a house full of reminders of a chapter in my life that preceded graduate school. There were all the drawings, stories, and an occasional poem that I had stuffed into closets and drawers while studying to be an anthropologist. In San Pedro Chenalhó, the Highland Chiapas township where I conducted fieldwork, the artist in me surfaced again, and I learned from this perspective as well as from a social science one.


"Reina" speaks specifically to my efforts to understand the contradiction between Indigenous women's strengths and their subservient position, a subject I turn to at many points in this book. Women's status, like drinking, provoked many conflicting feelings in myself and others with whom I have shared my research and writing. In Mexico one doesn't have to look hard to see how indigenous men and Ladinos (non-Indigenous Mexicans) dominate Indigenous women. But over the year and a half I lived in Highland Chiapas I also witnessed how women's adherence to their people's collective traditions rewards them and helps them survive with dignity in difficult times. I saw this watching Reina's mother serve her community as the leader of a traditional fiesta. I also saw it living with Antonia, a young woman who has been organizing her kinswomen into weaving cooperatives.


Antonia, with whom I lived during my first year, understood that I had come to learn her language and how her people see drinking. She had ventured outside her culture enough to know that Ladinos and Gringos (light-skinned people from foreign countries) have different relations to their families and communities. Her keen mind enabled her to see her people through outsiders' eyes. Sometimes this other vision of her people made her self-conscious, but generally she was proud to live in a hamlet and follow her ancestors' ways. It was different with Reina. As a single woman with children living on the fringes of Ladino society, Reina had little to lose by her association with me. Reina didn't hold back, from the day we met wrapping steamed corn in leaves for the patron saint fiesta until we said goodbye in a restaurant in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, the urban center of Highland Chiapas. Reina and I each saw in the other someone who did not fit prescribed roles. Reina must have thought I would understand her situation when she asked me to be with her the night her second child was born.


Reina was in the last month of her pregnancy when we met. I had come to observe and participate in preparations for the patron saint fiesta in which Reina's parents were the leading religious celebrants. Early on the second day of the fiesta I went with Reina and her two younger sisters to cut weeds for her aunt's bulls. I watched with admiration as Reina wielded the machete. In the afternoon she asked me to come with her to visit a "friend." The friend was a midwife, and after examining Reina she said her baby would be born that night. On the way to find a room in which to have the baby Reina cried, and told me that this would be her second child. She would now have two children by two different men, and neither wanted to marry her. She said that her father and older brother wanted to kill her, and her mother had too many responsibilities to help her now. She asked me to stay with her that night. I stayed with Reina and tried to support her; but it was the first time I had seen a baby born. My awe and the speed with which everything happened left me feeling helpless. Fortunately, the midwife knew her work. Reina delivered her baby girl into candlelight onto a piece of plastic where she knelt, fully clothed, gripping the side of a bed.


As I learned about Reina and her family I was reminded of victims of abuse and children of alcoholics in the United States. Like American women in abusive situations, Reina and her mother and sisters have suffered emotionally and physically. Like them they often deny the extent of their pain and rationalize their own and others' actions. But in other important ways they are different. While abused women in my society frequently have nowhere to go, Pedranas have strong families and traditions through which they find meaning and fulfill important work for their people. Angélika, Reina's mother, serves her people and their Gods in communal duties called cargos. Pedranos say that this work is as important as the work they do to feed and clothe their families. Along with her daughters Angélika cares for her grandchildren, while Reina supports her children through selling chicha, a fermented sugar cane drink, and atole, a hot rice drink. The women laugh and joke in the fields, in the marketplace, and around the fire at home. I never heard them blame themselves, as abused women often do in my society, although I discovered that they felt isolated and ashamed at times.


In 1987, inspired by feminist scholars, I went into the Highlands of Chiapas determined to engage with Indigenous women, to offer them a forum to speak. I found that women's shyness, Pedranos' reserve in front of strangers, the patriarchal structures of Pedrano society, and my own discomfort about intruding in people's lives, made it difficult to collaborate with women in this way. I also discovered that one needs many years to develop facility in other languages, to build trust and reciprocity and to understand another society. That I was able to make progress toward these goals with a few people in the year and a half I was in Chenalhó attests to Pedranos' generosity and courage and my willingness to let Pedranos teach me about humility.


