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Aside from a few brief and superficial treatments, published ethnographic material on the Cuicatec is based on field studies made prior to 1970. Unless otherwise indicated, the information presented here is based on ethnographic work that was done in the 1950s and 1960s, during which period the most thorough research was conducted.

Identification and Location. The region occupied by the Cuicatec is located in the ex-distrito of Cuicatlán in northeastern Oaxaca, Mexico. It is bounded by the canyon of the Río Santo Domingo to the north, the Chinatec lowlands to the east, the Almoloyas Mountains to the south, and the canyon of the Río Grande (the Canada de Cuicatlán) to the west. From the Canada, at an elevation of 500 meters above sea level, the land to the east ascends to the uninhabited Llano Español plateau, at 3,200 meters, and then descends to the Chinatec lowlands. Rainfall varies from 50 centimeters in the Canada to 150 centimeters in the mountains, and reaches 300 centimeters at the Chinatec border. The Cuicatec region is approximately equidistant between the Tehuacán-Puebla Valley, 100 kilometers to the north, and the Valley of Oaxaca, 100 kilometers to the south.

Before the arrival of the Spanish, both the Canada and the highlands were occupied by speakers of Cuicateco. Today, however, settlements in the more accessible and agriculturally productive Canada are dominated by mestizos. Contemporary speakers of Cuicateco are confined largely to the more remote highlands. They retain many elements of Cuicatec culture, including language, cosmology, and decorative arts. They also retain a relative degree of political and economic equality and an economy that emphasizes production for subsistence. In contrast, mestizos are more fully integrated into the national economy, more highly motivated by profit, and more tolerant of inequality.

Much of the contact that occurs between the highland Indians and the Mexican nation state is through mestizo culture-brokersfor example, educators and political administratorswho represent the Indians to the larger society. These culture-brokers draw Indians into the Mexican political economy while, paradoxically, contributing to the maintenance of traditional Indian cultural forms. The boundary between the mestizo and Indian segments, however, is permeable. Mestizos move to the Cuicatec highlands to establish plantations or to assume administrative positions. Indians migrate to the Canada, the mestizo-dominated area, to engage in wage labor. This movement may or may not be accompanied by the adoption of some or all of the cultural markers of the mestizo segment.

Demography. According to census figures, the number of speakers of Cuicateco has increased over the past sixty years (9,218 in 1930; 8,771 in 1950; 10,192 in 1970; 13,338 in 1980; and 11,846 in 1990).

Linguistic Affiliation. Cuicateco and the languages spoken in the regions bordering that of the Cuicatec (Mazateco, Chinateco, Zapoteco, Mixteco, and Ixcateco) belong to the Otomanguean Language Family. It is proposed through glottochronology that diversification of Otomanguean began around 3,500 b.c. and that speakers of proto-Otomanguean occupied the Valley of Tehuacán, Puebla. Cuicateco diverged from its closest relative, Mixteco, around 500 b.c. Dialectal divergence of Cuicateco dates to the sixteenth century.

History and Cultural Relations

From 20,000 to 5,500 b.c., the area from the Valley of Tehuacán to the Valley of Oaxaca was occupied by hunter-gatherers, after which time reliance on agriculture increased gradually. The earliest remains of permanent villages in the Cuicatec region, near large alluvial fans in the Canada, date to the Middle Formative period (500 b.c.). Because the type of agriculture that is dependent on rainfall alone is scant in the Canada, permanent settlement is presumed to have been accompanied by the development of simple methods of irrigation.

The Canada has long been a corridor between the Valley of Oaxaca to the south and Tehuacán and the Basin of Mexico to the north. The Canada has been conquered from both directions, by invading Zapotec from the south in the Formative period and by the Aztec coming from the north in the late Postclassic period. Glyphic and archaeological evidence reveals subjugation of the Canada by Zapotec invaders from the Valley of Oaxaca from a.d. 1 to AD. 200. Early colonial accounts attest to recurrent antagonistic relations between Canada settlements and Zapotee, Mixtec, and southern Chinatec groups.

Conflicts with these groups were suppressed by the rise of the Aztec, to whom the Cuicatec paid tribute from as early as 1486. The Aztec did not directly occupy Cuicatec territories, but they exacted tribute indirectly, thus preserving the existing political structure. At the time of Spanish contact, the Cuicatec were organized into discrete political units, designated señoríos by the Spanish and numbering three to five thousand in population. These small, moderately stratified units, consisting of headtowns and subject settlements, were bounded geographically by noncultivable land.

The earliest records of the exaction of tribute by the Spanish date to 1530. Like the Aztec, the Spanish imposed a system of indirect rule, incorporating the existing elite into the Spanish bureaucracy. Missionization began in 1528, with the establishment of a Dominican convent in Teutila. A parish church was built in Concepción Pápalo in 1630. By the mid-seventeenth century, the power of the Cuicatec elite had been diminished by the installation of Spanish civil servants.


