Part III: Latin America

Chapter 10: Mexico’s Antipoverty Program Oportunidades and the Shifting Dynamics of Citizenship for Ñuu Savi (Mixtec) Village Women

Holly Dygert

This chapter examines how the Mexican antipoverty program, Oportunidades, transformed Indigenous village women’s economic status while promoting a type of “maternal citizenship.” The author discusses how program officials pressured low socioeconomic status mothers to make their income-generating opportunities secondary to their care-work obligations. Yet these women saw income-generating activities to be central to mothering. They contested the ways the program threatened their precarious economic status and their social bonds.

Learning Objectives

  • Analyze the role of gender in shaping conceptions and practices of citizenship.
  • Examine how gender identities are produced and transformed in association with social programs.
  • Define the key characteristics of maternal citizenship.
  • Compare different assumptions about the economy and its relationship to maternal citizenship.

In the late 1990s, Mexican officials launched Oportunidades, a new kind of social program that has greatly transformed the nature of citizenship for economically marginalized Mexican women. The program was originally launched in 1997 by the Ernesto Zedillo administration as Progresa. In 2002 the Vicente Fox administration expanded the program and renamed it Oportunidades. More recently, in 2014, the Enrique Peña Nieto administration renamed the program Prospera. I refer to the program here as Oportunidades because my research focused on the Oportunidades period. Officials launched the program during an extended period of neoliberal reforms. The reforms marked an end to Mexican officials’ efforts to spur economic growth through investment in “priority” economic sectors and a shift toward greater reliance on “the market” and, more specifically, investors’ desires to generate wealth—to drive economic growth (see chapter 1). In this context, officials designed Oportunidades to improve the health and education status (or “human capital”) of youth in economically marginalized families. In doing so, they aimed to equip the next generation to take advantage of the income-generating opportunities that the neoliberal strategy would create. They adopted a multipronged strategy to achieve this goal: first, they designated female household heads as formal Oportunidades beneficiaries, or titulares, in recognition of women’s key roles in caring for their children. Second, they made titulares eligible for small payments (of about $30 bimonthly in 2004) to help them secure the material resources needed to meet their children’s health and education needs. And third, they made access to these funds contingent on the fulfillment of multiple health- and education-related “co-responsibilities,” including for members of recipient families to attend annual health consults, for school-aged children to attend school, and for mothers to attend monthly health education sessions. Moreover, officials provided additional payments to families with children in the third grade and beyond in order to combat declines in school attendance among older children. They increased the size of these payments for children in higher grades and among girls in an effort to reduce dropout rates among these populations.

At the same time that Mexican officials launched Oportunidades, they implemented a rigorous program of evaluations to measure the program’s effectiveness. Data from these evaluations have consistently demonstrated the success of the “conditional cash transfer” (CCT) approach in achieving key goals, such as improving child nutrition and health outcomes and increasing educational attainment (see Fitzbein and Schady 2009 for an overview). These results have prompted officials to implement versions of the approach in diverse regions across the globe (Peck and Theodore 2010).

With the popularization of CCTs, researchers have begun examining the broader social transformations that these programs engender. In doing so, feminist scholars have directed attention to their role in advancing new conceptions of maternal duty (see, e.g., Molyneux 2006; Cookson 2018). This scholarship builds on a robust body of feminist inquiry on citizenship, which has critically examined the gendered dynamics through which individuals are differentially positioned in relation to the civic, political, and social rights and duties attached to membership in a community. Some of this work has examined the gender biases of Western liberal traditions of citizenship, tracing how the privileges of citizenship were historically bestowed on a “free” (male) public sphere that was premised on the hidden (female) labor and dependency in the private space of the home (Lister 1997; Warby 1994). More recent studies of how CCTs are producing new kinds of maternal citizens—citizens whose rights and duties are based on their maternal status—underscore the importance that state initiatives continue to play in reproducing these gendered forms of citizenship.

In this chapter, I build on this work by examining the economic dimensions of the form of maternal citizenship that officials promoted through Oportunidades. To do so, I draw from observations of the program in a rural, Tu’un Savi (Mixtec)–speaking village in southern Mexico, which I call “Ñuquii.”. (I use pseudonyms for the village and the individuals whose experiences I describe here.) Ñuquii means “Green Village” in the Tu’un Savi language. Ñuquii is a village of about twelve hundred residents located in the Mixteca Alta (Mixtec Highlands) region of the state of Oaxaca. At the time I began working in the village in late 2003, the municipality had an average per capita annual income of $933—a tiny fraction of the national average of $7,495 (INEGI n.d.). Accordingly, a full three-quarters of Ñuquii’s households had been designated significantly economically marginalized to receive Oportunidades and so were enrolled in the program.