Since my first year of fieldwork I've been in varying states of anguish and fear about my responsibility to the Pedranos with whom I began a relationship in 1987. In Chenalhó I saw how power relations affect people's lives. Children cried from hunger. Friends died in the prime of their lives. Listening to the sorrow women expressed in their drunk songs haunted me. I couldn't be ironic and detached.


Back home, faced with the task of conveying my own and Pedranos' experiences of power and powerlessness, I experimented with various writing styles. My models were the works of feminist anthropologists as well as ethnographies using interpretive or reflexive methods. Through these approaches anthropologists have been exploring their presence in the communities they study and how this shapes their findings. Until quite recently anthropologists wrote their ethnographies as if they were standing off at a distance, casting a critical eye on some "exotic other" (e.g., Malinowski 1961; Evans-Pritchard 1940). The strongest deterrent from including subjective experiences in these earlier reports was the received social science wisdom that feelings are not valid, i.e., they are not falsifiable data. Consequently, allusions to an ethnographer's feelings or relationships with the people he or she studied appeared in footnotes, an afterword, an appendix, or a memoir.


While I was inspired by the attention to ethnographers' experiences and representational issues in recent ethnographies, many of these works failed to help me better understand the people studied. Others did not make connections between power relations in the field and the ongoing effects of imperialism. By portraying fieldwork as a painful or "unruly dialogical encounter" (di Leonardo 1989), still others seemed to background the voices of the people being studied, to slight the struggles in which women and non-Western people are engaged to define their experiences in their own terms. As Antonia once told me, "Books don't matter to us. We don't have time to read. What matters to us is that our children are sick and die, that they don't have food to eat, clothes to wear." Although my representational approach combines both reflexive and feminist perspectives, I have found the political grounding of feminist perspectives most useful to confront issues of power and to foreground Pedranos' voices.


In order to preserve the power of Pedrano beliefs and analyses and to show how I came to understand these, I have woven them into the story that follows. The storytelling medium seems close to the communal values Pedranos shared with me and offers a means to integrate subjective experiences with objective data. I believe that it also preserves the holistic perspective so important in anthropological research, while still allowing readers to make cross-cultural comparisons.


The story which follows begins by placing Pedranos' experiences within the literature about drinking and gender cross-culturally, and the history of Ladino/Native relations in Highland Chiapas (Chapters 1 and 2). Then it moves to a point in our separate and shared histories when Pedranos were experiencing tremendous social change and I was estranged from everything familiar. You will come to know Antonia and Reina, and several other women and men who befriended me and taught me about how their people regard drinking and gender relations. Focusing on my relationships with specific women and their families, I try to show how these women express differences between themselves, between themselves and their kinsmen, and between each of them and me. I explore the differences that matter to them and ways they are trying to resolve personal and collective conflicts. As the story evolves, I treat changes in my understanding of problem drinking and social relations in Chenalhó and in my own society.


On one level this is a universal tale of fieldwork. On another level it is an account of my relationships with a handful of people in a particular time and place. I hope that this story, born as it was in a community of story tellers and listeners, will inspire you to tell it again.

Compulsive drinking and its consequences are social problems everywhere. Although research on this subject has been increasing in recent years, researchers have only begun to consider alcohol's effects on women and their families. I chose to study women's relation to alcohol use and compulsive drinking because it is a topic relevant to women's lives crossculturally and to my own experiences. In my marriage to a recovering alcoholic I have come to understand problems alcoholics and their families in my society face. As an anthropologist I am interested in how people's experiences with alcohol differ historically and cross-culturally. My review of the literature about alcoholism available in the mid-1980s indicated that scholars have given little attention to the diversity of women's experiences with alcohol and how these change over time. A preliminary trip to Highland Chiapas in 1985 confirmed that alcohol is an important issue to Indigenous women there.


