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ETHNONYMS: Chatino, Cha'tnǫ


Identification. The Chatino are an indigenous group of the state of Oaxaca, Mexico. The term "Chatino" is a Spanish rendering of the word cha'tnǫ, which glosses literally as "words work." The Chatino use this word to refer both to their language and themselves. As a group, they distinguish themselves from neighboring Zapotec who speak cha'mstye, "crazy words," and from the bordering Mixtec who speak cha'puta, "whore's words."

Location. There are some fifty Chatino communities along the Pacific coast of Oaxaca from 16°00 to 16°36 N and from 97°30 to 97°34 W. The majority of these communities are in eight municipios in the district of JuquilaSan Juan Lachao, San Juan Quiahije, San Miguel Panixtlahuaca, Santa Catarina Juquila, Santa Maria Temaxcaltepec, Santos Reyes Nopala, Tataltepec de Valdéz, and Santiago Yaitepec. The rest are in the municipio of Santa Cruz Zenzontepec in the district of Sola de Vaga. The area is mountainous. From a narrow coastal plain, the Sierra Madre del Sur, which transects the region from east to west, rises to over 2,500 meters. Numerous rivers and streams have carved narrow valleys and deep gorges into the landscape. Ecologically, three zones may be distinguished: tropical lowlands; a temperate zone above 800 meters of deciduous oak-climax forests; and coniferous, cold country above 1,600 meters. There are two seasons: rainy and dry. The former extends from mid-May through October. The region receives between 100 and 200 centimeters of precipitation annually.

Demography. There are approximately 30,000 Chatino speakers. National census figures for the region, however, are notoriously poor, and, if anything, tend to underestimate the populations of their communities, particularly the percentage of Chatino speakers. Where careful demographic studies have been made, they indicate that Chatino populations are young and growing rapidly. Birthrates run 40 to 50 per 1,000, compared, for instance, with the national average of 29 in 1993. Even so, infantmortality rates, which run more than 65 deaths per 1,000 live births, are more than twice the national average, regardless of various methods of measurement. Death rates, which average 25 per 1,000, are likewise nearly five times the national figures. As a result, compared with 68 for males and 76 for females nationally, Chatino life expectancy is in the 40s and 50s. Such disparities are symptoms of the greater poverty and malnutrition and relative lack of medical services that this indigenous population copes with in its daily struggles to survive.

Linguistic Affiliation. Chatino belongs to the Macro-Mayan Phylum of languages, to the Oaxacan Subphylum, and the Zapotecan Family. There are at least three distinct dialects of Chatino, with centers in Yaitepec, Tataltepec, and Zenzontepec.

