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THNOMYMS: Haqui, Mayo, Tehueco, Yaqui


Identification. "Cahita" refers to Cahitan speakers, members of the three modern ethnic or "tribal" groups in southern Sonora and northern Sinaloa, Mexico. The people themselves would not recognize this term but use "Yoreme" (Yaqui: Yoeme, indigenous peoples) to designate themselves and the term "Yori" to mark mestizos (non-Indian Mexicans). The terms "Yaqui" and "Mayo" appear to have been drawn from the river valleys of the same names. The Spanish mistakenly applied the native term kahita (nothing) to the indigenous language. Apparently, when the local people were asked the name of the language they spoke, they replied "kaita," meaning "nothing" or "it has no name."

Location. Located around 27° N and 109° W, the modern Cahitans include: the Yaqui, inhabiting the central coast of the state of Sonora in northwest Mexico; the Mayo, living south of the Yaqui along the southern coast of Sonora and the northern coast of Sinaloa; and other smaller dialect groups such as the Tehueco, who have been mainly absorbed by the Mayo. Many Yaqui inhabit a special reservation area, whereas Mayo live interspersed with mestizos. Lack of archaeological research in the area makes it difficult to delineate a precontact Cahitan territory, although since Spanish contact Mayo-Yaqui territory has remained stable, with the exception of the gradual reduction in control over the territory. Modern Cahitan territory reflects a dramatic contrast between the fertile Yaqui, Mayo, and Fuerte irrigation areas, with their fantastic agricultural production and high population density, and the sparcely settled thorn-forest desert areas, with abundant wild fruits, woods, and fauna. This hot coastal area is characterized by long periods of dry weather broken by heavy summer thundershowers and more sustained lighter winter rains producing between 40 to 80 centimeters of precipitation per year.

Demography. At the time of Spanish contact, there were over 100,000 Cahitans, with the Yaqui and the Mayo accounting for 60,000 of the total; the 1950 census lists slightly over 30,000 Mayo speakers, and the Yaqui numbered about 15,000 in the 1940s. The 1970 census lists almost 28,000 Mayo speakers. These figures could well be doubled, however, because of the present dispersal of these peoples throughout Sonora and southern Arizona and the difficulty in identifying them as separate populations.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Mayo, Tehueco, and Yaqui dialects constitute the Cahitan Subfamily of the UtoAztecan Stock. The Mayo and the Yaqui have no difficulty communicating with each other, as the dialects are similar, and Tehueco is even closer to Mayo than is Yaqui. Today the Mayo write in Mayo, although in the precontact period, Cahitan does not seem to have been a written language.

History and Cultural Relations

Gaps in the information available and changes through time have produced shifting Cahitan natural, social, and cultural boundaries, the histories of which are not completely clear. Today Mayo-speaking peoples are concentrated along the lower Mayo and Fuerte river valleys, with the Tehueco in the higher Río Fuerte area and the Yaqui concentrated in the lower Río Yaqui area. Throughout this Cahitan area (chiefly the coastal plain of southern Sonora and of northern Sinaloa, embracing the three river valleys), Cahitan social and cultural boundaries are marked primarily by dialect spoken and social and ceremonial labor and exchange.

Within this general area, considerable family movement exists, with numbers of modern Mayo families living in Yaqui territory and vice versa, and Río Mayo living in the Fuerte area and vice versa. Cahitan individuals participate in Mexican institutions such as schools, ejidos (landholding units established by the government after the 1910 Revolution), markets, the army, and the Institutional Revolutionary party (PRI), simply as peasant farmers. With little hope of upward mobility in the Mexican system, many Cahitans prefer to seek prestige within their traditional culture and society. The Cahitans have either reestablished old associations, as in the case of the traditional "Eight Yaqui Pueblos," or are adapting and revitalizing others, as in the case of the new Mayo religious movements, which continue to appear in the 1990s.


Modern Cahitan culture is that of embedded groups. Precontact Cahitans, however, lived in loose clusters of buildings (rancherías) usually housing fewer than 300 related individuals, although a few may have reached 1,000 persons. During the missionization, the Jesuits concentrated Cahitans into seven or eight Mayo and an equal number of Yaqui church towns of some 2,000 to 3,000 persons. Today many Yaquis live on the reservation, although Mayo family settlements are characterized by several patterns: several hundred scattered rancherías, more than forty small villages of one to several hundred people, urban districts in the four larger Mexican towns, and ejido communities.


Precontact Cahitans relied on river flooding to water crops of maize, beans, and squashes, but modern farmers irrigate their fields of cotton, wheat, and safflower. Even today Cahitans still use the remaining wild desert areas to supply some variety in their dietdeer, small game, fish, shellfish, fruits of numerous cacti, beans of the mesquite, agave, and many other seedand fruit-producing plants. Working as small-scale farmers, wage laborers, and fishermen, they borrow money from banks, request irrigation water from the hydro commission, and plant the recommended commercial crops. With cash or credit from the sale of their crops or fish, the Mayo and the Yaqui purchase much of their food, clothing, and household items in the local mestizo markets. The Cahitan concept of wealth itself is dual in nature: land, farm produce, and modern Mexican material goods stand opposed to respect and Holy Flowers. One should give freely of the productivity of one's fields in support of Cahitan ceremonialism and thus achieve respect in this world and heavenly rewards after death.

Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Modern Cahitan technology and subsistence focus upon farming, fishing, and wage labor. Before the Conquest, Cahitans raised two food crops per year, fished, and collected wild foods that constituted perhaps up to 40 percent of their diet. Jesuit missionaries introduced sheep, goats, and cattle as well as wheat and irrigation agriculture but did not basically change the Cahitan economy. Modern irrigation and farming technology, however, have dramatically modified Cahitan subsistence.

Industrial Arts. Most families own a jacal (mud thatch) or adobe dwelling with a separate cooking room, a table, chairs, folding cots or wooden beds, a set of enamel or glass bowls and cups and enamel spoons, and a wooden trunk for pictures, valuables, and documents. A few individuals, chiefly among the Mayo, still weave blankets and petates (split-cane mats), make pottery, and carve ceremonial masks and wooden utensils.

Trade. Besides farming, most households raise chickens and some keep pigs, turkeys, and cows. The pigs are generally sold, but the cows are often butchered for fiesta contributions and ceremonial exchanges.

Division of Labor. Age and sex provide the major dimensions in the division of labor. The major production roles are carried out by young adults within households, which are the major production and consumption units. Among the adults, labor was divided along gender lines, with women collecting wild foods and caring for household production while men hunted and farmed. This division of labor still exists, although both adult men and women will work for wages in the fields when such work is available. A few of the women are trained as weavers and cantoras (singers who accompany the maestros ), and a few men fill the roles of maestro (chanter and lay minister) and maso (deer) dancer and paskola (ceremonial) dancer and musician. A healthy household with a larger percentage of young adults will grow in wealth and influence. In general, however, no long-term, wealth-based stratification system has developed to separate households and provide the basis for a more complex division of labor.

Land Tenure. About three-fourths of the rural families hold small parcels of land, either as private holdings or as ejido members. In the larger villages and towns, however, often as many as one-half or more of the families in the community hold no lands at all. Ejido membership (socio ) and rights to land carried by membership are inherited and can be passed to a wife or a daughter as well as to a son, as stipulated by the socio.


Kin Groups and Descent. Traditional and modern Cahitan kin-group organization is based upon the nuclear family, the extended family, the household, the ceremonial kin group, and ceremonial-center membership. It has been suggested (Spicer 1969, 839) that the precontact social Organization was characterized by bilateral descent, bifurcate-collateral with Hawaiian cousin kinship terminology, local-group (ranchería) exogamy, supraranchería political organization only during periods of warfare, and a council of ranchería elders in peacetime. Spicer finds no evidence of precontact unilineal descent groups among the Yaqui.

Kinship Terminology. Although the traditional kinship terminology probably was bifurcate collateral with an emphases on the relative age of ones parents' and one's own siblings, today many families utilize a modified Mexican kinship terminology, lineal and Eskimo, with Cahitan terms applied to parents, siblings, and children and Spanish terms for aunts, uncles, cousins, and in-laws.

Ceremonial kinship is still extremely important, with godparents selected at times of birth, marriage, and ceremonial participation. Cahitan terms are used for godparents and godchildren. Groups of coparents become crucial cooperative units, especially in ceremonial contexts.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. In the past a wedding was an elaborate household ritual, although more recently it has become simpler or is omitted either when a couple elopes or at the time of a second or third union, when the couple simply begins living together. No clear postmarital residence rules have been discovered, although many Mayo express strong matrilocal preferences"Our daughter should stay at home." In fact, this is not a clear social pattern, as couples often opt for a pragmatic solution. Formal divorce is unusual among the Cahita, owing to earlier years of high death rates and revolution, but many individuals have experienced the death of a first spouse and eventually begin living with a second or third spouse. Others simply run away and begin living with someone else. There is much joking and gossip about those who have multiple spouses. Although this practice is not permissible within the formal Catholic church, multiple women living in the household of an especially well-known individual have been observed. This suggests that polygyny was an accepted pattern in precontact times.

Domestic Unit. The household, consisting of related nuclear and extended families, is the basic domestic unit. Related individuals living in a room or rooms around a common cooking area constitute the household. The household was traditionally the scene of the major passage rituals of birth, marriage, and death as well as that of socialization of the children and the major work area of the mature women.

Inheritance. With very little except lands and a household plot to inherit, inheritance is very informal. The few items of material culture are shared among the closest relatives, especially the members of the household.

Socialization. Initial socialization takes place within the household, the children being raised by parents, kin, and then as they mature, by siblings. As children approach 6 years of age, they not only enter school but also dance as Matachines (a church dance sodality) and take part in the Lenten processions and Easter-week rituals. In the household, children are taught honesty, truthfulness, and the value of fulfilling promises. "Good words" are much preferred over physical punishment, which is rarely administered.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Cahitan society is organized according to age and gender. The elderly are perceived as powerful and highly respected. The division of labor tends to separate young and middle-aged adults along gender lines, with women having a status equal to but different from that of men. This contrasts sharply with the typical Latin machismo complex.

