Triqui woman from Greenfield was sold into marriage at 8, has struggled to find independence
published Jan. 23, 2010
By Maria Ines Zamudio
The Salinas Californian, Staff Writer
GREENFIELD — Gloria Merino carefully wove a huipil, a traditional, colorful Triqui dress that will take her up to six months to finish, on a recent Tuesday morning.
As her small, calloused hands placed hundreds of red threads that will design what will become the shapes and flowers in the huipil, she carefully packed each layer together using a flat wooden bar. As she patiently wove each thread into place, her warm smile and soft voice described how she learned to weave and the struggles she’s had to face over the years.
The huipiles are an important Triqui tradition because they are part of their identity. Women often wear their huipiles during parties, rallies or other political activities, said Maria Dorores Paris, professor at the College of the Border (Colegio de La Frontera) in Tijuana, Mexico. Paris writes about Triqui communities that migrate to northern Mexico and California.
Merino, 42, learned intricate weaving two years ago, and since then, this skill has become her lone source of income — and the independence she’s longed for since she was sold into marriage when she was only 8 years old.
“I feel better here — calm and happy,” she said in Spanish.
Merino, a 4-foot-10-inch woman with long, mostly gray, wavy hair, grew up in Tierra Caliente, a small, rural town in the southern state of Oaxaca, Mexico. When she was 5 years old, her father died. Her mother followed soon after.
“She left me with my aunt, and she died three days later,” she said.
For the next three years, Merino lived with her aunt, Rosalia Guadalupe de Jesus, and enjoyed her time playing outside with her cousins. But one day, as she played outside, her aunt made a deal that would change her life.
Merino was sold into marriage to 18-year-old Mateo from a nearby town called Putla, Oaxaca. Instead of explaining that to her, De Jesus called Merino inside and asked her if she wanted to go to a party to eat mole, a traditional thick, curry-like sauce. The family went to Putla and left Merino behind.
“I felt bad because I was only a girl, and I didn’t know who those people were and why they did that to me,” she
said. “I cried when they took me inside the car. I got sick when I arrived to my mother-in-law’s house.”
Marriage dowry is a custom the Triqui respect and follow, Paris said.
In a dowry, the groom-to-be visits the woman’s parents’ home to ask for her hand in marriage, accompanied by an elder relative. The negotiations start there. Both families come up with “the bride’s price,” and the groom’s family pays with beer, tortillas, chickens, goats, cows or money. The fundamental change that has taken place with migration is inflation and “dollarization” or the use of dollars, Paris said.
“The Triqui weddings have to do with the arrangement between two families,” she said in Spanish. “Twenty years ago, it was rare to see women and men making their own decisions to get married. Generally, the decision is made by the parents. These marriage agreements avoid conflicts between communities.”
But Merino didn’t see it that way.
Marriage is not easy for an 8-year-old child.
Merino didn’t know how to cook, clean or do laundry. All she wanted to do was to play.
For five years, she slept in Mateo’s sister’s room and learned how to be a good housewife. She learned to clean and cook with the limited food the family had. When she turned 13, she had sex with her husband for the first time. She became pregnant soon after.
She learned to love Mateo and got along with his family. But when Merino was five-months pregnant, her mother-in-law warned her that if she didn’t have a baby girl she would hate her. She wanted to sell the girl into marriage and not have to worry about her anymore, Merino said. Boys, on the other hand, become an expense for the family.
Merino prayed to God she was carrying a girl, but she gave birth to a healthy baby boy.
Within a month, Merino and her son were kicked out of the house. Mateo was away working and didn’t know what was happening. The neighbors brought her food, and she slept outside the house with the baby.
Merino couldn’t take it. She decided to go back to Tierra Caliente to live with her aunt, and she left the baby with Mateo’s older sister, who was married and loved Merino and the baby.
De Jesus welcomed her back. But Merino was still upset over losing her baby and husband and didn’t want to be in Oaxaca anymore. Within 15 days of her living in her aunt’s home, Mateo chased after Merino, begging her to go back home with him. She refused.
Instead, she made a big decision. She left Oaxaca and went to Mexico City to look for a job.
First taste of freedom
At the age of 15, Merino arrived in Mexico City, the second most populated city in the world, without a job, money or the ability to speak Spanish.
Despite all the struggles she faced when she arrived in the nation’s capital, she found a job as a housemaid for a woman.
“I lived with her. She didn’t pay me, but she would let me stay at her house and gave me food,” Merino said. “She sent me to school and would buy me notebooks and pencils.”
It was during this period of her life that she learned Spanish. Traces of her native language, Triqui, can still be heard when she speaks.
Merino was excited about school. She went twice a day — morning and evening. She still remembers her teacher. Merino smiles as she describes how the young woman would bring candy and other treats to class.
For the first time she felt independent and happy. She was learning Spanish and working for her food and shelter.
But that feeling didn’t last long.
Merino’s boss told her she needed to spend time with her family.
At 23 years old, Merino went back to her aunt’s house. She enjoyed her visit but soon realized her family wouldn’t allow her to leave. She didn’t have the money to go back to the capital and couldn’t contact the woman that she worked for in the city.
Merino still didn’t like living in Oaxaca, but the years she stayed there helped her to reconnect with her son, Gaudencio.
One day, the boy, then 16, came to look for her. He wanted to marry a girl from Guerrero, a neighboring state. Mother and son talked and forgave each other, and he apologized for how his grandmother treated her after he was born.
For years Merino stayed with her aunt and worked with the family. But she always dreamed about leaving Oaxaca again.
One particular night, the Virgin of Guadalupe told her in a dream that she needed to leave. The next day, she talked to her cousin about going to El Norte (the United States). She already had two uncles and cousins living in California who would help her get on her feet after she crossed the border, she said.
At 33 years of age and 25 years after she was sold into marriage, Merino arrived at what she now calls home: Greenfield.
Greenfield has been the home for a new recent wave of indigenous people migrating to the United States. Hundreds of Triqui people, Mixteco people and some Zapotecos live together in Greenfield.
During her first year here, she picked lettuce and other crops in Salinas Valley fields. But the work was too much for her small body — just 4 feet and 10 inches tall and about 95 pounds. She started recycling cans and bottles to support herself. On a good day, she was able to gather $60 in recycled goods. Although she didn’t have much, being able to support herself was exciting, she said.
Her relatives taught her how to weave huipiles. She practiced and practiced until she mastered the art of making the traditional Triqui clothing. Now, she spends most of her time weaving them or walking around town trying to sell the long dresses, which run between $150 and $400.
She also spends a few hours a week working as a community healer (she became one after dreaming about it for several years).
In the Triqui culture, “curanderos” are often women who know the medicinal power of herbs that grow in the region. Many even plant the same medicinal herbs in California, Professor Paris said.
As Merino knelt while weaving in her room, which was filled with saints and pictures of her with local politicians, she talked about how happy she was to be living here and supporting herself.
She hopes that in six months, when she finishes the huipil she started weaving on a recent Tuesday, she will be reunited with her son, who is now 28 years old and married.
“My son told me, ‘I am going to go where you live so we can be together.'”