The major questions that guided my research of women's experiences with ritual and problem drinking in San Pedro Chenalhó were: How is women's relationship to alcohol changing in Chenalhó, and how are Pedranas handling their own and others' drinking problems?


Several conceptual frameworks inevitably collide in efforts to study women's experiences and connections between gender and drinking in colonized communities. Perspectives include the colonizers' points of view, documented in reports from missionaries, government officials, settlers, and early travel writers; the perspectives of anthropologists and other scholars documented in ethnographies and reports; the perspective which the researcher has chosen; and the varied points of view of men and women in the communities studied. While colonial and anthropological perspectives are relevant to this study, I have tried to make Pedranos' perspectives paramount. Combining contemporary feminist and reflexive frameworks in anthropology enabled me to focus on Pedranos' ideas, while intermeshing them with my own and those of other anthropologists.


Conceptual Frameworks on Gender


The Spanish colonizers who came to Mexico in the early 1500s frequently feared and hated Indigenous people. They recognized, but condemned, their egalitarian attitudes and were shocked by the independence of women. Ethnohistorical studies of indigenous women in North, Central, and South America (e.g., Burkhart 1992; Hellbom 1967; Nash 1978, 1980; Silverblatt 1987) indicate the important economic and social roles women filled before the Spanish invasion.


Early ethnographers studying peasants, like Pedranos, depicted women as passive victims. What they saw appeared congruent with Western conceptions of family, economics, and politics, i.e., men controlled public offices and women did low status child care and housework. Their preoccupation with male forms of power led them to see women's exclusion from the political realm as evidence of their insignificance. It follows that they did not consider men's lack of access to the women's world significant.


Feminist researchers try to avoid research strategies which lead us to generalize from data about men to communities at large. Following their lead, I have studied drinking from women's points of view in order to balance the ethnographic record on drinking in Highland Chiapas.


In their fieldwork experiences feminist scholars frequently find their mindsets and concepts inadequate to understand gender relations in diverse cultural contexts. For example, a mindset based on rationality and prediction does not help one understand life in communities, like Chenalhó, where people do not draw strong lines between visible and invisible realms of experience. Similarly, the domestic/public dichotomy and the idea of the nuclear family as the natural nurturing unit do not necessarily fit non-Western gender systems. Gender, itself, is a concept that anthropologists are continually reworking to illuminate its connection to other ways people differentiate themselves, including race, class, caste, and ethnicity. My research contributes to these aims by shedding new light on Western concepts about gender and drinking, including: "self," "family," "community," "power," and "dependency."


Attempting a women-centered study, I build on the groundwork laid by women anthropologists studying sex-role variability in the 1930s and 1940s, e.g., Kaberry 1939, Mead 1949, and Underhill 1936. Since these pioneering studies and the spread of the women's liberation movement in the United States, cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural dialogue on women and gender has increased greatly. Contemporary feminist anthropologists draw on the rich legacy of their foremothers as well as insights that women from diverse cultural backgrounds offer, to refine several theoretical approaches to studying women and gender. In this study I rely on two major frameworks--symbolic and materialist. I also draw to a lesser extent from psychological perspectives.


Feminists who study gender from the point of view of symbolic systems and the socialization of gender, interpret gender constructions as expressions of cultural values that maintain a cultural system (e.g., Rosaldo 1974, 1980; Collier and Rosaldo 1981; Ortner and Whitehead 1981; Rosaldo and Lamphere, eds. 1974; MacCormack and Strathern 1980). These scholars suggest that gender asymmetry and male dominance may be universal.


Feminists informed by a historical materialist perspective explain changes in gender relations on the basis of economic systems. They argue that gender asymmetry and male dominance are not universal, but the products of changing material conditions (e.g., Leacock 1972, 1983; Leacock and Nash 1977; Nash 1980).


