Melisa Handl

Image (c) Trustees of the British Museum

Object: Tlazolteotl
Location: The British Museum, Room 27 (Mexico)

The Sculpture of the Huastec Goddess was made by the Huastecs, a people conquered by the Aztecs in now Northern Mexico, probably between tenth and fifteenth century. It is a statue of a woman, approximately five feet high, carved out of a very thin piece of sandstone, which is likely the reason for the lack of detail in the statue. However, below her breasts we can see the only detail on her entire body: creases of flaccid flesh, an evidence of maternity.

It is absolutely essential that the goddess statute be a woman, more specifically, a mother. This is the entry point that allows me to position the object within my research agenda. The sculpture helps me highlight some crucial points such as the instrumentalization of poor women as conduits rather than as beneficiaries of social policy, the materialization of social policy, pregnant embodiment, and a social policy system through which women’s subordination is created and perpetuated through sexuality, time poverty, and stereotypes of women as primary caretakers.

My doctoral research project analyzes conditional cash transfers (CCTs) policies in Argentina from a gender perspective. CCTs are widespread social programs which involve a governmental transfer of cash to poor households – transferring the money to the mother of the household – on the condition that they make specific investments in their children, such as anthropometric monitoring, prenatal care for mothers, and children’s school enrolment. Women play a crucial role in the institutionalization of CCTs in Latin America because payments are made to them as the legally responsible beneficiaries on the understanding that this mechanism will yield better outcomes in the quality of life of children.

This object allows me to highlight the instrumentalization of women beneficiary of CCTs. These women are framed as instruments of the state, conduits of social policy through which the state can transfer resources to the poorest sectors of its population. CCTs’ requirements add to women’s time burdens and symbolically re-traditionalize them by using their labour to improve the quantity and quality of future human capital, – a perverse mechanism that invisibilizes poor women’s individual needs and erodes their capacities –.

The Huastec goddess is a hyper visual representation of maternity, making it very clear that we are talking about a mother. This maternalization – constructed and reproduced by social policies – is related to women’s “pregnant embodiment,” that is, their more uninterrupted physical experience in relation to children as a result of pregnancy, breastfeeding, and caregiving responsibilities. Therefore, social policy takes a mother’s biological connection with a child and imposes it as an automatic social relationship, naturalizing the concept of maternity by amalgamating genetic, gestational, and caregiving roles. Besides pregnant embodiment, we can also see that poverty is seen as embodied and hereditary. Since child poverty is conceived as passed through the female body, the current development discourse highlights women’s responsibility, translating it into interventions which have little power to undermine deeply embedded structures of gender inequality in the home, the labour market and other institutions.

Finally, it is important to remember that interpretation is always an act of construction. When it comes to reading this sculpture, we are translating complex ideas from the Huastec culture, a lost culture with no written language. The great Aztec Empire was conquered by the Spaniards in the 1520s. In turn, the Aztecs subjugated the Huastec people. In order to read the goddess sculpture, we need to pass through filters of interpretation by people with very different ways of seeing the world. Thus, examining objects left behind by a lost culture is a call for self-reflexivity because it allows us to see how we are constantly engaged in constructing our physical and social world in particular ways and according to our own rationality. The way we read this object involves a thinking which is conditioned by a particular ontology. The Aztecs, for example, had appropriated her as their own mother goddess, Tlazolteotl, which means “eater of filth.” Mother goddesses, however, are not only in charge of ensuring and promoting fertility. Until very recently in the history of humankind, one of the greatest threats to humans was the death of mothers and children during childbirth. Mother goddesses originate as a way of relieving the fear of danger, pollution and death linked to childbirth. In a similar fashion, cash transfer programs can be both empowering and entrapping for women, and just like childbirth, it is a very messy affair. Tlazolteotl eats waste and transforms it into healthy new life, safeguarding the cycle of regeneration. In a similar way, women are framed as beneficiaries of cash transfers programs under the rationale that handing in the stipend to women would contribute to the development “human capital,” turning children into self-sufficient, market-oriented, rational, self-actualizing individuals. Beneficiary women are thus framed as responsible for absorbing pollution and ensuring the cycle of capitalist regeneration.