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Identification. There is no agreement about the origin of the name "Mazahua" ("deer people"). Some historians say that it derives from mazatl, the Aztec word for "deer," or from the name of the group's first leader, Mazatl Tecutli ("Lord Deer"). Others say it comes from Nahuatl. The term does not exist in the Mazahua language; but there is the designation "Teetho ñaatho jñaatho." "Teetho" means "real people," and "ñaatho jñaatho" means "those who speak the language."

Location. The Mazahua area is located to the north of the state of México. Its boundaries are with the municipality of Acambay to the north, the Valle de Bravo to the south, and the state of Michoacán to the west. It encompasses approximately eleven municipalities with an area of 3,723 square kilometers, equivalent to 17 percent of the total area of the state. Mazahua also live in some villages in the state of Michoacán, near Ciudad Hidalgo. In the Mazahua area there are also nonindigenous populations, and Otomí Indians live in some municipalities.

Owing to migration, it is now possible to find Mazahua living in the cities of other states, for example in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, and Mexico City.

Demography. According to the 1990 census, there are 127,826 Mazahua speakers over the age of 5; 68,070 are women, and 59,756 are men. Of the total, 114,294 live in the state of México, 3,007 in Michoacán, 7,864 in the Federal District, and 444 in the state of Chihuahua; the rest are dispersed over the remaining areas of the country.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Mazahua language is classified within the Otomanguean Language Group and is most closely related to Otomí.

History and Cultural Relations

There are only scant historical references to the Mazahua, relating mainly to their subordinate relationships to other groups. In one hypothesis about their background, they are believed to have formed part of the five tribes that made up Chichimec migrations to the Valley of Mexico. It is thought that they, together with the Matlazincas and Tlahuicas, were the founders of the cities of Culhuacan, Otompan, and Tula. According to another version, the Mazahua were one of the Acolhua groups that arrived in the Valley of Mexico around the twelfth century, along with the Otomí, their linguistic relatives. The Mazahua were soon subjugated by the Tecpanecs; nonetheless, their numerical superiority increased. Once Aztec rule was consolidated, the Mazahua came under their control, and their villages marked the borders with Michoacán. Among the most important cities of the Mazahua province of Mazahuacán were Azcapotzalco, Tenayocan (Tenayuca), Temazcalcingo, Atlacomulco, Chiapan, Xiquipilco, Xocotitlán, Malacatepec, and Ixtlahuaca. During the colonial period, the Mazahua occupied more or less the same habitat, but their subjugation was even more onerous than before. The system of tribute and slavery continued: the encomienda and later the repartimiento provided the colonists access to forced indigenous labor. The concentration of land in haciendas, the development of mining, and the establishment of manufacturing workshops were colonial means of economic subjugation. After the independence of Mexico in 1810, the situation of the Mazahua did not improve because this was a period when large haciendas were consolidated, and many Indians worked on them as peons. During the later Juárez reforms, the remaining communal lands belonging to indigenous communities were expropriated. They passed from the communal property system, which had protected them since colonial times, into the hands of large estate owners. It was only after the Mexican Revolution of 1910 that land was returned to indigenous peoples, in the form of ejidos. The small amount of land apportioned to each Mazahua family during the agrarian reforms of the 1930s set the stage for a mixed economy in which they were simultaneously producers of basic subsistence foodstuffs, consumers of industrially produced products, and sources of low-paid seasonal labor in the cities and on farms and cattle ranches.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. A large percentage of the Mazahua population performs agricultural labor, mainly planting maize, beans, and chilies. Because they inhabit an interethnic area with great economic diversity, they also work at other jobs, as wage earners. Work opportunities in the major Mazahua municipios are in agriculture and cattle herding, or in factories and shops that produce clothing, chemicals, paper products, packaged foods, and electrical appliances. They also work at wood and lumber production and in gold and silver mines. Temporary migration is another work option. In the cities, Mazahua men are often employed in the construction industry, and women in domestic service.

Handicrafts. Handicrafts are yet another Mazahua activity, especially the production of woolen textiles, pottery, and basketry. In some areas, brooms and brushes are made from zacatón roots (Muhlenbergia macroura ).

Commerce. Zacatón-root products, as well as handicrafts in general, are intended mainly for the market. Many Mazahua products are marketed by intermediaries; generally nonindigenous, these middlemen make most of the profit. In view of this situation, the Mazahua have looked for other options: one alternative is to organize cooperatives, among which women's cooperatives are the most prominent. Some Mazahua choose to become traders themselves, first trading local handicrafts and later industrially produced products, which Mazahua families transport throughout Mexico. They learn trading skills from the nonindigenous peoples for whom they work as helpers. Among the inhabitants of the municipality of Temascalcingo, this is an increasingly important option. Many of the Mazahua who trade on the northern and southeastern frontiers of Mexico come from that area.