Feminist researchers taking a psychological perspective study how different groups engender and reproduce ideas about relations between the sexes. They take child rearing and family relations as their data (e.g., Bunzel 1940; Chodorow 1974; Dinnerstein 1975). Comparing alcoholism in two Maya communities, Chamula and Chichicastenango, Ruth Bunzel (ibid.) applied psychoanalytic interpretations.


In the anthropological literature about Latin America, scholars are beginning to integrate gender issues into their studies and to treat more seriously how people construct their past and present histories (di Leonardo 1991: 29). In this book I try to address the social constructionist perspective by presenting Pedranos as actors who shape the social relations in which they are involved. Specifically, I have used Pedranas' life histories to elucidate collective traditions and one community's responses to change.


Conceptual Frameworks on Drinking


Conceptual frameworks also collide in research about drinking. Perhaps the most important contribution anthropologists have made to alcohol research is the discovery that people learn how to act when they are drunk. People everywhere expect drunken people to act differently from sober ones, but drunken comportments are diverse (MacAndrew and Edgerton 1969). As feminist anthropologists are doing for gender, anthropologists studying drinking are examining how culture, politics, and economic factors interact to shape drinking in specific times and places.


Indigenous people throughout the Americas have had a similar relationship to colonial powers, but a different relationship to alcohol. While Indigenous peoples in Mesoamerica had integrated fermented drinks into the fabric of their lives long before Spaniards invaded their lands, few indigenous groups in North America used fermented drinks; those that did were mostly in the southwestern United States, and limited their drinking to specific rituals (MacAndrew and Edgerton 1969: 100).


During the colonial era Indigenous people soon learned the not-so-divine qualities of distilled spirits. They also learned new drunken comportment from colonists and internalized at least some of these outsider's views of them when they became drunk. Colonists who plied Indigenous people with liquor, whether they were Canadian trappers or Ladino plantation owners, either saw them as pitiful sots who could not hold their liquor or as dangerous crazies.


As the wounds of colonialism festered and the pain of separation from their families, their lands, and their traditions deepened, Indigenous people turned more and more to drinking. Many Native people continued to drink in out-of-control ways, and almost everyone concluded that "Indians can't hold their liquor." Native communities most devastated by alcohol lost the collective knowledge of how to show respect and tenderness toward each other and their gods (Shkilnyk 1985). Tragically, stereotypes of "drunken Indians" who neglect their children persist today in the minds of many Native and non-Native Americans. But historical research indicates that before Europeans arrived, Indigenous people throughout the Americas kept their drinking under strict control; ethnographic studies indicate the high value traditional cultures placed on tender and respectful bonds between children and adults. In the 1990s many Native American communities are models to the world of effective community solutions to problem drinking.


In contrast to Native societies before the European invasion, Western peoples have learned that alcohol is incapacitating, morally and physically. In heterogeneous Western societies people lack clear and consistent teaching about limits and sanctions on drinking. Variable behavior is predictable and in fact occurs (MacAndrew and Edgerton 1969).


Anthropologists find a "time-out" attitude about drinking across cultures. Perhaps because the physiological effects of alcohol are obvious and easily monitored, it makes a good vehicle for "time-out" (Marshall 1979; Bunzel 1940).


As feminists are doing for gender, anthropologists studying drinking are also reconstructing Western concepts and definitions of "alcoholism." Alcohol researchers and practitioners in the treatment field subscribe to a definition of alcoholism which views it as a homogeneous, progressive, irreversible, permanent, and incurable "biopsychosocial disease" (Heath 1988: 353). The definition incorporates several characteristics, including withdrawal symptoms, loss of control, severe damage to the body, and social, emotional, and behavioral problems (Chalfant and Roper 1980).


Counselors in treatment facilities in the United States also distinguish between "alcohol abusers" and "alcohol dependent" people (American Psychiatric Association 1987). In the first category they include people who have problems associated with their drinking, but who do not necessarily fulfill dependency criteria. Counselors determine dependency when a person has at least three out of a list of nine symptoms (ibid.: 167-168).