By emphasizing the economic significance of Oportunidades’ positioning of titulares, this chapter captures the important role that gendered assumptions about economic gain played in shaping the program’s conceptions of maternal citizenship. It also facilitates an examination of how particular legacies of nation building shaped the economic realities of maternal citizenship for women. As I show below, the processes through which these legacies intersected with Oportunidades’ form of maternal citizenship had great significance for the experiences of titulares in Ñuquii.

I collected the data that I draw from here primarily during an eighteen-month period of ethnographic research in 2003 and 2004. I returned to Ñuquii in the summer of 2011 to present the findings from the initial period of research and to learn about continuities and changes in the program since my departure. In 2012 I returned again and conducted additional interviews with villagers and health providers and officials. This chapter draws primarily from the 2003 and 2004 data. In doing so, it provides insights into how Oportunidades had transformed the lived dynamics of citizenship for low-income village women in the earliest years of the twenty-first century.

I begin below by tracing how key aspects of twentieth-century Mexican statecraft produced the gendered spaces of marginality that villagers in Ñuquii (and other communities across Mexico’s rural south) inhabited. I then turn to an examination of the positioning of titulares as maternal citizens in Oportunidades, giving particular consideration to the economic dimensions of this positioning. In doing so, I describe important divergences between titulares’ conceptions of maternal duty and those of village women. Finally, I explore the material consequences of this conception of maternal citizenship for the women who were designated Oportunidades beneficiaries in Ñuquii.

Ñuquii: Background and Context

Mexican officials’ twentieth-century economic development efforts helped shape the context in which villagers struggled to seguir adelante (“get ahead”) in Ñuquii in 2003 and 2004. In the early twentieth century, Mexican leaders envisioned a key role for small-scale agricultural producers in the nation’s economic development. As they began to devote significant investments in key economic sectors in the 1940s and 1950s, however, they largely neglected the agrarian sector. Instead, they prioritized the development of manufacturing along key urban corridors and the northern border and large-scale, industrialized agricultural production in the north. These and other investments (e.g., the development of Mexico’s petroleum industry) produced the so-called Mexican miracle, in which the economy maintained average growth rates of 6 percent per year from the 1940s through the 1960s. This growth was limited to specific regions and sectors of the economy, however, and the south—and especially the rural south—languished.

The legacies of this history were evident in Ñuquii, where a full 91 percent of the villagers that I interviewed indicated that their households carried out some form of milpa production (intercropping corn, beans, and squash on small, mainly rainfed plots). Many villagers received payments (e.g., $150) from the government-run PROCAMPO program to support this production, but the small size of agricultural plots (typically less than 1 hectare), limited access to irrigation, and poor-quality soils limited the productivity of the milpa. In fact, the harvest usually fell short of meeting even families’ own needs for consumption. Thus, villagers carried out a range of additional activities to generate income, such as producing artisan crafts (either weaving palm or threading silk) (84 percent), working intermittently as mozos (agricultural day laborers) on fellow villagers’ plots (40 percent), planting additional crops for sale in area markets (e.g., a few bundles of cilantro or a basket of tomatoes), and raising a hog or two for sale. In addition, a small but significant population of village women had carved out a place for themselves in the regional economy as full-time market vendors (purchasing goods wholesale and reselling them in area markets).

The returns from most of these activities were meager. For example, in 2004, a man could earn about $5 and a meal for a day’s work as a mozo, while a woman could earn about $4 and a meal. Among the two forms of artisan craft production, silk production provided better earnings. Silk buyers paid about US$250 per kilo, which villagers said that they could produce in about three months if they worked consistently. With local income-generating options so limited, villagers had long migrated to take advantage of better opportunities elsewhere, and 38 percent of the villagers that I interviewed in 2004 reported receiving some form of remittance from migrants. Typically, men migrated to destinations such as Mexico City to work in the industrial or construction sectors, or to northern Mexico to work in the agricultural fields. More recently, villagers had also begun migrating to destinations in the United States to work in the agricultural and service sectors. Because of these gendered patterns of migration, women predominated among resident villagers, especially among those of working age. For example, while girls and boys were equally represented among youth aged five to nineteen in the census that I conducted, women were overrepresented among villagers and older. The imbalance was especially pronounced among villagers aged thirty to forty-four, among whom only about half as many men (54) were in residence as women (103).