History and Cultural Relations

What little is known of Chatino origins is rooted in linguistic and archaeological studies. Lexostatistical evidence suggests that Chatino diverged from the Zapotecan Family some time between 4000 b.c. and a.d. 200. Archeological evidence suggests that the Chatino broke politically and culturally from the Zapotecs of Monte Alban around the time of Christ. The Chatino enter the historical record in the Mixtec codices. During the reign of Eight-Deer Tiger Claw, (AD. 1011-1063), the Chatino rulers of Juquila appear to have formed an alliance with Eight-Deer, the Mixtec king who had extended his dominion from Tilantongo in the Mixteca Alta to the coastal kingdom of Tututepec. When the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Alvarado conquered Tututepec in 1522, the Chatino were still its tributary subjects. As they did everywhere, the conquistadors placed themselves at the apex of pre-Hispanic states by exploiting well-developed native institutions such as tribute, slavery, and indirect rule. Although the Conquest brought new masters, a new god, and heavier tribute, these were minor consequences compared with the decimation of the population by European diseases. The precontact population of Tututepec's empire may have been 250,000. By 1544, after two epidemics, its population had fallen to 7,000 tributaries, about 35,000 people, and continued to plummet for the next 100 years. The transformation of the economy went far beyond taking control of the aboriginal tribute system; it also involved the introduction of European mercantile capitalism, as a result of which land and labor became cash commodities. Moreover, trade policies effectively geared the economy of New Spain to the requirements of the mother country. In this planned economy, the Spanish and the Indians basically specialized in different types of production. The Spanish plantations along the Oaxacan coast initially produced native crops (cacao, maize, and cotton), but as the native population declined, causing chronic labor shortages, the Spanish turned to large-scale cattle ranching, which required much less labor. Although the Chatino continued to plant their subsistence crops in order to meet their tribute obligations, they took their place in this planned economy as producers of cochineal, an insect dyestuff that was second only to silver in value among New Spain's exports. Cochineal was obtained from the Chatino through repartimentos de comercio a system of forced sales repaid with cochineal. Because alcaldes mayores, who administered Indian districts, were required to post substantial bonds, they typically formed a partnerships with rich Mexico City merchants, who not only posted the bond, but provided trade goods or cash to be distributed among the indigenous population. These commodities were forcibly sold on credit to Indians in the district at inflated prices. Because the Chatino needed money to pay their tribute, they had little choice but to accept such "sales" and cash advances. Although the Crown repeatedly tried to outlaw this practice, such prohibitions were routinely ignored, and repartimentos de comercio continued to finance the cochineal trade throughout the colonial period. After the Mexican War of Independence (1810-1821), the Spanish, who had dominated and financed the marketing of cochineal withdrew their capital, leaving the new republic in an economic shambles. The cochineal market was in the doldrums. Although some production continued, the introduction of cheap aniline dyes in the late 1850s drove down prices to new lows and soon destroyed the cochineal market. To solve Mexico's financial problems, church and native lands came under scrutiny. Between 1856 and 1859 the Liberal government passed legislation designed to confiscate the church's estates, the largest landholdings in Mexico. Because the laws were framed to include all corporate bodies, countless native villages lost their lands. In the district of Juquila, the initial expropriations were not immense. Nevertheless, Tataltepec, Tepenixtlahuaca, and Zenzontepec lost their best lands. These early abuses of the Liberal reform laws were minor compared to the damage done by their cynical application during the Porfiriato (i.e., the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz, 1884-1911). After 1880 what had been a trickle of coffee growers became a torrent as the floodgates of the landgrab were opened. Whereas small coffee plantations of 25 hectares had been established in the 1870s, the new wave of land speculators carved plantations of up to 2,200 hectares out of the communal lands of Chatino communities. The Chatino reacted to these expropriations of their lands by launching an insurrection in 1896, "the War of the Pants," in which they tried to wipe out the literate mestizos (the new landowners and merchants), whom they identified as "wearing pants" rather than native dress. Although the War of the Pants was quickly and brutally suppressed by Federal troops, it was symptomatic of the tensions that eventually made the Revolution of 1910 inevitable. Although the Revolution is credited with bringing about sweeping reforms in land tenure and social structure, few of the tensions were resolved in the Chatino region. The promised land reform never took place. Between the mid-1930s and 1950, Chatino peasants were induced by offers of credit and higher prices to plant coffee on their communal lands. Planting coffee, however, led to de facto privatization of communal lands, engendering conflicts and blood feuds in many Chatino communities. During the 1980s, a strange new cash crop made its way into the Chatino regionmarijuanathe advent of which promises to renew the bloody violence of the past.