Anthropologists often find the disease framework of alcoholism limiting, due to a lack of fit between the focus on individual "pathologies" centered on loss of control (Room 1984), and the ethnographic record which indicates that loss of control is not intrinsic to drunken comportment (MacAndrew and Edgerton 1969). Ethnographic evidence suggests that many peoples do not view alcohol as problematic, and that few think of it as a major factor in the etiology of a debilitating disease. Ethnographic studies have suggested that drinking is integrative and functional for most of the world's people (Heath 1981). This observation has led ethnographers to apply their theories to patterns and trends of alcohol use and the functions that drinking or drunkenness seem to serve in particular environments at specific times (see Heath 1988: 359-396 for an overview of theoretical frameworks).


Ethnographic studies indicate that brewing alcoholic beverages is often the women's domain in much of the developing world (Kennedy 1978; Colson and Scudder 1988), and when ritual drinking is an important part of communal obligations, women often participate on a par with men (Allen 1988; Kennedy 1978). Although women participate extensively in producing, distributing, and consuming alcoholic beverages crossculturally, studies indicate that women tend to drink less in amount, less often, and in less varied circumstances than do men (Heath 1991: 177).


References to drinking in Highland Chiapas a generation ago by Native scholars, anthropologists, and their students (Arias 1973; Cancian 1965; Collier 1968; Gossen 1974; Guiteras-Holmes 1961; Laughlin 1963, 1976; Linn 1976; Nash 1973, 1985; Navarette-Pellicer 1988; Siskel 1974; Vogt 1969; and Wilson 1973) demonstrate that drinking in Indigenous communities was woven into the social and sacred fabric of life. But studies also reveal that it brought suffering (Collier 1973; Haviland 1977; Lacy 1976; Pozas 1959, 1962; Wali 1974; and Wilson 1966).


Scholars in other fields, however, criticize anthropologists for deemphasizing problems (Room 1984). Anticipating this critique, some ethnographers have undertaken longterm studies of drinking. For example, Colson and Scudder (1988) state that if they had written on drinking among the Gwembe Tonga of Zambia in the 1950s, they would have described it as socially integrated. However, after thirty years of studying changes in gender roles, the arrival of new technology, and the penetration of a cash economy, they report that traditional controls can no longer keep heavy drinking from destroying much of Gwembe Tonga social life. Reevaluating his research on drinking in Truk, Federated States of Micronesia, Marshall (1991) states that changes in Truk and in himself forced him to revise his earlier position that men's drinking was unproblematic. Marshall attributes these changes to Trukese women finding their voices in a prohibition movement, and his attention to what they were saying (Marshall 1991; Marshall and Marshall 1990).


Based on recent studies (e.g., Menéndez 1992), anthropologists would do well to take the "problem deflation" critique and women's analyses of drinking seriously. A recent National Health Survey of the prevalence of alcohol use and concerns it causes families, in 54,000 rural and urban households in Mexico, indicates high use of alcohol among young people under eighteen and "worrisome drinking habits" among one-fourth of men between 30 and 49 years of age (Solache-Alcaraz et al. 1990). Listening to Pedranas tell me about problem drinking and then later analyzing what they told me, I came to believe that drinking has probably always been more problematic in most societies, particularly during stressful times, than seems apparent from the ethnohistorical record. Staying only one year in a community and talking mostly to men, anthropologists are not able to get much past normative drinking, which in most societies isn't problematic for most of the population. To learn about deviations from norms it takes time, and talking with people of all ages and groups.


Recent studies focusing on women's drinking in Western societies indicate that women's and men's drinking differ and that women problem drinkers face greater risks and barriers to treatment than men who drink (NIAAA 1990). Findings include: (1) among women drinkers in the United States, those who drink the most equal or surpass men in the numbers of problems resulting from drinking (Wilsnack, Wilsnack, and Klassen 1984); (2) controlling for body weight and height and given equal quantities of ingested alcohol, a woman's blood alcohol level rises faster than a man's (Jones and Jones 1976); (3) the detrimental effects of alcohol on the liver are more severe for women than for men; and (4) women alcoholics have death rates 50% to 100% higher than those of men alcoholics (Van Den Berg 1991).