These principles provide the bases of family organization, which is articulated with the local ceremonial center through a range of political and ceremonial sodalities.

Political Organization. Goh Naike Pueblo Juracionim (the eight pueblo jurisdictions) exist among both the Mayo and the Yaqui, although in the latter case the pueblos are autonomous units. The Mexican government provides services, schools, roads, an irrigation system and water, health clinics, and so forth. The Jesuit missionaries emphasized membership in certain ceremonial sodalities and introduced a more complex pattern of village government. The Yaqui have elaborated and conserved this political system. Mayo village government has been absorbed by the modern Mayo church-ceremonial center organization: Mayo political organization was disrupted by the Revolution to the extent that, by the 1960s, no secular Mayo government existed; the Mayo had turned to their religious system as a way of organizing their society beyond the level of the family (see "Religious Beliefs").

Social Control. For the Cahita, social control is shared between the Mexican institutions and the more traditional village government. The modern Yaqui town organization is based on five integrated realms of authority: civil, church, military, fiesta, and Holy Week customs, each with its own set of ranked officers. Decisions are made at open meetings of this town council.

Conflict. Conflict is either repressed or resolved by the church-center government or by the Mexican authorities, such as the local sheriff.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Contemporary Cahitan beliefs are a unique and complex fusion of indigenous traditions, Jesuit teachings, and nineteenth- and twentieth-century Mexican culture. The Yaqui pueblo political organization is tightly integrated with the ceremonial and mythical systems. The modern Mayo church-pueblo organization consists of several sodalities: five church governors and five helpers; the lay ministers; the Matachini dance sodality; the Parisero sodality (the Lenten masked male society); and the Paskome (fiesteros), who promise to serve the patron saint of the church.

The realms of nature and the supernatural are also organized as a family, with God (Our Father) identified with the sun, the Virgin (Our Mother) equated with the moon, and Jesus (the Child of Our Father and Our Mother). The animals of the forest are the Children of the Old Man of the Forest, and the fish are the Children of the Old Woman of the Sea.

Religious Practitioners. The Cahitan religious organization requires several part-time specialists, such as the maestro, or lay minister, who "prays for the dead"; cantora or female chanting assistant to the maestro; deer and paskola dancers and musicians, who entertain at the fiestas; Matachinim, church dancers and their musicians; Pahkome and Parisero sodality members, who maintain the yearly and Lenten ritual cycles; and yorem medikom (curers), who mediate between humans and the gods.

Ceremonies. Among the Cahitans, saints'-day fiestas or ceremonies are celebrated with prayer, feasting, fireworks, and the entertainment of masked paskola and deer dancers and musicians. Especially elaborate are the Lenten and Holy Week ceremonies, which are characterized by masked Pariseros who crucify Jesus and ultimately are destroyed by the power of God as Christ returns to the church from the land of the dead. In the Mayo-Yaqui ceremonial cycle, the Easter ceremonial is followed by village ceremonies for the Holy Cross, the Holy Spirit and Holy Trinity, Saint John, the Virgin of Guadalupe and, early in November, for the returning dead (Animam Velaroa).

Arts. A range of art forms is still dynamic among modern Cahitans, including paskola and deer dancing, deer and secular songs, alabanzas (various Mayo, Spanish, and Latin hymns) sung by maestros and cantoras, the decoration of altars and the images of saints, and weaving styles and designs.

Medicine. Social Security clinics and hospitals for ejido members, private doctors, and yorem medikom provide assistance to ill Cahitans. Medicines are available in clinics and from drugstores, market herbalists, and the thorn forest. Illnesses are attributed to natural causes; fright; problems with God, the saints, the dead, and bad wishers (witches); and violation of the hot/cold principles.

Death and Afterlife. The funeral rituals are the most important life-cycle events. Cahitans have a dual set of societal rituals associated with death and the dead: 1 and 2 November (All Souls' and All Saints' days, Animam Velaroa) and Lent. For the Mayo, there is a very close relationship between the family, the ritual for the dead early in November, and the form, structure, and meaning of the Lenten ritual. Rooted in this model, the Mayo continue to experience visitations of Our Father and Our Mother and, to avoid the wrath, punishment, and destruction promised by Our Father, who is angry with the secular state of the modern world, continue to innovate ceremonies in honor of God and the saints.

See alsoYaqui


Beals, Ralph L. (1945). The Contemporary Culture of the Cáhita Indians. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 142. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

Crumrine, N. Ross (1988). The Mayo Indians of Sonora, Mexico: A People Who Refuse to Die. Reissued with a new postscript and references. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press.

Spicer, Edward H. (1969). "The Yaqui and Mayo." In Handbook of Middle American Indians, edited by Robert Wauchope. Vol. 8, Ethnology, Part Two, edited by Evon Z. Vogt, 830-845. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Spicer, Edward H. (1980). The Yaquis: A Cultural History. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.