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Gender and Religion: Gender and Mesoamerican Religions


Religion forms an integral part of everyday life for indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica. Indeed, religious beliefs and practices cannot be separated from politics, healing, production, and other aspects of life. This article explores the relationship between religion and gender in Mesoamerica, or Middle America, a region extending from Central Mexico to Honduras. The area designates the territories where the ancient Aztec and Maya cultures flourished. Contemporary descendents of these cultures have retained core elements of the Mesoamerican cultural tradition despite a legacy of imperialist invasions. The sections below on the pre-Columbian and colonial periods focus on the Nahuatl-speaking ethnic groups of Central Mexico, including Mexicas, commonly referred to as Aztecs. The section on contemporary religions focuses on Mayas of Chiapas, Mexico.

Research on Gender in Mesoamerican Religions

A gendered perspective on Mesoamerican religions began to emerge in the scholarly literature in the 1960s. Prior to this time scholars were mainly preoccupied with male forms of power in both the material and spiritual realms. The Spanish chroniclers who came to Mesomerica in the sixteenth century included Bernardino de Sahagún, Alonso de Zorita, Diego Durán, and Toribio Motolonía. They were influenced by Christian beliefs and practices and by their patriarchal ideology. Their writings give little attention to the important role women played in religion or in other aspects of life, although they do describe the gender dualities of Mesoamerican deities and the independence of women.

Ethnographers conducting research before the 1960s tended to generalize from data about men to communities at large, although they did note the gender specialization that characterized Mesoamerican life. They reported that involvement in religion was a daily aspect of life for women, complementing men's more formal roles in ritual events. Influenced by the women's movement in the 1970s, anthropologists, historians, and art historians brought a critique of Eurocentric assumptions about religion and gender to their research on Mesoamerican religions. Their studies indicate the significant economic, social, and spiritual roles women filled in Mesoamerica before and after the Spanish invasion. Subsequent scholarship has avoided sweeping generalizations by focusing on the local variations in gender arrangements and religious beliefs and practices across time and space. These studies have changed the way scholars view many traditional dichotomies, such as the domestic/public, sacred/secular, and natural/cultural spheres.

Feminist critiques of the marianismo/machismo dichotomy proposed by the political scientist Evelyn Stevens exemplify progress in refining understandings of gender in Mesoamerica. In a 1973 article, "Marianismo: The Other Face of Machismo," Stevens based marianismo on the Virgin Mary and defined it as "the cult of female spiritual superiority which teaches that women are semi-divine, morally superior to, and spiritually stronger than men" (Stevens, 1973, p. 91). Feminist scholars, such as Marysa Navarro, have criticized marianismo for labeling nonindigenous women throughout Latin America as passive, self-sacrificing, and dependent; for lack of grounding in any specific cultural, geographic, or historical context; and for ignoring the many ways that Latin American women have participated in political movements to challenge gender inequalities.

Pre-Columbian Period

Gender roles are never static across time, geography, or social groups. Prior to the ascendancy of the Aztec state, gender roles in central Mexico had an egalitarian base, and gender was more fluid and negotiable than the first European chroniclers reported. In "Gendered Deities and the Survival of Culture," the anthropologist June Nash documents how changes in Aztec political structure transformed religious symbols and the position of women relative to that of men. Prior to the development of state-level societies, the core social unit in Mesoamerican societies was kinship-based, composed of clans. Later these clans became the basis for complex social stratification. During the formative period of what became the Aztec state (beginning around 800 ce), many deities were dual gender or androgynous figures. Coatlicue, Mother of the Gods, embodied opposites: life and death, night and day, light and dark, and male and female. But by the time of the reign of Itzacóatl (14291440), the Aztec empire was a military state with distinct class and gender stratification. During this period, Huitzilopochtli, the male sun god and war deity, replaced earlier androgynous deities.

Significant class distinctions within the Aztec state divided the nobles, who held political office and controlled the economic resources, from the macehuales (commoners) who paid rent and made up the majority of the population. Gender roles varied by class. The daughters of the nobles attended the calmecac (school for the elite) and could become priestesses. Commoners of both genders filled important ritual roles in their homes and fields.

Although the Aztec state denied women leadership roles, they had equal rights with men legally and economically. They were active producers, healers, and priestesses. A number of scholars describe gender parallelism among Aztec women, with males and females filling different but complementary roles. Most women's work was centered in the home and included weaving, spinning, sweeping, cooking, and caring for children. These tasks were highly valued and had a sacred significance; the home was a place of power. Aztecs compared women's work in childbirth to men's roles as warriors. While priests swept the temples, women swept their homes to defend them against danger and chaos. Wives of warriors swept not only at dawn but at noon and dusk, marking the sun god's path and assuring their husbands' success in battle. As further assurance, women placed their weaving shuttles, symbols of their husbands' weapons, on temple altars.

