Indigenous Mexico: an overview

articles History & People

John P. Schmal

The Republic of Mexico is a very large country, boasting a total area of almost 1,978,000 square kilometers (760,000 square miles) and a population of 103,400,165 (July 2002 estimate). With its central government located in Mexico City, Mexico has a national culture, held together by the Spanish language, which is the primary means of communication across this large land mass. However, the Mexico of five centuries ago was, in fact, a collection of many indigenous nations.

Throughout every corner of pre-Hispanic Mexico lived hundreds of indigenous groups scattered across mountains, valleys, plateaus, deserts and tropical forests of the lower third of the North American continent. The delicate balance of power that existed between these aboriginal states was forever altered in 1519, when a small band of Spanish soldiers made their way into the heart of the continent and – with the help of indigenous allies – engineered the destruction of the formidable Aztec Empire two years later.

Between 1519 and 1600, the Spanish encountered dozens of indigenous groups speaking a plethora of languages, worshipping a pantheon of Gods, and practicing a multitude of cultures. In essence, Mexico was a collection of many nations and autonomous states. But this diversity is a phenomenon that developed slowly and over time.

The key to understanding Mexico’s incredible diversity is to realize that Mexico possesses a great variety of landscapes and climates. While mountains and plateaus cover more than two-thirds of her landmass, the rest of Mexico’s environment is made up of deserts, tropical forests, and fertile valleys. Mexico’s many mountain ranges tend to split the country into countless smaller valleys, each forming a world of its own.

Mexico’s “fragmentation into countless mountain valleys, each with its own mini-ecology,” according to the historian Nigel Davies, led the Indians within each geographical unit to develop their own language and culture. This is a key to understanding Mexico’s unique and fascinating diversity.

Individual ethnic groups – as their component parts became isolated geographically from one another – would undergo linguistic differentiation and cultural divergence. The result was that one linguistic group would slowly – over a period of centuries – splinter into smaller communities, each of which spoke dialects that became incomprehensible to one another. This would eventually lead to one ethnic group – for example the Zapotec Indians – speaking dozens of languages, all of which evolved from the original mother tongue, perhaps thousands of years ago.

Today, however, one might be tempted to ask the following questions: “Where are the indigenous people of present-day Mexico? Did the old cultures and languages disappear centuries ago?” Yes, many tribes, culture and languages disappeared into extinction from a wide variety of causes: war, disease, slavery, assimilation, and mestizaje. The Mexican and Mexican-American people of today may have received their genetic makeup from some of these “lost tribes,” but the Spanish culture and language have combined with Indian customs and practices to create hybrid cultures on a local level in many parts of the country.

Although a large part of Mexico’s indigenous people came under Spanish control by the end of the Sixteenth Century, the Indian cultures and languages have been remarkably resilient in some parts of the country. Even today, fifty-six ethnic groups – making up at least 10% of Mexico’s 103 million inhabitants – speak more than 270 indigenous languages.

At the time of independence – 1821 to 1825 – the total population of Mexico is believed to have numbered around 6,800,000. Estimates by Rosenblat tell us that 54.4% of this population was classified as indigenous. With the exception of the 1921 census, most of the census questionnaires of the Twentieth Century only asked Mexican residents if they spoke indigenous languages and if they were bilingual.

However, these criteria could be somewhat misleading because many of the indigenous people were afraid to acknowledge their use of indigenous languages for fear of some sort of discrimination or retaliation. It is also possible that many Mexicans who may have considered themselves to be part of indigenous culture did not actually speak an Indian language. Also left out of this category would be the vast majority of Mexicans who saw themselves as the descendants of both the Indians and the Europeans.

The 1921 census, however, asked more direct questions relating to racial origin. As such, 59% percent of the population (8,504,561 people) classified themselves as mestizo, while another 29% (4,179,449) of the national population described themselves as being of indigenous origin. Another 10% referred to themselves as “white,” while 2% were classified as foreigners.

By the time of the 1930 national census, the number of Mexican citizens five years of age and older speaking indigenous languages was tallied at 2,251,086 individuals, 16.03% of the 14,042,201 national population five years of age and older. The decline in the percentage of indigenous speakers continued through the rest of the Twentieth Century.

By 1990, Mexico’s population had reached 81,249,645 individuals. Of this total, only 5,282,347 persons five years of age and older spoke indigenous languages, representing 6.5% of the total population. Of this total, approximately 79 percent also knew or spoke the Spanish language. Another 1,139,625 children ranging from newborns to 4 years old lived in the households of indigenous speakers, representing another 1.39% of the population. And another 2,289,716 persons were considered Indian, but did not speak indigenous languages. With all these categories added up, we find that 8,711,488 persons – 10.72% of the total population – were actually identified as Indian or indigenous.