Feminist scholars studying alcohol stress the negative effects on diverse groups of men and women of the competitive and hierarchical conditions capitalism and patriarchy engender (e.g., ibid.). Some scholars indicate that powerful groups selectively define the uses and effects of alcohol to benefit their interests (Morgan 1987: 129; Kilbourne 1991). For example, men have applied the disinhibitory effects of alcohol negatively to women's alcohol use, stating that when women drink compulsively they either neglect their nurturing roles or "act out" sexually. While the former attitude defines women's societal roles on a narrowly domestic basis, the latter masks the fact that women's public drunkenness is likely to put them at risk for rape (Gomberg 1982: 21).


Feminists working with problem drinkers in the United States criticize a tendency to overmedicalize and individualize problems, to develop treatment based on gender stereotypes, and to slight societal and historical processes contributing to alcohol use (e.g., Marsh, Colten, and Tucker 1982). While they note a broadening dialogue on these issues, they argue that the prevailing disease model of "family dysfunction" obscures unequal power relations within families and attributes a range of emotional and social problems to a family disease treatable through a path of prescriptive behaviors (Haaken 1993). Even when the various twelve-step programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, affirm women's outrage over their legacy as caregivers and assert women's right to self-determination, they fail to account for the range of women's experiences within families, and the extra-familial networks of support women create when poverty, sexism, and racism undermine their capacities to provide for themselves and their children (ibid.: 341). Mutual or self-help programs tend to perpetuate the status quo by taking the middle class family as the primary social unit and by applying the disease label to women's real conflicts and the strategies they have devised to deal with these conflicts (ibid.).


Based on numerous studies which reveal that women with drinking problems are much more likely to have experienced sexual abuse as children or to have experienced severe family violence than non-alcoholic women (e.g., Research Institute on Alcoholism 1991), feminists urge placing alcohol problems within the context of other women's issues, such as violence, incest, and sexual abuse. In their treatment proposals they stress respect for women's relationships and understanding cultural contexts of drinking and culturally different notions of power and dependence. For example, Pedranos who value interdependence between people, and between humans and the gods, appear dependent and unhealthy measured against a formulaic program of individual spiritual recovery. Yet, Pedranos' ongoing commitment to rebuilding their wounded communities, at the same time as they treat their wounded selves, may be both more humane and workable than treatment philosophies which fail to address the limited possibilities within American society for healing (Haaken 1993).


Through addressing historical processes and integrating gender as a central construct in the etiology and treatment of problem drinking, feminist researchers are bridging a gap between studies in Western societies, largely problem and treatment oriented, and studies of non-Western societies, usually ethnographic and relativistic. Feminist researchers try to see the people and communities they study as both bearers of particular cultures and needing support for specific problems, often stemming from legacies of economic and social inequality.


A central task of my research was to understand ideas of power and social relations in Pedrano society. Although I asked questions relevant to any society (e.g., who wields power, how does one acquire power, who has the power to define problems, and who has the power to say how one can heal), I extended these questions beyond social contexts to the articulation between cosmic and transcendental phenomena. Based on their studies of non-Western societies, feminist anthropologists argue that although different in form, women's power arrangements are as significant as men's (e.g., Weiner 1976 on Trobriand women; Bell 1983 on Australian aboriginal women). In Highland Chiapas, while women do not hold political offices, they obtain power through the highly charged relationships they forge with their deities or ancestors during communal rituals (Rosenbaum 1993). In these rituals they interweave social and cosmic realms and control powerful symbolic substances, such as alcohol.


Pedranos' Perspectives on Drinking and Gender


Pedranos differ in the ways they relate to alcohol and other important aspects of social life. This study attempts to sort out their differences and discuss the contradictions which rise from them.


Pedranos now divide themselves into Traditionalists; members of various Protestant groups; and followers of Catholic Action, the Liberation Theology movement in Highland Chiapas. "Do you have religion?" was one of the first questions almost every Pedrano asked me. I discovered that "having religion" means listening to pastors and catechists (lay leaders) read passages from the Bible, or reading these oneself if one can read, and then using these words as guides in place of the oral traditions of the ancestors.


