Eric’s Photo Album: Contentamiento de Teotitlan del Valle (The engagement party (contentamiento) held in honor of a cousin who will have a traditional wedding.)
Under the shadowy street lamps, far down the block, behind the outdoor corner altars, under hidden doorway arches, you can see the teenagers huddled deep in conversation, keeping their safe distance, engaging in their courtship rituals of getting to know each other. Young women do this in secret, far from the eyes of protective fathers and distrustful grandmothers. They will tip toe quietly like this for a year or two and then get married – typical courtship behavior in a village like Teotitlan del Valle, where most are weavers and don’t go beyond the eighth grade.
I’m sitting with Eric Chavez Santiago, my 25 year old friend, in my North Carolina living room, who tells it like it is. He’s telling me it is not unusual for a 20-year old woman to marry a 30-year old man. But, more likely, it is the 16 to 19 year olds who are observing these courtship rituals, keeping a distance of a yard or a meter or more, careful not to be observed. Couples who have a few extra pesos in their pockets will catch a late afternoon bus to Oaxaca city to take in a movie or stroll around the Zocalo – the beautiful colonial central square — careful to return home by 8:00 p.m. If a girl comes back later, say at 10:00-11:00 p.m., then it’s probable that the boy has already talked to her parents for courtship and marriage approval. In this case, the man would go to his girlfriend’s parents, propose marriage and then the parents could approve or not. The wedding date will be set in the next three to four months and they will get married. (I’m using “man and woman” and “girl and boy” interchangeably, most notably because courtship sometimes begins at age 14 or 15 with marriage following shortly thereafter.)
What if the parents do not approve? The couple usually decides to continue their courtship in secret for a time and then the girl will suddenly disappear from her parent’s home and move into the boy’s house. This tradition is called, “stealing the girlfriend.” The village is all a-buzz when a girl disappears from her father’s home because everyone knows there’s something afoot. By the third day of the ‘disappearance,’ the man’s family – parents, uncles and aunts, cousins, grandparents – all go together to the girl’s home. They take with them a big, handmade beeswax candle that is made in the village and decorated with flowers. (The candle has to be big enough or the girl’s family may complain!) They also bring food, including bread, watermelon, bananas, and mangoes.
These gifts are presented to the girl’s parents in their altar room (the religious and social gathering place of each household) as a gesture from the boy’s family to alleviate the parent’s sadness of losing their daughter. The practice is called “a contentamiento.” This is both a dowry tradition and a way of asking forgiveness for taking their daughter without her parent’s permission. The practice helps build a bridge and begins a formal relationship between the two families. It is symbolic of the union of their children and acceptance of the boy as being worthy of the girl.
A cousin of Eric’s was studying international business at the university in Oaxaca. Her boyfriend was a professional musician living in Mexico City. They decided to do the “a contentamiento” and run away because they felt that going through the process of formal introductions would be too lengthy. They had been dating in secret for quite some time. On the third day they did the “a contentiamento.” Even though she was educated and “modern,” she decided to respect her Zapotec traditions.
Zapotecs have been living in the Oaxaca Valley for over 2,000 years. Their cultural traditions are strong and the people are resilient. The impact of television, education, movement across borders to work, and exposure to living in cities where jobs are more plentiful will have an impact on the traditions of courtship and marriage. How, remains to been seen.