The indigenous people of Oaxaca

articles Other Indigenous Groups Travel & Destinations

John P. Schmal

The Mexican state of Oaxaca, located along the Pacific Ocean in the southeastern section of the country, consists of 95,364 square kilometers and occupies 4.85% of the total surface area of the Mexican Republic. Located where the Eastern Sierra Madre and the Southern Sierra Madre come together, Oaxaca shares a common border with the states of Mexico, Veracruz and Puebla (on the north), Chiapas (on the east), and Guerrero (on the west).

The name Oaxaca was originally derived from the Náhuatl word, Huayacac, which roughly translated means “The Place of the Seed” in reference to a tree commonly found in Oaxaca. As the fifth largest state of Mexico, Oaxaca is characterized by extreme geographic fragmentation. With extensive mountain ranges throughout the state, Oaxaca has an average altitude of 1,500 meters (5,085 feet) above sea level, even though only about 9% of this is arable land. With such a large area and rough terrain, Oaxaca is divided into 571 municipios (almost one-quarter of the national total).

Oaxaca’s rugged topography has played a significant role in giving rise to its amazing cultural diversity. Because individual towns and tribal groups lived in isolation from each other for long periods of time, the subsequent seclusion allowed sixteen ethnolinguistic groups to maintain their individual languages, customs and ancestral traditions intact well into the colonial era and – to some extent – to the present day. For this reason, Oaxaca is – by and large – the most ethnically complex of Mexico’s thirty-one states. The Zapotec (347,000 people) and the Mixtec (241,000 people) are the two largest groups of Indians, but they make up only two parts of the big puzzle.

Even today, it is believed that at least half of the population of Oaxaca still speaks an indigenous dialect. Sixteen different indigenous groups have been formally registered as indigenous communities, all perfectly well defined through dialect, customs, food habits, rituals, cosmogony, etc. However, the historian María de Los Angeles Romero Frizzi suggests that “the linguistic categorization is somewhat misleading” partly because “the majority of indigenous peoples in Oaxaca identify more closely with their village or their community than with their ethnolinguistic group.”

In addition, Ms. Romero writes, some of the language families – including Zapotec, Mixtec, and Mazateco – “encompass a variety of regional languages, making for a more diverse picture than the number sixteen would suggest.” When the Spaniards arrived in the Valley of Oaxaca in 1521, the inhabitants had split into hundreds of independent village-states. By the time of the 1900 Mexican Federal Census, 471,439 individuals spoke indigenous languages, representing 49.70% of the state population and 17.24% of the national population.

Then in the unique 1921 census, 25,458 residents of Oaxaca claimed to be of “pure indigenous” descent, equal to 3.96% of the state population. Another 328,724 persons were listed as “indigenous mixed with white” (called mestizo or mezclada). And in the 1930 census, 56.4% of Oaxaca’s population spoke indigenous languages.

By the time of the 1990 census, 1,018,106 persons aged five or more speaking indigenous languages made up 39.12% of the total state population and 19.3% of the national total of Indian-language speakers. This, however, did not count another 190,715 children aged 0 to 4 years of age, living with indigenous speakers. And an additional 383,199 Oaxaca residents were classified as having an indigenous identity (but not speaking an Amerindian language). Once you had added up all these figures, you will find that 1,592,020 persons of indigenous identity lived in the state, representing 52.72% of the total state population and 18.27% of the total indigenous population of the Mexican Republic.

Even in the 2000 census, 1,120,312 indigenous speaking persons aged five and older represented 37.11% of the state population five and over. Out of this total, 477,788 persons were classified as monolingual, representing 11.02% of the state population five years of age and older and 19.56% of the indigenous-speaking language.

Oaxaca’s two largest indigenous groups are the Zapotecs and the Mixtecs. The roots of these two indigenous groups stretch very deeply into the early Mesoamerican era of Oaxaca. Living in their mountain enclaves and fertile valleys, many of the early occupants of Oaxaca harvested corn, beans, chocolate, tomatoes, chili, squash, pumpkin and gourds and fished the rivers for a wide range of fish. Their primary sources of meat were tepezuintle, turkey, deer, jabali, armadillo and iguana.