Colonial Period

The Spanish colonization of Mesoamerica in the sixteenth century led to dramatic changes in the social and spiritual lives of the locals. Millions of indigenous people were killed by disease, warfare, overwork, and murder. Whole villages were relocated and given new Christian names. By the early 1600s, Catholic churches had replaced Aztec ceremonial centers. Men and women were pressed into service and forced to pay tribute in the form of woven goods and agricultural products.

Spanish colonial priests and friars brought with them dualistic philosophical premises that profoundly contradicted those of the indigenous people. They emphasized free will, for example, while indigenous people tended to stress collective will, particularly at the household level, where marriages were tied to household production. In Weaving the Past, the ethnohistorian Susan Kellogg describes how the Spaniards focused on married couples rather than the extended family groupings that were so important in Mesoamerica. Friars exhorted young women to protect their virginity and to seek enclosure through acting modestly, covering their bodies fully, and staying home as much as possible. In some parts of Mesoamerica, priests constructed dwellings where young betrothed men and women came to stay until marriage. Yet priests gave no practical instructions to women and their daughters on how to sequester themselves when they were forced to work outside their home to provide tribute and to survive.

Physical intimidation of women became part of the fabric of life in colonial society. In indigenous communities, the tensions between native and colonial views of proper gender roles undoubtedly fueled the increasing violence toward native women. Men were forced into patriarchal roles in societies where gender equality and cooperation remained a strong principle, and in response to these stresses, many native men resorted to hitting their wives and sometimes to murder. Alcohol abuse was often a factor in the violence. The church encouraged native women to submit to their husbands' authority and to endure violent behavior, further undermining traditional complementary roles.

Native women were not passive in the face of these abuses. Kellogg explores the religious and spiritual roles women used to gain power and deal with the violence and stresses of colonial life. They served as midwives, curanderas (healers), sweepers of the church, and guardians of young women. As guardians, matrons escorted, advised, and protected young girls in schools run by the church. In both Nahua and Maya communities, women also became members of cofradías, religious cofraternities dedicated to the cult of a particular saint or aspect of the Christian deity. These offices allowed women some continuity in authority roles as priestesses and helped maintain a parallel gender structure in government.

During the sixteenth century, the Spanish attempted to enforce their belief system by linking the once-powerful female deities and women's roles as healers and midwives to evil and sorcery. In spite of these associations, some female-oriented beliefs, symbols, and practices persisted. Especially in central Mexico among the Nahuas, female deities were powerful symbols of fertility, sexuality, important foods, and other resources. Friars saw these deities as symbols of pagan beliefs that needed to be expunged. They were never entirely successful in eliminating them, however, due in part to their fear of entering native homes or places of worship, which they believed were tainted by the devil and would endanger their souls.

During the colonial era, the Virgin Mary was the only major sacred female figure Christianity had to offer to the indigenous people. Many women reported that they communicated with the Virgin as well as with Jesus, God, the saints, and demons. These women were viewed as mystics if they lived in convents, where they were tightly controlled. The Monastario of Corpus Cristi, the first convent for indigenous women, was established in Mexico City in 1724. Only the daughters of the indigenous nobles were accepted as novices in the convent. Most indigenous women did not live in convents, and they were often punished for their revelations. In or outside of convents, women's intimate communications with spiritual beings challenged the male church hierarchy's authority as the only legitimate mediators between human beings and spiritual beings.

Over the years native peoples infused the basic Catholic symbol of the Virgin Mary with new meanings. They found in her both an ally and a symbol of their empowerment and liberation. She is often associated with revitalization movements initiated by indigenous people during the colonial era. Several of these movements incorporated armed uprisings, which simultaneously resisted Spanish domination and reasserted indigenous beliefs and practices. A vision of the Virgin inspired the 1712 revolt in the Mayan community of Cancuc in Chiapas. A young woman named María de Candelaria reported that the Virgin Mary had appeared to her and asked that a chapel be built. When the local Spanish priests refused to recognize the visitation, thirty-two indigenous towns joined in a revolt against Spanish control. Their leaders claimed that Saint Peter, the Virgin Mary, and Jesus had called them to create an indigenous priesthood and to liberate themselves from Spanish power. Over a six-month period in 1712 and 1713, Spanish soldiers and their supporters suppressed the uprising. Subsequently, colonial officials instituted minor economic reforms to placate the indigenous population, however these reforms had little effect on reducing their impoverishment.

