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News > Mexico

Mexico’s Tzeltal Women Break Down Barriers in Traditional Music

  • Blanca Estela’s dream is at some point to accompany the ancestral musicians at the ceremonies, but for the moment she is content to play only for her family and friends.

    Blanca Estela’s dream is at some point to accompany the ancestral musicians at the ceremonies, but for the moment she is content to play only for her family and friends. | Photo: EFE

Published 23 September 2019

These women are the first to try and break down the myths surrounding music among their people, seeing it as an opportunity to ensure that their traditions and language survive.

Women of the Tzeltal tribe in southeastern Mexico are breaking down barriers performing ancestral music from their villages, a role that had been reserved for men.

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Blanca Estela Gomez, 25, gained a passion for traditional music when she became acquainted with her ancestral culture thanks to workshops offered by the culture center in Oxchuc, a town in Mexico’s Chiapas state.

“I really became interested in wanting to learn when I heard the traditional music among the prayers the family made, that sparked my interest in wanting to learn, it made me want to play the guitar well,” she said to EFE.

For the past five years, the Oxchuc culture center has been pursuing a campaign of inclusion, in a bid to open the door for women interested in learning to play musical instruments and the songs that accompany the “Pat O’tan” - which in the Tzeltal language means “ceremonial speech,” of the “Kavilto” (one who prays, or shaman).

“What our grandparents said, and they were right, is that music is sacred. There are places where only men play music. Right now, we don’t see it like that in my situation as a teacher of traditional music. I don’t want to set women apart, and they say that there’s gender equality, so here they learn equally and it’s very nice,” said Manuel Santis Gomez, a teacher of traditional music at the culture center.

The Oxchuc residents consider themselves to be guardians of an ancestral culture for which music is a fundamental part. It not only harbors melodies and lyrics, but it also contains the identity (of the people) and it contains much poetry.

Breaking the tradition has been gradual. Santis Gomez said that they start teaching the women to play the guitar and raising the awareness of the tribespeople that a women is also strong and can play too.

“They support what I’m doing because I do it well. It’s part of the culture, it’s part of our tradition. Whenever we want to have a prayer within our family I can play the guitar accompanied by someone playing the harp,” she said.

She said she is very secure in her abilities, adding that she’s ready to accompany or lead the Pat O’tan.

Reina Guadalupe Perez has been learning to play the harp for four months, walking half an hour to get to her classes, and she dreams of playing the instrument well. So far, her family has supported her and she hopes to be accepted and recognized as a traditional musician.

“I want to play the harp, right now it’s changed, they’re taking us into account a bit more and ... my mother is happy I’m here, she pushed me and it’s something I want to do, ... because it’s something one feels and I’m here because I like this and they are new experiences,” she said.

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