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Shaping the Motherhood of Indigenous Mexico, by Vania Smith-Oka.

September 29, 2013

Shaping the Motherhood of Indigenous Mexico, by Vania Smith-Oka.  Vanderbilt University Press (2013), Paperback, 264 pages.

 An anthropologist’s account of programs by the Mexican government claiming to empower Indigenous women as mothers but which train them instead to be more obedient and docile toward their authority.

Vania Smith-Oka teaches at Notre Dame and specializes in medical anthropology and issues of reproduction, motherhood, physician-patient relationships, and access to healthcare for marginalized populations, especially women in the global south.  In her research she spent months in the Indigenous village of Amatlan in eastern Mexico where she talked with the women and the health providers about their experiences.

 What Smith-Oka found was that the results of the program designed to empower Indigenous women were the opposite of those sought.  With good intentions, the Opportunidades program gave Indigenous women cash rewards for following the requirements of the program.  The women were to attend meetings to learn about better nutrition and education for their children.  They were to bring themselves and their children in for physical examinations on a regular basis.  Since no household could receive more than one Opportunidades payment, married children could not live with their parents, destroying traditional patterns of extended families.  Much pressure was placed on women to stop nursing their infants despite the fact that some women continued to do so in secret.  In addition, they were strongly pressured to give birth in hospitals following western practices and to adapt birth control, usually involving operations to become sterilized.  None of the measures addressed men’s involvement in conception or in raising children, despite the fact that women often choose whether or not to be sterilized based on what their husbands demanded.

 Smith-Oka credits the program with improving the health of the children and economies of the women’s families, but she believes that the strict rules which the women are forced to obey and the attitudes of the nurses and doctors toward them created an atmosphere of docility.  They are not empowered, but shaped into an  homogeneous image of modern Mexican women participating in a consumer culture.  Although strong, assertive women in their village, they are frightened and silenced by professionals in the clinics.  Criticized for not meeting the mainstream Mexican definitions of motherhood, they become ashamed of being rural, poor, and Indigenous.   They are told they alone are responsible for their children’s future.  Mothers become the scapegoats for situations resulting from poverty caused by their lack of economic and political power.

Because she lived in the village and became friends of the women she was researching, Smith-Oka can tell their stories.  She makes their voices part of what we know about the women rather than relying solely on top-down analysis of their situation.  While this practice has its own basis, it is a healthy alternative to seeing how the women respond to the development schemes of outsiders.  If programs are to succeed, we need to hear stories like the ones Smith-Oka brings.  In addition, readers get acquainted with the Indigenous women in her account. Their tales are simply a pleasure to read and expand our understanding of what motherhood means to different women around the globe.

Placing her own study in context, Smith-Oka reviews a variety of research and theory about development projects elsewhere and those whom they are designed to serve.  She is knowledgeable about post-modern theories about how dominate classes manipulate those who are dependent on them. She usually relies on the women telling their stories rather than jargon.  Her use of theory never overtakes the particular facts that she finds in her research.

 Recently I have read several books about Indigenous peoples, especially those in Australia and in Africa.  Smith-Oka’s presentation does not contradict what I have read elsewhere, but adds a dimension that others have not included; that of mothers and of government attempts to change women’s behaviors in important and intimate ways.  I have no real idea whether or not Indigenous mothers on other continents in other development schemes have parallel stories to tell.

 I heartily recommend this book for all interested in Indigenous women and political attempts to “modernize” their most personal behavior.







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