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Identification. The name "Amuzgo" comes from a Nahuatl word to which various interpretations have been given. According to one version, the term derives from amoxtli, "place of books or papers"; another versionperhaps a more plausible onetranslates the word amoxko to mean "place of clouded water" (the greenish slime floating on the surface of rivers). There is no known general self-designation for the group, although one form of ethnic self-recognition is evident in their reference to those who speak hñonda, a term that is difficult to translate but that expresses the idea of "word [language] of water"; other languages are referred to as kñosko, "word [language] of leaves."

Location. The Amuzgo live near the Pacific Ocean, in the lower portions of the Sierra Madre del Sur, along the coasts of the Mexican states of Guerrero and Oaxaca (known as La Costa Chica). The area they occupy, located between 16° and 17° N and between 98° and 99° W, has an average elevation of 500 meters and a semihumid climate. The main Amuzgo settlements in the state of Guerrero are the municipios of Xochistlahuaca, Tlacoachistlahuaca, and Ometepec. In Oaxaca, the main settlements are San Pedro Amuzgos and Santa María Ipalapa.

Demography. In 1990 the number of Amuzgo speakers was calculated at 32,637: 27,629 in the state of Guerrero and 5,008 in Oaxaca. These figures include children under 5 years of age with Amuzgo-speaking parents. The actual number of Amuzgo could be higher, however, because it is difficult to count people living in small and dispersed settlements. The 1990 census counted temporary migrants at their location of migration rather than in their home communities. The Amuzgo area is also the home of mestizo, Afro-Mexican, Mixtec, and Nahua populations.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Amuzgo language is classified as an independent branch of the Otomanguean Language Family. Amuzgo shows dialectal differences but maintains relative mutual intelligibility. It is marked by enough diversity that people who know the language can identify the home territory of a speaker. In the Amuzgo area of Guerrero, monolingualism reaches 50 percent, and in Oaxaca, 20 percent. Bilingualism is the result of migration, schooling, and contact with mestizos in the capitals of the municipios.

History and Cultural Relations

Information on the history of the Amuzgo is very scarce, although some data can be reconstructed from tangential sources. From Mixtec codices it is known that around the year a.d. 1000 the Mixtec king Eight Deer was recognized as a Mixtec ruler in a ceremony that took place in Jicayan, a place near the eastern Amuzgo region and the boundary of the Tututepec domain. This leads one to deduce that Amuzgo pueblos must have existed since that time. In the second half of the fifteenth century, the western part of the Amuzgo area, in the present state of Guerrero, including centers of Amuzgo populations like Ayotzinapa (which has no Amuzgo population today) and Xochistlahuaca, an area controlled by the province of Ayacastla and inhabited mainly by Ometepec and Igualapa, was under Aztec domination. Around the Amuzgo area, besides Mixtec, there were Chatina-, Ayacatzec-, Nahua-, Cahuatec-, Tzintec-, and Tlapanec-speaking pueblos. On two Mixtec lienzos (painted deerskins), those of Zacatepec and Jicayan (dated 1550), wherein boundaries are described, there appears a glyph with the name of the town of Amuzgos: a ball ending in an element resembling threads, as it were a cotton seed, with the Mixtec name ñuñama, "town of the cotton ball." The Relación de Xalapa, Cintla, and Acatlán of 1580 shows several capitals dependent on the alcaldía mayor (area governed by an alcalde mayor), which included estancias (towns) where Amuzgo was spoken: Xicayan de Tovar, Ayocinapa, Ometepec, Suchistlahuaca, and Ihualapa. Many of these towns were devastated by the Spanish invasion and epidemics related to it. Pedro de Alvarado began the conquest of the southern coast, and the conquistador Tristán de Luna y Arellano, under the Perpetual Estate of the Marshall of Castile, developed one of the largest landed estates of the area, which included part of Amuzgo territory. The estate disintegrated during the first half of the nineteenth century because of disputes over succession. After haciendas were established in the area, the indigenous population suffered the consequences of new economic activities: cattle raising led to the destruction of cultivatable land, and a system of forced labor was imposed in conjunction with the production of sugarcane and cochineal.


