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A Look into Guanajuato's Past
By John P. Schmal

For the better part of a hundred years, thousands of people have emigrated from the central Mexican state of Guanajuato to the United States. A hundred years ago, fifty years ago - and today - Guanajuatenses have represented a significant portion of all Mexican immigrants to Los Estados Unidos. It can thus be stated that millions of Americans look to the state of Guanajuato as their "madre patria" and that we all know people whose roots are nested in this beautiful state. As a matter of fact, a paternal great-grandmother of my nieces and nephews came from Valle de Santiago in the state of Guanajuato.

The Aztec Empire
Map of Mexico
History of Mexico
Mexican Traditions
But what do most Guanajuato-Americanos know of their ancestral homeland? The Free and Sovereign State of Guanajuato is a landlocked state in the center of the Mexican Republic. It shares borders with San Luis Potosí and Zacatecas on the north, with Querétaro on the east, the state of México on the southeast, Jalisco on the west, and Michoacán on the south.

Guanajuato is a relatively small state - twenty-second in terms of size among the Republic's thirty-one states - with a surface area of 30,768 square kilometers of territory, giving it 1.6% of the national territory. Politically, it is divided into 46 municipios. The capital of Guanajuato is the city of Guanajuato, founded in the middle of the Sixteenth Century after Spanish entrepreneurs found rich veins of silver in the mountains surrounding the city.

But there was a large group of people who inhabited Guanajuato long before Spanish businessmen arrived with their Náhuatl-speaking allies from the south of Mexico. When the strangers first entered this land, they made no effort to distinguish between the various cultures living in Guanajuato. Instead, they applied the term Chichimeca to these aboriginal peoples. Utilizing the Náhuatl terms for dog (chichi) and rope (mecatl), the Aztec Indians had regarded their northern neighbors - the Chichimecas - as being "of dog lineage." (The implication of the term rope was a reference to "following the dog," hence a descendant of the dog).

But the Chichimecas were also given other labels, such as "perros altaneros" (arrogant dogs), or "chupadores de sangre" (blood-suckers). The late great Dr. Philip Wayne Powell - whose "Soldiers, Indians, and Silver: North America's First Frontier War" is the definitive source of information relating to the Chichimeca Indians - referred to Chichimeca as "an all-inclusive epithet" that had "a spiteful connotation."

But it is important to mention that the word Chichimeca was just an umbrella term that the Spaniards used to describe most of the indigenous groups scattered through large parts of Guanajuato, Jalisco, Zacatecas, San Luis Potosí, Aguascalientes, and Durango. The Chichimeca peoples were actually composed of several distinct cultural and linguistic groups inhabiting this area.

Because these indigenous groups are, in fact, the ancestors of the present-day Guanajuatenses and their Mexican-American cousins, it is worth exploring them as the individual cultures they once were. The group that occupied the western end of present-day Guanajuato was known as the Guachichiles.

The Guachichiles, of all the Chichimeca Indians, occupied the most extensive territory stretching north to Saltillo in Coahuila and to the northern corners of Michoacán in the south. Considered both warlike and brave, the Guachichiles roamed through a large section of the Zacatecas, as well as portions of San Luis Potosí, Guanajuato and northeastern Jalisco. Some bands of Guachichile Indians reached as far south as the present-day boundary of Guanajuato and Michoacán.

The name "Guachichile" that the Mexicans gave to these Indians meant "heads painted of red," a reference to the red dye that they used to pain their bodies, faces and hair. According to John R. Swanton, the author of "The Indian Tribes of North America," (Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 145-1953) classified the Guachichile tribes as part of the Uto-Aztecan linguistic family. This would make them linguistic cousins to the Aztecs.

The Guamares - another Chichimeca group - inhabited a large section of Guanajuato. They were centered in the Guanajuato Sierras, but had some bands that ranged as far east as the state of Querétaro. The author Seventeenth-Century author Gonzalo de las Casas called the Guamares "the bravest, most warlike, treacherous and destructive of all the Chichimecas, and the most astute (dispuesta)."

One of the few scholars to study the lifestyle of the Guachichiles, Guamares, and other Chichimecas in detail was the archaeologist, Dr. Paul Kirchhoff. His work, "The Hunting-Gathering People of North Mexico," is one of the few reference works available that describes the social and political organization of both the Guamares and Guachichile (See "Sources" below for the citation).

The semi nomadic Pames constituted a very divergent branch of the extensive Oto-Manguean linguistic family. They were located mainly in the north central and eastern Guanajuato, southeastern San Luis Potosí, and also in adjacent areas of Tamaulipas and Querétaro. To this day, the Pames refer to themselves as "Xi'úi," which means indigenous. This term is used to refer to any person not of mestizo descent. They use the word "Pame" to refer to themselves only when they are speaking Spanish. But in their religion, this word has a contemptuous meaning and they try to avoid using it.