Without a doubt, the Oto-Manguean language family is the largest linguistic group in the state of Oaxaca, represented by at least 173 languages. The author Nicholas A. Hopkins, in his article “Otomanguean Linguistic Prehistory,” states that glottochronological studies of the Oaxaca Indian groups indicate that the first diversification of this group of languages had begun by 4400 B.C. It is believed that nine branches of the Oto-Manguean family were already distinct by 1500 B.C., and that some of this linguistic differentiation actually took place in the Valley of Tehuacán. Both the Zapotecs and the Mixtecs belong to this linguistic family.

The Zapotec Indians, a sedentary, agricultural city-dwelling people, are believed to be among the earliest ethnic groups to gain prominence in the region. As a matter of fact, the Zapotecs have always called themselves Be’ena’a, which means “The People.” The implication of this terminology is that the Zapotecs believe that they are “The True People” or “The people of this place.” Unlike many other Mesoamerican Indians groups, the Zapotecs have no legend of migration and their legends claim that their ancestors emerged from the earth or from caves, or that they turned from trees or jaguars into people. Upon death, they believe, they would return to their former status.

It is this belief that gave rise to the term Be’ena Za’a (Cloud People), which was applied to the Central Valley Zapotecs. In the pre-Hispanic era, Aztec merchants and soldiers dealing with these people translated their name phonetically into Náhuatl: Tzapotecatl. When the Spaniards arrived, they took this word and transformed it into Zapoteca. The Mixtecs, a sister culture of the Zapotecs, also received their “Aztec” name due to their identity as “Cloud People” ( Ñusabi), but in their case the Náhuatl translation was literal, as Mixtecatl translates directly as “Cloud Person.” In their art, architecture, hieroglyphics, mathematics, and calendar, the Zapotecs appeared to have shared cultural affinities with the ancient Olmec and the Mayan Indians.

The Zapotec Indians may have emerged as the dominant group in Oaxaca as early as 100 B.C. Their most famous cultural center was Monte Albán, which is considered one of the most majestic ceremonial centers of Mesoamerica. Built in a mountain range overlooking picturesque valleys, Monte Albán is a complex of pyramids and platforms surrounding an enormous esplanade. This center was dedicated to the cult of the mysterious Zapotec gods and to the celebration of the military victories of the Zapotec people. The pinnacle of Monte Albán’s development probably took place from 250 A.D. to 700 A.D., at which time Monte Albán had become home to some 25,000 people and was the capital city of the Zapotec nation.

However, sometime around A.D. 800, Monte Albán was suddenly abandoned. Some archaeologists have suggested that this move took place because the local resources of food and the fertility of the slopes had been severely depleted. However, the Zapotec culture itself continued to flourish in the valleys of Oaxaca and the Zapotecs moved their capital to Zaachila. From about 950 to the arrival of the Spaniards in 1521, there was minimal life at Monte Alban, except that the Mixtecs – who arrived in the Central Valleys between 1100 and 1350 – reused old tombs at the site to bury their own dignitaries.

At about the same time that the Mixtecs arrived in Oaxaca, the Zapotec culture went into decline. Soon, the Mixtecs conquered Zapotecs and other indigenous groups. The Mixtecs originally inhabited the southern portions of what are now the states of Guerrero and Puebla. However, they started moving south and eastward, eventually making their way to the Central Valley of Oaxaca. In their newly adopted land, the Mixtecs became prolific expansionists and builders, leaving behind numerous as yet unexplored sites throughout the region.

However, the Mixtecs’ prominence in the Valley of Oaxaca was short-lived. By the middle of the Fifteenth Century, a new power appeared on the horizon. The Aztec Empire, centered in Tenochtitlán (now Mexico City), was in the process of building a great empire that stretched through much of what is now southern Mexico. In the 1450s, the Aztec armies crossed the mountains into the Valley of Oaxaca with the intention of extending their hegemony into this hitherto unconquered region.

