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Zapotec villagers may anticipate occasional violence from men who are drinking, but when fights do break out everyone expects the women, particularly the godmothers, to restore order.

Nicole Sault, in a recent paper, describes the Zapotec style of peacemaking as part of a broader system of beliefs in respect, cooperation, and responsibility. Respect, she indicates, is an especially important value among the Zapotec living in the Oaxaca Valley, in the State of Oaxaca, southern Mexico. While she presumably did not do her research in the same village where Douglas Fry and Carl O’Nell did theirs—which is described as La Paz in the Encyclopedia entry of this Website—it appears as if the village she studied is similar to the ones examined by Fry and O’Nell.

map of Oaxaca, MexicoSault points out that the Zapotec develop a sense of respect in their children by showing respect for their wishes. For instance, when families visit somewhere, the adults will carefully inform a child when they are planning to leave, fully expecting that the youngster will then be cooperative when it is time to go. In traditional Zapotec villages, she says, children normally grow up surrounded by solicitude, affection, and a sense of their own worth and dignity.

But Zapotec children are also taught that respect is gained because of the way one acts—ideally, with humility and decorum, with consideration for others, and with a spirit of sharing. Children, especially girls, are also taught to defend themselves, to not tolerate aggressive behavior from others, and to promptly rebuff unwanted attention. Women can use strong language not only in self defense but also to make peremptory verbal strikes against possibly violent men to diffuse potential male aggressiveness before it starts.

The Zapotec generally condemn people who lose control and act violently. They praise people who are responsible, respectful, and conscious of their social obligations, a contrast to their condemnation of individuals who are aggressive, noisy, divisive or selfish. They also praise villages that are widely known for experiencing little violence, and they criticize notorious communities in which violence occurs too often. Resolving conflicts verbally is an important value to them.

At fiestas, women drink as much as the men do, but everyone expects them to retain their composure and help keep the men in line if they become emotional, quarrelsome, or aggressive. Women will monitor how much men drink and they will intervene, if necessary, by taking men home, getting them to eat, distracting them, and even ridiculing them if their drunken behavior becomes troublesome. Girls and younger women, socialized to be strong mediators, will look to older women for assistance in breaking up arguments and fights. And everyone looks to the godmothers of men who are fighting as the ultimate authorities who will intervene when necessary to break up a fight and restore peace.

Godparents are normally higher-status members of the Zapotec communities, and they gain even higher status when parents ask them to assume the increased responsibility of being godparents for their child. The godchild, the parents, and the godparents all gain greater security through the added kinship ties and mutual obligations that the relationship implies. The birthparents, in fact, remain indebted for life for the favor the godparents have bestowed on them by agreeing to sponsor their child.

The godmother in particular plays an essential role in raising the godchild. She may help train the child for specific skills, but even more importantly, when she holds the child during the baptism ceremony, the Zapotec believe she gains special powers to enlist supernatural aid for the godchild. These powers mystically link the two so that, as the child grows, the godmother is able to help protect him or her. She will be called quickly whenever the child becomes ill. The role of the godparents, and particularly the godmother, is really a lifelong commitment that provides mediation between health and illness, life and death, for the godchild.

The mediating role carries over into conflict situations, even after the child matures. Godparents are therefore called upon to help mediate and resolve disputes, a role that is recognized and respected throughout the community. A man who is fighting can hardly argue with his godmother, much less ever strike her. Combining the emotional power of the mother and the authority of the godfather, she is a vital figure in keeping the peace, and as such she may be a leading personage in village rituals.

Sault discovered, however, during a revisit in 1994 to the same village she had first studied in 1977, that conditions have changed rather dramatically. Transportation links to the outside world have improved so that outsiders—strangers—have frequent access to the village. Also, many people have worked in Mexican cities or the United States and returned to the community, and some outsiders have moved into the village. These changes, combined with the introduction of drugs, have fragmented the village and introduced new levels of violence. As a result, the organizers of community fiestas have to hold them in an enclosed area, with admission fees charged, to help control these new problems with outsider violence in the village. Fiestas are no longer open freely to the community.

In these more closed-off events, which are no longer really community fiestas, there is no longer a peacekeeping role for godmothers and godfathers. They may well not even have the money for admission. Instead of having godmothers to resolve problems before they reach the level of going to court, the fragmented community relies increasingly on adversarial approaches to settle disputes. Furthermore, godparents and godchildren more often move in and out of the community, which also weakens their traditional ties.

Sault concludes her review with the thought that a lot of the literature on aggression and violence focuses on men who fight, with women usually playing the role of onlookers or victims. The Zapotec experience, she writes, “shows that women can be more than victims or spectators” (p.93). Even though the role of the godmother as peacemaker may be eroding, the model of strong women helping maintain peace in a community is an important one to reflect upon. Sault’s interesting article should be widely read.

Sault, Nicole. 2004. “The Godmother as Mediator: Constraining Violence in a Zapotec Village of Oaxaca, Mexico.” In Cultural Shaping of Violence: Victimization, Escalation, Response, 82-94. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press.