María Martínez: Story of an Indigenous Woman

María Martínez Aldana was born in 1939 in Ixtlahuaca, a small village located in the municipality of San Martín de las Piramides in the state of Mexico.  María does not know exactly the day of her birth, “I have two birthdays”, she says, smiling, but what she knows is that this year she will celebrate her 71st. birthday. Although she has slowed down in recent years, Mariquita, as she is normally called, still runs the family house and looks after two of her eleven grandchildren as their primary carer.

Growing up after the Mexican Revolution at the time when the Mexican government launched a de-indigenisation movement of the population in order to create a unique Mexican identity, María lived through the time when many indigenous men and women migrated to the urban areas of Mexico as the only option to improve their living conditions (CDI 2006, Oehmichen Bazan 2005, Reyes Ruiz 2010).

María Martínez is my grandmother and my chief inspiration for conducting sociological research in the areas of gender, indigenous people and migration.  Since my parents were both finishing their professional training and working at the same time, I lived most of my childhood at my grandparents’ house. In fact, it could be said that I was essentially raised by my grandmother. Given my long personal association with María, the story I tell here may be different from those recorded by oral historians or journalists who usually interview their subjects in two or three sessions. The tale I tell here is one I experienced and heard many times while growing up at María’s home, and through more recent deep conversations with her. For the purposes of this work María agreed to be taped and to make public her life-experiences. I also recall conversations that I held with María’s mother, Altagracia (my great-grandmother) in my frequent visits to her place before she died in 1996. Thus, the close relationship and affection that we feel for each other has given me the courage to risk writing the story of this indigenous woman in my own words but relying on hers for descriptions of the most dramatic events in her life.

Feminist scholars, anthropologists, and others have been debating the value of recording life histories for many years. Women’s lives stories, under a feminist approach, may allow to document their lives and activities, which were previously largely seen as marginal and subsidiary to men’s, and to understand women in context (Bryman 2008, Friedlander 1994). Nevertheless life stories can also be seen as exploitative and of limited generalisability (see Skeggs 2001). I must admit that I had great reservation in making my grandmother’s and family history public for the purpose of an article, but I decided to proceed for two main reasons.

First, I see María’s story as a way to contextualize issues about gender relations among indigenous communities in Mexico, indigenous identity and de-indigenisation in Mexico, and especially the struggles of indigenous women in the realms of rapid and almost forced modernisation and development in Latin America. In this work I refer to María as an indigenous woman, even though the story I tell does not focus entirely in her indigenous origins. If this sounds contradictory, it should, for that is precisely the point. The fact that María was born in a poor peasant community with pre-Hispanic vestiges and that she was denied the right to learn the indigenous language marks her as descendant of those whose culture was diminished five hundred years ago and who have since been condemned to occupy the bottom rung of Mexico’s socio-economic ladder. While María never expresses shame about her indigenous origins, she sees her life and the lives of her relatives as a steady struggle to improve their socio-economic circumstances, a struggle often requiring the rejection of those traditions identified as “indian” [sic] and acquire, when possible, attributes associated with upward mobility which involved (and still involve) the aspirations of the white western society.

My second reason for writing about María’s story is simple and direct: she had a tough but wonderful story to tell which gave texture and inspiration to the ‘social aspects’ I want to explore and analyze.

Thus, in this work I present María’s story in two sections. The first one is dedicated to María’s childhood and her upbringing. Here I relate the social environment where María grow up and the opportunities and/or disadvantages that, as indigenous person and woman, she faced. The second section relates to her migration to Mexico City and her incorporation to the labour force, again under the circumstances that her indigenity and gender represents. In this section, I also recount María’s hasty partnership and maternity, and then I briefly end with her current life situation.

María’s story


María Martínez Aldana is the 12th of 14 children. Her name at birth was María Ascención Martínez Aldana García, but later on she regularised her birth certificate and decided to be officially named María Martínez Aldana. María’ story reaches back to the days of her grandparents, one of whom was still alive when she was a young girl (her father’s mother Dominga). María’s grandparents lived through the Mexican Revolution of 1910. She said that they were not originally from Ixtlahuaca (she does not know where exactly they came from) but they were forced to move to this previously  isolated region  because María’s grandfather did not want to be recruited by the Mexican army or by the Zapata’s army during the revolution: “they [her grandparents] did not like to be involve with guns”.

María’s mother, Altagracia, married with Vicente (María’s father) when she was fourteen. Altagracia did not go to school and as María points out “she was all the time pregnant”. Altagracia had fourteen children but, according to María, she may have being pregnant more than twenty times. Unfortunately some of her children died soon after they were born. Altagracia started work when María was around six years old selling aprons and clothes in small quantities at the market of San Juan, a two hours commute from Ixtlahuaca by donkey.

