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Unruly Women and Invisible Workers: The Shrimp Traders of Mazatla´n, Mexico

Concluding thoughts

On a hot, humid afternoon in Mazatla´n, while conducting ethnographic fieldwork, I was invited to attend my first meeting of the shrimp traders union. The union’s president explained that the main purpose of the meeting was to find a solution to the conflicts between shrimp retailers and shrimp traders. The meeting, scheduled to begin at 3:00 p.m., did not begin until 4:30, since it took the women some time to find reliable people to take care of their shrimp stands while they were away. Held in the front yard at the local office of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the female shrimp traders sat together on one side, the male shrimp retailers on the other side. While reading what seemed to be a long manifesto, Alfonso, a local shrimp retailer, accused the women of buying shrimp from outside retailers who lack a formal agreement to sell shrimp to the union members. In response, Lorena, a shrimp trader, stood up and said out loud that traders buy the shrimp from outside retailers because it is much cheaper. Other women echoed her response and complained that retailers sell shrimp to union members at a much higher price, but sell it more cheaply to non–union members. Ernesto, another retailer, accused the women of not paying for the shrimp right away, making it harder for retailers to repay their debts.

Many women felt offended by Ernesto’s accusation and demanded respect for themselves and their union. Walking back to the shrimp market, at around 7:00 p.m., I asked Lorena what she thought of the meeting. She looked me straight in the eye and responded: “I do not like the way the retailers treat us. We work very hard every day and endure many struggles in order for us to be able to The research discussed in this article was funded by the University of California Institute for Mexico and the United States (UC-MEXUS), the Wenner Gren Foundation (grant no. 7777), and Arizona State University. I would like to express my deepest gratitude to all the women shrimp traders who collaborated with me for their unconditional support and their good sense of humor. I would also like to thank my colleagues at the Autonomous University of Sinaloa, especially Gildardo Izaguirre-Fierro, Ramo´n E. Mora´n, Sof?´a Santos, and Arturo Santamar?´a Go´mez.

 On becoming a street peddler Olivia began selling shrimp in the streets of Escuinapa, a small coastal town south of Mazatla´n, when her husband was diagnosed with cancer. Her brother, who was a free fisherman, that is, not a member of a fishing cooperative, gave her part of his shrimp catch so she could sell it out of her home. At first she was able to sell most of the shrimp without having to leave her house, but as more women also began to sell shrimp in their homes, it became more competitive and difficult for her to sell all the shrimp. With many bills to pay and without any other means of support, Olivia decided to sell her shrimp on one of Escuinapa’s main streets. She developed a steady clientele and was able to sell all her shrimp in only one day.

The shrimp traders union

Her brother then suggested that they try selling shrimp in the larger city of Mazatla´n because it paid better, and she agreed but told her husband nothing. She and her brother sold all the shrimp within a few hours and made much more than before: “We walked from one colonia [neighborhood] to another yelling, ‘fresh shrimp, fresh shrimp,’ and people came out of their houses to take a look at the shrimp and to buy it. It was hard work because we walked for many hours and many times it was really hot, but we also met many nice people, and developed a new set of clients.”

The lives of female Mexican shrimp traders and their shared experience with collective action have never been documented. Before I conducted this study, very little was known in southern Sinaloa or in Mexico as a whole of the long history of the struggles that the changueras faced in their efforts to secure a decent livelihood. Even less is known about the manner in which the women organized to defend their livelihoods and how this action evolved into a grassroots social movement that culminated in the formation of a labor union. However, as this case study demonstrates, these women not only had to defy state policies and local fishing cooperatives in order to gain access to shrimp resources but also clashed with municipal authorities, local businesses, and the Mazatla´n middle class in order to develop their shrimp market. In doing so, they challenged not only traditional norms of resource allocation but conventional gender expectations as well.

While protecting their livelihoods and providing for their families, the shrimp traders empowered and legitimated themselves as women, workers, and mothers in the local economy of the Mexican northwest. When I asked Lorena what they, as women, gained from their struggles and experiences with collective action, she responded: “We became stronger. We learned how to defend ourselves, and we earned the respect of the government and the people in general.”

Cristina, a shrimp trader who had acquired labor-organizing skills while working at a maquiladora in Tijuana, helped the women take the first steps to organize their union. They met several times to discuss the goals and rules they wanted for the union. After learning about the women’s struggles, students from the Autonomous University of Sinaloa became sympathetic and supportive of their organizing efforts. These students played an important role in helping the women complete all the necessary paperwork to register their union so that local authorities could legally recognize it. The students also helped them form their street shrimp market. Students met with female shrimp traders on a regular basis to discuss the legal requirements involved in establishing a street shrimp market. They also advised women about the type of permits they needed to have and where they could obtain them.

Their union, however, was not sufficient to protect them from the continuous harassment they faced at the hands of local authorities. While the women continued struggling to have their voices heard and their rights as workers acknowledged, local authorities devised a different strategy to exert more control over the shrimp market.

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