The southern part of the Republic boasted the majority of indigenous-language speakers. In 1990, ninety-three percent of indigenous speakers lived primarily in the 13 states located in south and central Mexico, primarily Oaxaca, Quintana Roo, Chiapas, Hidalgo, Campeche, Guerrero, San Luis Potosí, Veracruz and Yucatan. In stark contrast, however, census statistics showed that very few native speakers lived in the eight contiguous states stretching from Coahuila in the northeast to Jalisco and Colima along the north central Pacific coastal area. In the northwest from Sonora and Sinaloa to Michoacán and Tlaxcala, speakers of indigenous languages made up less than 5% of the population.

When we move on to the 2000 census, we find that the population of Mexico had increased to 97,483,412 souls. Of this total, 6,044,547 persons five years of age and older were classified as indigenous speakers, representing 6.2%. Living with these indigenous speakers were 1,233,455 children aged 0 to 4 who represented another 1.27% of the national population. And, finally, 1,103,312 people – or 1.13% – were classified as indigenous but did not speak an Indian dialect. When we tally up all these numbers, we find that the 8,381,314 persons were classified as indigenous, representing 8.60% of the total population, a significant drop from the figure of 1990.

And, today, where are all these indigenous speakers found? Ten Mexican states have populations in which more than ten percent of the persons five years of age and older are speakers of indigenous languages, and, as indicated above, most of these people are found in southern and central states of the Mexican Republic.

Another ten states have populations ranging between 2% and 5%. And eight states – including Jalisco, Zacatecas, Aguascalientes and Guanajuato – have indigenous-speaking populations that make up less than one percent of the population of their respective states. The states with the largest percentages of people who spoke indigenous languages in 2000 are listed as follows, with the population of indigenous speakers and the corresponding percentage of the state population:



% of State







Quintana Roo










San Luis Potosí




Current events have put the spotlight on the indigenous issues taking place in Chiapas, and almost everyone has heard about the Mayans of the Yucatán Peninsula. But the southwestern state of Oaxaca – without a doubt – has the largest numeric population indigenous peoples within its borders. In the 1990 census, the state boasted a total of 3,019,560 inhabitants, of which 1,018,106 were speakers of indigenous languages who were five years of age or more.

Another 190,715 were children 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 have 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.

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. 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.

The mountain ranges and valleys of this southern state have caused individual towns and tribal groups to live in isolation from each other for long periods of time. This segregation allowed sixteen ethnolinguistic groups to evolve and to maintain their individual languages, customs and ancestral traditions intact well into the colonial era and to the present day. 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 Mazatec – “encompass a variety of regional languages, making for a more diverse picture than the number sixteen would suggest.”

Oaxaca’s two largest indigenous groups are the Zapotecs and the Mixtecs. Both ethnic groups belong the Oto-Manguean Linguistic Family, which includes as many as 172 languages, ranging as far north as the states of Hidalgo and Querétaro (the Otomí) and as far south as Nicaragua. The Zapotecs, occupying 67 municipios of Oaxaca, are the largest ethnic group in the state. In fact, of the 172 living Oto-Manguean tongues, sixty-four are Zapotecan. In the 2000 census, Zapotec was spoken by more 421,796 people, or 7.0 percent of all Indians in Mexico. The Mixtecs, with 437,873 speakers over the age of 5 in 2000, were the third largest Amerindian group in Mexico, making up 7.2 percent of the indigenous population of Mexico.

The Purépecha Indians of Michoacán – also known as the Tarascans, Tarascos, and Porhé – have carried on a proud cultural tradition for almost a thousand years. This language has been classified as an isolated language. In fact, several varieties of this language have no functional intelligibility with each other. Although many michoacanos identify with their Purépecha roots, only 108,545 persons – or 3.2% – living in the state speak indigenous languages. And Purépecha – spoken by a total of 121,409 Mexicans – is only spoken by 2% of all indigenous speakers, making this language only the fourteenth most common tongue spoken in the Mexican Republic.