The Amuzgo settled in various towns: Ayotzinapa, Ometepec, Xochistlahuaca, Igualapa, Cozoyoapa, Tlacoachistlahuaca, Huajintepec, Quetzalapa, Chalapa, and Amuzgos. Xochistlahuaca ("Vale of Flowers") was made the capital (cabecera ) of the Amuzgo region in 1563. Of the towns that survived epidemics and colonization, those that still exist today are Cozoyapan, Huehuetonoc, Minas, San Cristóbal, Tlacoachistlahuaca, Cochoapa, Huajintepec, Huixtepec, and Zacualpan in Guerrero and the territories of Amuzgos and Ipalapa in Oaxaca. When the state of Guerrero was formed in 1849, the Amuzgo found themselves divided between two states, a division that was detrimental to intercommunity relations between Amuzgo towns. Besides these towns, there is a large population dispersed in smaller cuadrillas or parajes (hamlets), in which people live temporarily or permanently, in order to be nearer their cultivable land and their encierros (fenced pastures). Amuzgo settlements were exposed to the cultural influence of the coastal Black population, as is evident by the construction of round houses, known as redondos, made of mud, plaited lightweight cane, and otate -cane wood. Later the dominant form was the square adobe house with a two-eaved tile roof. Settlements in cabeceras (principal towns/administrative centers) or large towns are agglutinative; in the hamlets or cuadrillas they are dispersed. In a cabecera, the mestizo population generally lives in the center and the indigenous population on the periphery.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Nowadays the economy of Amuzgo communities is based on agriculture. The main cultigen is maize, the foodstuff that forms the basis of the indigenous population's daily diet. Beans, squashes, chilies, cacao, coffee, various fruits, and poultry complement the indigenous diet. Panela (raw-sugar loaves) and aguardiente (white rum) are made from sugarcane, which is still pressed in the animal-powered sugar presses introduced during the colonial era. Given the area's soil quality and the hilly nature of the land, the system of agriculture is slash and burn. Implements include the machete, tarecua (a weeding tool), coa (native spade), and enduyo (a planting tool). The amount of seed sown is measured in maquillas (units of weight) or cajones (boxes). Only very few indigenous families can afford to maintain cattle. The Amuzgo complement crop and livestock production by producing handicrafts, mainly weaving and embroidery.

Trade. Indigenous products formerly played a major part in commercial exchange, but, in the hands of the mestizo population, trade has turned toward modern goods and increasingly less toward local handicrafts. Commercial activity increases during the festivities in the various pueblos of the area, but the majority of the merchants who come to sell at the fairs are from outside the area.

Migration. There has been a rapid increase in migration. The migratory flow is within the surrounding area, to the capital, to nearby cities, to Mexico City, and to the United States.

Division of Labor. Men generally work in the fields, and women in the home; however, in some cases women help the men with agricultural labor or tending herds and flocks. Handicrafts generally fall within the domain of women.

Land Tenure. In Amuzgo communities, landownership is in the form of ejidos (federal land grants to peasant farmers), communal lands, and smallholdings. Landownership has been a constant struggle for the Amuzgo, as they have had to contend with mestizos recurrently buying up land. Given the system of slash-and-burn cultivation, it is necessary for plots of land to lie fallow. Access to ejido and communal land guarantees the use of monte (hillside land) for planting, pasture, gathering, and hunting. Private property is mainly in the form of encierrosfenced plots of land wherein cattle are grazedand cultivated land, which only the owner can use.