Soon, both the Zapotecs and Mixtecs would be struggling to keep the Aztecs from gaining control of their trade routes to Chiapas and Guatemala. After a series of long and arduous battles, the forces of the Aztec Emperor Moctezuma Ilhuicamina triumphed over the Mixtecs in 1458. In spite of their subservience to the Aztec intruders, the Mixtecs were able to continue exercising regional authority in the Valley. In 1486 the Aztecs established a fort on the hill of Huaxyácac (now called El Fortín), overlooking the present city of Oaxaca. This location thus became the seat of an Aztec garrison that was charged with the enforcement of tribute collection from the restive subjects of this wealthy province.

The ascendancy of the Aztecs in Oaxaca would only last a little more than three decades. In 1521, as the Zapotecs, Mixtecs and other vassals of the Aztecs worked the fields and paid tribute to their distant rulers, news arrived that strange invaders with beards and unusual weapons had arrived from the eastern sea. As word spread throughout Mesoamerica, many indigenous groups thought that the arrival of these strangers might be the fulfillment of ancient prophesies predicting the downfall of the Aztecs.

Then, in August 1521, came the news that the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán had fallen to a combined force of Spanish and Indian soldiers under the command of a white-skinned, red-haired man named Hernán Cortés. Word of this conquest spread quickly, causing the inhabitants over a large area to speculate on what was to come next.

In addition to the Zapotec and Mixtec Indians, fourteen other indigenous groups have lived and flourished throughout the present-day state of Oaxaca. While they never achieved the numbers and influence attained by the Zapotecs and Mixtecs, they, nevertheless, represent an important factor in the historical and cultural panorama of Oaxaca. These indigenous groups are described below:

Amuzgos. As a part of the Oto-Manguean language family, the Amuzgo Indians inhabit the border region of southeastern Guerrero and southwestern Oaxaca. Speaking three primary dialects, an estimated 28,000 Amuzgos were registered in the 1990 Mexican census. However, only twenty percent of this number were living in Oaxaca, with the majority residing in Guerrero.

The Amuzgos call themselves Tzjon non, which means “People of the Textiles.” In 1457, the Aztec Emperor Moctezuma Illhuicamia partially conquered these people. However rebellions against Aztec rule took place in 1494 and 1504-7. Although the uprisings were suppressed, the Aztecs never totally subjugated the Amuzgos. Today, the Amuzgos of Oaxaca live in Putla and San Pedro Amuzgos. For the 2000 census, 4,819 individuals aged five or more claimed to speak the Amuzgo language, representing 0.43% of Oaxaca’s total indigenous figure. This makes the Amuzgo language the thirteenth most common linguistic group of all Oaxaca’s indigenous tongues.

Women from Papaloapam in their colorful dress hold pineapples as props for a traditional dance during Oaxaca's Guelaguetza celebration. © Oscar Encines, 2008
Women from Papaloapam in their colorful dress hold pineapples as props for a traditional dance during Oaxaca’s Guelaguetza celebration. © Oscar Encines, 2008

Chatinos. The Chatino nation, boasting an area of 3,071 square miles (7,677 square kilometers) is located in southwestern Oaxaca. The Chatinos belong to the Oto-Manguean language group and speak seven main dialects. Historical researchers believe that they were one of the first indigenous groups to inhabit the State of Oaxaca. In his book, Historia de Oaxaca, the historian José Antonio Gay speculates that they arrived in a scarcely-populated area (now in the municipio of Juquila) from a “distant land” long before the arrival of the Zapotecs and Mixtecs.

The Chatinos call themselves Kitse cha’tnio, which means “Work of the Words.” The Chatinos were a military-oriented group who made war against both the Zapotecs and the Mixtecs. However, the Mixtecs eventually defeated them some years before the arrival of the Spaniards. In 2000, the Chatinos represented sixth most common indigenous tribe of Oaxaca, represented by 40,004 persons aged five and over who spoke the language (3.57% of the population).

Chinantecos. The Chinantecos, numbering more than 104,000 people, presently inhabit the Chinantla region of north central Oaxaca near the border of Veracruz. As a division of the Oto-Manguean linguistic group, the Chinantecos speak as many as 14 different dialects. The Chinantecos of San Juan Lealao in northeast Oaxaca, who speak a divergent variety of the language, call themselves Dsa jmii< (Plains people) and refer to their language as Fah jmii (Plains language).