Vicente was originally from San Luis, a village near to Ixtlahuaca. Since a young age, Vicente worked in an hacienda[i] that produced pulque[ii].Vicente was in charge of extracting the aguamiel[iii] from the cactuses and of the fermentation process. Apart from his work in the hacienda, Vicente owned a small piece of land where corn, beans and squash was cultivated for family consumption. Meat consumption was rare but when this was affordable mostly came from Altagracia’s flocks of chickens and turkeys.

The family home was very modest; the house consisted of one room with a thatched roof and dirt floor. Vicente, Altagracia and their fourteen children lived there, they slept in petates [iv] or wooden boards and cooked in a corner of the room. They did not have any water, electricity or drainage services until 1996, the last time I visited the town. In my frequent visits to “el rancho” (as we used to call Ixtlahuaca) I remember collecting potable water from a community pipe and going to the toilet in a latrine located around fifty meters away from the main house. María recalls daily life in Ixtlahuaca with humour: “look, at the end of the day it was easier. We did not have to do any household work apart from cooking. Not even sweeping the floor! It could not be dirty…it was made of dirt!”

Neither men nor women in the family wore shoes or sandals. Women used to wear naguas (skirts) and men dressed in white trousers and tops, a typical outfit worn at that time by indigenous men and campesinos (peasants) through Mexico.  Nobody in the family worn underwear and they had at most three changes of clothes.

When María talks about her childhood, she refers to it with mixed feelings. She highlights extreme poverty as part of her upbringing but she also recognises that she had unforgettable happy moments. Since María was one of the youngest children, she emphasized the figure of one of her eldest sisters, Irene, almost fifteen years older than her, who taught her many things:

My mum was very busy with the other children and her sales. My mum was all the time pregnant, so my sister was like my second mum. My mum said that at the same time I was born Irene also had her first baby and she used to breast feed me because my mum did not have enough milk for the other children.

María never have a doll or toy, but she created her own by painting faces on long flat stones, along with her younger sisters Mercedes and Juana. “We also used to play with pinto beans. Those with white spots were our ‘cows’ and we built barnyards with little pebbles for our ‘cows’”.

One of María’s greatest memories refers to January 6 of every year when the family celebrated Altagracia’s birthday. As María mentioned, this was the date when they ate a traditional mole[v], played music and danced: “I think that was the only day when my parents had some fun. I used to have fun too! I stepped on my father’s sandals and I danced with him”.

María has nothing but great admiration for her grandmother Dominga, whom she describes as a woman with strong personality but with a great heart because “she used to defend my mum from my father’s abuses”. María recalls one occasion when Dominga beat in public her own son Vicente because he beat Altagracia. Once, María says, Dominga even put her son in jail when Vicente beat Altagracia so harshly that Altagracia bled from her head:

My grandmother Dominga and my sister Erminia went and talked with the judge… or like the police in the community [the village was ruled under customary law] and he took my father to the jail. Dominga would do everything to defend my mum.

María remembers with sadness that her father discharged his rage or solved his problems by getting drunk with pulque and beating María’s mum: “Mercedes and I tried to stop him, but he was very strong…he beat my mum in the face”.

María went to school until third year. Her mother was against it. Altragracia wondered, if none of María’s previous brothers and sisters went to school so why should María have to go? But María’s father realised that she was interested in learning and allowed her to go to school: “I sat under the sun next to my father when he was reading something. He knew how to read… a little bit, so I asked him all the time about the meaning of the letters”. She started school when she was nine years old and she walked (without shoes) every day around six kilometres to the nearest primary school. “I loved going to school. I even remember that the name of the school was María Elena Vargas de Cruz. I was a very good student, I got great marks but one day my parents decided that enough was enough”.

María stopped going to primary school in order to look after her younger siblings and to start working.  Altagracia found María a job as a baby sitter; she used to look after a little girl. María remembers that with her first payment she bought herself a pair of plastic sandals and a dress for her mum.

In her teens, María became a problem for the family when she became fourteen years old and showed no signs of “becoming a woman”. With no sign of having a period, Altagracia took María to the doctor of San Martin de las Piramides because she was worried that something was wrong with María. María remembers very well that the doctor told her mum: “everything is fine with her; there are women that get their first period until they are 16 or 17. Let her enjoy her childhood, she will be fine”.