The Twentieth Century

Prior to the mid-twentieth century, most Mayan peoples of southern Mexico and Guatemala practiced a form of folk Catholicism commonly referred to as Traditionalism, which creatively combines beliefs about Mayan deities with local understandings of Catholicism. Central to Traditionalism are prayer, pilgrimages to places of sacred significance, and festivals carried out in honor of saints on important feast days. By the 1970s and 1980s thousands of indigenous peoples throughout Mesoamerica began to abandon Traditionalism in favor of Protestant churches and progressive Catholicism.


In indigenous communities in Mexico and Guatemala, women play important roles that assure the physical as well as emotional, social, and spiritual well-being of both individuals and communities. For example, women take on important cargos, work on behalf of their communities, literally burdens or weights. Women's cargos include reciting prayers, preparing traditional foods, weaving ceremonial cloths and garments, and working alongside their husbands in a year-long series of obligations to a particular saint. Women often receive the call to serve a cargo from a saint in a dream or vision. After receiving the call, they request their husbands' assistance to fill the cargo. In many indigenous communities, cargo service underscores the complementarity and interdependence between males and females.

Women gain status and heat, a sign of spiritual strength, by working as midwives, healers, and cargo holders. Conceptions of human development among many Mesoamerican peoples see a person starting life in a cold state and then becoming hotter and hotter as he or she matures through serving his or her community. At death a person returns to a cold state. Women can acquire as much heat as men if they fulfill many duties for their communities. Women who communicate with powerful Christian and native deities on behalf of individuals and their communities are respected for their heat and knowledge. These women also enjoy significant independence, often traveling long distances in the night to visit people in need of their services.

Several key conceptions of deities from pre-Hispanic times survive in contemporary Mesoamerica. In highland Chiapas, earth, moon, caves, water, and the Virgin Mary are believed to embody powerful female spiritual forces. The sun is associated with a male god and Jesus Christ. A mother/father/ancestor/protector deity, called Totilme'il in Tzotzil-speaking towns and Me'tiktatik in Tzeltal-speaking towns, is important in daily life. Androgynous conceptions of deities exist as well. In San Pedro Chenalhó, Holy Cross, one of the three patron deities, is said to be androgynous and capable of both benevolent and malevolent acts. Dual and androgynous deities in contemporary Mesoamerican communities suggest that fluid and complementary symbols of gender exist alongside patriarchal ones.


Beginning in the 1960s, the Latin America Catholic Church underwent dramatic changes. The historic meetings of the Second Vatican Council between 1962 and 1965 and the Latin American bishops meeting in Medellín, Colombia, in 1968 emphasized the structural roots of poverty and called on the church to take concrete actions to end injustice. A progressive Catholicism began to spread in regions of Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua. It followed the "preferential option of the poor," placing marginalized peoples at the center of the church's work. Although class rather than gender was the primary concern, the Catholic Church attempted to involve women more fully in its work by training them as workshop leaders and catechists.

Since the 1970s in Mesoamerica, women have been particularly active in Christian base communities, small groups of men and women who meet to discuss their faith and interpret the conditions of their lives through the lens of Catholic doctrine. Through participation in base communities and in other lay roles, women perform important social, religious, and political work in their communities. They also question traditional gender roles, like the division of domestic tasks. Many women began their work in social activism in the Catholic Church. For example, Rigoberta Menchú, an indigenous woman of Guatemala and Nobel Peace laureate, first became involved in social activism as a catechist. In her 1984 autobiography, Menchú recalls the powerful experience of reading biblical stories of men and women who struggled to lead their people from oppression.

In the 1970s in Mexico's southeastern state of Chiapas, women throughout the Catholic diocese of San Cristóbal de Las Casas began to participate in local groups in which they read the Bible and discussed their problems. The most significant problems women face are poverty, racism, alcohol, and domestic violence. In 1992 these grassroots groups became formally linked through the Diocesan Coordination of Women (CODIMUJ). In hundreds of local groups throughout the diocese, the women of CODIMUJ meet to critique unequal gender relations and also to challenge structural forms of oppression, such as racism, political repression, and destructive economic policies.


Many indigenous people in southern Mexico and Guatemala began to convert to Protestantism beginning in the 1970s, with the Pentecostal and Presbyterian churches attracting the largest numbers of converts. (Studies estimate that 20 to 30 percent of the residents of Guatemala and Chiapas are Protestant.) Through affiliation with Protestant churches, poor women find support in surviving dramatic social and economic changes and in some cases for challenging gender subordination.