In Ñuquii, villagers’ struggles to generate a livelihood were further shaped by Mexico’s twentieth-century nation-building efforts. During the 1920s, Mexican leaders claimed modern Mexico as a distinctly mestizo nation, one that would be grounded in the orientations and conventions of the “mixed-blood” descendants of the Spanish colonizers and the Indigenous inhabitants of the land. They launched an Indigenista project to “incorporate” Indigenous populations into this nation-state by providing the training in the Spanish language and mestizo habits and orientations that they deemed necessary (see, e.g., Dawson 2004). As officials extended initiatives to provide this training, mainly through the educational sector, Indigenous populations increasingly gained familiarity with the skills, styles, and orientations needed to navigate mestizo spaces.

Within Indigenous communities, however, this process was uneven. One source of unevenness was the incremental process through which these opportunities were made available. For example, the first villagers to access formal educational training in Ñuquii received just one or two years of study, but local educational opportunities expanded over the second half of the twentieth century to include both primary and secondary schools. Because of this incremental process, age is closely linked to educational status and, therefore, to a facility with the Spanish language and familiarity with Mestizo social conventions in Ñuquii. Historical gender divergences in relation to these initiatives were another important source of unevenness. When educational opportunities first became available in Ñuquii, most families determined that they would best serve men as they navigated mestizo spaces on behalf of their families and the community. Accordingly, these opportunities were often initially limited to men and boys. Although women’s educational status has increased significantly over the second half of the twentieth century, gendered disparities in educational attainment in Ñuquii reflect this legacy. For example, as table 1 shows, while slightly over half of the villagers who were thirty years old or older when I interviewed them in 2004 had no formal educational training, 71 percent (12) were women, while only 29 percent (5) were men. Moreover, all of the men were sixty-four years old or older, while the youngest woman with no formal educational training was twenty-nine years old, and several were in their forties and fifties. Rates of educational attainment were significantly higher among villagers aged fifteen to twenty-nine, but gender divergences remain evident. Most significantly, of the five villagers whose educational training was limited to some degree of primary school training, four were women.

A woman is standing and smiling in an open corridor, women sitting along the sides behind elaborate flower bouquets.
Figure 10.1. Ñuquii women taking a break from dancing for the Patron Saint festival in 2004. Holly Dygert.

Since economic and political power was (and still remains) concentrated in mestizo spaces, these divergent rates of education had great significance for villagers’ efforts to secure a livelihood. The economic advantages that education conferred were especially evident in the experiences of professionals. Since Mexican officials had failed to invest in productive activities in the region, professional positions associated with the Indigenista project itself were among the few well-paid local income-generating opportunities. (i.e., in the educational sector). In more recent years, with the launch of Oportunidades, new professional opportunities have emerged in the health sector. Only those with the most extensive formal educational training could compete for these posts. They typically earned between a thousand and fifteen hundred pesos per week, which was equivalent to about US$100 to US$150 at the time. Even those with less extensive educational training benefited from the ability to navigate the Mestizo worlds that existed outside the community in order to access better income-generating opportunities. As a result, in 2003 and 2004, professionals and the most successful migrants comprised the approximately one-quarter of households that had accumulated sufficient wealth to make them ineligible for Oportunidades. They typically invested some of their earnings in local businesses (e.g., variety stores, a corn mill, a pharmacy, a school supplies store), and in doing so further augmented their wealth. They owned the fifty-three cement and brick homes that clinic officials identified in their census of early 2004, nineteen of which comprised five or more rooms. They also owned the few dozen manufactured stoves (41) and refrigerators (42) that the same census located in Ñuquii at the time. And a select few owned automobiles (12), telephones (7), and septic systems (4).

Meanwhile, most households enrolled in Oportunidades in 2004 possessed little material wealth. They lived in one- or two-room residences. Their homes were usually constructed of adobe bricks, but those with the fewest resources lived in residences constructed of drafty wooden planks. Most of these residences had floors made of dirt and roofs made of corrugated tin or asbestos. And while virtually all households possessed a radio, most lacked more expensive manufactured goods such as stoves, televisions, and refrigerators.