From 1550 to 1590, the Guachichiles, Guamares and Pames waged a fierce guerilla war against the Spaniards and Christian Indians. The Spaniards and their allies had entered Guanajuato and Zacatecas to exploit their rich mineral resources. But to the Chichimeca groups, this land was home, so they regarded these intrusions as a disruption of their sovereign rights. Dr. Powell's work (mentioned above) discusses this war in great detail. And the people of Guanajuato can be proud of the fact that their ancestors had to bribed into making peace.

Unable to defeat the Chichimecas militarily in many parts of the war zone, the Spaniards offered goods and opportunities as an incentive for the Guachichiles and Guamares to make peace. Many of the Chichimecas had been nomadic (or semi-nomadic) and had not possessed most of the luxury items that the Spaniards had (i.e., warm clothes, agricultural tools and supplies, horses, and beef). Those who made peace were given agricultural implements and permitted to settle down to a peaceful agricultural existence. In many cases, Christian Indians from the south were settled among them to help them adapt to their new existence.

The Otomíes were another Chichimeca tribe, occupying the greater part of Querétaro and smaller parts of Guanajuato, the northwestern portion of Hidalgo and parts of the state of México. The Otomíes are one of the largest and oldest indigenous groups in Mexico, and include many different groups, including the Mazahua, Matlatzinca, Ocuiltec, the Pame and the Chichimec Jonaz.

Many of the Otomíes aligned themselves with the Spaniards during the Chichimeca War. As a result, wrote Dr. Powell, Otomí settlers were "issued a grant of privileges" and were "supplied with tools for breaking land." For their allegiance, they were exempted from tribute and given a certain amount of autonomy in their towns. The Otomí are described in great detail by the U.C. Davis graduate student, Kerin Gould, in her work, "The Otomí: Complex History, Adaptable Culture, Common Heritage" at the following website:

In pre-Hispanic times, the Purépecha Indians - also referred to as the Tarascan Indians - occupied most of the state of Michoacán, but they also occupied some of the lower valleys of both Guanajuato and Jalisco. Celaya, Acámbaro, and Yurirapúndaro were all in Purépecha territory.

It is believed that the Spanish explorer Cristóbal de Olid, upon arriving in the Kingdom of the Purépecha in present-day Michoacán, probably explored some parts of Guanajuato in the early 1520s. Then in 1529-1530, the forces of the ruthless Nuño de Guzmán ravaged through most of Michoacán and some parts of Guanajuato with an army of 500 Spanish soldiers and more than 10,000 Indian warriors.

In 1552 Captain Juan de Jaso discovered the mining veins of the present-day city of Guanajuato. This picturesque city - founded a few years later - nestles snugly into a valley of the mountains of the Sierra de Guanajuato. The indigenous tribes of the area made note of the numerous frogs in the area and referred to it as Quanax-juato - "Place of Frogs," the sound of which the Spanish would translate to "Guanajuato."

The Valenciana silver mine located near the City of Guanajuato was one of the richest silver finds in all history. In the Eighteenth century this mine alone accounted for 60% of the world's total silver production. For this reason, Guanajuato flourished as the silver mining capital of the world for three centuries, producing nearly a third of the world's silver during this time.

After the Chichimeca Indians were persuaded to settle down in the late Sixteenth Century, Guanajuato experienced a high degree of mestizaje. This would be due in great part to the huge influx of a very diverse group of people from many parts of the Spanish colony of Mexico. The influx of more established and refined Indian cultural groups combined with the establishment of the Spanish language and Christian religion as the dominant cultural practice. And the result was a high degree of assimilation, in which most traces of the old cultures were lost.

In modern times, Guanajuato has had a very small population of people speaking indigenous languages. Although many of the Guanajuatenses are believed to be descended from the indigenous inhabitants of their state, the cultures and languages of their ancestors - for the most part - have not been handed down to the descendants. In the 1895 census, only 9,607 persons aged five or more spoke indigenous languages. This figure rose to 14,586 in 1910, but dropped to only 305 in the 1930 census, in large part because of the ravages of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), which took the life of one in eight Mexican citizens.

As a matter of fact, Guanajuato's total population fell from an all-time high in the 1910 census (1,081,651 persons) to a Twentieth Century low of 860,364 in the 1921 census. But the 1921 Mexican census gives us a very interesting view of the widespread mestizaje of Guanajuato's modern population. In this census, residents of each state were asked to classify themselves in several categories, including "indígena pura" (pure indigenous), "indígena mezclada con blanca" (indigenous mixed with white), and "blanca" (white). Out of a total district population of 860,364 people, only 25,458 individuals (or 2.96%) claimed to be of pure indigenous background. A much larger number - 828,724, or 96.33% - classified themselves as being mixed, while a mere 4,687 individuals (0.5%) classified themselves as white.

