The Ladies of the Isthmus
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  Posted July 8th, 2016 by Zdenko  in Travel | 3 comments

Traveling Mexico

By: Mildred Boyd

The Ladies of the Isthmus
From Conquistadors armed with swords to present-day tourists armed only with cameras, male travelers to the Isthmus have written glowing reports of her. 

lady1Artists have painted, carved and sculpted her in every medium and every possible pose. Those of the masculine sex are naturally enthralled with her sexual allure but, to do her credit, even the women visitors have found her beauty and elegance enchanting.
 She is tall and slender, her movements are graceful and her posture would do credit to the training at any posh ladies’ academy. Her skin has the warmth of rich milk chocolate, her eyes are large, black and lustrous and her ebony hair is always elaborately dressed with colorful ribbons to match her outfit. Her bearing is proud and she exudes self confidence but is never overbearing or aggressive; eternally feminine.lady3

She is always beautifully dressed, as much a slave to fashion as any Parisienne, with costumes for any occasion. Around her neck she always wears a necklace that would set any numismatist to drooling. It is actually a small fortune in gold coins from all over the world artfully fashioned into a stunning piece of jewelry. This is her dowry.

Who is this remarkable woman whose smiling face has even graced a Mexican ten pesos bill? Racially she is a Mestizo, mostly of Zapotec descent but with exotic admixtures from the gene pools of all the races that have passed through the isthmus since the conquest. But first and most importantly she is a product of her unique culture. She is a Tehuana!
Her home, Santo Domingo Tehuantepec, is a small city in southeast Oaxaca with a population of roughly 60,000, the eighth largest in the state. It is built on a sloping hill on the Pacific side of the Continental Divide. At the time of the conquest, it was a seaport and saw much traffic when the treasures brought from the Orient by the Manila Galleons were off loaded here for trans-shipment to the Atlantic. Now the land has risen so that the city now lies some 15 miles inland from the mouth of the Tehuantepec River.

Since the distance from Atlantic to Pacific is only 137 miles, the isthmus was long considered for the site of the inter-oceanic canal but the project was abandoned in favor of Panama because it was thought that construction would be too costly. A cross-isthmus railway was also proposed over which goods and even small vessels could be shipped but that, too, failed. Local industries now include the distilling of caña (a Cane spirit) and the weaving of cotton fabrics dyed with the juice of a marine shellfish found on the neighboring coast. Indigo was formerly grown in the vicinity and cochineal gathered for export, but both of these industries have declined.

Tehuantepec is a Nahuatl word, translated variously a “jaguar hill” or “man eater hill”. The second is particularly apt; for the fact is that the social hierarchy here differs from other indigenous cultures in that the social structure is at least semi-matriarchal. The mother rules Tehuantepec but not with the iron hand. Here the women do all the trading and none of the menial work yet the men are not scorned as inferiors. On the contrary, each young girl dreams of the day her Prince Charming will arrive and begins collecting the golden coins for her dowry as she dreams.
She earns every one of those coins. From childhood she is busy; spinning, dyeing, weaving and embroidering, gathering fruits and flowers and sitting for hours in the market selling her work. As soon as she can hold a needle she begins to help make her own clothing. This is no simple task. Just as a true Southern belle would not be caught dead wearing white shoes before Easter or after Labor Day and never stepped out her front door without hat and gloves, a true Tehuana simply has to have a specific costume for every social or religious occasion.

The care of these garments is time consuming. To begin with, there is the under skirt which is worn with everything and is her only undergarment.  

tehuana_huipilTehuana huipil

This is trimmed with a deep flounce of starched and pleated lace that sweeps the earth with every step. Since the earth in question is usually pure dirt when it isn’t mud, the underskirt can be worn only once. It must then be washed, starched and laboriously re-pleated, usually with an old-fashioned flat iron.

lady4For everyday wear her costume is a lavishly embroidered, short -sleeved or sleeveless bodice and a long, graceful skirt. For mandatory rituals called velas she dances the sones in a gathered muslin or gauze skirt, the ubiquitous flounced lace underskirt and a gold-fringed girdle. A floral embroidered, close fitting and low- cut huipil completes the ensemble.

Gala dresses are made of satin or velvet lavishly decorated with geometric designs or splashy garlands of flowers copied from Chinese shawls. Here the golden necklace is joined by brooches, ear pendants and bracelets all elegantly fashioned from the same gold coins. It is not unusual to see even young girls wearing coins worth a thousand or more dollars.

lady5Other costumes are worn as fashion dictates for specific events but the most spectacular garment is reserved for the most solemn and formal occasions. This is the “head huipil” or “great huipil” and it has an interesting origin. Long ago, some creative Tehuana came into the possession of a lacy white, European style infant’s coat, probably part of a christening outfit. She immediately draped it over her head so that the wide, pleated lace flounce framed her face becomingly. Behold! A new fashion was born which has persisted to this day.

The head huipil is still made like a little coat. For going to church it is worn so that starched lace surrounds the face in frothy white rays while the rest hangs over the shoulders with one little sleeve hanging down the front and the other down the back. For less formal occasions the pleated lace peplum is simply draped over the head while the rest of the garment hangs down the back, little sleeves dangling.

lady6That these styles are eminently becoming to their wearers goes without saying. Artists have depicted them in every possible medium. The prestigious artist, Diego Rivera, admired everything about the Isthmus so much that his wife, the elegant Frida Kahlo, adopted their costumes and wore nothing else throughout her married life. 



This very festive hand embroidered huipil and skirt were displayed in the Museum of oaxaca folk art in San Bartolo Coyotepec. These garments would be worn in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec Mexico 


On special occasions women from the isthmus of Tehuantepec wear an unusual headdress — a child’s huipil worn on their heads. Look for the tiny sleeves 


 A woman in the city of Oaxaca Mexico wears the long flowing skirt and embroidered huipil characteristic of the Zapotec women from the Istmo of Tehuantepec 


The large state of Oaxaca Mexico is geographically and ethnically diverse. Tradition has it that there are 8 (used to be 7) regions in the state. In performances and dances like Guelaguetza women and men wear traditional costumes that represent the regions. These women are playing that kind of part at a big wedding. However, they apparently couldn’t come up with the 8 different costumes, so four women are wearing costumes from the Istmo of Tehuantepec. The costumes represent these regions (left to right) – Istmo, Istmo, Canada, Mixteca, Costa, Istmo, Papaloapan, and Istmo.


Have a good and healthy season.

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3 comments to “The Ladies of the Isthmus”

  1. Comment by Lorna Moravec:

    This is the way to live. Life is important! We all should dress with such purpose and importance. Thankyou for this beautiful and inspirational site!
    All these women, young and old, are so beautiful, as all women are, but these women realize it.
    And I like that, at this wedding, since they did not have all 8 regional costumes, still, they wore what they have, and all are very beautiful! Bravissima!

  2. Comment by Lorna:

    Where could one buy such a costume. Is there a website? Thank you!

  3. Comment by Zdenko Kahlina:

    Sorry, that I don’t know… try traveling to Mexico and inquire there… just idea.

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