Those with minimal or no formal educational training faced formidable barriers to accessing better economic opportunities. In practical terms, lack of familiarity with the Spanish language and mestizo social conventions made navigating the mestizo-dominant social contexts that prevailed outside of the village extremely challenging. Na Martha (Na is an honorific that conveys age and gender status, meaning “Mrs.” or “grandmother”) a monolingual Mixtec-speaking woman who was in her early seventies in 2004, referred to these challenges on multiple occasions during our conversations, exclaiming that she “couldn’t survive” outside of Ñuquii because she “wouldn’t know what to eat” (Na Martha, personal communication). Maria Luisa, a forty-two-year-old bilingual woman conveyed similar sentiments, asserting “I can’t travel because I can’t read and I’m scared to leave!” (Maria Luisa, interview by author)

When villagers did leave the community, those who failed to uphold the conventions of mestizo social engagement were often treated poorly. Indeed, even in the one area where low-income village women had carved out a successful space for themselves in the economy—as merchants in regional markets—they frequently experienced mistreatment while going about their work. For example, villagers complained to me that transport workers often mishandled these women’s goods when they traveled to area markets, carelessly tossing their wares, and that bus drivers sometimes tricked them into paying extra for their fares. In addition, in Tlaxiaco, the site of the region’s largest market, locals referred disparagingly to these women as “Marias” and treated them disrespectfully when they attempted to make their own purchases. And villagers recounted that district officials had harassed the women for taxes that they couldn’t afford and dismantled their stalls when they failed to pay up.

Thus, the gendered dynamics of the twentieth-century Indigenista project left many village women at the bottom of regional social hierarchies. Juana, who was fifty-five years old when I interviewed her in September of 2004, provided a keen reflection on the resulting gendered (and generational) differences in villagers’ positions in relation to these broader inequalities:

Like, the people of my generation, as you see—I say for myself—we still dress dirty. Because I’m always in front of the fire [cooking]. I’m poor, at home . . . It began to change when [people] started to leave… They dress differently. They travel, get some money, build a house, get more money, and the homes improve. And in my case I don’t go anywhere and—well, things stay the same as before. (Juana, interview by author)

This was the context in which three-quarters of Ñuquii’s households received Oportunidades assistance in 2003 and 2004. Below, I examine how the positioning of titulares as maternal citizens in Oportunidades shaped their experiences in the program.

Maternal Citizenship in Oportunidades

Since members of households that received Oportunidades assistance were obliged to attend health consults, and titulares were required to attend monthly health education sessions, the public health sector played a primary role in administering the program. In Ñuquii, villagers received health services from a federally run IMSS-Oportunidades health clinic that officials had established in the village in 1996. A physician presided over the clinic’s health initiative and was assisted by two local health aides and a local rural health assistant. The mestiza physician who presided over the clinic when I initially arrived in Ñuquii in 2003 was replaced by a new mestiza physician in 2004. Meanwhile, Carmen, a village woman who turned twenty-eight in early 2004, had served as the clinic’s full-time health auxiliary since the clinic opened in 1996, while Teresa, who was twenty-seven, served as the part-time health auxiliary. A third village woman, thirty-six-year-old Veronica, held the rural health assistant post. Together, the four shared responsibility for providing the health consults and health education sessions and certifying titulares’ compliance with these requirements. Titulares who failed to fulfill these obligations risked receiving a falta (or absence), and those who accumulated three faltas could lose their economic assistance.

The health officials and providers that I spoke with in 2003 and 2004 viewed their work as a source of empowerment for women like those I came to know in Ñuquii. They claimed that gender inequalities were especially a hindrance for Indigenous women. For example, in an interview in May 2004, Teresa exclaimed, with great frustration, “There is so much machismo, and machismo doesn’t allow women to develop as women!” Shortly thereafter, she elaborated:

They [women] are very submissive. They wait for everything, everything from their husbands, when really they are very capable of making decisions. Whatever action they want to take, or whatever they want to do [realizar], they must decide for themselves! (Teresa, interview by author)

In this context, Teresa and others believed that Oportunidades was empowering village women to overcome this subordinate position so they could determine their futures in line with their own desires and interests.