When someone asked me if I had religion I would tell them the truth, that I was raised Presbyterian, but now I respect all religions and want to learn about them. No one accepted this explanation, except perhaps Antonia and Domingo, with whom I had time to discuss at length how variations of Protestants and Catholics in my country differ from those in Chenalhó. Except for Antonia and Domingo, most Pedranos seemed to be saying that if I didn't take a side, I didn't stand for anything, and that was truly pitiful. By the time I left Chenalhó my heart was somewhere between the Traditionalist camp and Catholic Action.


Traditionalists maintain an intimate relationship with Maya dieties and Catholic saints, which they have worshipped side by side in their communities since the Spanish invasion. Traditionalists generally say that alcohol is integral to the welding of the two symbolic systems and to forging reciprocal and complementary relations between people. They say that drinking makes their hearts happy and pleases the Gods. They also say it brings problems. When they recognize a drinking problem Traditionalists treat it as they do all physical and emotional problems, through prayer and dreams.


Members of Catholic Action stand midway between Traditionalists and Protestants. Catholic Action followers share with Traditionalists a respect for traditional fiestas and cargos. With Protestants they share a commitment to Bible study. Catholic Action members may or may not maintain a close relationship with Maya traditions, and say that it is acceptable to the saints to offer soft drinks in place of rum at fiestas and other rituals. Some Catholics favor abstinence, while others favor moderation. In contrast to Traditionalists, these people are more likely to see drinking as problematic and to seek care from doctors, but often while under a shaman's care as well.


Protestant groups are by no means homogeneous, even though most Pedranos use "Evangélicos" ("Evangelicals") to cover all Protestants. Protestant groups in Chenalhó in 1988 included: (1) Presbyterians, the first to arrive and the largest group; (2) Baptists; (3) The Church of Christ; (4) Jehovah's Witnesses; (5) Pentecostals; (6) Seventh Day Adventists; and (7) Mormons, the smallest group. Pedranos spoke of going to see Spiritists, but to my knowledge no Spiritists had organized a group in Chenalhó by 1988.


Conversion to Protestant sects in Chenalhó is increasing rapidly. Protestants estimate their numbers at a third of the township population of roughly 25,000. Protestants do not worship Maya deities nor Catholic saints, whom they consider idols. They link rum drinking in fiestas with worshiping idols and wasteful, wanton behavior. Protestants promote abstinence and private capital accumulation, and reject shamanic cures, preferring the care of Ladino doctors.


Knowing that Traditionalists suspect that strangers who associate with Protestants are missionaries who think drinking is sinful, I decided to leave my interviews with Protestants until later in my research. I regret that I was not able to spend the same amount of time and effort to identify with Protestants, as I did with Traditionalists and Catholic Action followers.



I geared my methods toward establishing a dialogue between Pedranos and myself while I was in the field; since returning home I have tried to sustain that dialogue. A necessary task toward this end was to become conversant in Tzotzil, the major Maya language of Highland Chiapas. Tzotzil was important for my study because most Pedranas over thirty are monolingual in Tzotzil. I usually recorded interviews that I conducted in Tzotzil, so that I could go over them with helpers and catch parts I had missed or misunderstood.


Although I tried to work on many levels, I focused on household relations. Several questions guided my study of family life and drinking (Heath 1981: 10): What do Pedranos learn about meanings and uses of alcohol? Who learns which meanings and uses, and how do they learn these? What are the effects of such knowledge on drinking and the results of drinking? How are meanings and uses changing?


