February 13, 2009
By Gabriel Martinez
In the small Mexican town where I grew up, wedding was a religious ceremony celebrated by the entire town.
In San Marcos, a village of about 1,500 people, where they speak Zapotec the terms boyfriend and girlfriend do not exist. Not until recently have younger generations started to use Spanish words like “novios.” Even in the modern times, using the term “novios” is still informal and unlike the United States, couples choose to marry directly after the parents and close relatives’ approval.
Usually, a man will take the initiative to propose marriage. In this patriarchal society, he must prove that he is a worthy man, even if it is just to enter into a home to inquire about marriage. Parents who serve as gatekeepers are strict in selecting the future son-in-law. Traditionally, parents want a hard working person, without bad habits like drinking, someone who respects his elders and someone who can guarantee a stable future for their daughter.
Asking for a wife is a laborious task in rural Oaxaca, Mexico. A man must propose for marriage on Sunday, after the sunset. When approaching the future in laws’ home, he takes precaution of the brave dogs who guard the home and can attack without warning. Back in those days, most of the houses sat naked only surrounded by tall cactus trees. Families felt better protected if their dogs were brave.
Sometimes, the first two attempts for entrance into the house fail when parents give different reasons such as their daughter goes to school, not yet ready for marriage, too young or the families are too closely related. He must try at least three Sundays before giving up. Once the future groom is received in the home, he walks to the catholic altar to ask for God’s permission. Then, he offers a cigarette to the future bride’s parents. If the cigarette is welcomed, it is a good indication that they are willing to begin a dialogue.
If everything goes well and he is welcomed in the home at the first try, on the second Sunday, he is allowed to confront the future wife and propose to her by asking for her hand. No ring is needed. It is common for the future bride to take at least one week to decide. On the third Sunday, he will go back for an answer, if the news is good, the following Sunday both families will meet and ask for each other’s approval.
As soon as the groom’s family learns about the marriage proposal, they seek help from an elderly person, a mediator known in Spanish as “hue-huete.” A huehuete is a person of knowledge and wisdom, highly respected in the community, who delegates and oversees the entire wedding process.
The elaborate wedding begins with the asking for the bride, or “pedidos.” During this ceremony, the fiancé’s parents and immediate family take candles, foods, drinks, mezcal, beers and fruits to the fiancée’s family. The gifts are presented to her parents in front of the catholic altar, in the presence of the virgins and saints’ statues.
Sometimes the gifts and dowries are brought for three Sundays, but it depends on the economic situation of each family. In the following days, parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents and godparents gather to offer advice to the fiancée while they eat, drink and enjoy the presents.
Finally, the wedding date is agreed upon; often months ahead. While the couple waits for the wedding date to arrive, they gain permission to talk to each other and get to know one another. At this stage, the fiancé’s skills as a farmer and a hunter are tested to determine if he can carry out his role as a husband. If not, the father-in-law coaches him. The fiancée is also tested for her domestic abilities and coached if necessary.
By scheduling the wedding ceremony far in advance, it allows the bride’s family to shop for gifts and presents for the bride. When her family accepted the food and drinks from the groom’s family, they committed to reciprocate with dowries in the form of china plates, kitchenware, armoire (baúl in Spanish), goats, cows or young bulls. The most important dowries like baúl and mortar and pestle are supplied by godparents of the bride. If the bride does not have siblings, she inherits land, property and all of her parents’ belongings once they pass away. Reciprocating dowries is custom. This is to prevent the newly weds from struggling with the basic needs of independence.
On the wedding day, four men carry a throne on their shoulders where the bride is seated and they dance at every main intersection of the town following a marching band. Brides’ guests follow the procession carrying and exhibiting the dowries publicly. The peak moment of the wedding is when the guests gather at the tables under a gigantic tent to drink hot chocolate. This is the equivalent of the cutting of the cake. The groom and bride dip a piece of bread into a cup of hot chocolate and gently hand feed their guests as the marching band plays cheerful music. After the wedding, there is no honeymoon to Las Vegas or Hawaii.
Generally couples wed at 18 years of age, but there are incidents were couples get married as early as 14, but only with the priest’s approval. Civil matrimony is not a big deal in this town.
Before I left San Marcos, in the early 90’s, my aunt had a white dress, which she rented for the wedding ceremony. Today as the cross-migration between the US and Oaxaca grows, grooms will buy their tuxedo and gown in the US and return to Oaxaca to get married. At the extreme incident, when the groom resides in the US, letters are sent to San Marcos asking for bride’s hand. None of these marriages are arranged, however, consent is still needed from parents and all involving sides.
A couple of weeks ago, The Los Angeles Times published a story, “Culture clash leads to arrest”. The article talks about Marcelino de Jesus Martinez, a Triqui man (one of the 14 ethnic groups in Oaxaca) who was charged with procuring a child under 16 to engage in a lewd act, aiding and abetting a statutory rape and child cruelty.
Police leaned about Martinez, when he complained that the 18 year old male who was supposed to marry his 14 year old daughter failed to deliver 16,000 dollars, 100 cases of beer, meat and other items promised as dowry. According to the story, if convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of almost nine years in jail.
This story has been taken out of context, however, and has become a parody in the media, particularly the Spanish media. It humiliates Native American like people from Oaxaca for their millennia long traditions. However the state has a duty to protect underage children and enforce the country’s law.
Gabriel Martinez is a writer and journalist from Oaxaca who lives in Riverside, California. He is the author of self-published book “La Jugada de Alfredo el Pelotero,” which talks about oaxaqueño basketball in Los Angeles. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org