Mexico – Oaxaca

Mexico – Oaxaca

Native American | American Indian
Teresa Panther-Yates and Mixtec woman at an artisan marketplace in Oaxaca City

Teresa Panther-Yates, company vice president and part-Cherokee, poses with a Mixtec woman at an artisan marketplace in Oaxaca City during the Guelaguetza Festival earlier this year. Photograph © 2023 Donald Yates.

Oaxaca is in southern Mexico. It is bordered by the states of Guerrero to the west, Puebla to the northwest, Veracruz to the north, and Chiapas to the east. To the south, Oaxaca has a significant coastline on the Pacific Ocean.

The state is best known for its indigenous peoples and cultures. It is estimated that at least a third are speakers of indigenous languages (with 50% not able to speak Spanish), accounting for 53% of Mexico’s total indigenous language speaking population. The most numerous and best known are the Zapotecs and the Mixtecs, but 16 are officially recognized by the Instituto Nacional Indigenista. These cultures have survived better than most others in Mexico due to the state’s rugged and isolating terrain. This also has the effect of dividing the state into small, secluded communities, which have developed independently over time. This makes Oaxaca the most ethnically complex of Mexico’s 31 states.[16]

Historic events in Oaxaca as far back as the 12th century are described in pictographic codices painted by Zapotecs and Mixtecs in the beginning of the colonial period, but outside of the information that can be obtained through their study, little historical information from pre-colonial Oaxaca exists, and our knowledge of this period relies largely on archaeological remains. By 500 BCE, Oaxaca’s central valleys were mostly inhabited by the Zapotecs, with the Mixtecs on the western side. Archeological evidence indicates that between 750 and 1521, there may have been population peaks of as high as 2.5 million.

Several languages of the Oto-Manguean languages are spoken in Oaxaca: the TriquesAmuzgos, and Cuicatecs are linguistically most closely related to the Mixtecs, The languages of the ChochoPopoloca and Ixcatec peoples are most closely related to that of the Mazatecs. The Chatino languages are grouped with the Zapotecan branch of Oto-Manguean. The languages of the Zoque and Mixe peoples belong to the Mixe–Zoquean languages. Other ethnic groups include the ChontalesChinantecs, the Huaves, and Nahuas. As of 2005, a total of 1,091,502 people were counted as speaking an indigenous language.


The Amuzgos are the largest indigenous group in their region, which they share with Mixtecs and Nahuas as well as mestizos and Afro-Mexicans. They primarily live in a region along the Guerrero/Oaxaca border. Their languages are similar to those of the Mixtec, and their territories overlap. The number of ethnic Amuzgos may be as high as 50,000, with about eighty percent living in the state of Guerrero.


The Chinantecos account for about 10% of Oaxaca’s indigenous people, numbering at about 104,000. They inhabit the Chinantla region of north central Oaxaca near the border of Veracruz. The Chinanteco language has as many as 14 different dialects and is part of the Oto-Manguean linguistic group. Historians believe that those living in this region struggled to maintain their independence against sudden and numerous attacks by the Zapotecs, Mixtecs, Mixes and Aztecs. The latter, led by Moctezuma I, finally conquered the Chinantla region during the 15th century.[16][53]


The name “Chontal” comes from the Nahuatl, meaning “foreigner” or “foreign”, and is also applied to an unrelated language of Tabasco. The Chontal may have lived in the Villa Alta region to the east up to around 300 AD but moved westward under pressure from the Mixes and moved to their present location in the 15th century due to Zapotec aggression.


The Huave (also spelled Huavi or Wabi) have inhabited the Isthmus of Tehuantepec for more than 3000 years, preceding the Zapotec people in settling the area. According to the 2000 census, 13,687 people declared themselves to be Huave speakers, however, many non-speakers still identify as Huaves or Mareños. Their language is called Huave, or ombeayiüts/umbeyajts, depending on the dialect.