According to the Instituto Lingüístico de Verano, the Uto-Aztecan Linguistic Family consists of 62 individual languages. Thirteen of these languages make up the Northern Uto-Aztecan sub-group, while 49 are spoken by the Southern Uto-Aztecan subgroup. The Uto-Aztecan linguistic group of Mexico is divided into four main branches:

  1. the Corachol family (consisting of the Cora and Huichol Indians of Nayarit and Zacatecas);
  2. the Náhuatl family (of the Aztecs);
  3. the Tepiman Family (spoken by the Papago, Pima Bajo, and Tepehuán of Sonora, Chihuahua and Durango); and
  4. the Taracahitic family (spoken by the Mayo, Yaqui and Tarahumara of northwestern Mexico). As you might expect, a family is a group of languages that are genetically and culturally related to one another.

The primary Uto-Aztecan language is Náhuatl, the language spoken by the Aztec people of pre-Hispanic Mexico. The Náhuatl language remains the most common language spoken in all of Mexico. In the last census, 1,448,936 individuals five years of age and older, accounting for 24% of all indigenous speakers, stated that they spoke Náhuatl. The language is most common in the central states, but is also spoken throughout the country. Although the Náhuatl language has been widely spoken in Mexico for centuries, internal migration has also played a role in its dispersal throughout the Republic.

Most of the northern states of Mexico have very small populations of indigenous speakers. Although a wide range of nomadic Indians wandered through various parts of Chihuahua during the Sixteenth to Eighteenth Centuries, many of those aboriginal tribes have vanished into extinction, usually being assimilated into more dominant tribal groups or settling down in the Spanish settlements to work as laborers. According to the 2000 census, the population of persons five years and more who spoke indigenous languages in the State of Chihuahua amounted to 84,086 individuals – or 3.21% of the population of Chihuahua five years of age and older.

The primary indigenous groups represented in Chihuahua in 2000 were: the Tarahumara (who numbered 70,842, or 84.25% of the indigenous population), the Tepehuán (numbering 6,178), the Náhuatl (1,011), Guarijio (917), Mazahua, Mixteco, Zapoteco, Pima, Chinanteco, and Otomí. Of these groups, only the Tarahumara, Tepehuán, Guarijio and Pima-speakers are indigenous to Chihuahua and adjacent states. The rest of the indigenous speakers represented transplants from Indian tribes that came from other parts of Mexico.

Pre-Hispanic northwestern Mexico was the home to a large number of indigenous groups. Most of these Amerindian tribes of present-day Sinaloa and Sonora, however, were closely related, speaking eighteen closely related dialects of the Taracahitian tongue, and numbered about 115,000 at the time of contact with Spain and were the most numerous of any single language group in northern Mexico.

Most of the Tarachitian peoples inhabited the coastal area of northwestern Mexico along the lower courses of the Sinaloa, Fuerte, Mayo, and Yaqui Rivers. The Yaqui Indians of Sonora are the most well known tribe of this family. Numbering 16,000 people living in scattered locations throughout Sonora, the Yaquis continued to resist the Spanish Empire and the Mexican Republic well into the Twentieth Century. The Mayo Indians, closely related to the Yaquis, continued to resist central authority well into the Nineteenth Century and today number some 40,000 citizens, inhabiting the border regions of northern Sinaloa and southern Sonora.

The modern-day states of Jalisco, Zacatecas, Nayarit and Aguascalientes made up a large part of the Spanish colony of Nueva Galicia. Most of this region was subdued by the Spaniards and their Indian allies in the Sixteenth Century. But the population of this colonial administration – made up of 180,000 square kilometers – was very diverse in both culture and language. Peter Gerhard, In “The North Frontier of New Spain,” writes that “the political geography [of this area] at contact was complex.” Gerhard observes that “the people were divided into a great many small autonomous and independent communities each occupying a fixed territory.”

The linguistic groups of pre-Hispanic Jalisco included the Bapames, Caxcanes, Coras, Cocas, Guachichiles, Cuyutecos (a Nahua language), Huicholes, Otomíes, Pinomes, Purépecha, Tecuexes, Tepehuanes, and Tecos. Almost all of these groups are culturally extinct and no traces of their original languages remain. Domingo Lázaro de Arregui, in his “Descripción de la Nueva Galicia” – published in 1621 – observed that 72 languages were spoken throughout Nueva Galicia. However, only the Cora, Huichol, and Tepecano languages survive in present-day Jalisco and Nayarit. While the Huichol inhabit the mountainous regions between Jalisco and Nayarit, the Cora live in north central Nayarit.

By the time of the 2000 census, 39,259 people living in Jalisco were still speaking indigenous languages, a mere 0.71% of the total population of Jalisco. The largest indigenous groups in Jalisco today are the Huicholes (10,976 speakers), Náhuatl (6,714), Purépecha (3,074), Mixteco (1,471), Otomí (1,193), and Zapoteco (1,061). The Mixteco and Zapoteco are migrant languages from Oaxaca.