Settlements in the Cuicatec area are organized into municipios, the smallest division of state executive authority. Each municipio has a capital or headtown, and most contain one or more additional settlements, called "dependencies." Typically, each settlement has a native Cuicatec name, a Nahuatl name given by the Aztec conquerors, and a saint's name given by the Spanish. Settlement locations are marked by historical continuity. Most of today's municipio capitals were pre-Hispanic señorío capitals, and most of today's dependencies were señorío dependencies.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities . In the highlands, seasonal-rainfall agriculture is supplemented with irrigation. Most land, of poor quality relative to the Cañada, is cultivated for subsistence crops. A few crops are grown for export, however, including peaches, walnuts, and coffee, all of which were introduced by the Spanish. Above 2,000 meters, agave plantations are cultivated, and mixed forests are exploited for lumber.

The zone between the Cañada and the highlands is unsuitable for either rainfall agriculture or irrigation. This uninhabited area is sometimes used by the poor for hunting and gathering small game and edible varieties of wild plants and for grazing domesticated goats.

Industrial Arts. According to a 1982 report (Los cuicatecos ) by the Instituto Nacional Indigenista, wool and cotton textiles continue to be manufactured in Santa María Pápalo, Tlalixtac, Santa Cruz Teutila, and San Andres Teotilapan. Pottery is important in Santos Reyes Pápalo and San Andrés Pápalo. Baskets of reed grass are made in Concepción and San Lorenzo, and items of woven palm are fashioned in Santa María Tecaxtitlán and San Pedro Nodón. Most of these activities, however, are declining in importance.

Trade and Division of Labor. There are three semipermanent markets in the district of Cuicatlán. Commodities may also be acquired from small local stores, through private exchange, and at the temporary markets that are associated with holy days. Each Cuicatec settlement is characterized by a unique roster of saints, whose corresponding holy days rarely coincide. Traders come from other Cuicatec and non-Cuicatec Indian villages and from mestizo towns within and outside the district. In general, Indians from the highlands provide agricultural goods and handmade crafts, whereas mestizo traders sell agricultural products that are not grown locally, processed foods, and manufactured goods, such as huaraches, shoes, clothing, cigars, and liquor.

Regional trade is dominated by the members of a few elite mestizo families in the Canada, who export to distant markets the fruit and other products that are grown in the Canada, as well as the coffee, walnuts, and peaches grown in the highlands. They import such products as hardware, canned goods, clothing, beer, and soft drinks.

Historically, there has been, and there continues to be, economic symbiosis between the highlands and the lowlands. Because irrigation allows greater security than rainfall agriculture, the highlands have depended on the Canada for staples during times of shortage. In turn, highland communities export wood, charcoal, and other crops to the Canada and serve as a source of labor for its export agriculture.

Land Tenure. Three major forms of landownership exist in the highlands: communal property, privately owned land, and ejido lands. Communal property is land "owned" by the settlement and cultivated by peasant households. Mestizos own coffee plantations and cattle ranches, but Indians also own private land. Ejido lands are communal holdings that are officially not for rent or for sale. Unofficially, however, land in all three categories is sold, rented, leased, and inherited. In addition, fruit trees may be sold, rented, leased, or inherited independently of the land, a continuation of pre-Hispanic practice.

Cultivable land in the highlands is in short supply. Population pressure is the basis of intrasettlement conflict that occasionally leads to the fissioning of settlements and migration to the Canada and elsewhere for wage labor.


Kin Groups and Descent. Most highland settlements are organized into localized or semilocalized extended families (kindreds), with the exception of San Andres, which is organized into ambilateral descent groups. The mestizo elite form large corporate families that cut across municipal and settlement boundaries.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Among the nonelite, spouses are expected to be from the same settlement and to be of equal wealth and in the same age range. One should not marry bilateral kin up to the second degree of collaterality; spouses beyond the fourth degree of collaterality are preferred. Where there are Spanish surnames, one should not marry someone with the same surname or the surname of one's mother's father. Indian customary law recognizes common-law marriages and, in rare cases, polygyny. Among the mestizo elite, marriage is preferentially class endogamous.

Domestic Unit. Data gathered in San Andres indicate a strong tendency for households to be nuclear. Households are organized into clusters, usually linked by siblings of the same sex, preferably females.

Inheritance. In groups with kindred, property tends to be controlled by men. A woman is incorporated into her husband's household at marriage, and she loses her attachment to her natal group and her claim on its property.

Socialization. Cuicatec children are subjected to the conflicting goals of the local community and the Mexican nation-state. At home, they are given lots of time for play, and antisocial behavior is tolerated through adolescence. The assumption of household tasks is gradual and informal, suited to the individual development of the child. By contrast, classroom learning is rigid and highly formalized. Children are taught Spanish, Mexican national history, and modern methods of farming, often by a mestizo or an upwardly mobile Indian who is intolerant of local Indian culture. Such a teacher, who represents Mexican national culture, is not someone with whom most Indian children can identify.