As I noted above, however, Oportunidades positioned titulares as maternal citizens whose rights and duties were based on their role as mothers (see Molyneux 2006). For example, the creators of the program cited evidence that women invest more of their resources in their children than men do in order to name them beneficiaries (Fitzbein and Schady 2009). By making payments to women, they sought to take advantage of this “maternal altruism” in order to maximize the amount of program funds that were ultimately invested in children. Moreover, the program’s creators built on existing patterns in which women were tasked with overseeing the needs of the family in making them responsible for ensuring that their children attended school and that all family members attended health appointments. Finally, the monthly health education sessions, or pláticas, that titulares were required to attend were primarily aimed at strengthening and shaping their care work. In the abovementioned interview, Teresa aptly summarized the altruistic, care-oriented form of maternal citizenship that the program was aimed to produce as she explained the logic behind the pláticas:

Women are the ones who receive the pláticas because it is understood that the woman is the heart (seno) of the family and she is the one who cares for the children, and it’s her who looks out for the well-being of the family. (Teresa, interview by author)

As Teresa suggests, Oportunidades was not designed to support titulares in foregrounding their own interests but rather to build on their tendency to prioritize the interests of their family members. Thus, in pláticas, providers counseled titulares on the preparation of nutritious meals, strategies for organizing and maintaining the household in order to reduce illness, and personal health management (with a special emphasis on managing their own reproductive capacities in ways that maximize opportunities to “invest” in each child).

In many ways, the emphasis on care work in this conception of maternal duties accorded well with normative accounts of the gendered division of labor in Ñuquii. When I asked villagers about this division of labor, many described a public/private split in which men were responsible for generating wealth outside of the home (including in the milpa) and representing the household in public affairs, while women were responsible for work in the solar, or household compound.

Ta Javier and Na Martha, the seventy-something heads of the household where I lived in 2003 and 2004, approximated this ideal as much as anyone else I came to know in the village. As a younger man, Ta Javier’s primary contribution to the household economy had been cultivating the family’s milpa plot. He had sold any surplus they were lucky enough to produce and traveled intermittently to the coast to sell regional goods, returning with coastal goods to sell in and around Ñuquii. In addition, he had represented the family in the municipal polity by participating in communal work details and taking on leadership positions in the civil hierarchy. In 2003 and 2004, he no longer traveled to the coast but continued to work the milpa, now alongside his son and son-in-law. He also participated in communal work assignments and attended the assemblies through which decisions over how to manage village affairs were made.

Na Martha, for her part, carried out most of her work in the solar, and especially in the center of the solar’s social activity: the kitchen. She devoted a significant part of her days to the work of meal preparation. Each evening, she began the process of preparing the next day’s tortillas by making nixtamal (a mixture of corn boiled with lime to loosen the husks that encase the kernels). Then each morning, she arose early to mold the dough into tortillas and bake them on the comal (a special pan used to bake tortillas over an open fire). She also prepared dishes to accompany the tortillas, which always included black beans and salsa; often included eggs, rice, and potatoes or broccoli; and more occasionally included regional specialties like chicken soup with parsley. While carrying out these tasks, she washed dishes, tidied the kitchen, and looked after the chickens that she raised primarily for household consumption. Na Martha took advantage of any time when she was not involved in these tasks to thread silk from the silkworms she raised for sale to a wholesaler.

Villagers’ accounts of the gendered division of labor in Ñuquii, and Ta Javier and Na Martha’s actual patterns of work, appeared quite compatible with the definition of women’s maternal duties within Oportunidades. The two frameworks diverged, however, in their views of mothers’ income-generating activities. As Na Martha’s example shows, even women who carried out most of their work within the confines of the solar contributed to the household economy. Most produced artisan crafts—either raising silkworms and threading silk, like Na Martha, or weaving palm into straw hats and baskets. Many also sold a few select goods out of the home (e.g., keeping a case of soda or beer on hand to sell individual bottles when opportunities arose). And a few performed domestic chores for the small population of professional households.

Moreover, in practice, few women were as tied to the solar as Na Martha. One force that worked against this ideal was male migration. When male household heads left for work, women often took on their responsibilities in their stead. Women also sought additional income-generating opportunities when remittances from migrant men failed to meet the family’s needs. Another force that worked against this ideal was single motherhood. Most of the single mothers with young children that I met in 2003 and 2004 had been abandoned by their partners. In these contexts, and others, women took on a range of activities to generate much-needed income.

In interviews, women characterized these income-generating activities as aspects of their maternal care duties (see Perez 2007). For example, during an interview in September 2004, Maria Luisa, the forty-two-year-old mother of five children whose concerns about managing life beyond Ñuquii I cited previously, said that she became one of the first village women to work as a market vendor while seeking to provide for her son. She recounted that her husband had been working in Mexico City at the time. The money he had sent was insufficient to meet her and her children’s needs, so she sought out her own income-generating opportunities in regional centers like Tlaxiaco and Chalcatongo:

Yes, like I lived with my son, I tell you, and, well, I go to Tlaxiaco, I go to Chalcatongo to search, to sell, even if it is just [to make enough for] a tortilla or [to make] an exchange [barter]. (Maria Luisa, interview by author)