The anthropologist Linda Green notes that evangelical churches in Guatemala provide a safe space where Mayan widows of the civil war create new forms of community and share emotional, psychological, and material support. Protestant congregations allow native people to reestablish a lost sense of community by creating fictive kin ties, calling one another hermano (brother) and hermana (sister). As people reconstruct their lives in times of social upheaval, they draw on past and present events, creatively blending indigenous worldviews with Christian ones. For example, it is not uncommon for Protestant converts to seek the assistance of traditional healers to treat grave illnesses. Through participation in new Christian churches, men and women redefine gender roles, relations, and ideologies by challenging social problems, such as alcoholism, domestic violence, and spousal abandonment. Women often initiate conversion within households, realizing the specific benefits they gain from ideologies that encourage men to stop drinking. Women's acts of conversion and activities in all-women's groups are part of a broader autonomy movement that sends a powerful message to outsiders that indigenous peoples can control their own affairs. Men have responded to women's new roles in a variety of ways, sometimes converting to new religions after their kinswomen convert, other times punishing their kinswomen for making major changes in their households.

Religion in Secular Movements

Religion is important even in secular movements in Mesoamerica. In contemporary Chiapas, the uprising of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) in 1994 was one aspect of a broad revitalization movement that began to build in the 1970s as a response by indigenous people to their waning control over their lives. Women have played a prominent role in the EZLN uprising, both as military insurgents and as members of civilian support bases who provide material aid to Zapatistas and implement Zapatista programs. The EZLN is a secular movement but includes people from a range of religious affiliations, including Catholics, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, Seventh-day Adventists, and Traditionalists among others. It differs from previous revolutionary models in respecting the religious choice of each member. Members of Zapatista base communities commonly pray before meetings, read the Bible together, and attend religious celebrations.

Women play central roles in base communities by reevaluating their ancestral traditions and bolstering those that serve their own and their households' well-being. The traditions women say they want to preserve are those that do not require centralized or hierarchically organized leadership and in which women have considerable authority. These include preparing altars to welcome back the souls of deceased loved ones on the Day of the Dead; preparing traditional foods daily and for special ceremonies; healing through herbs, prayer, and dream analysis; using a falsetto voice to show respect for elders who have held community cargos; contributing to pilgrimages three times a year to water holes and other sacred places; and weaving and wearing traditional clothing brocaded with ancestral cosmological motifs.

See Also

Christianity, article on Christianity in Latin America; Gender Roles; Liberation Theology; Mesoamerican Religions, article on Contemporary Cultures.


Burkhardt, Louise. "Mexica Women on the Home Front: Housework and Religion in Aztec Mexico." In Indian Women in Early Mexico, edited by Susan Schroeder, Stephanie Wood, and Robert Haskett. Norman, Okla., 1997. See pages 2554. Burkhardt explores the religious significance of domestic occupations viewed as women's work among Mexicas.

Carrasco, Davíd. Religions of Mesoamerica: Cosmovision and Ceremonial Centers. San Francisco, 1990. Overview of Aztec and Mayan religions from the pre-Hispanic period through the colonial era.

Clendinnen, Inga. Aztecs: An Interpretation. New York, 1991. A study of Tenochtitlan on the eve of the Spanish Conquest; includes chapters on male and female roles.

Eber, Christine. Women and Drinking in a Highland Maya Town: Water of Hope, Water of Sorrow. Austin, Tex., 2000. Ethnographic study of alcohol use and abuse and religious change in San Pedro Chenalhó, Chiapas, Mexico, from indigenous women's viewpoints.

Eber, Christine, and Christine Kovic, eds. Women of Chiapas: Making History in Times of Struggle and Hope. New York, 2003. A compendium of ethnographic and humanistic works exploring issues that define women's modern struggles in Chiapas: structural violence and armed conflict, religion and empowerment, and women's organizing.

Gallagher, Ann Miriam. "The Indian Nuns of Mexico City's Monasterio of Corpus Christi, 17241821." In Latin America Women: Historical Perspectives, edited by Asunción Lavrin. Westport, Conn., 1978. See pages 150172.

Green, Linda. Fear as a Way of Life: Mayan Widows in Rural Guatemala. New York, 1999. An ethnography describing the ways widows have been affected by and resisted structural and political violence; includes discussion of women's modern affiliation with Protestantism.

