January 2007

Sarah Statz


Into the Hearts of the Amazons: In Search of a Modern Matriarchy by Tom DeMott

The suggested subject categories listed on the back of Tom DeMott's Into the Hearts of the Amazons are "Mexico, Travel, Women's Studies, Anthropology." It seems like a tall order for one little book, and it turns out that it is: DeMott's book tries to be many things, but in the end it fails at being any one of them.

The book is subtitled "In Search of a Modern Matriarchy," and is billed as a travel narrative in which the author seeks to find out for himself if the fabled matriarchal society of the Zapotec women of Mexico truly exists. The Zapotecs, who live in the southern Mexican isthmus of Tehuantepec, are indigenous to the region and have the reputation, in anthropological circles, for being a society about which no less a travel guru than Paul Theroux once said "the birth of a daughter is a cause for celebration, and the men turn their wages over to their wives, who control family finances."

DeMott opens his narrative by describing his first journey to the region and his befriending of a mortuary owner, Pablo, and his sister Rosa. Before his first trip is over, he'll help Pablo deliver a casket (finding out about Zapotec death rituals along the way), attend a vela (a holy day/rite of spring which includes a procession, a dance, and much general partying) with Rosa, and end up in bed with her, although ultimately he refuses her sexual advances.

This pattern of strange interpersonal encounters continues, although DeMott does insert shorter chapters between his travel tales to explore what various other travelers, historians, and anthropologists have written about the region. In providing reviews of these sources, such as Andrés Henestrosa's essay "The Forms of Sexual Life in Juchitán," Sergei Eisenstein's documentary film Que Viva Mexico, and Howard Campbell's anthology Zapotec Struggles, DeMott meets his Women's Studies and Anthropology requirements. In these short chapters, the book is most obviously a university press book.

At other moments, most particularly those in which the author describes his many interactions with Zapotec women in the flesh, it is less clear what he is trying to accomplish. For someone interested in finding out what it would be like if "women, rather than men, had the advantage," DeMott seems more interested in sorting out his own feelings toward women in general. Consider how he concludes his refusal of Rosa's initial attentions: "If this were the first kiss, I heard myself reason, there would surely be a second, and a third, and when there wasn't a fourth, how would she make me pay? Sex wasn't sex with any of the women I'd ever known. It was the beginning of a lifetime commitment." By no means is that the only disconcerting personal aside; a hundred pages later, they're still popping up: "Magda did not understand that marriage, or anything else that made a woman unattainable, only made her more attractive to me. Since childhood, I have had a chronic case of wanting those I could not have."

In the end I could have overlooked the book's failure as a scholarly work, not to mention as a travel narrative. But the book's most egregious failure is that only one character is developed, and that is the author himself, who is male. That seems an odd choice in a book that proclaims itself to be about women.

Into the Hearts of the Amazons: In Search of a Modern Matriarchy by Tom DeMott
University of Wisconsin Press
ISBN: 0299216403
272 Pages