The Chinantecos presently inhabit an area in which archaeologists have located temples that were apparently used as ceremonial centers, and where prisoners were supposedly sacrificed during the most important celebrations of the year. Historians believe that the Indians living in this region were struggling 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 Fifteenth Century, forcing its inhabitants to pay tribute and participate in the religious practices in honor of the Aztec deities. In the 1970 census, 52,313 persons five years of age and older lived within the borders of Oaxaca and represented the fourth largest ethnic group (7.72%), behind the Zapotecs, Mixtecs, and Mazatecos. However, between 1970 and 2000, the number of Chinanteco speakers rose dramatically to 104,010, equivalent to 9.28% of Oaxaca’s total indigenous population.

Chocho. Living in the northern zone of “Mixteca Alta” (Upper Mixteca), near Oaxaca’s border with Puebla, the Chocho people (also known as Chochones and Chocholtecas) call themselves Runixa ngiigua, which means “Those Who Speak The Language.” Inhabiting a region that is rich in archaeological sites, this tribe belongs to the Oto-Manguean family.

The land of Chochones was conquered by the Mixtecs, followed, in 1461, by an invasion of the Aztecs led by Moctezuma Ilhuicamina. The Aztec conquest of the Mixtecs and Chochos was economic in nature. The subjects were forced to pay tribute to the Aztecs but were allowed to maintain their traditions and political autonomy.

Chontales. Chontal is the name of two very distinct languages spoken in the states of Tabasco and Oaxaca. This group’s physical separation, enhanced by its different geographical and climactic conditions, has propitiated its division into Coastal and Mountain groups. Chontal Tabasco is a member of the Mayan language family and Chontal Oaxaca a member of the Hokan language family, which is more widely represented in the Southwestern United States and the border states of Baja California and Sonora. The Chontales of Oaxaca refer to themselves Slijuala xanuc, which means “Inhabitants of the Mountains.”

The origins of the Oaxacan Chontal population have not been conclusively determined, but some archaeologists believe that they originally came from Nicaragua. Warfare may have motivated them to move north, through what is now Honduras, Yucatán and Tabasco. Eventually, they settled down in both Oaxaca and Tabasco. Founded in 1374, the Kingdom of the Chontals eventually came into conflict with the Zapotecs. After a series of ongoing confrontations, the Zapotecs finally defeated them. Under Spanish rule, the Chontales carried on a formidable resistance for some time. In the 2000 census, 4,610 Chontal de Oaxaca were tallied at 4,610, representing 0.41% of the state’s total indigenous speaking population. Today, the Chontal Oaxaca inhabit the southernmost region of Oaxaca and speak two major dialects.

Cuicateco. Cuicateco territory, located in northwestern Oaxaca, occupies an approximate area of 3,243 square miles. Little is known about the Cuicateco people, due to the destruction of maps, codex and other written testimony by the Spanish about the Mixteca and Zapotec cultures, with which they were intimately related. However, archaeological research conducted in some of the ruins in the region they currently inhabit, have led some historians to speculate that the Cuicateco are descended from Toltecan immigrants, who dispersed with the fall of Tula in 1064.

Because they inhabited the fertile lowlands of the Cuicatlan River, the Cuicateco nation was a frequent target of other Indian groups. After fighting off numerous invasions, they eventually came into the orbit of the Mixtec nation. However, when the Aztecs arrived in 1456, the Cuicatecos formed an alliance with them, seeking to free themselves of Mixtec oppression. By the time of the Spanish arrival, their population numbered 60,000. However, in the 2000 census, only 12,128 persons five years of age or more claimed to speak the Cuicateco language, representing more than one percent of Oaxaca’s total indigenous population, living primarily in northwestern Oaxaca.

Huave. Although the origins of the Huave nation have not been indisputably determined, some historians believe that this group came from a distant land, possibly from Nicaragua or even as far away as Peru. It is believed that the Huave arrived by sea, traveling along the coast as they sought out a new home. Finally, they reached the Tehuantepec coast, inhabited by the Mixe nation, who did not oppose their settlement.