From the latter half of the Twentieth Century into the present century, the population of indigenous speakers has remained fairly small. When the 1970 census was tallied, Guanajuato boasted a mere 2,272 indigenous speakers five years of age and over. The Otomí speakers made up the most significant number (866), followed by the Purépecha (181) and Náhuatl (151). The Chichimeca-Jonaz language, a rare language spoken in only in Guanajuato and San Luis Potosí, was not tallied individually in the 1970 census, but was probably among the 790 persons listed under "otras lenguas Indígenas."

According to the most recent census (2000), the population of persons five years and more who spoke indigenous languages in Guanajuato amounted to only 10,689 individuals, or 0.26% of the total state population. These individuals spoke a wide range of languages, many of which are transplants from other parts of the Mexican Republic. The largest indigenous groups represented in the state were: Chichimeca Jonaz (1,433), Otomí (1,019), Náhuatl (919), Mazahua (626), Purépecha (414), Mixteco (225), and Zapoteco (214).

Today, the Chichimeca-Jonaz language is found only in the states of San Luis Potosí and Guanajuato. Chichimeca Jonaz is classified as a member of the Oto-Manguean language family and is divided into two major dialects: the Pame dialect, which is used in San Luis Potosí, and the Jonaz dialect used in Guanajuato. With a total of 1,433 Chichimeca-Jonaz speakers living in the state of Guanajuato in 2000, it is interesting to note that the great majority - 1,405 persons five years of age or more - actually lived in the municipio of San Luis de la Paz.

All of the other languages spoken in Guanajuato are not well represented. In fact, all of these languages are spoken by many more people living in other Mexican states, some of these states being adjacent to Guanajuato. The Mixteco and Zapoteco are indigenous to the state of Oaxaca, while the other languages have cultural centers in Querétaro, Puebla and Mexico.

The people of Guanajuato are the living representation of their indigenous ancestors. While most of the languages and cultures have disappeared or been absorbed into the central Hispanic culture, the people of Guanajuato have inherited the genetic legacy of the original Indian people. In this respect at least, the indigenous people of pre-Hispanic Guanajuato will endure forever.

Copyright © 2004 by John P. Schmal. All Rights Reserved. Read more articles by John Schmal.


Gonzalo de la Casas, "Noticias de los Chichimecas y Justicia de la Guerra Que Se les ha Hecho por los Españoles" (Stuttgart, 1936).

Departamento de la Estadística Nacional, "Annuario de 1930" (Tacuba, D.F., Mexico, 1932).

Basil C. Hedrick et al., "The North Mexican Frontier: Readings in Archaeology, Ethnohistory, and Ethnography." (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1971).

Instituto Nacional de Estadística, Geografía e Informática (INEGI). "Estadísticas Históricas de Mexico, Tomo I" (Aguascalientes, INEGI, 1994).

Instituto Nacional de Estadística, Geografía e Informática (INEGI). "Tabulados Básicos. Estados Unidos Mexicanos. XII Censo General de Población y Vivienda, 2000." (Mexico, 2001).

Paul Kirchhoff, "The Hunter-Gathering People of North Mexico," in "The North Mexican Frontier: Readings in Archaeology, Ethnohistory, and Ethnography" (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1971), pp. 200-209.

Philip Wayne Powell, "Soldiers, Indians and Silver: North America's First Frontier War" (Tempe, Arizona: Center for Latin American Studies, Arizona State University, 1975).

Juan Jose Prado, "Guanajuato's Legends and Traditions" (Guanajuato, Gto.: Prado Hnos., 1963).

Secretaria de Industria y Comercio, "IX Censo General de Población. 1970: Resumen General Abreviado" (Mexico, 1972).

Cyrus Thomas, "Indian Languages of Mexico and Central America" (Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Smithsonian Institution, 1911, Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 44).

John Schmal is an historian, genealogist, and lecturer. With his friend Donna Morales, he coauthored "Mexican-American Genealogical Research: Following the Paper Trail to Mexico" (Heritage Books, 2002) and "The Dominguez Family: A Mexican-American Journey" (Heritage Books, 2004). He has degrees in History (Loyola-Marymount University) and Geography (St. Cloud State University) and is a board member of the Society of Hispanic Historical Ancestral Research (SHHAR). He is an associate editor of SHHAR's online monthly newsletter, www.somosprimos.com. John is presently collaborating with illustrator Eddie Martinez on a manuscript entitled "Indigenous Mexico: Past and Present."