The second largest group of indigenous speakers in Mexico is the Mayan Indians. The Maya – inhabiting several southern states – were tallied at 800,291 in 2000, representing 13.2% of the Indian population. The Mayans are a very diverse group, speaking almost seventy separate languages and occupying almost the entire Yucatan Peninsula as well as Chiapas. In the 2000 census, the percentage of indigenous speakers 5 years of age and over in Yucatan was 37.32%. The corresponding figure for Chiapas was 24.62%.

Assimilation and mestizaje in these southern states did not proceed at the rapid pace seen in the central and northern states of Mexico. In 2000, 495,597 indigenous speakers of Chiapas did not speak Spanish, bringing the percentage of monolingual residents to 36.55% of the Indian speaking population. However, this figure represented only 9% of the total state population.

During the late Twentieth Century, labor shortages in certain parts of Mexico led to a significant increase in internal migration. In search of gainful employment, many indigenous people began to migrate from their ancestral homelands in southern Mexico and Central America to other parts of the Republic. By 1980, some 548,000 indigenous people (10.6 percent of the total indigenous population) had migrated to and settled in areas other than their place of origin within the country. Mexico City became one of the most important points of attraction for indigenous migrants. By 1980, Mexico City registered 323,000 persons who spoke 39 different languages.

The most significant flow of indigenous labor came from the state of Oaxaca. For several decades, large numbers of Mixtec and Zapotec speakers migrated to various states throughout the Mexican Republic, far from their Oaxacan homelands. In fact, in 2000, Mixtecos made up 31.74% of the indigenous-speaking population of Baja California, 36.52% of Baja California Sur’s Indians, and 27.65% of Sinaloa’s indigenous groups.

The study of Mexico and its numerous languages is a continuing effort among scholars. Several of the sources below may help the reader to develop a better understanding of the diverse histories, languages and cultures of the Mexican Indians.


  • Lyle Campbell, American Indian languages: the Historical Linguistics of Native America (Oxford University Press: Nueva York, 1997).
  • Lyle Campbell and Marianne Mithun (eds.), The Languages of Native America: Historical and Comparative Assessment (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1979).
  • Nigel Davies, The Ancient Kingdoms of Mexico (London: Penguin Books, 1990).
  • Barbara F. Grimes (ed.) Ethnologue: Languages of the World, 14th ed. Summer Institute of Linguistics: Dallas.
  • Barbara F. Grimes (ed.), ” Languages of Mexico,” Online, December 2001. Last modified: January 2002 (Dallas, Texas: Instituto Lingüístico de Verano, A.C.).
  • Instituto Nacional de Estadística Geografía e Informática (INEGI). Estados Unidos Mexicanos. XII Censo General de Población y Vivienda, 2000. Tabulados Básicos y por Entidad Federativa. Bases de Datos y Tabulados de la Muestra Censal. Mexico City, 2001.
  • Instituto Nacional de Estadística Geografía e Informática (INEGI), ” Social and Demographic Statistics,” Online: November 11, 2002.
  • Manning Nash (ed.) “Social Anthropology,” in the Handbook of Middle American Indians, Volume 6 (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1968)
  • Summer Institute of Linguistics, ” El Instituto Lingüístico de Verano: The Summer Institute of Linguistics in Mexico,” Online: 2002
  • Juan Antonio Ruiz Zwollo. ” Oaxaca”s Tourist Guide: Indigenous Villages,” 1995-2002. Online: . March 20, 2002.
  • Peter Gerhard, The Northern Frontier of New Spain. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1982).
  • Shirley S. Gorenstein, “Western and Northwestern Mexico,” in Richard E. W. Adams and Murdo J. MacLeod, The Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas, Volume II: Mesoamerica, Part 1 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 318-357.
  • José Ramírez Flores, Lenguas Indígenas de Jalisco, of “Colección: Historia: Serie: Documentos e Invetigación No. 1” (Guadalajara, Jalisco: Gobierno del Estado de Jalisco, Secretaria General de Gobierno, 1980).
  • Eric Van Young, “The Indigenous Peoples of Western Mexico from the Spanish Invasion to the Present: The Center-West as Cultural Region and Natural Environment,” in Richard E. W. Adams and Murdo J. MacLeod, The Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas, Volume II: Mesoamerica, Part 2 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 136-186
Published or Updated on: March 29, 2008 by John P. Schmal © 2008
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