Eventually, the Huave nation conquered a large expanse of Oaxacan territory, known today as Jalapa del Marques. However, Aztec armies under the command of Moctezuma I invaded and conquered both the Zapotec and Huave kingdoms, forcing both to pay tribute. Then, the Zapotecs, taking advantage of their weakened condition, invaded the territory of the Huaves and obliged them to flee the Jalapa del Marques Valley for the Isthmus of Tehuantepec (now in southeastern Oaxaca) where they still live today, occupying a small strip of coastline just east of the city of Tehuantepec. Today, the 13,678 Huave speakers of Oaxaca – who represent 1.2% of the total indigenous population of Oaxaca’s indigenous people in the 2000 census – call themselves Mero ikooc, which means “The True Us.” As small as their group is, they are actually the eighth-most common language spoken.

Ixcatecos. The Ixcateco Indians inhabit only the town of Santa Maria de Ixcatlán in the municipio of the same name, in the north part of the state. Living in one of the most arid, eroded and poorest regions of the country, the Ixcatecos are the only remnants of the pre-Hispanic Ixcateco nation, which once occupied another seven communities. These towns were probably abandoned because of the lack of water and agricultural failure. Due to the inaccessibility of their territory, the Ixcatecos remained an independent nation until the Aztec Emperor Moctezuma II overwhelmed them early in the Sixteenth Century.

Mazatecos. Occupying the northernmost region of the state, the Mazatecos occupy two environmentally and culturally well-defined regions: the upper Sierra Madre Oriental mountains and the Papaloapan Basin. The Mazatecos call themselves Ha shuta enima, which means “People of Custom.” Some historians, in their interpretation of the Quauhtinchan Annals, believe that the Mazatecos descend from the Nonoalca-Chichimecas, who migrated south from Tula early in the Twelfth Century.

However, other historians have speculated that when the Nonoalca-Chichimeca arrived from the north in 1170, they subjugated the Mazatecos who already inhabited the area. Sometime around 1300, the Mazateco people were able to rid themselves of Chichimeca dominance. In or sometime after 1455, the Aztec monarch, Moctezuma Ilhuicamina, conquered the Mazatecos. In recent decades, the Mazatecos Indians have represented the third largest linguistic group in Oaxaca. With 93,376 individuals aged five and older speaking Mazatec in 1970, this linguistic group was used by 13.79% of indigenous speakers. These numbers increased significantly in the 2000 census, when 174,352 Mazateco speakers were tallied, representing 15.6% of the total indigenous speaking population of Oaxaca. A significant number of Mazatecos also occupy Veracruz and Puebla.

Mixes. Although they represent the fourth-largest of Oaxaca’s ethnic groups, the Mixes are an isolated ethnic group that inhabits the northeastern part of Oaxaca, close to the border with Veracruz. This region consists of 19 municipios and 108 communities. The Mixes call themselves Ayuuk, which means “The People.” Some historians believe that the Mixes may have migrated from present-day Peru in search of Zempoaltepetl, a pagan god, and the Hill of Twenty Gods. Another theory claims that they came from the tropical zone of the Gulf of Mexico.

What is known is that the Mixes arrived in Oaxaca, on successive excursions, from 1294 to 1533. They immediately came into conflict with both the Mixtecs and Zapotecs, with whom they fought many battles. Later on, however, they allied themselves with the Zapotecs against the Aztecs. And, with the arrival of the Spaniards from Tenochtitlán, their stubborn resistance continued. In the 2000 census, 105,443 persons aged five or more were classified as speakers of one or more of the seven distinct dialects of the Mixe. The Mixe thus represented 9.4% of the total indigenous speaking population, with approximately 38,000 of these people classified as monolingual, making them the Mexican indigenous group with the highest rate of monolingualism.

Mixtecs. Today, the Mixtec Indians, who were discussed earlier in this article, inhabit a geographic region of more than 40,000 square kilometers in northwestern Oaxaca and smaller portions of Puebla and Guerrero. The Mixtec territory is divided into three subregions: the Upper Mixteca, Lower Mixteca and the Coast Mixteca. The Upper Mixteca, covering 38 municipios, is the most populated region. The Lower Mixteca covers another 31 municipios in northwestern Oaxaca. In 1970, 168,725 persons aged five or more spoke the Mixtec language, representing 24.9% of Oaxaxa’s indigenous population. The 2000 census tallied 241,383 Mixtec speakers, representing 21.6% of the states’ indigenous-speaking population.