Going to Mexico City and getting married

With so many in the family and not enough income to cover their basic needs, María was sent to Mexico City to work as a maid in wealthy houses. First she was sent to learn the skills with her sister Irene who was already a full time cleaner of two wealthy single men that lived in Colonia Anzures[vi].

María recalls the first time she went to Mexico City or El Distrito, as she calls it, with a mix of melancholy and astonishment in her eyes. María saw the city as a big monster which intimidated her but at the same time captivated her.

Can you imagine getting off from a donkey and getting into a bus? (she laughs) Then when I arrived at El Distrito I saw people living in a different way. They had water, electricity, all the services… I liked that. I also saw that women in the city were different, very elegant with stilettos and nice clothes! And me (she laughs) I was wearing my sandals and my naguas like India [sic] María[vii].

It was at that time when Irene cut María’s braids, and according to María it helped her to disguise her origins and to keep her hair tidy.

While working as a maid in Colonia Anzures, María kept visiting Ixtlahuaca every so often to bring money to her family and to work in the fields when there was not enough work in Mexico City. Then, during one of her frequent returns to her town she met the man who is now her husband.  María was sixteen years old when she eloped with Carlos (my grandfather). María narrates that she met Carlos through her brother in law, Margaro. Margaro was married with Marciana,  María’s sister, and Carlos was Margaro’s nephew.

Getting married, or more accurately, taking a partner and having children for María seems to have been a rite of passage. As she says, “every woman in el rancho had to have a man. So I thought … I also have to get married. There was no other option; my destiny was to get married”.

A few months after María eloped with Carlos she fell pregnant with her first child: “one should have babies, although I was scared because I was very young and I did not know what it meant to be a mum”. She also stopped working as a maid and settled down with Carlos in Mexico City. Carlos and María got married few weeks before the arrival of their first child because at that time the Mexican government required that parents were married in order to register a child.

Along with her six children, María kept working in ‘informal’ jobs such as selling wool in los tianguis (flea markets), knitting jumpers, or cooking typical Mexican snacks that her children sold door to door.

As a housewife, as she calls herself, María remembers the rewarding experience of selling Avon beauty products: “I enjoyed selling beauty products. We [the fellow sellers] used to meet every so often and have breakfast together, and the best seller obtained prizes. I once got a hanging clock as a prize”.

Nowadays María still lives with Carlos, has eleven grandchildren, three great-grandchildren and two more will be born soon. She nowadays battles diabetes and her recently diagnosed senile dementia.

[i] Hacienda is a Spanish word for an estate. Some haciendas were plantations, mines, or even business factories. Haciendas originated in land grants, mostly made to Spanish conquerors in Latin America.

[ii] Pulque is a milk-coloured, somewhat viscous alcoholic beverage made from the fermented sap of the maguey plant (cactus), and is a traditional native beverage of Mexico.

[iii] Aguamiel is the sap of the maguey plant. Also called honeywater, it has been used in Mexico as a medicine. In its fermented state this produces pulque.

[iv] Petate is a bedroll used in Central America and Mexico. Its name comes from the nahuatl word petlatl. The petate is woven from the fibers of the palm of petate.

[v] Mole from the nahuatl  mulli or molli (sauce or concoction) is the generic name for several sauces used in Mexican cuisine, as well as for dishes based on these sauces. In contemporary Mexico, the term is used for a number of sauces, some quite dissimilar to one another, including black, red, yellow, and green moles.

[vi] Colonia Anzures is a upper middle class area in Mexico City.

[vii] La India Maria was a character on TV that portrays and ridicules indigenous people in urban areas of Mexico. The character speaks a mix of Spanish and indigenous languages and it is dressed in traditional garb consisting of traditionally braided and ribboned hair, colourful native-type blouses and skirts.


Bryman, A. (2008) Social Research Methods, Third Edition ed., Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.

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Friedlander, J. (1994) ‘Dona Zeferina Barreto: Biographical Sketch of an Indian Woman from the State of Morelos’ in H. Fowler-Salamini, and M.K. Vaughan, eds., Women of the Mexican Countryside, 1850-1990., Tucson & London: The University of Arizona Press, 125-139.

Oehmichen Bazan, C. (2005) Identidad, Genero y Relaciones Interetnicas. Mazahuas en la Ciudad de Mexico., Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico.

Reyes Ruiz, I. (2010) ‘Relato de un Zapoteco en proceso de aculturación’, available: [accessed 22-January-2010]

Skeggs, B. (2001) ‘Feminist Ethnography’, in P. Atkinson, A. Coffey, S. Delamont, J. Lofland, and L.    Lofland, eds., Handbook of Ethnography., London: SAGE

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