Chatino communities are organized administratively into municipios and are classified as rancherías, agencias municipales, cabeceras municipales. Chatino settlement patterns reflect this municipio organization in that the cabeceras (county seats) are surrounded by smaller subordinate communities that typically arise so that peasant farmers may be closer to their fields. Rancherías typically are small (100 to 300 inhabitants) but lack formal representation in the municipal system. Agencias or townships have their own civil authorities and typically range from 300 to 1,500 residents. Cabeceras in the region range from 1,500 to 6,000 residents. Larger communities are usually divided into two barrios (neighborhoods), which have their own civil officials. Spatially, most communities are from one to six hours' walk from their nearest neighbor. Chatino villages usually have a small nucleated civic center consisting of a plaza, town hall, church, school, and small stores. Ringing the civic center, housesstanding amid fenced maize fields, gardens, and fruit treesare dispersed, giving villages a decidedly rural flavor. These residences often consist of a cluster of several houses built around a common patio and occupied by closely related kin. Surrounding a village are its fields. Where fields are distant from the village, their owners build a makeshift structure as protection from the elements and a place to cook and sleep while performing field labor. Chatino houses were traditionally single-room structures built of wattle and daub or of bamboo cane with a peaked roof of thatch and a dirt floor. Although a few such houses can still be found, adobe-walled houses with tile roofs have replaced most of them. In those villages connected to roads, adobe houses are being replaced with brick homes with concrete floors and corrugated or cement roofs. Some two-story homes have even appeared since the 1970s. Increasingly, houses have electric power and sport television antennas.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Although large coffee plantations exist in the region, the Chatino are smallholders. In this mountainous area, swidden techniques are used to grow traditional cropsmaize, beans, and squash. Rapid population growth, however, has cut fallow periods to as short as three years, which in combination with overcultivation, has led to the severe erosion of large areas on mountainsides. Coffeethe primary cash cropis grown with bananas or under canopy trees. Chatino maize fields and coffee plantings typically are less than 5 hectares. Cultivation is carried out with very simple implementsdigging sticks, hoes, and machetes. In the few level areas that exist, metal-tipped wood plows may be drawn by oxen. Aside from crops, most households have a few chickens or turkeys. Wealthier households may have a few head of cattle, horses, mules, or donkeys. The Chatino also supplement their diet by hunting deer, iguanas, javalinas (peccaries), and various birds. Villagers obtain additional vegetables and fruits from kitchen gardens and trees surrounding their homes (e.g., tomatoes, chilies, guavas, lemons, oranges, and mangoes). As a general rule, the Chatino try first to guarantee their subsistence base of maize, dedicating any excess land to cash crops. Thus, the larger the holding, the greater the percentage planted in coffee. Even so, few households possess enough land to make ends meet from their smallholdings alone. Most are forced to work seasonally on large coffee plantations, do daily wage work, or produce crafts for sale in the market. Out-migration is increasing, especially to Oaxaca and Mexico City. Census figures indicate some 10 percent of Chatino speakers live outside of the region.

Industrial Arts. Although there are few full-time specialists, the Chatino produce a number of crafts, including pottery, mats, baskets, tumplines, ropes, hammocks, wood saddles for mules and donkeys, and ritual masks. Carpenters make beds, tables, chests, and chairs. Local blacksmiths fashion machetes, horseshoes, and branding irons. "Traditional" dress is maintained, although it is worn less commonly than in the past. Women embroider elaborate blouses, make men's shirts and trousers, and weave belts, girdles, and tortilla bags.

Trade. The Chatino have been part of commodity chains and market system integrated into a global economy since the sixteenth century, and the local expressions of these relations are visible in the regional market systems. The major periodic markets within the region are held in Juquila and Nopala. These commercial centers have the stores and shops carrying the industrial merchandise the Chatino want, and their weekly markets attract Chatino from the surrounding communities. Each Chatino community tends to specialize by selling certain crafts and produce. For example, Amialtepec is known for its pottery, Ixtapan for its net bags and hammocks, Tataltepec for its chilies, Tepenixtlahuaca for brown sugar, Zenzontepec for goats, and Cuixtla for cattle. In addition to these regular markets, during fiestas, especially for the village's patron saint, fairs are held in Chatino communities. The largest of these, held for the Virgin of Juquila on 8 December, attracts some 200,000 pilgrims to its monthlong fair.

Division of Labor. There is a sexual division of labor for a number of tasks. Although women may help in the fields, most heavy labor is done by men. Similarly, hunting and fishing are male domains. Tending livestock also is a predominantly male activity. Women's work includes most domestic chores such as cooking, cleaning, and the burden of most child care, as well as tending kitchen gardens, domestic fowl and pigs, and gathering wild foods. In their households, women also do much of the craftwork, such as pottery, weaving, embroidery, and basketry. Women usually do the greatest share of marketing and shopping for the household.

Land Tenure. In the Chatino region, both communal and private property exist. Parcels of privately owned land, such as large and small coffee plantations or house lots, are commodities that are freely bought and sold. All Chatino communities also have communal lands. In theory, these belong to the community, and decisions about how they are to be allocated or reallocated are made by town officials. If any unclaimed land exists, villagers in need of land may petition village officials for usufruct rights. In practice, these rights to most arable land are held by individual households and are not only inheritable, but such lands may be bought and sold as long as sales are made to "native" members of the community. Areas such as pastures are considered common lands. Some of the land-poor communities also "rent" lands either from the communal-lands commissions of neighboring communities or on large private estates.


Kin Groups and Descent. The basic kin group among the Chatino is the family. Kinship is cognatic: an individual recognizes a circle of relatives related to him or her by blood and marriage through both mother and father. Although descent is bilateral, postmarital residence is usually virolocal. As a result, groups of male kin often live in close proximity.