Kin Groups and Descent. Nowadays there are no lineage or descent groups, but some patrilineal practices survive in rules of residence and inheritance. In some Amuzgo towns, a social differentiation based on attachment to paternal or maternal groups is still evident, for example, when a child is considered to belong to the family of the mother's father. Kinship unity is strengthened by coresidence in a single household, which unites child-rearing, economic, and kinship functions. Patrilocal residence is the form preferred by newlywed couples, although matrilocal residence also occurs; neolocal residence is infrequent.

Kinship Terminology. Amuzgo terminology has different kinship terms for parents and their siblings and a differentiation based on sex (the Eskimo model). A subdivision by age provides terms denoting older and younger; for example, in cases where Ego is older, a parent's brother will be called "sibling's son," and the reciprocal term "parent's brother" will be used to refer to Ego. The system does not differentiate between the sexes of descendants below Ego's generation.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. In more traditional communities, it is still the custom to ask for the bride's hand: the young man requests that his father act as intermediary. The marriage ritual begins with the mediation of a pedidor (negotiator), who presents himself at the home of the bride's parents and makes known the groom's family's intention. After several visits, the proposal is usually accepted. The process continues with a ritual called the quedamento, during which the engagement is publicly announced, as well as the day that the Catholic wedding rite will be performed. This tradition, which was the norm prior to the 1970s, has gradually lost force as couples face an ever increasing process of modernization. A big marriage fiestaa good fandango will be indicative of a good marriage. Ideally, baptismal godparents will be chosen to act as marriage godparents.

Inheritance. The Amuzgo do not have precise guidelines for the inheritance of goods, rights, or obligations. There is a slight tendency to prefer the oldest son of the first formally married wife to inherit the headship of the family.

Socialization. Women are in charge of introducing girls and boys into the social order. When nearing adolescence, girls assume practically all domestic functions, and boys begin to work more closely with their fathers in agriculture, fishing, and hunting.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The social life of Amuzgo communities is based on the relationship between land organization, agriculture, the family, marriage, social traditions, compadrazgo (ritual coparenthood), the cargo system, and the ritual cycle of religious festivals.

Political Organization. Since the seventeenth century, when macehuales (members of the peasant class) became local authorities in cabildos (village governments) and other governing bodies, an internal social hierarchy has determined the rules for ascent in status through a long chain of political and religious offices (cargos). Such a system persists among the Amuzgo and is linked to national political structures. The cargo system requires a young man coming of age to perform certain community work, called fajina in Guerrero and tequio in Oaxaca. Later on, he undertakes cargos such as those of topil (messenger), policía de machete (policeman armed only with a machete), policía urbano (policeman not armed with a machete), and cabo, sargento, and comandante (chiefs of groups of police). Still later, he will acquire higher status with cargos like juez de barrio (barrio judge), member of the sociedad de padres de familia (school advisory board), presidente de bienes comunales (overseer of community property), comandante de arma, member of the junta patriótica, alcalde segundo, or presidente municipal (chief executive officer of a municipio). The highest rung of the hierarchy is reached by an individual of advanced age who becomes a principal and member of the consejo de ancianos (council of elders). Mayordomías (stewardships) during religious festivals are usually the cargos by means of which individuals acquire prestige. The names and the particular functions of cargos vary from one community to the next. The introduction of political models from outside the community through opportunities for greater social mobility have created conflicts between the cargo system and political forms from outside.

Social Control. The maintenance of internal social order involves elements of the cargo system, magicoreligious beliefs (nahual ism), and even blood vengeance. Local indigenous authorities are in charge of resolving disputes arising from accusations of harm caused by nahualism or witchcraft, animals entering milpas, theft, unsanctioned sexual relations, and debt payment, usually by mediation during negotiations between the two parties. Only seldom are conflictseven serious onestransferred to higher legal authorities.

