Photo in thingbox: MexicanTehuantepec Market Woman

In my last post I lauded the way that vintage objects are full of shadows,  hidden meanings, and relationships to other objects. A recent conversation further reinforced my point.

After posting the vintage photo, which I know nothing about, in Etsy (, I sent an attachment to an old friend who has a particular interest in the life and ethnography of Mexico. He did a bit of internet rummaging and sent me a link to a Project Gutenberg ebook by an explorer and ethnographer named Frederick Starr, who wrote of his travels and investigations of indigenous culture that he undertook previous to 1908 (  From the narrative, I’m not sure how, said friend used the book to identify my woman as a Tehuantepec woman.

The photo is most probably post-war, most probably from the 60’s. Nonetheless, it’s unlikely that the garb or culture changed much from the time when Starr wrote about them in 1899. Our lady is a hammock seller, and from the confidence she projects, she’s likely a good one. The author is charged with measuring women and men in the region and confines himself mostly to describing troubles he had with the local authorities. However, he does devote a paragraph to the mythology of the tribe:

“The name Tehuantepec means the mountain of man-eaters. These man-eaters were not   men, but tigers, or ocelots. The story runs that long ago this mountain was infested with wild   beasts who destroyed the people of the neighboring villages. Fearing extermination,  the people of the town decided to consult the Juaves, who were famous for their naguales, or witches. The oldest and most skilled naguál of the tribe was employed. Having performed his incantations, he told them they might expect  immediate deliverance; that he had conjured a deliverer from the sea. Soon there came  forth from the water a gigantic turtle, who made his way slowly inland, until he reached the bottom of the hill, which was the home of the tigers. The dangerous  animals were just descending from the mountain in a double line, but the moment they caught sight of the mammoth sea-monster, their bodies froze with terror and they were turned to stone. Terrified at the power of the creature he had conjured, the old  naguál quickly made use of his most powerful incantation, with the result that the turtle also was transformed into stone. The proof of the truth of the story we saw in the lines of stone tigers on the mountain side and the stone turtle at the foot of the hill, as we rode by.”

Needless to say that, after reading this story, the woman has morphed into much more than a two-dimensional curiousity. The story is fantastic and even slightly preposterous, but it’s a part of the seller’s history in much the same way that textbook wars and treaties are to us.   She’s probably long dead, but the market woman is no longer just an exotic exhibit A. Reading about her myth gives us an inkling of what’s going on in the eyes of the person looking out of the paper.