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.

Popoloco. The term Popoloca was applied by the Aztecs to all those nations that did not speak a tongue based on Náhuatl, more or less understandable among them. Therefore, the term had the connotation of stranger or foreigner and, at the same time, a derogatory denotation for “barbaric”, “stuttering” and “unintelligent”. The Spaniards continued using the term in the same manner. The Popoluca call themselves Homshuk, which means “God of Corn.” Today, the Popolca population is divided in three fractions speaking six primary dialects, with no geographical continuity evident.

Tacuates. The Tacuates, who speak a variant of the Mixtec language, occupy two of Oaxaca’s municipios. It is believed that their name evolved from the Náhuatl word, Tlacoatl, which was derived from tlal (land) and coal (serpent, snake). The implication is that the Tacuates lived in the land of the serpents.

Trique. The Triques inhabit a 193-square-mile area in the southern Sierra Madre Mountains in the westernmost part of Oaxaca. Historians believe that the Triques, long ago, had fled from some distant land, seeking refuge from warring neighbors. Once in Oaxaca, they were defeated by both the Zapotecs and Mixtecs. Then, in the Fifteenth Century, the Aztec armies defeated them decisively and forced them to pay tribute. In the 2000 census, 15,203 inhabitants of Oaxaca aged five and over spoke the Trique language, making it the eighth month common tongue in the state.

Zapotecs. The Zapotecs, who were discussed in greater detail above, are the largest indigenous group of Oaxaca and presently occupy 67 municipios of Oaxaca. The Zapotec language is the most widely spoken language of Oaxaca. In 1970, there were 246,138 Zapotec speakers, representing 36.3% of Oaxaca’s total indigenous-speaking population. While that population has increased significantly to 347,020 in the 2000 census, the percentage of Zapotec speakers actually dropped to 31%. Of the 173 living Oto-Manguean tongues, sixty-four are Zapotecan.

Zoque. The Zoque tribe, also called Aiyuuk, is closely related to the Mayan-Chique family. The Zoque call themselves O’deput, which means “People of the Language.” The main nucleus of the Zoques is in Chiapas, where approximately 15,000 speak the language. The Oaxaca branch of the tribe probably does not amount to more than 10,000 people. Many of their customs, social organizations, religion beliefs, and way of life were identical to those of the Mixe community, with whom they probably share a common origin in Central America.

The Encounter (1521). When the Zapotec leaders heard that the powerful Aztec Empire had been overcome by the strangers from the Gulf of Mexico, they decided to send a delegation to seek an alliance with this new powerful force. Intrigued by this offer, Hernán Cortés promptly sent representatives to consider their offer.

On November 25, 1521, Francisco de Orozco arrived in the Central Valley to take possession of this land in the name of Cortés. A wide alluvial plain of about 700 square kilometers, the Valley of Oaxaca had a native population of about 350,000 at this time. Soon, both the Zapotec and Mixtec caciques of the Oaxaca Valley submitted to Orozco. Thus, writes the historian William B. Taylor, “Peaceful conquest spared the Valley of Oaxaca the loss of life and the grave social and psychological dislocations experienced by the Aztecs in the Valley of Mexico.”

Francisco de Orozco did meet with some resistance in Antequera, but by the end of 1521, his forces had subdued the indigenous resistance. Cortés friends’ Pedro de Alvarado and Gonzalo de Sandoval also arrived in Oaxaca to search for gold in the Sierras. Their reports led Cortés to seek the title of Marqués del Valle of Oaxaca in 1526, so that he might reserve some of the land’s wealth for his own well-being.

In the course of the next decade, dramatic changes took place in the Valley. Starting in 1528, Dominican friars established permanent residence in Antequerea. After the Bishopric of Oaxaca was formally established in 1535, Catholic priests arrived in ever-increasing numbers. Armed with a fiery zeal to eradicate pagan religions, the Catholic missionaries persevered in their work. Settlers arriving from Spain brought with them domestic animals that had hitherto never been seen in Oaxaca: horses, cows, goats, sheep, chickens, mules and oxen.