Rosa, a fifty-five-year-old mother of eight, similarly described her work in the market as part of her maternal duties:

Sometimes I go to sell even though it’s just enough [money] for my children, so they can go to school, so they don’t suffer like we’re suffering. (Rosa, interview by author)

Seen from this perspective, income-generating activities were integral facets of maternal care. This association between income-generating activities and maternal care made sense in Ñuquii, where the exchange of goods was a central part of the processes through which villagers established and maintained social ties (Monaghan 1995). In this context, Gloria, a fifty-one-year-old mother of eleven children who I interviewed in July 2004, asserted that parenthood produces a drive to work:

See now, like people who have more children, they have more money, too, because well, like I say, a person with lots of children (un montón) says, I’m going to work hard [to get] what my child needs. (Gloria, interview by author)

Oportunidades health officials and providers, however, viewed income-generating activities as conflicting with women’s maternal duties. One occasion on which I noted this economic aspect of providers’ conception of maternal duties was during a rabies vaccination campaign that the clinic staff carried out in a neighboring village in March 2004. I traveled to the village with Carmen and Teresa to observe the event, and we were joined by the village’s rural health assistant, Elizabeth, upon our arrival. The three women decided to tackle the work of administering the vaccines in teams: I was assigned to assist Elizabeth by recording the name of each titular/dog owner as she stuck the animal with the needle.

After administering the injections in this manner for a few hours, we broke for lunch. As we chatted, Carmen and Elizabeth criticized the villagers, claiming that they “don’t do anything for their kids.” As a case in point, Carmen asserted that parents of sick children often failed to travel to the capital city of Oaxaca often enough to treat grave illnesses. I interjected that villagers’ limited income likely made this quite challenging. On a previous occasion, Carmen had pointed out to me that Yuquijiin’s economic situation was particularly dire because the village lacked a local water source for milpa production. Nonetheless, on this occasion, she denied that these circumstances posed a significant barrier. On the contrary, she asserted that parents needed to echarle ganas, or apply themselves. Moreover, she claimed that parents needed to learn to prioritize and that they should sell their animals to meet their children’s health needs. Elizabeth agreed, asserting that the village was not that poor and pointed to some families that owned as many as twenty goats as evidence. Further, she recounted that one mother had indeed sold one of her goats to acquire the funds she needed to provide medical care for her sick child. She viewed this as confirmation that parents who failed to do the same were negligent in the care of their children; as the clinic’s physician had lamented on another occasion, they “care[d] more for their animals than for their own children” (Dr. Juana, personal communication).

In this conversation, and others like it, providers construed titulares’ economic pursuits as selfish and therefore a violation of their altruistic maternal duties. The clinic’s providers and their regional supervisors expressed similar concerns about another aspect of titulares’ engagement in the market—their spending. For example, in an informal conversation that I had with Carmen in 2004, she complained that titulares (mis)spent their Oportunidades assistance on beer. A regional supervisor made a similar claim when I sought him out to discuss my observations of the program in summer 2012. I informed him that I had observed providers tack additional conditionalities onto Oportunidades assistance, including a monthly village cleaning (see Dygert 2017). In response, he asked me pointedly whether I supported giving people something for nothing. When I replied that I thought there was great need, he pressed, “But if they spend it on beer?” (Dr. Alejandro, personal communication). The specter of titulares spending Oportunidades funds on beer underscored the potential destructiveness of maternal selfishness and so had become a potent means by which providers asserted the righteousness of pressing titulares to “invest” their limited resources in their children.

These conflicts over titulares’ engagement in the market captured how gendered assumptions about economic gain shaped the positioning of titulares as maternal citizens in Oportunidades. While providers expressed expectations that Oportunidades would empower women to act according to their own decisions, their assumption that economic activities conflicted with titulares’ duty to uphold ideals of maternal altruism made titulares’ participation in the market highly visible, suspect, and subject to critique. Meanwhile, the economic engagements of men and other (nonrecipient) women remained unacknowledged, even when they, too, exploited Oportunidades funds for their own personal gain. In fact, Carmen herself took advantage of the bimonthly bonanza that occurred on Oportunidades paydays: it was by far one of the busiest times for her variety store, as droves of women arrived to buy school supplies, sandwiches, and—indeed—beer, and to square up the debts that they had accumulated in anticipation of the payment. Nonetheless, her exploitation of these opportunities remained unacknowledged by providers.