Kinship Terminology. Chatino kinship terminology resembles the Eskimo pattern in that a clear distinction is drawn between lineal ascendants and descendants and collateral relatives. All collateral relatives are referred to as ta'a.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. The Chatino are monogamous. Technically, the Chatino practice two types of marriage: civil-religious and common-law. The latter is a marriage not performed by a priest nor legally recorded. This is not to say that such unions do not involve religious rituals or that they are not recognized socially. A civil-religious wedding is a union sanctioned by the state, and the civil wedding is a legal prerequisite for an optional church ceremony. Both civil-religious and common-law marriages involve periods of sexual abstinence, rites of bathing, lighting candles, planting crosses, presenting rosaries, ritual blessings, prayers, and feasting. Making marriage arrangements involves initiating a complex set of social and economic exchanges between the families of the bride and groom. Marriages are generally arranged at a young man's request. Usually, these arrangements are initiated by a go-between, an older relative of the groom. If the girl's parents agree, a series of formal visits commences. The prospective groom comes bearing giftsbaskets of bread, chocolate, mescal, wine, cigarettes, beans, maize, firewood, and money. After these initial visits, the groom may do a year of bride-service. Each day, the young man is expected to bring gifts for his prospective inlaws and help his father-in-law in the fields. Wedding feasts themselves usually last three to four days. After the rituals of the first day, the feast turns into an ordinary fiesta, with the emphasis on drinking and dancing.

Domestic Unit. Because postmarital residence tends to be virolocal, Chatino households are frequently composed of a three-generation extended family. Even where nuclear households are formed, couples often live in close proximity to the husband's family and may even live in the same compound.

Inheritance. Among the Chatino, inheritance is bilateral and partible, and sons and daughters are supposed to receive equal shares of the property to be divided.

Socialization. Chatino children grow up surrounded by an extended family. Parents, although loving, are strict disciplinarians and demand obedience. Deviations from the norm are taken seriously. Children are often disciplined physically and severely, not only by their parents but also by older siblings. Children begin learning and doing chores at an early age. Babies as young as 1 year old are given dull machetes to play with. By the age of 5, boys are fetching firewood and helping their fathers in the fields, and girls are helping their mothers make tortillas. As children approach puberty, parents worry about their son's drinking, fighting, or keeping bad company, and about their daughter's moral conduct. The authoritarian stance of parents must be understood in the context of households that often live at the economic margin. Mistakes can be costly, and poor decisions may have dire consequences.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The Chatino are an ethnic group within a nation-state organized along the lines of race and class. As Indians and peasants, they are marginalized to the lowest rungs on the nation's social totem pole. That said, within their communities, family, residence, status, and wealth provide the foundations of social organization. In their agrarian communities, because of virolocal residence, related males tend to occupy clusters of households. Within the community, a family's status derives from men's service in a hierarchy of civil and religious offices that organize age-grades. All men in the course of their lifetime are expected to serve in offices at each level of the age-grade until they ultimately become elders of the community. As officeholders must pay the costs of their service themselves, the status they achieve reflects not only their age-grade level, but their wealth. Because the wealthy can afford the costs of the more prestigious offices, they tend to have more distinguished careers and higher status than the poor. A man's service requires that his wife join his efforts, and her status therefore usually mirrors that of her husband.

Political Organization. Civil and religious hierarchies organize most Chatino communities. These hierarchies consist of two ladders with four to five rungs of civil and religious offices. Most civil posts are mandated by the state constitution (e.g., presidente, alcaldes, regidores, tesorero, secretary, chief of police) ; however, their numbers and their ranking in the hierarchy are local traditions and thus subject to local definition, as are those of subsidiary offices (e.g., tequitlatos, topiles). Religious offices (e.g., mayordomos ) derive from the Chatino relationship with the Catholic church. Mayordomos, for instance, pay for the costs of fiestas held for the saints. Because the community requires all men to serve, willingly or not, in civil and religious posts, "elections" are based on the previous offices men have held and the number of years that have passed since their last period of service. Men who refuse to serve may be jailed until they accept the post to which they have been elected. After serving in the highest level of offices, men become members of a council of elders who are consulted on important matters. Although the national political parties have attempted to influence local affairs, these efforts have met with only limited success in communities in which civil-religious hierarchies are still intact.