However, while little resistance was encountered in the Mixteca Alta or the Mazateca-Cuicateca of northern Oaxaca and in the three central valleys of Oaxaca, Mr. Spores wrote that “principal pockets of opposition were Tututepec on the Pacific coastal plain, the Zapotec Sierra, and Tehuantepec.”

The Mixes of the Sierra, adept in their native mountainous terrain, resisted the Spanish intrusions onto their lands from the very start. Mr. Spores wrote that the Mixes of the Sierra, “sometimes in alliance with Zapotecs and Zoques, were a difficult foe. They fiercely resisted the Spaniards not only during the initial encounter and conquest of 1522-23 but throughout most of the first century of the colony’s existence.”

In 1570, the Mixes rebelled and, as Mr. Spores writes, “rampaged through the Sierra Zapoteca, burning and looting Zapotec communities and threatening to annihilate the Spaniards in [the presidio of] Villa Alta.” The Spaniards, however, in alliance with 2,000 Mixtecs from Cuilapa and Aztecs living in Analco, were able to contain the rebellion. Following this defeat, the Mixes “elected to retreat to the remoteness of their mountain villages rather than risk inevitable destruction. There they remained throughout the colonial period, and it is there that they may be found today.” Antonio Gay, in fact, stated that the Spaniards “never emerged victorious over the Mixes.”

In the decades following the Spanish encounter, a series of devastating epidemics wreaked havoc on the native population of all Mexico. Before the first century had ended, some nineteen major epidemics had come and gone. The exposure of the Oaxacan Indians to smallpox, chicken pox, diphtheria, influenza, scarlet fever, measles, typhoid, mumps, influenza, and cocoliztli (a hemorrhagic disease) took a huge toll. As a result, Ms. Romero has written that the native population declined from 1.5 million in 1520 to 150,000 people in 1650.

It is interesting to note that while only 9 percent of Oaxaca’s land is arable, the Indians continued to dominate landholding in all areas of Oaxaca throughout the entire colonial period. However, Mr. Spores noted that occasionally Spanish merchants and officials attempted “to take advantage of their politically and economically superior status.” This, in turn, “provoked conflict with the Indians.” But such “Indian resistance in Oaxaca was sporadic.”

In summarizing Indigenous Oaxaca’s “responses to abuse, exploitation, dissatisfaction, and deprivation,” Mr. Spores writes that “overwhelmingly” the dominant response was “to resort to the administrative-judicial system for rectification or to yield to colonial control.” Continuing, Mr. Spores concluded that “only rarely, and under the most trying circumstances, did natives turn to violent confrontation, massive passive resistance, or revitalistic movements as mechanisms for redressing grievances or resolving conflict.” Finally, on February 3, 1824, the state of Oaxaca was founded within the newly-independent Mexican Republic, after 303 years of Spanish rule.

No discussion of Indigenous Oaxaca can be complete without mentioning Benito Juárez. Born on March 21, 1806 in the village of San Pablo Guelato in the jurisdiction of Santa Tomás Ixtlan, to Zapotec parents (Marcelino Juárez and Brígida García), Juárez became one of Mexico’s greatest heroes.

Trained as a lawyer, he was eventually elected Governor of Oaxaca and the President of the Mexican Republic. Juárez ruled over Mexico during a time of great dissension and polarization. As President, he initiated liberal reforms in education and civil rights and made separation of church and state the law of the land. When revolution drove him from Mexico City, he set up his government elsewhere. When France invaded Mexico, Juárez displayed a tenacity of will that inspired all of Mexico. Moving from one city to the next, he never surrendered to the European occupiers. Like his contemporary Abraham Lincoln, he united a nation that was at war with itself.

However, for the people of Oaxaca, Benito Juárez is both a legend and a symbol. Juárez became the first and only full-blooded Indian man to take office as Mexico’s President. The people of Oaxaca will always look to Benito Juárez as the man who proved that a person of indigenous roots is capable of achieving greatness.

Copyright © 2003, by John P. Schmal.


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Zwollo, Juan Antonio Ruiz, Oaxaca’s Tourist Guide: Indigenous Villages. 1995-2000.
Online: July 20, 2001

Published or Updated on: March 29, 2008 by John P. Schmal © 2008
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