The Material Realities of Maternal Citizenship

When I began working in Ñuquii, I was struck by titulares’ willingness to comply with the demands that the clinic’s providers made on them, particularly since many were not actual program requirements (see Dygert 2017). Titulares did ultimately complain, and their complaints highlighted how providers’ demands pulled them away from their income-generating responsibilities. In underscoring this fact, titulares called attention to the material consequences of these conflicting notions of maternal citizenship, with their divergent assumptions about mothers’ economic engagement. Providers’ demands were especially consequential for titulares because Oportunidades assistance was not sufficient to ameliorate recipient households’ economic marginality. To be sure, in a context in which villagers relied on an average annual income of $993 per capita, the bimonthly base payments of about $30 were a significant source of much-needed income. Nonetheless, the funds were insufficient, in and of themselves, to transform villagers’ marginal economic status. This aspect of the program was intentional: in setting the amount of the program’s payments, the creators of Oportunidades deliberately limited their size in order to avoid disincentivizing work (Fitzbein and Schady 2009, 117–120). Meanwhile, officials did not take steps to address the gendered ways that twentieth-century Mexican statecraft limited titulares’ opportunities: they did not redress the abandonment of the rural south by investing in new economic opportunities, nor did they provide educational training to address the legacies that left village women among the least prepared to compete for the economic opportunities that did exist. As a result, titulares continued to rely on the most poorly paid income-generating activities, such as producing artisan crafts, working as day laborers on fellow villagers’ plots, and selling agricultural produce in area markets. This maintained titulares’ economic dependence on male partners.

Maria Luisa’s recollection of how she struggled to meet her family’s needs while her husband was away working in Mexico City—sometimes making just enough for a tortilla —captures the stakes of these gendered dependencies. By 2004 her household’s economy was much more secure. Her husband had returned from Mexico City, and they seeded milpa on three small (under 1 hectare) rainfed parcels. In addition, Maria Luisa used a small portion of her sister’s land to cultivate some cilantro to sell in area markets. They received PROCAMPO support for their agricultural production. They had purchased a donkey to support this work and were raising six sheep and a pig to sell for income. Maria Luisa also wove palm hats and baskets. She sold some to a wholesale purchaser in the region and others at regional markets. Finally, on Maria Luisa’s youngest daughter’s most recent visit, she gifted her mother a collection of goods (e.g., sodas, eggs) to sell to other villagers from her home.

With this livelihood strategy, and support from Oportunidades, Maria Luisa and her husband had secured a small wooden home with dirt floors. Wooden plank structures were usually the draftiest (and even dilapidated) residences in Ñuquii; however, their home had been constructed recently, and though small was neat and well put together. They also possessed a couple of small appliances (i.e., a radio and a blender). Although Maria Luisa and her husband had accumulated few possessions, they had been able to send their children to school—an objective that the mothers I came to know in Ñuquii shared with Oportunidades officials. At the time of the interview, they were covering the costs of sending their thirteen-year-old son to middle school in Ñuquii, which included both school supplies and forgone earnings. They had also supported one of their daughters in pursuing more extensive educational training, and she was completing her final year of studies to become a nurse. Moreover, they appeared comfortable in their ability to meet these needs. In fact, the household economy was stable enough that Maria Luisa was able to replace her previous craftwork of threading silk with the more poorly remunerated palm weaving after she decided that harvesting the leaves needed to feed the silkworms was too dangerous for her son. Thus, while Oportunidades payments were not sufficient to transform Maria Luisa’s marginal economic status—after all, they still lived in a small home with dirt floors and few possessions—it strengthened their economic security.

While Maria Luisa’s experience captures the insecurities that the temporary absence of a male worker could produce, single mothers had among the most precarious economic circumstances that I observed in Ñuquii. One of these was Gudelia, a titular and mother of two daughters who was thirty-six years old when I interviewed her in July 2004. During the interview, she said that she had become pregnant while working in Mexico City, that it had been “a mistake,” and that the father of her children had never provided any support. She lived with her eighty-year-old mother and the youngest of her two daughters in a small, drafty wooden home with dirt floors. They did not possess any appliances—not even the ubiquitous radio.

