Women of Clay

Women of Clay

Women of Clay

This is the story of the women from a small village of southern Mexico. Because so many of the men in their families migrated away from the village to earn money, the women worked together to build their own houses out of clay. Initially, the women's efforts brought scorn and derision from community members who felt the women were going outside of their defined roles. But eventually the naysayers saw that the women had built houses of excellent quality, and now they are looked upon with great admiration.

Please enable JavaScript and install Flash to view videos.

Photographs by Marcela Taboada

As soon as I stepped foot in the Mexican village of San Miguel Amatitlan, I knew that I had entered to the heart of a Mexican truth: women are essential to the earth, and clay from the earth is essential to women. Clay ovens are used with clay pans and pots, and everything is touched and transformed by hands which are also the color of clay. I asked a woman if she owned any land, and she replied, "Our land is inside our fingernails."

San Miguel Amatitlán is a small village in the southern state of Oaxaca. It belongs to the Mixteca Baja, and hides high up in Sierra Madre mountains, where it is so dry that drinking water is only available for four months a year. The soil is hard and barren. There are neither beans nor cornfields in sight. Water must be carried from many miles in order to drink, eat, wash and make the indestructible clay bricks that are used to build houses.

Many of the village's strongest men migrated to the United States, where they try to earn a few dollars to send home by picking fruit or performing migrant labor. Their worn out grandparents, restless children and newborn babies remain at home to be looked after by their wives.

The families left behind live in ramshackle dwellings, so the women of the families chose to build proper new houses. They dug deep holes through this rocky land, filled them with heavy stones, climbed on ladders to raise walls, and carried tiles to reinforce their roofs. They walked miles under the sun with full buckets on their shoulders to mix water and earth, and made the bricks for their clay houses. Together, these Women of Clay started building walls and roofs out of clay, ignoring the fact that this is usually men's work. Initially, this brought scorn and derision from the men that remained in the village and some of the elders. Now that they have built houses of excellent quality, they are looked upon with great admiration.


Thousands of families are dependent on remittances to make ends meet. Indeed, remittances are Mexico's second largest source of foreign income after oil, and Mexico receives the most remittances of any country in Latin America and the third most in the world after India and China.

In 2008, remittances to Mexico began to fall for the first time in 13 years, with some months showing a decrease of 36 percent. After peaking in 2007 at $26 billion, remittances in 2008 fell 3.6 percent to $25 billion. Poor or low-income families, headed by women left behind in Mexico, are the most affected by a drop in remittances. Experts believe the drop is a result of the global financial crisis, as more immigrants in developed countries are losing jobs. The U.S. crackdown on immigration also is thought to be a cause of the drop. To learn more about remittances to Mexico, read our Mexico Essay.


Marcela Taboada is a self-accomplished independent photographer living in Oaxaca, Mexico. Her work is included in different art collections in Mexico and overseas, and has been exhibited in various museums and galleries. Her photography has received international awards, including the National Geographic All Roads Photographers Award.

Donate Online »

Explore By Topic