Joyce, Rosemary A. Gender and Power in Pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica. Austin, Tex., 2000. Comprehensive exploration of Mesoamerican gender and power relations from Olmec culture through the sixteenth century, applying Judith Butler's performance theory to suggest how Mesoamericans constructed more fluid and variable gender systems than previously assumed.

Kellogg, Susan. "From Parallel to Equivalent to Separate but Unequal: Tenochca Mexica Women, 15001700." In Indian Women in Early Mexico, edited by Susan Schroeder, Stephanie Wood, and Robert Haskett. Norman, Okla., 1997. See pages 123-143. An overview of the changing legal and social status of Mexica women from the late pre-Hispanic era to the early eighteenth century.

Lavrin, Asunción. "In Search of the Colonial Woman in Mexico: The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries." In Latin American Women: Historical Perspectives, edited by Asunción Lavrin. Westport, Conn., 1978. See pages 2359. An exploration of women's roles in colonial Mexican society. The study focuses on white urban women but also discusses other social and ethnic groups.

Lavrin, Asunción, ed. Sexuality and Marriage in Colonial Latin America. Lincoln, Neb., 1989. An edited book examining religion, sexuality, marriage, and divorce in Latin America from a historical perspective.

Menchú, Rigoberta. I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala. Edited by Elizabeth Burgos-Debray. London, 1984. The life story of an indigenous woman of Guatemala. Includes discussion of the role of Catholicism in Guatemala and Menchú's work as a catechist in her efforts to combat social injustices.

Nash, June. In the Eyes of the Ancestors: Belief and Behavior in a Mayan Community. Prospect Heights, Ill., 1970. Ethnography of the relation between beliefs and behavior in the Tzeltal-speaking Maya township of Amatenango del Valle, highland Chiapas, Mexico. Provides detailed descriptions of the gendering of roles and social spaces and local adaptations to economic and political changes.

Nash, June. "Gendered Deities and the Survival of Culture." History of Religions 36 (1997): 333356. A gendered historical analysis of the transformation in conceptions of female and male Mesoamerican deities from pre-Aztec to contemporary times.

Navarro, Marysa. "Against Marianismo." In Gender's Place: Feminist Anthropologies of Latin America, edited by Rosario Montoya, Lessie Jo Frazier, and Janise Hurtig. New York, 2002. See pages 257272. Critique of marianismo, a term coined in 1973 by Evelyn P. Stevens to describe women's status in Latin America. Navarro argues that marianismo is an ahistorical and essentialist fabrication.

Rosenbaum, Brenda. With Our Heads Bowed: The Dynamics of Gender in a Maya Community. Albany, N.Y., 1993. Ethnography exploring gender ideologies, roles, and relations in San Juan Chamula, a highland Maya township of Chiapas, Mexico.

Rosenbaum, Brenda. "Women and Gender in Mesoamerica." In Legacy of Mesoamerica: History and Culture of a Native American Civilization, edited by Robert M. Carmack, Janine Gasco, and Gary H. Gossen. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1996. See pages 321352. Survey of Mesoamerican gender roles, relationships, and ideologies from pre-Columbian to present times and an overview of current issues in the study of women and gender in Mesoamerica.

Sahagún, Fray Bernardino de. Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain. Translated by Arthur J. O. Anderson and Charles E. Dibble. 13 vols. Santa Fe, N. Mex., 19521983. A sixteenth-century treatise on Aztec culture with a detailed account of gender roles from the colonial period.

Schroeder, Susan, Stephanie Wood, and Robert Haskett, eds. Indian Women in Early Mexico. Norman, Okla., 1997. Edited volume of essays by ethnohistorians describing the lives of women in pre-Columbian and colonial Mexico.

Stephen, Lynn. Women and Social Movements in Latin America: Power from Below. Austin, Tex., 1997. Focuses on grassroots women's movements in Mexico, El Salvador, Brazil, and Chile.

Stevens, Evelyn. "Marianismo: The Other Face of Machismo." Female and Male in Latin America: Essays, edited by Ann Pescatello. Pittsburgh, Pa., 1973. See pages 89-101. Describes the concept of marianismo, or the cult of female superiority, which Stevens applies to mestizas throughout Latin America.

Tuñón Pablos, Julia. Women in Mexico: A Past Unveiled. Translated by Alan Hynds. Austin, Tex., 1998. An overview of Mexican women's lives from pre-Hispanic times through the 1980s. Explores the relationship between myths about women and the historical realities of their lives.

Christine Eber (2005)

Christine Kovic (2005)

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