Gudelia and her mother were the only villagers that I met who only grew corn on her mother’s small (one-fourth of a hectare) milpa plot—they had decided to invest their scant resources in meeting their consumption needs for the most important staple crop of corn. Even so, Gudelia said that the harvest never outpaced their needs, so she never sold goods in area markets. She generated additional income by working as a mozo in others’ fields when opportunities to do so arose and weaving palm. They did not have any animals to augment these earnings, nor did they receive remittances from migrants. During the interview, Gudelia repeatedly emphasized how difficult it was to meet the household’s material needs. In fact, she was the only villager among those I spoke with who denied attending celebrations because she was unable to assemble the goods (e.g., a stack of tortillas or a case of soda) that attendees were expected to contribute for such gatherings. Their experience captures the limited potential of Oportunidades to transform villagers’ economic status, as well as the gendered relations of dependency that anchored household economies.

With such limited resources, Gudelia had found it difficult to care for her children. The expenses had eased when her fourteen-year-old daughter moved in with a man in the community, and, in doing so, became his common-law wife. This pattern replicated one that several older villagers recounted having experienced in the face of economic adversity: they had to marry “for necessity,” in order to reduce the economic burdens on the household. Not long before the interview, Gudelia’s daughter had become a mother herself and so was focused on caring for her newborn infant.


In examining the positioning of low-income village women as maternal citizens in this chapter, I have emphasized the material dimensions of this form of citizenship. Paradoxically, given providers’ expectations that Oportunidades would empower women, they construed maternal citizenship as a form of citizenship that required prioritizing children’s needs. Moreover, they viewed titulares’ participation in the economy as a violation of this duty. Titulares, by contrast, viewed their income-generating activities as central parts of mothering, and they contested providers’ interference in these activities.

Meanwhile, the economic assistance that Oportunidades provided was not sufficient to ameliorate low-income villagers’ economic marginality. The program failed to address the gendered legacies of twentieth-century Mexican statecraft that limited income-generating opportunities for women. In this context, the program strengthened the economic security of some households, especially those with a male household head, but failed to do so for the most precarious households. In this regard, the program sustained the gendered relations of dependency that twentieth-century statecraft produced. In order to expand low-income village women’s opportunities, future initiatives should also include investment in the regional economy to develop better income-generating opportunities and educational initiatives to ensure that low-income women have the skills they need to access these opportunities.

Review Questions

  • How did twentieth-century Mexican statecraft shape the struggle of villagers to “seguir adelante” (or get ahead) in Ñuquii?
  • What role did gender play in shaping conceptions and practices of citizenship in Ñuquii?
  • What is maternal citizenship? What are the differences in how Oportunidades officials and titulares in Ñuquii understood maternal citizenship?
  • Do you think that Oportunidades transformed gender identities in Ñuquii? Why or why not?
  • Think about other social programs that you are familiar with. How have they influenced the dynamics of citizenship? Have existing gender relations shaped the impact of these programs? If so, how? How have these programs impacted gender relations?
  • If you were the secretary of Mexican development, what kind of social program would you promote to improve Ñuquii women’s circumstances?

Key Terms

citizenship: the whole range of political, economic, and social rights and duties attached to membership in a nation or community.

Indigenista project: the twentieth-century effort by Mexican leaders to promote the Spanish language and Mestizo culture to Indigenous communities in order to facilitate their “integration” into the “modern” nation-state.

maternal citizenship: a form of citizenship in which women’s rights and duties are based on their maternal status.

mestizo: literally means “mixed race,” and refers to people of Spanish and Indigenous descent. In the early twentieth century, Mexican officials celebrated Mexico as a mestizo nation. In practice, mestizos are usually defined culturally by markers such as the use of Spanish language and Western (non-Indigenous) dress.

milpa: a sustainable system of farming where multiple types of crops are planted together. The crops planted are nutritionally and environmentally complementary such as beans, corn, and squash.

Resources for Further Exploration


I would like to thank the editors and the anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful comments on the first draft of this chapter. I would also like to extend my deep appreciation to the people of Ñuquii for welcoming me into their community and their homes and teaching me about their daily experiences. I am grateful to IMSS-Oportunidades officials and providers for supporting my work in the village and also to the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research and the Fulbright-IIE/ Garcia Robles program for their generous support for this research. Finally, I would like to thank Dr. Laurie Kroshus Medina for her unwavering support in developing the initial project and her guidance through the initial period of fieldwork and analysis.


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About the author

Holly Dygert is a lecturer of anthropology at Tufts University. She received her BA in music performance from Hartwick College, and her MA and PhD in anthropology from Michigan State University. Her areas of expertise include gender and development, income transfer programs, Indigenous cultural politics, and community health initiatives. Her research has primarily focused on the experiences of Ñuu Savi (Mixtec) villagers living in the Mixteca Alta region of southern Mexico.



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