Social Control. Children are socialized from an early age into the norms of proper conduct. They are taught that the gods will punish misbehavior with disease, catastrophe, and death. Moreover, individuals who violate social norms face both informal and formai sanctions. Usually gossip and ostracism are enough to control improper behavior; however, serious violations may bring the matter to the attention of local authorities. Within Chatino communities, local authorities usually attempt to mediate the disputes brought before them. If their attempts are unsuccessful, they may pass the case to state police or the district courts.

Conflict. Although conflicts existed between communities and large plantations, especially over land, until the adoption of coffee as a cash crop by Chatino communities, internal conflicts were rare. Beginning in the 1930s and intensifying in the 1950s, the Chatino began to plant coffee trees on their communal lands. As this process in essence privatized communal lands, conflicts internal to these communities over access to land sent homicide rates soaring as blood feuds divided many communities. Since 1950, homicide rates in Chatino communities have ranged from 284 to 511 per 100,000 or 16 to 29 times the national average.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Chatino religion is a blend of Catholicism and a system of pre-Hispanic beliefs, rituals, and cosmology. The Chatino cosmos is conceived of as an ecological system in which human beings, animals, spirits, ancestors, deities, and saints interact with one another to maintain the universe in equilibrium. The world, floating in the midst of a sea, is envisioned as being connected by "doors" to a series of layered heavens and underworlds. Through these doors, various spirits and deities pass between the layers of the cosmos. Such doors are entrances to "houses." As "house" and body are equated, the Chatino pantheon is mapped onto nature. Gods and spirits have houses on mountaintops, in caves, and in rivers. Thus, the mountaintop that is said to be the "house" of the rain god is also said to be the rain god.

Religious Practioners. Among the Chatino, native priests and curers are called ne' ho'o literally, "person saints" (and therefore, holy people). They are consulted not only after a birth to determine a child's tona ("animal-spirit companion"), but also regarding marriages and to determine the cause of illnesses; they may be called in for any important undertaking.

Ceremonies. The Chatino perform both calendrical and noncalendrical ceremonies and rituals. The latter include rites of passage at birth, marriage, and death. The former, Catholic fiestas, are demarcated by periods of sexual abstinence, remnants of a pre-Columbian ritual calendar of 260 days that interlocked with a calendar of 18 months of 20 days, plus 5 "evil" days (Greenberg 1981, 114). Although the fiestas celebrated vary from community to community, most celebrate New Year, Santa Cruz, the Virgin de Rosario, and Todo Santos (All Saints' Day).

Arts. Music and dance are important elements of Chatino culture and are part of most ritual celebrations. Traditional music is played with flutes, drums, and rattles. Church and popular music is sung in Spanish and is accompanied by guitars, violins, and brass and woodwind instruments. The popular music of the regionthe "Chilena"is a form supposed to have originated with Chilean sailors visiting the coast of Oaxaca during the nineteenth century.

Medicine. The curandero or ne' ho'o, as part of his or her ritual, eats ho'o kwiya' (sacred mushrooms) that enable a curer to assume animal form and send his or her nagual or ho'o kwichi (animal companion spirit) to determine who may be bewitching a patient or what offense the latter may have given to one of the gods or saints. Aside from curanderos, the Chatino also consult other medical practioners, such as herbalists and midwives. Native practioners continue to have wide followings despite increasing access to medical services provided by the National Indian Institute's doctors and nurses.

Death and Afterlife. Funerals are fairly elaborate affairs that reflect a person's age and marital status. The deceased is bathed. A wake is held, and the person is buried the next day. The burial is followed by a novenanine days of prayers. A second novena is held a year later, when a permanent cross is erected. The dead are thought to take a path with nine stops or (steps) that leads to the underworld. They are said to live in a village that is much like their own and to return each year to this world to visit their homes and families during Todo Santos.


Bartolomé, Miguel A., and Alicia M. Barabas (1982). Tierra de la palabra: Historia ethnografía de los Chatinos de Oaxaca. Centro Regional de Oaxaca, Etnología, Colección Científica, 108. Mexico City: Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia.

Cordero Avendaño de Duran, Carmen (1986). Stina jo'o kucha, el santo padre sol: Contribución al conocimiento socio-religioso del grupo étnico Chatino. Oaxaca: Biblioteca Pública de Oaxaca, Cultura y Recreación.

Greenberg, James B. (1981). Santiago's Sword: Chatino Peasant Religion and Economics. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Greenberg, James B. (1989). Blood Ties: Life and Violence in Rural Mexico. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.


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