The Mazatecos number at about 165,000 or 15% of Oaxaca’s indigenous population. These people occupy the northernmost area of the state, in the upper Sierra Madre Oriental mountains and the Papaloapan Basin. The Mazatecos call themselves Ha shuta enima, which means People of Custom. Some historians believe that the Mazatecos descend from the Nonoalca-Chichimecas, who migrated south from Tula early in the 12th century. While most live in Oaxaca, a significant number of Mazatecos also occupy Veracruz and Puebla.


The Mixe people account for another 10% of the indigenous population at just over 103,000 people.[48][51] The Mixe are an isolated group in the northeastern part of the state, close to the border of Veracruz. The Mixes call themselves Ayuuk, which means The People. It is unknown where the Mixe migrated from, with some speculating from as far as Peru, but they arrived in waves from 1300 to 1533. They came into conflict with the Mixtecs and Zapotecs, but allied themselves with the Zapotecs against the Aztecs, then resisted the Spanish. The Mixe language has seven dialects and this group has the highest rate of monolingualism (36% of speakers in the year 2000) of any Indigenous group in Mexico.[16]


The second largest group are the Mixtecs at just over 240,000 people or 27% of the indigenous population. These people established themselves in the northwest of Oaxaca and far southern Puebla over 3,000 years ago, making them one of the oldest communities in the region. Mixtec territory is divided into three sub regions. The Mixteca Alta (Upper Mexteca) covers 38 municipalities and is the most populated region. The Mixteca Baja (Lower Mixteca) includes 31 municipalities. The Coastal Mixtecs are a small group. Today, the Mixtecs call themselves Ñuu Savi, the people of the rain. The Mixtecan language family, as one of the largest and most diverse families in the Oto-Manguean group, includes three groups of languages: Mixtec, Cuicatec, and Trique.


The Triqui or Trique are an Indigenous people of the western part of the Mexican state of Oaxaca, centered in the municipalities of JuxtlahuacaPutla, and Tlaxiaco. They number around 23,000 according to Ethnologue surveys. Trique peoples are known for their distinctive woven huipiles, baskets, and morrales (handbags). One of the notable customs of Triqui people is the practice of bride price. It is typical in Trique culture for a man to offer a bride’s family money, food, and other products in exchange for the bride’s hand in marriage. Generally, the husband and wife know each other prior to this arrangement and there is no arrangement without consent.


The largest indigenous group in the state are the Zapotecs at about 350,000 people or about 31% of the total indigenous population. The Zapotec have an extremely long history in the Central Valleys region and unlike other indigenous groups, do not have a migration story. Zapotecs have always called themselves Be’ena’a, which means The Cloud People. The Zapotec language has historically been and is still the most widely spoken in the state, with four dialects that correspond to the four subdivisions of these people: Central Valleys and Isthmus, the Sierra de Ixtlan, Villa Alta and Coapan. Zapotec communities can be found in 67 municipalities. The various Zapotec dialects account for 64 of the total 173 still surviving forms of Oto-Manguean.


The Zoque consists of 41,609 people, according to the 2000 census. They live mainly in the northerly sector of Chiapas state. White-rimmed black pottery is characteristic of the Zoque people.

The 11 populations in the Mexico – Oaxaca population represent the region’s pre-Hispanic genetic diversity. They are Amuzgo (San Pedro Amuzgos), Chinanteco (San Lucas Ojitlan), Chontal (Morro de Mazatlan), Huave (San Dionisio del Mar), Mazateco (San Felipe Jalapa de Diaz), Mixe (San Pedro y San Pablo Ayutla), Mixteco (Santiago Juxtlahuaca), Triqui (San Juan Copala), Zapoteco del Istmo (Ciudad Ixtepec), Zapoteco del Valle (Magdalena Teitipac) and Zoque (Santa Maria Chimalapa).

Source: The new reference populations were reported in an important study in Human Biology from 2010 by the team of Consuelo D. Quinto-Cortés at the Universidad Nacional de Mexico in Cuernavaca.

[populations 527-537]

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