Conflict. The most common social conflicts arise from political arguments and situations involving land tenure or rivalry between individuals. In some Amuzgo communities, especially during the latter part of the 1970s, agrarian movements caused conflict between the indigenous population and mestizo landholders. Conflicts over local political control can crop up because of the way positions of authority are distributed between the indigenous and mestizo populations. In some areas, powerful caciques or factional competition between political parties create conflict. Violence is a frequent resort in personal disputes; justice is sought through vengeance, and homicide is often the result.

Religion and Cultural Expression

Religious Beliefs. The dominant religion is Catholicism, although Protestant groups are also active. Magical beliefs associated with supernatural elements constitute part of Amuzgo wisdom regarding daily activities; for example, the timing of economic and symbolic activities may depend on the phases of the moon. It is thought that children will die during an eclipse of the moon, adults during an eclipse of the sun. There is a strong belief in nahualism, the power of certain persons to cause others harm by utilizing their animal spirit, or nahual.

Religious Practictioners. Besides Catholic clergy and cargo holders, there are a number of other specialized religious practitoners who participate in rituals at church and in homes. Singers and prayer makers are needed for various rituals. There are also specialists in calendrical divination, who cure and prognosticate during public rituals. In large and small communities, mayordomos take the chief responsibility for staging religious fiestas. Catholic churches are generally served by a parish priest who travels constantly to perform religious rites. Among Protestant groups, pastors reside within the communities; they practice locally but there is also intercommunity exchange.

Ceremonies. Fiestas are held according to the Catholic ritual calendar: Carnival, Holy Week, Todos Santos (the Days of the Dead during and after the Catholic All Saints' Day), and festivals for the town's patron saints. Ceremonies associated with civic and school events are organized annually. With variations from pueblo to pueblo, almost every community has a mayordomía for some patron saint. An essential element of festivals and mayordomías are the dance performances, among which "Las Mascaritas," "Chilolos," "Macho Mula," "Tortuga," "Tigre," "Conquista," "Los Doce Pares de Francia," "Diablos," "Chareo," "Las Mojigatas," "Cebolleras," "Toritos," "Pan De Panela," "Tlaminques," "Malinches," "Moros y Cristianos," "Apaches y Gachupines," and "Pichiques" are most notable. These dances may be accompanied, for example, by a flute and a drum or by band music. "Chilena" music from the Costa Chica has also penetrated the Amuzgo region. There are propitiatory rituals for rain, performed on plots of land being cultivated; stone figurines are used and animal blood is offered.

Art and Technology. Basically, the Amuzgo make their own tools and utensils for the home. Their culture is reflected in the classificatory nature of the language used to describe the numerous instruments and utensils they make. Clay, as well as plants and wood have multiple functions; they are used to make houses, corrals, and tools. As regards handicrafts, there is much spinning and weaving, and huipiles (the dresses of indigenous women) are made on strap looms; formerly, this clothing was of cotton.

Medicine. Sickness and misfortune are generally believed to have been caused by some enemy using nahuales. In some aspects, nahualism is also linked to curing practices. Some of the misfortune or illnesses attributed to supernatural forces are espanto (sudden fright), mal de ojo (the evil eye), coraje (anger), attack by nahuales, and attack by a shade (sombra ). Sorcerers have various diagnostic and therapeutic techniques such as ver la sangre (consulting the blood) and pulsear (taking the pulse) as well as techniques for curing, like limpiar (cleansing/ridding the patient of evil influences), enfriar (cooling off), and curar de espanto (curing fright). A large number of plants are used in curing.

Death and Afterlife. Beliefs regarding life after death are a combination of Catholic and traditional elements. Deceased who had been married are buried with their heads facing west, single people and children with their heads facing east. A light casket, which will allow for easy decomposition of the body into the earth, is preferred. A distinction is drawn between the soul and the shade: the soul leaves the body immediately after death; the shade leaves it after nine days. If, during the nine dayswhile the grave cross is preparedthe deceased is not satisfied with the offerings that have been made, his or her shade may refuse to leave and will not rest in peace. The spirits of the dead return for Todos Santos at the end of October.


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