As children become an economic asset to the household, their primary responsibilities are to fulfill the demands of the agricultural cycle. And because classroom learning is irrelevant to these demands, children are not pressured by their parents to attend school. This lack of interest in formal education reinforces the teacher's negative appraisal of Indian culture. Thus, far from promoting integration, the Mexican school system ultimately reinforces the boundaries between Indians and mestizos.

Sociopolitical Organization

Each highland municipio is internally organized into a civil-religious hierarchy, with four to eight levels of offices, ranked in prestige. Officeholders rotate annually. The secular side of the hierarchy is recognized by the Mexican government as the official administration of the municipio.

In the more traditional municipios, participation requires a significant expenditure of resources. Because each adult man of sufficient means is expected to assume a post, the system serves to reduce differences in wealth. In the more acculturated municipios, however, the burden is shared by all taxpayers, lessening the system's redistributive effect.

Social Control and Conflict. If possible, disputes are handled outside the official court system by family elders and shamans. More serious cases are taken to the municipal court or to the district court in Cuicatlán, which handles cases from nineteen municipios. If residents remain dissatisfied, they may take their claims to a neighboring district.

Officially, three offices of the civil hierarchy (presidente, síndico, and regidor ) control the municipal court. This court is used in cases of elopement, to ensure that a formal marriage will take place and that the bride will be supported. Spousal conflict, which may lead to the granting of a divorce, and cases involving witchcraft are also handled by the municipal court.

The Cuicatec are discouraged from using the district court by its limited hours of operation (it is open only during the day, when they are working in their fields), its unwillingness to accept nonmonetary payment of fines, and its failure to recognize Indian customary law (for example, common-law marriage and the transgression of local endogamy laws). Witchcraft accusations, when taken to the district level, are either treated as "libel" or dismissed as frivolous. At best, cases against incompetent shamans (who have, for example, failed to bring rain) are treated as "fraud."

Although municipal judicial officials are supposed to adhere to national and state law, in reality they recognize local customary law. This disjunction between the local and district courts serves to conserve Cuicatec culture, since traditional law remains immune to external challenges.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Cuicatec participate in a ritual and belief system that is not wholly reducible either to Catholicism or to indigenous Cuicatec cosmology. The only Cuicatec deity that is not worshiped in the Catholic church is the spirit of the mountains, Cheve, which is identified with the devil. Other deities that were originally related to the Cuicatec agricultural cycle are now linked to the Christian liturgical calendar and its associated personages.

The agricultural cycle begins after Easter, as the lengthening of daylight anticipates the first rains. The image of Jesus Christ is identified with the emerging sun and rain, and his resurrection with the rebirth of maize as a new plant. During the summer phase, the sun and maize are seen as prime adults. The principal holy days are devoted to Saint Anthony and Saint John the Baptist, both of whom are identified with water. The fall/harvest phase is associated with the death of the sun and the maize. The dominant image is of the Virgin Mary, identified with the moon, who is mourning the death of her son. The winter phase, celebrating the Immaculate Conception and the Nativity, is also dominated by the Virgin.

Religious Practitioners. The public rituals that are associated with holy days are controlled by members of the civil-religious hierarchy. Shamans, trained ritual specialists, tend to control private rituals, including those related to individual health and the annual renewing of the household tools of production. Families that cannot afford shamans may carry out their own rituals. When a Catholic priest visits the settlement, he performs Masses, baptisms, and weddings.

Ceremonies. There are a series of rituals, both private (household) and public (settlement), that are associated with the agricultural cycle. The former are more variable in content. Spring rituals, devoted to Jesus Christ and to the supernatural controllers of the weather, petition for the arrival of the first rains. Summer rituals, devoted to Saint John the Baptist and Saint Anthony, offer thanks for the first rains and petition for the second rains. Rituals of the fall demonstrate gratitude to all supernatural beings for the summer rains and request permission to harvest. In communities with irrigation, a winter crop, believed to be under control of the now-dominant moon, is planted. Rituals are devoted to petitioning the Virgin, who is identified with the moon and with surface waters (water holes, springs, and irrigation canals), to protect the second crop.

Ideally, rites of passage are timed to coincide with the life-cycle phases that are associated with the agricultural calendar. Thus, baptisms and the installation of new members of the civil-religious hierarchy (who are viewed as newborns and are identified with the infant Jesus, the reemerging sun, and maize) occur in the winter, confirmations and first communions in the spring, marriages in the summer, and funerals and ancestral rites in the fall.

Medicine. Traditional explanations for illness include soul lossresulting from fright and from fallingand witchcraft. A shaman is usually contracted for diagnosis and treatment, which may involve offerings to the mountain spirit, Cheve. In addition, practitioners of Western medicine are sometimes consulted.

Death and Afterlife. After death, one's soul goes west, like the setting sun. On the Day of All Souls and the Day of All the Dead, the principal harvest rituals, the village ancestors return to receive offerings of thanks.


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