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THE MIXTECS AND ZAPOTECS: Two Enduring Cultures of Oaxaca
By 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 Aztec Empire
Map of Mexico
History of Mexico
Mexican Traditions
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. Although Oaxaca's ethnic groups are well-defined through dialect, customs, food habits, and rituals, the historian María de Los Angeles Romero Frizzi has suggested that the simplistic "linguistic categorization" of the ethnic groups is "somewhat misleading," primarily because "the majority of indigenous peoples in Oaxaca identify more closely with their village or their community than with their ethnolinguistic group."

For this reason, Oaxaca is - by and large - the most ethnically complex of Mexico's thirty-one states. The two largest linguistic groups in this large collection are the Zapotec and Mixtec Indians, whose roots stretch very deeply into the early Mesoamerican era of Oaxaca. Living in their mountain enclaves and fertile valleys, many of their pre-Hispanic ancestors harvested corn, beans, chocolate, tomatoes, chili, squash, pumpkin and gourds. Some of the early inhabitants also hunted turkey, deer, armadillo and iguana or fished in Oaxaca's many ocean-bound streams and rivers.

It is no surprise that the Mixtecs and Zapotecs were neighbors as they both belong to the Oto-Manguean language family, which remains the largest linguistic group in the state of Oaxaca and in the Mexican Republic, represented by approximately 174 languages (according to Ethnologue.com). The author Nicholas A. Hopkins, in his article "Otomanguean Linguistic Prehistory," states that glottochronological studies of the Oaxacan 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. It is widely recognized that the Mixtecos and Zapotecos are actually kindred peoples, looking back to a common origin several thousand years ago.

These two groups are not only the largest indigenous groups within this part of Mexico; they also exhibit a wide range of diversity within their own ethnic populations. Ms. Romero has observed that some of Oaxaca¹s language families ­ including the Zapotec and Mixtec tongues - "encompass a variety of regional languages, making for a more diverse picture than the number sixteen would suggest."

By the time the Spaniards arrived in the Valley of Oaxaca in 1521, the Zapotec and Mixtec inhabitants of this large mountainous region had split into hundreds of independent village-states. The Zapotec ethnic group is so diverse that there are actually 64 separate Zapotec languages that have evolved over the last few thousand years, each language diverging as the Zapotec communities became isolated from one another over time. The Mixtec ethnic group is also very diverse, speaking approximately 57 different languages. Almost four centuries after the conquest, at the time of the 1900 Mexican Federal Census, 471,439 inhabitants of Oaxaca were still speaking Indian languages, representing 49.70% of the state population and 17.24% of the national indigenous-speaking population.

Most archaeological evidence indicates that the Zapotecs were one of the earliest ethnic groups to gain prominence in the region now called Oaxaca. The Zapotec Indians 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 from another land. Instead, their legends claim that their ancestors emerged from the earth or from caves, or that they turned from trees or jaguars into people. It is, therefore, not surprising that they would refer to themselves as the rightful original inhabitants of their lands.

Some of the Zapotecs eventually became known as the Be'ena Za'a (Cloud People), a name primarily 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, the sister culture of the Zapotecs, also received their ³Aztec² name due to their identity as "Cloud People" (Nusabi), but in their case the Náhuatl translation was literal, as Mixtecatl translates directly as "Cloud Person."

The early Zapotecs were a sedentary, agricultural city-dwelling people who worshipped a pantheon of gods. In their art, architecture, hieroglyphics, mathematics, and calendar, the Zapotecs appeared to have shared some cultural affinities with the ancient Olmec and the Mayan Indians. The Zapotec culture developed in the mountainous area at and near Monte Albán, roughly parallel to the Olmec civilization, which was in decline as the Zapotecs were in ascendance. The Zapotecs developed a calendar and a basic form of writing through carvings. By 200 B.C. the Zapotecs were using the bar and dot system of numerals used by the Maya.

Politically and militarily, the Zapotec Indians became dominant in the area around 200 B.C., extending their political and economic influence into the coastal regions and establishing valuable trading links with the Mayans to the south. Sometime between the third and eighth centuries A.D., the Zapotec culture peaked. However, soon after, the Mixtecs began to dominate the region, displacing the Zapotecs in many areas.

Located above the Valley of Oaxaca, six miles away from the capital city, the Zapotec ceremonial center, Monte Albán, was built in a mountain range overlooking great valleys and remains one of the most majestic of the sites of Pre-Historic Mexico. This architectural wonder is a complex of pyramids and platforms surrounding an enormous esplanade, where there is also an extraordinary astronomical observatory. Monte Albán was dedicated to the cult of mysterious 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., by which time Monte Albán had become home to some 25,000 people and was the capital city of the Zapotec nation. For reasons still not entirely clear, the site was gradually abandoned after A.D. 700.

Some archaeologists have suggested that the decline of Monte Albán may have taken place because local resources of wood had become depleted and that its once-fertile slopes had become barren. 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 Spanish in 1521, there was minimal life at Monte Albán, except that Mixtecs arriving in the Central Valleys between 1100 and 1350 reused old tombs at the site to bury their own dignitaries.

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, gradually encroaching onto the territories of the Zapotecs. But, 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 1486, the Aztecs established a fort on the hill of Huaxyácac (now called El Fortín), overlooking the present city of Oaxaca. This location would become the seat of an Aztec garrison that enforced tribute collection from the Mixtecs and Zapotecs.

The ascendancy of the Aztecs in Oaxaca would last a little more than a few 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.

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.

When the powerful Aztecs were overcome, the Zapotecs sent delegations seeking alliances with the Spaniards. Cortés promptly sent Pedro de Alvarado and Gonzalo de Sandoval to the Pacific and into the Sierra looking for gold. Pedro de Alvarado (1486-1541) explored the Oaxaca region in search of the source of the Aztec gold and find a waterway to the Pacific Ocean. He didn't find a waterway but reported some good locations for ports.

On November 25, 1521, Francisco de Orozco arrived in the Central Valley with a force of 400 Aztecs to take possession 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.

In the decades following the Spanish encounter, a series of devastating epidemics wreaked havoc on the native population of Oaxaca and other parts of 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. But, over time, the population of Oaxaca rebounded. On February 3, 1824, the state of Oaxaca was founded within the newly independent Mexican Republic, after 303 years of Spanish rule.

According to the 2000 census, the population of persons five years and more who spoke indigenous languages in Oaxaca amounted to 1,120,312 individuals, which represented 39.12% of the total population of the state. Today, the Mixtec Indians are one of the most important linguistic groups of southern Mexico, occupying an extensive territory of about 40,000 square kilometers (189 municipios) in western and northern Oaxaca and extending into Eastern Guerrero and Puebla. The Mixtec territory is divided into three subregions: the Upper Mixteca, Lower Mixteca and the Coastal Mixteca.

The Mixteca Alta or Highland Mixtec (Upper Mixteca) occupy approximately 38 municipios in the mountains west of the valley of Oaxaca. For most of Mixtec history the Mixteca Alta was the dominant political force, with the capitals of the Mixtec nation located in the central highlands. The valley of Oaxaca itself was often a disputed border region, sometimes dominated by the Mixtec and sometimes by the neighboring people to the east, the Zapotec.

The Lower Mixteca (Mixteca Baja) or Lowland Mixtec region takes in another 31 municipios to the north and west of these highlands in northwestern Oaxaca. The Mixteca de la Costa or Coastal Mixtec live in the southern plains and the coast of the Pacific Ocean.

In the 2000 census, the Mixteco Indians in Oaxaca numbered 241,383, or 55.19% of the 437,373 Mixtecos in the entire Mexican Republic. If you count the various subsidiary Mixtec languages, the total Mixtec-speaking population of the Mexican Republic in 2000 included 444,498 individuals. Today, the Mixtecs are spread throughout the entire nation, in large part because of their good reputation in the agricultural industry. The chart below illustrates the population of Mixtec speakers in both Oaxaca and the Mexican Republic.

Name of Language Number of Persons Speaking Language 5 Years or Older in Oaxaca in 2000 Percentage as a Portion of Mexican Republic Totals in 2000 Number of Persons Speaking Language 5 Years or Older in Mexico in 2000
Mixteco 241,383 55.13% 437,873
Mixteco de La Mixteca Baja 2,049 55.26% 3,708
Mixteco de la Mixteca Alta 578 20.29% 2,848
Mixteco de la Costa 15 45.45% 33
Mixteco de la Zona Mazateca 4 23.53% 17
Mixteco de Puebla 0 0.00% 19
All Mixtecs 244,029 54.90% 444,498
Source: XII Censo General de Población y Vivenda, 2000, Instituto de Estadística, Geografía e Informática (INEGI).

The Zapotec ethnic group remains the largest indigenous group of Oaxaca and presently occupies 67 municipios of Oaxaca. Several major Zapotec linguistic groups are classified by region as follows:

The Zapotecos de Valles Centrales (Zapotecos of the Central Valleys) are spread through the districts of Tlacolula, Ejutla, Ocotlán, Centro, Zaachila, Zimatlán and Etla, an area that actually consists of three intermontaine areas. The Oaxaca Valleys are located in the central part of the state. This is a zone of wide plains suitable for agriculture. The region borders the Mixteca on the west, the Gorge on the northwest, the Juárez Mountain Range on the north, the Isthmus of Tehuantepec on the east, and the Sierra Madre Range on the south.

The Zapoteco Sureño (Zapotecos of the Southern Mountains) occupy the southern mountain region. The Zapoteco Istmo (the Zapotecos of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec) live in Tehuantepec and Juchitán of southeastern Oaxaca. The term Zapotec comprises a great many language varieties, most of which are identified by the area or towns where they are spoken. In the 2000 census, 377,936 individuals five years of age or more spoke some kind of Zapoteco language in Oaxaca. This represented 83.45% of all the Zapotec speakers in the entire Mexican Republic, who numbered 421,796. Like their Mixtec brothers, the Zapotecs have migrated to many parts of the country. These populations are illustrated as follows:

Name of Language Number of Persons Speaking Language 5 Years or Older in Oaxaca in 2000 Percentage as a Portion of Mexican Republic Totals in 2000 Number of Persons Speaking Language 5 Years or Older in Mexico in 2000
Zapoteco 347,020 82.27% 421,796
Zapoteco Sureño 25,357 99.85% 25,396
Zapoteco Vallista 3,154 99 21% 3,179
Zapoteco del Istmo 562 87.27% 644
Zapoteco del Ixtlán 1,829 98.97% 1,848
Zapoteco del Rincón 14 73.68% 19
Zapoteco de Cuitztla 0 0.00% 4
Zapoteco de Vijano 0 0.00% 1
All Zapotecs 337,936 83.45% 452,887
Source: XII Censo General de Población y Vivenda, 2000, Instituto de Estadística, Geografía e Informática (INEGI).

Increasingly, large numbers of Zapotecs and Mixtecs are traveling to locations throughout the Mexican Republic and the United States to secure gainful employment. Zapotecs and Mixtecs, in fact, are favored laborers in the two Baja states. In the 2000 census, the two largest linguistic groups in Baja California Norte were the Mixtecos (11,962 speakers) and the Zapotecos (2,987 speakers). In the 2000 census, 41,014 persons in Baja California claimed Oaxaca as their birthplace. Already, in the 1970s, Baja had become a major zone of attraction for Mixtec farm laborers, with Ensenada and Tijuana as the primary destinations. In the last two decades, Baja California growers almost exclusively recruited Oaxacans laborers for their agricultural labor needs.

Indigenous speakers from Oaxaca have also made their way to the United States in large numbers. It is believed that in the last 20 years, more than 100,000 Zapotecs and Mixtecs have immigrated to the United States. According to the researcher Sarah Poole, it has been estimated that by the year 2010, Mixtecs and Zapotecs will comprise 20% of the agricultural labor force in the United States, in particular California.

Wherever they go, Mixtec and Zapotec laborers are usually regarded as newcomers. But, these two peoples have endured a long cultural journey, stretching back several thousand years. The Mixtecs and Zapotecs, in fact, built successful civilizations long before the Aztecs came into prominence. They are, without a doubt, enduring cultures.

Copyright © 2006 by John P. Schmal. All Rights Reserved. Read more articles by John Schmal.


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Clark Alfaro, Víctor. Los Mixtecos en la Frontera (Baja California). Mexicali, Baja California: Universidad Autónoma de Baja California, Instituto de Investigaciones Sociales, 1991.

Ethnologue.com, Languages of Mexico. From Ethnologue: Languages of the World, 14th edition, Online: http://www.ethnologue.com/show_country.asp?name=Mexico July 28, 2001.

Frizzi, María de Los Angeles Romero, ³The Indigenous Population of Oaxaca From the Sixteenth Century to the Present,² in Richard E.W. Adams and Murdo J. MacLeod (eds.), The Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas, Volume II, Mesoamerica, Part 2. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

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Hopkins, Nicholas A., ³Otomanguean Linguistic Prehistory,² in J. Kathryn Josserand, Marcus Winter, and Nicholas Hopkins (eds.), Esays in Otomanguean Culture History ­ Vanderbuilt University Publications in Anthropology No. 31. Nashville: Vanderbilt University, 1984, pp. 25-64.

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

Poole, Sarah. The Changing Face of Mexican Migrants in California: Oaxacan Mixtecs and Zapotecs in Perspective. Center for Latin American Studies and Trans Border Institute Border Brief. Online: http://www-rohan.sdsu.edu/~latamweb/images/TBI_CLAS-Brief_OAX.pdf

Taylor, William B., Landlord and Peasant in Colonial Oaxaca. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1972.

About the author: 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), which is available at: http://marketplacesolutions.net/secure/heritagebooks/merchant2/merchant.mvc?Screen=PROD&Store_Code=HBI&Product_Code=M2527