My primary method was participant-observation, the cornerstone of anthropological research. Living in one household off and on for thirteen months and dividing my time between several others for another six months, I observed how families deal with power, intimacy, and boundaries, with and without alcohol. I noted how each individual related to herself or himself, alcohol, other people, and spiritual entities. By living in the societies they study, ethnographers actually see what people do, which is often different from what they say they do. Sustained observation and participation also has the advantage of revealing behavior and ideas about which people may feel ambivalent or confused (Heath 1988: 375). For example, violence associated with drinking is a world-wide concern; however it is not something of which most people are proud. Not surprisingly, it wasn't until I returned to Chenalhó for a second time that I realized the importance of this problem for Pedranas.


To find out how Pedranos define kinds of drinkers and drinking and how they distinguish between routinized and extraordinary problems I used the following techniques: observing and recording drinking events; in-depth interviews with Pedranos about their own and others' drinking; a household survey of forty-five households in one hamlet; recording Traditionalists, Catechists, and Protestants talking about their neighbors' drinking; and asking some literate Pedranos and nurses in rural clinics to write descriptions of women they knew who were problem drinkers or who had come to them for help with health problems related to drinking. I also collected folklore, and listened to gossip about drinkers and gender relations. As Haviland (1977) discovered in his study of gossip in Zinacantán, gossip is one of the best sources of information about what is important to people. of themes in the corpus of gossip stories Haviland (ibid.: 207) collected, which include divorce, kin disputes, illicit sexual relations, and wealth and poverty, drinking is the one which most frequently occurs. Drinking is also a recurring theme in court cases in Chenalhó (Sigurd Gramstad, personal communication).


I also used drawing as a way to record my impressions of life in Chenalhó and to find out what children learn about drinking and gender relations. My own drawings as well as several children's drawings illustrate this book.


While men seemed ambivalent about many aspects of drinking, women's clear analyses of problem drinking impressed me from the first days I was in Chenalhó. In societies such as Chenalhó, where men and women are clear about norms and roles, women speak out when deviations, like problem drinking, disrupt household and communal relations. With conviction and courage, they state what has gone wrong and who is to blame. As I analyzed my data and compared my study with others, I realized that while problem drinking may not be the norm in most societies, where it exists women bear the brunt of its damaging effects. Eventually, I understood Pedranas' roles in helping their people find solutions to problem drinking while still holding on to valued traditions.




My study has convinced me that Western scholars and treatment professionals would do well to focus on the strengths of non-Western and marginalized peoples and less on what these peoples lack in order to fit into Western culture. Since invading Highland Chiapas in 1528, Ladinos have continued to impose their beliefs and traditions on Pedranos. But Pedranos have not been powerless victims in this process. They have retained their connection to personal and collective power through prayers, dreams, song, and service to their people and their Gods.


In this study I try to celebrate what Pedranos do well, especially how competently women are dealing with their own and others' drinking problems. Traditional Pedranos seem to learn from birth some basic understandings about self and community which members of programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Alanon, a group for families of alcoholics, must learn later in their lives. (At various points in this book I discuss these shared understandings.)


I do not want to praise Pedranos uncritically, however, for like my people they do not do everything well. But I am convinced Americans have a lot to learn from Pedranos. Last week in the big city near my small town a mother and her baby died in the crossfire between two teenage drug dealers. A comparable incident in Chenalhó would signify a catastrophic imbalance in the universe. All religious and political leaders would assemble immediately, and go without food and sleep until they found a way to restore balance. In Hartford business went on as usual the next day.



Women and Alcohol is a book worth reading.... The book’s informal tone and interesting topic make it appealing to a wide audience, including casual readers and undergraduate classes. Furthermore, Eber’s cross-cultural insight into alcohol dependency is relevant not only for anthropologists but also for health care professionals and others who deal with substance abuse.”
Latin American Indian Literatures Journal

“In this well-written ethnography, Christine Eber weaves together the critical issues of gender relations, religious change, domestic violence, and drinking in highland Chiapas.... This is a fine ethnography that is a must-read for all interested in gender relations in contemporary Latin America. It is also one of the best current discussions on the little-studied phenomenon of religious change in Mexico.... Eber also provides a wonderful model of how to write a readable ethnography that treats its subjects with dignity and respect and honestly integrates the trials and tribulations of the ethnographer in the process.”
Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute