views updated Jun 11 2018


ETHNONYMS: Ben 'Zaa, Binii Gula'sa', Tsapotecatl, Za, Zapoteco


Identification. The Spanish name "Zapoteco" stems from the Nahuatl name for the Zapotee, "Tsapotecatl," which, in turn, was derived from the name of a fruit, the zapote, that was common in the region. Pre-Hispanic Zapotee referred to themselves as the "Ben 'Zaa" (cloud people). On occasion, modern Zapotee refer to themselves as "Za" (the people), but it is more typical of them to identify themselves as being from a particular community or region.

Location. The Zapotee are the largest indigenous group in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. Oaxaca is located between 15° and 19° N and 94° and 99° W. The Zapotee inhabit four main areas of Oaxaca: the central valley, the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the sierra region in the north, and the southern coastal mountain area called the Sierra de Miahuatlán. The central valley (average elevation 1,550 meters) has a temperate climate, the isthmus and other coastal areas are tropical and semiarid, whereas the sierra regions to the north and south, with variable elevations higher than the central valley, have a cooler climate than the temperate central valley. All regions experience dry and rainy seasons, the latter beginning in May and extending to October. Diverse microclimates exist in all of these regions.

Demography. The indigenous populations of Oaxaca generally, and the Zapotee in particular, underwent a marked depopulation following the Spanish Conquest. For example, the population of the central valley, estimated at about 350,000 when the Spanish arrived, had declined to about 40,000 or 45,000 by the 1630s, and regained its pre-Conquest level only in the mid-1970s. In 1971 the state of Oaxaca had 307,245 Zapotee speakers; in 1960 the figure was 253,438.

Linguistic Affiliation. Zapotee languages belong to the Otomanguean Language Family. There are probably at least nine separate, mutually unintelligible Zapotee languages: one in the central valley, one in the isthmus, four in the northern sierra, and three in the southern Sierra de Miahuatlán. Additionally, dialect differences often exist between communities.

History and Cultural Relations

Today, the impressive ruins of Monte Alban, Mitla, and Yagul (among others) stand as testimony to the accomplishments of the pre-Hispanic Zapotee. Prior to the arrival of the Spanish, the Zapotee developed a powerful state system that flourished and then declined. Long before the rise of the state (ca. 8000 to 1,500 b.c.), the Zapotee and the related Mixtec camped in small groups probably of twenty-five persons or less. Permanent villages appeared during the Formative period (ca. 1,500 to 100 b.c.) as did various new customs and practices, including loom weaving, adobe construction, stone masonry, pottery making, a 260-day calendar, human and animal sacrifice, and redistribution and reciprocal exchange systems. During the Classic period (ca. a.d. 300 to 900), Monte Alban was the metropolis of the Zapotee area, the center of a state organization that exerted its influence throughout southern Mexico. The Postclassic (ca. a.d. 900 to 1520) was the time of competitive Zapotee city-states. During the fifteenth century, the Aztec occupied the central valley and founded a garrison that would later become the state capital, Oaxaca City. When the Spanish arrived in Oaxaca, this garrison served as their colonial headquarters. Compared with the Aztec invasion, the Spanish presence in Oaxaca was exploitative and religious rather than military; compared to many parts of Mexico, most Zapotee communities remained relatively autonomous. Presently, through the market system, the Zapotee have contact with other indigenous groups and mestizos.


The Zapotee are primarily town-dwelling peasant farmers. In the central valley, for instance, communities are compact and most villages have fewer than 5,000 inhabitants. The mountain Zapotee also live in compact settlements, although in the southern sierra there are some scattered ranches. In the isthmus, in addition to rural villages, there are two urban centers that are primarily Zapotee in compositionJuchitán and Tehuantepec. A typical Zapotee community has a Catholic church, a central plaza, local governmental buildings, a primary school, perhaps a health clinic, and probably several small dry-goods stores. Depending on its history and size, the community may be divided into barrios or sections. Generally, narrow unpaved streets are lined with adobe house walls, fences of woven cane, or cacti planted in a row. Yards and patios are often only semi-private, being visible from the street and neighboring compounds.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The majority of Zapotec in all regions are peasant farmers, practicing a mixture of subsistence and cash agriculture with some animal husbandry. This is also the case in the isthmus urban centers. The primary subsistence crops are maize, beans, and squashes; various other crops are grown, depending on the climate, the availability of irrigation sources, and soil conditions. The household is the basic production unit but it is linked to the outside through an elaborate, cyclical marketplace system that has operated for centuries. At times, maize may be sold as a cash crop. In the valley region, a limited number of farmers plant garbanzo beans or wheat as off-season crops, whereas maguey, which is used to make the liquor mescal, is widely planted as a cash crop. In the mountain regions, coffee is a cash crop; in the isthmus, cash crops are bananas, mangoes, and coconuts. Crops are sometimes irrigated, although many villages remain totally dependent on rainfall. In all regions, farmers use teams of oxen to plow their fields; however, when mountain slopes are too steep for oxen, planting may be accomplished with a digging stick. Tractor use is gradually increasing.

Industrial Arts. Many Zapotee communities are specialized by craft and industry. In the valley, for instance, village specializations include the production of pottery, wool serapes, grinding stones (metates), woven belts, baskets, and other goods. In the northern sierra, crafts are less prevalent but include leatherworking and cotton weaving. Dress varies both among and within the Zapotee regions, with women's clothing showing greater variety than men's apparel. The Zapotee can often identify a woman's village of origin by her style of dress.

Trade. Oaxaca is known for its highly developed market system, and the Zapotee are renowned for their commercial activities. Since pre-Hispanic times, the Zapotee have maintained trade routes through much of Oaxaca. Products were carried by tumpline, a device that is still used by farmers to transport such loads as firewood. Certain localities, for example, the valley community of Mitla, specialized in trading activities. Presently, the Zapotee play a central role in the indigenous marketplace activities in both Oaxaca City and Tehuantepec.

Division of Labor. In each Zapotee region, men and women engage in different activities, but the specific nature of the division of labor is somewhat variable. Generally, men farm, and women prepare food, perform domestic chores, and perhaps participate in commercial activities. The isthmus Zapotee women are well known for their commercial activities and are almost exclusively the traders in marketplaces. Selling is an activity closed to isthmus men, whereas in other regions both men and women produce and sell various goods. In the valley town of Teotitlán del Valle, only men weave and generally sell serapes. Some men are so successful as weavers (they now sell to an international market) that they hire farmers from neighboring villages to work their fields.

Land Tenure. Prior to changes in the Mexican constitution in 1992, land tenure consisted of a mixture of private land, communal land, and ejidos. A farmer's private land usually consists of several small separate parcels, not one continuous holding. Local authorities grant permission to community members to farm or graze livestock on communal lands, which generally are of poor quality. Ejidos do not exist everywhere. They were established under the land reforms following the Mexican Revolution and are portions of communities (sometimes whole communities) that hold land in common under a special local authority structure. The large haciendas, common in other parts of Mexico, were relatively insignificant in Zapotee Oaxaca.


Kin Groups and Descent. The aboriginal Zapotee kinship system was bilateral and ambilineal, that is, descent was reckoned in both linesand still is today. With variation from place to place, the system of ritual coparenthood, compadrazgo, is used by the Zapotee.

Kinship Terminology. Zapotee kinship terms, ancient and modern, are dosest to the Hawaiian type. Spanish terms are replacing some of the Zapotee designations.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Most Zapotee communities are endogamous, although this is by custom, not by rule, and there are exceptions in most locations. Monogamy is generally practiced. The Zapotee discuss at least two types of marriage: free union and church marriage. Divorce is not permitted by the Catholic church, but sometimes spouses simply separate and take other spouses. Young couples sometimes live together prior to a formal marriage. Often they are later married by the church, but sometimes they separate. A pregnancy often will prompt a marriage, either through the church or through common law. The most common residence pattern is patrilocal for young couples, but neolocality sometimes follows patrilocality, perhaps after the birth of the first child. Less commonly, residence may be matrilocal; for example, when a bride lacks brothers, her husband may come to live with her and assist his father-inlaw in the fields.

Domestic Unit. Depending on his or her stage in the life cycle, a Zapotee may live in a nuclear or an extended family.

Inheritance. The rule is that all children should inherit equally, but in actuality, younger offspring who are still living with parents at the time of death may inherit more. Additionally, sons tend to inherit more land than do daughters. Land may be inherited at the parent's death, at an offspring's marriage, or when a parent becomes too old to work the fields.

Socialization. There is considerable variation in socialization practices even among closely situated Zapotec communities. For instance, parents in two adjoining valley communities may have very different beliefs about the use of physical punishment on children and also have different expectations about their children's conduct. Generally, young children up to the age of 3 years are treated affectionately, but often, corresponding with the arrival of the next sibling, parental affection is curtailed. Parents regularly frighten children by threatening that outsiders will take them away or eat them. Children are rarely instructed in how to accomplish a task or how to behave; rather, children are expected to observe, practice, and consequently learn. Older children are regularly the caretakers of younger children, which allows the adults to tend to their work.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. From the Postclassic period onward, the local community has been the primary sociopolitical entity in Zapotee society. Post-Classic Zapotee society consisted of three groups: commoners, priests, and the nobility, with each community having a controlling lord. In modern Oaxaca, the community remains the essential unit of organization, bound together by an institutionalized form of exchange called the guela uetza, or gozana, which has several manifestations. It can involve the exchange of agricultural labor or the exchange of goods during celebrations such as weddings and saint's day fiestas. For example, when a son or daughter is going to marry, the father visits all the households that owe him some form of debt from past occasions (e.g., mescal or turkeys) and asks for repayment at the upcoming wedding.

Political Organization. In most Zapotee communities, citizens are elected to fill positions in a cargo system. Zapotee Cargos are hierarchically arranged, age-graded religious and political posts in which adult men in the community serve terms of office without pay. The cargo system itself is consistently present in Zapotee communities, although variation exists as to details such as how officials are nominated and elected, the number of posts, and the duties of particular positions. Common posts include mayor, judge, and other officials such as treasurer and police captain. It is also noteworthy that the isthmus Zapotee women in particular wield considerable political power.

Social Control. The Zapotee employ a variety of formal and informal social controls. Formally, disputes may be brought before the local or district authorities, who have the ability to fine and imprison wrongdoers. At the informal level, mechanisms such as the avoidance of conflict situations; the denial of hostility and anger; the internalization of ideals such as respect, cooperation, and responsibility; fear of witchcraft; gossip; envy; and the withdrawal of social support operate variably in different locations. One frequently noted Zapotee ideal involves respect for others. The renowned former Mexican president, Benito Juárez, a Zapotee, reflected the importance of respect in Zapotee thinking when he wrote, "respect for the rights of others is peace."

Conflict. Notwithstanding the Zapotee valuation of respect, they have been involved in conflict. For much of the Classic and Post-Classic periods, there is evidence that military conquest, coupled with the enslavement and at times sacrifice of captives, was a prevalent Zapotee institution. During the Mexican Revolution, some Zapotee communities, such as Ixtepeji in the northern sierra, became involved in the conflict, but others did not. Intervillage disputes over community boundaries, sometimes resulting in the loss of life, have periodically arisen in many areas for at least the last several hundred years. Interestingly, the level of intracommunity conflict is extremely variable; some Zapotee communities are very peaceful, whereas others are much more violent. Historical, social-structural, and psychocultural variables appear to be interrelated factors accounting for this pronounced variability.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The pre-Hispanic Zapotee perceived their universe as consisting of the center surrounded by four quarters, each with a certain color and supernatural attributes. Time was viewed as cyclical, not lineal, and the Zapotee believed in gods associated with various natural elements, such as rain. The Zapotee rain god was worshiped in the northern sierra region until the mid-twentieth century. Presently, the Zapotee follow a form of Catholicism wherein saint worship plays a dominant part and pre-Hispanic beliefs have become fused with Catholicism. The Zapotee worldview includes a cast of supernaturals: witches, male and female devils, images of Christ (as a child and as an adult), and animal guardians (tonos). At birth, each person acquires his or her tono (e.g., a mountain lion). An unbaptized person risks becoming a nahual an animal form assumed in the state of possession.

Religious Practitioners. Aside from Catholic priests, specialized Zapotee ritual leaders, hechiceros, also conduct certain ceremonies, including offerings of flowers, food, poultry blood, mescal, money, cigarettes, and prayers at occasions such as weddings, funerals, and house initiations.

Ceremonies. Traditionally, the Zapotee engaged in numerous rituals associated with their farming activities. Lightning, Cosijo, was seen as alive; the powerful deity was offered human blood, quail, dogs, human infants, and war captives in exchange for rain. Modern Zapotee mark major life-cycle events such as baptism, communion, marriage, and death with ceremonies in the church and in their homes. Important ceremonies occur on Todos Santos (All Saints' Day) and on the patron saints' days in each community.

Arts. Pre-Hispanic Zapotee architectural achievements are especially evident from the temples, compounds, and courts of Monte Alban and Mitla. Some modern Zapotee towns are renowned for serape weavings, pottery, and other crafts.

Medicine. The Zapotee have an impressive repertoire of remedies and cures. Members of both sexes are curers, but only women are midwives, and only men mend bones. Illness may be attributed to improper religious conduct, soul loss, envy, anger, the evil eye, fright (susto or espanto ), and witchcraft.

Death and Afterlife. The Zapotec distinguish between ordinary death and sudden violent death; in the latter, the deceased's soul does not make the transition to heaven. A distinction is also made in the death ritual for married and unmarried persons.


Chinas, Beverly L. (1973). The Isthmus Zapotee: Women's Roles in Cultural Context. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Flannery, Kent, and Joyce Marcus, eds. (1983). The Cloud People. New York: Academic Press.

Nader, Laura (1969). "The Zapotee of Oaxaca." In Handbook of Middle American Indians, edited by Robert Wauchope. Vol. 7, Ethnology, Fart One, edited by Evon Z. Vogt, 329-357. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Whitecotton, Joseph W. (1977). The Zapotees. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.



views updated May 18 2018


ETHNONYMS: Cloud People, Ñuu Savi


Identification. Speakers of Mixtec live in the southern Mexican states of Oaxaca, Guerrero, and Puebla. Mixtec speakers usually refer to themselves as "Ñuu Savi" (people of the rain).

Location. The Mixteca, the homeland of the Mixtec people, has traditionally been divided into three broad geographical zones: the Mixteca Alta, a mountainous, forested region; the Mixteca Baja, a high, dry area northwest of the Alta; and the Mixteca de la Costa, a low-lying tropical area bordering the Pacific Ocean. Within each of these zones, the sharply faulted topography has created a great deal of environmental diversity. A lack of economic opportunity has caused many Mixtec speakers to migrate from this area, and there are now substantial colonies of Mixtec speakers located in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec region, in Oaxaca City, in Mexico City, in Baja California, and in various places in the United States. Groups of Mixtec labor migrants have been reported to be working as far north as Alaska.

Demography. Prior to the Spanish Conquest, the population of the Mixteca (which included non-Mixtec-speaking groups) was over 500,000. The plagues of the sixteenth century reduced the population by 90 percent. After reaching a nadir in the early seventeenth century, the population has steadily recovered, to the point where by 1980 there were 323,137 speakers of Mixtec in Mexico, making them the fourth-largest indigenous group in the country.

Linguistic Affiliation. Mixtec is classified as an Otomaguean language, although sharp dialectal differences mean that the Mixtec spoken in one area is often not intelligible to speakers of Mixtec in other areas. The Summer Institute of Linguistics has identified twenty-nine "dialects" of Mixtec that fall below the 70-percent intelligibility level with one another.

History and Cultural Relations

In the early sixteenth century the Mixteca was divided into numerous small kingdoms, or cacicazgos, ruled over by a hereditary elite. The Mixtec elite also ruled over non-Mixtec-speaking peoples, and some Mixtec kingdoms had, in turn, been conquered by the Central Mexican Triple Alliance. The Mixtec elite, related to one another by marriage and descent, patronized one of the finest artistic traditions in the New World. The area was conquered by the Spanish between 1522 and 1524. Owing to severe population decline in the wake of the sixteenth-century plagues, as well as to the region's lack of major mineral and agricultural resources, relatively few Spaniards settled in the area, however, and the pressures for change, although substantial, were not as great as in other areas in Mesoamerica. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries outsiders began to move into the Mixteca in increasing numbers, and commercial agriculture was expanded. At the same time, the region became a center for several armed political movements, and Mixtec-speaking peoples actively participated in the struggle for independence, as well as in the Wars of the Reform and the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920. Today, most Mixtec speakers are what anthropologists call peasants, but there is a growing Mixtec middle class, made up of teachers, government workers, technicians, politicians, health officials, and other professionals.


Rural Mixtec speakers reside in village communities. Some of these communities form municipalities (the basic unit of political organization within Mexico), and some are hamlets within municipalities. In physical terms, most village communities have at their centers a main plaza surrounded by a church, a schoolhouse, and government buildings. Domestic dwellings are traditionally built of locally available materials. In higher, colder areas, most people tend to live in log cabins, but in the warmer, lower-lying areas, houses are usually made of cane and thatch. Adobe bricks are used throughout the region, and in some areas the waterproof husk of the banana is used as a roofing material. Today, many people construct their homes of cement cinder blocks and corrugated iron roofs.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Most rural Mixtec people are peasants who subsist chiefly on maize, beans, squash, chilies, local fruits, and other vegetables. In some areas, swidden, or slash-and-burn, agriculture is widely practiced; in other areas oxen-drawn plows are used. In favored areas, irrigation works have been developed. The lama-bordo technique of building hillside terraces to control erosion and bring fertile soil off the mountains onto agricultural plots appears to be unique to the Mixteca. In some areas, where virgin forests still exist, wild game (deer, squirrels, coati, iguanas, and birds) supplements the diet. Principal cash crops include coffee, wheat and other grains, tobacco, sugarcane, and fruits. In most areas, significant numbers of goats and sheep are raised, and the coastal area is known for the large number of cattle bred there.

Industrial Arts. In traditional Mixtec villages, there are adept weavers, candle makers, and house builders. In addition, many communities specialize in particular crafts such as pottery making, sugar and liquor production, baking, the manufacture of straw hats and mats, firework production, the manufacture of agricultural tools, leatherworking, and furniture making.

Trade. Much of the trade within the Mixteca is carried out at weekly markets. Local trade involves the exchange of the crafts of different communities and the products of complementary ecozones. Long-distance trade between the Coastal Mixteca and other regions has traditionally focused on salt. Cotton, cacao, chilies, fish, and coconuts are also traded from the coast into highland areas, in exchange for pulque, squashes, herbs such as oregano, and temperate fruits. Pilgrimage centers also function as trading points in the Mixteca, as do sites of religious festivals. Some regions lack weekly markets, and traders simply go from house to house with their wares.

Division of Labor. For rural peasants, the division of labor is by gender and age. Men are responsible for agricultural tasks and house building, whereas women cook and process food, maintain the house, and care for children. In some places, this division of labor is defined by taboos, such as the one arising from the belief that husbands become ill if their wives perform agricultural chores. Both sexes gather firewood; only men hunt. Children and older people are often assigned the task of caring for goats and sheep.

Land Tenure. Patterns of land tenure vary greatly from place to place within the Mixteca, the result of Mexico's complicated agrarian history and local ecological factors. In some areas, land is held privately by individuals and can be freely bought and sold. Elsewhere, land is held privately but cannot be sold to outsiders. In still other places, no individual titles exist, although the same plots may stay within families for generations. In places where swidden agriculture is practiced and there is abundant land, fields are abandoned after a year or two, and the family that worked a plot may never again return to it. Most Mixtec communities maintain at least some communal lands, which are used by community members for pasturage, cutting timber, collecting wild plants, and gathering fuel.


Kin Groups and Descent. In the pre-Hispanic period, many local groups were organized as demes, a practice that continues in at least some communities in the area today. For purposes of inheritance, descent is reckoned bilaterally. Compadrazgo, or ritual kinship, is extremely important in all areas. There are several different kinds of compadrazgo relationships, but those deriving from baptism and marriage are considered the most significant. The compadrazgo tie extends beyond the immediate partners and the godchild to embrace a range of lineal and collateral relatives, who may then refer to one another by kinship terms.

Kinship Terminology. Mixtec is characterized by Hawaiian cousin terminology. Three separate terms for siblings and cousins are used, depending on whether the persons are of the same or the opposite sex.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Parents traditionally selected mates for their children. Often people married before they were sexually mature. Today, marriage occurs much later, and the young people involved have much more influence over the decision about who and when to marry, although the older pattern can still be found in some areas. Bride-wealth payments are made, and in some places can amount to the equivalent of several years' wages. Bride-service, with residence by the groom in the father-in-law's house, is also required in some areas. Community endogamy is the predominant pattern, although members of the growing Mixtec middle class are as likely to marry someone outside their community as they are to marry an insider. Polygyny is practiced by wealthy individuals. Residence is usually virilocal. When divorce occurs, the woman returns to her parents' or brothers' households. If it occurs relatively soon after marriage, a portion of the bride-wealth must be repaid.

Domestic Unit. The ideal domestic unit for most Mixtec peasants is a husband and wife, their unmarried children, and their adult married sons, who bring their wives to live with them in their father's house. Often separate houses are erected, forming a residential compound, for each of the different nuclear families. There is, however, much variation in the composition of Mixtec households, depending on the phase of the developmental cycle, selective mortality, divorce, and other factors.

Inheritance. Traditionally, all sons inherited equally. Daughters inherited land only when a man died without any sons. In many places today, women are given the same rights to their parent's estate as their brothers.

Socialization. All members of the household help raise children. Females with nursing infants may breast-feed one another's children, and older children often spend as much time caring for their younger siblings as do the parents. Once children reach the age of 4 or 5, they begin to leave the compound to play with other children. Boys are encouraged to roam freely with their peers, but girls are expected to stay near the household. Both sexes are given productive tasks to perform from a very early age. Marriage is often a difficult time for young girls, who are suddenly separated from their home and kin.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The basic social unit of Mixtec peasant communities today is the household. Households are linked to one another through reciprocal exchange of goods and labor, marriage, ritual kinship, and corporate interest. The municipal subunits of ranchería and agencia, as well as the barrio, often form intermediate organizations between household and community.

Political Organization. In settlements where Mixtec speakers predominate, leadership and decision making rest in the hands of officers of the civil-religious hierarchy. It is often the case in these areas that ultimate authority rests with a group of tañuu and ñañuu, men and women who have passed through all the offices of the hierarchy and are now respected elders. Elsewhere, a single individual, or cacique, may control local government, often by being a broker between the state bureaucracy and the local village. In rural areas with mestizo populations, the power of Mixtec speakers in local government is usually limited.

Social Control. Gossip, public ridicule, the threat of evil spells, and fear of being accused of witchcraft are important mechanisms of social control in village life. The assignment of offices in the civil-religious hierarchy to those who violate community norms is another very effective form of punishment, since work in these offices requires a substantial expenditure of time and money. In the case of serious infractions, such as the theft of property, local authorities may decide that incarceration and the payment of fines is necessary. Habitual criminals may be subjected to banishment or some form of corporal punishment. In most areas, murderers are sent to the district capital for trial and punishment.

Conflict. Intervillage conflict is widespread throughout southern Mexico, but it is particularly intense in Oaxaca, where disputes between neighboring communities over land boundaries have continued for hundreds of years. These disputes have sometimes degenerated into open warfare, resulting in deaths and the destruction of property. Within communities, conflicts frequently take place between community members over land, with drunkenness and witchcraft accusations often playing precipitating roles. Some Mixtec communities have homicide rates that exceed those recorded in the most violent cities in the United States.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. There are several basic elements to contemporary Mixtec peasant religious beliefs. These include a cosmology divided between the Earth and the Sky; a monistic pantheon, wherein the distinction between a particular deity, such as the image of the rain god, and its manifestations in rain and water, is unimportant; a focus on the renewal and fertility of the world through acts of self-sacrifice; and a modeling of contemporary social interactions on those that occurred between humans and the gods in mythic times. At the center of many Mixtec rituals are the saints introduced by the Spanish during the colonial period, and almost every Mixtec town has a Catholic church at its center. Protestant missionaries have made inroads in some Mixtec communities since the 1930s, often dividing the community into factions based on religious affiliation.

Religious Practitioners. Native religious practitioners are only rarely full-time specialists; they usually function as a combination of curer, diviner, and shaman, with individuals specializing in particular divinatory and curing techniques. Both men and women play these roles.

Ceremonies. Ceremonial life in Mixtec communities is very rich and centers around the fiesta complex. Fiestas, held to celebrate the feast days of major saints, are often sponsored by a mayordomo. On these occasions, hundreds of people may be involved in the rituals, which include gift exchange, sacrifices, processions, a mass, and much eating and drinking. Fiestas are also held to commemorate the life crises of baptism, marriage, and death and may involve hundreds of participants in rituals, the exchange of gifts, and feasting. Other major events include Carnival, just before Lent, which often involves the performances of dance troupes, and rituals to bring rain and celebrate the return of the dead (the latter occurring at harvest time in late October and early November). Pilgrimage sites are scattered throughout the Mixteca, and Mixtecs often make pilgrimages to important places outside their region, such as Juquila, and to the Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico City.

Medicine. Most people are familiar with a wide range of plant and animal products that have curative properties. Specialists are called to cure illnesses such as soul loss, evil eye, and those believed to be caused by witchcraft. Many sicknesses are attributed to moral failings by the sufferer or by the sufferer's immediate kin. The Mexican government has established free rural clinics throughout the Mixteca, staffed by trained nurses and doctors. These have been especially effective at reducing the mortality rate of young children and women of childbearing age who develop complications during pregnancy.

Death and Afterlife. Death is commemorated by elaborate mourning rituals, which involve gift exchange and feasting and seven or nine nights of prayer, depending on whether the deceased was a child or an adult. The world of the dead is the mirror image of the world of the living. Thus, one year for the living is one day for the dead; when it is night for the living, it is day in the land of the dead. In some places, the dead are said to reside on certain mountaintops. Many people subscribe to the ancient Mesoamerican belief that one's final resting place is determined by the manner in which one died. Thus, those who drown serve the rain deity; those who die in the forest serve the demon. Most of the dead are believed to return during the All Saints' observance to visit with the living.


Butterworth, Douglas (1975). Tilantongo. Mexico City: Instituto Nacional Indigenista.

Jansen, Maarten (1982). Huisi Tacu. Amsterdam: Centrus voor Studie en Documentatie van Latijns Amerika.

Monaghan, John (1990). "Reciprocity, Redistribution, and the Transaction of Value in the Mesoamerican Fiesta." American Ethnologist 17:758-774.

Ravicz, Robert, and A. Kimball Romney (1969). "The Mixtec." In Handbook of Middle American Indians, edited by Robert Wauchope. Vol. 7, Ethnology, Part One, edited by Evon Z. Vogt, 367-399. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Smith, Mary Elizabeth (1973). Picture Writing of Ancient Southern Mexico. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Spores, Ronald (1984). The Mixtec in Ancient and Colonial Times. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.