Division of Labor. Every member of a Mazahua family works. Besides caring for their children, women tend to their homes and collaborate with their husbands on some agricultural tasksharvesting, for example. In the production of pottery, women paint or adorn the pots; men prepare the clay, take charge of the ovens, and oversee the firing. Children help the parent of the same sex. In the fabrication of textiles, women tend the sheep, card the wool, and weave; men perform other related tasks.

All members of a family participate when it is involved in trading. In the cities, Mazahua saleswomen ply the streets in traditional costumes, offering their handicrafts. Others, accompanied by their children, sell sweets and chewing gum on street corners. Men dress less distinctively; they sell auto parts, ceramics, and domestic utensils (china, pots and pans, plastic utensils, etc.) from ambulatory stalls or sell fruit or ice-cream sticks from small carts.

Land Tenure. Land tenure among the Mazahua is mainly through an ejido. The amount of land available for each family varies: it may be less than one hectare or more than six hectares. It is usually unirrigated land, dependent on seasonal rainfall. Ejidos consist of land divided into plots and lands for common use. Mazahua families cultivate their crops on the plots; the common lands are used for grazing, gathering wood, collecting medicinal and edible plants, and, sometimes, exploiting the timber.


Kin Groups and Descent. Mazahua group association is by place of birth, community membership, and right to land. Descent is through the paternal line, although kinship is recognized bilaterally to the third degree. Another form of social relationship not necessarily based on consanguinity is compadrazgo (ritual coparenthood).

Kinship Terminology. Native kinship terms have not been retained; Spanish terms for father, mother, son and daughter, sibling, grandparent, cousin, and aunt and uncle are used. Incest prohibitions proscribe marriage with anyone sharing common descentMazhua cannot marry either parallel or matrilateral cross cousins, or the children of the father's compadres, who are considered to be in the same category as Ego's grandparents or father's siblings.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage is monogamous, preferentially endogamous by ethnic group, and preferentially exogamous by locality. Owing to migration, however, marriage with nonindigenous partners is increasingly frequent, especially among women. Elopement and later reconciliation between families is the preferred form of marriage; nevertheless, negotiated marriages have not been abandoned, and they more frequently lead to proper church weddings.

Domestic Unit. Among the Mazahua, there are both nuclear and extended families because, during the first four or five years of marriage, a young couple lives with the groom's parents. Family units are also the basis of economic organization, whether productive or nonproductive. Kin networks are a support system facilitating migration.

Inheritance. Property passes from father to son because a woman becomes part of her husband's family. Agrarian laws legalize this procedure where land is concerned, despite the increasing struggle of some indigenous women for recognition of their right to own land.

Socialization. Socialization begins in childhood with constant participation in daily tasks within the household and with early participation in religious rituals that involve social obligations. Primary-school education, which is bilingual in some places, is a formal means of socialization.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Cooperation within extended families, cooperation within the household, compadrazgo, mutual help, and community service create a sense of belonging that unites the community and gives people a sense of obligation to it.

Political Organization. The Mazahua do not have their own native system of government, so each village falls under a municipal administration. Each village has its delegate or subdelegate, who is named by the municipal president. Where there are both an indigenous and a nonindigenous population, presidential appointments fall to the latter. In some places there are also a tata-bisca and a tatapale, survivals of a native council of elders.

A strong religious organization may provide a village with a respected authority not recognized officially by the municipal government. Villages with ejido lands have an ejido commission with a president, secretaries, a treasurer, and an oversight council. Some Mazahua belong to a political party and/or a peasant organization involving production, marketing, or credit. The Mazahua Supreme Council is an ethnic organization, but, initially sponsored by the federal government, it is not particularly representative of Mazahua concerns.

Social Control. Municipal and ejido authorities are officially responsible for problem solving. There are, however, mechanisms of coercion and sanction for correcting those who do not act according to tradition or who do not fulfill community obligations. For example, those who have emigrated and changed their religion can not be buried in the same graveyard as their ancestors.

Conflict. The most frequent conflicts are over the control of local government (municipio delegates and ejido posts), and, in some cases, they are of an interethnic nature (between indigenous and nonindigenous members). At certain times, there may be conflicts between sympathizers of rival political parties or craft organizations. With changes occurring in the religious affiliation of some Mazahua, religious conflicts have also become noticeable.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Folk Catholicism predominates, and, in some places, religious and political organization are parts of a single system. Juntas, assemblies led by influential men in the community, assemble people with political and religious cargos and are responsible for new appointments in both the civil and religious branches of the organization.

There are three locations for religious expression: the village church, oratorios, and domestic altars. Each corresponds to a level of social organization: the village, the extended family and its allied members through compadrazgo, and the domestic family. A system of religious cargos (fiscales, mayordomos, topiles, prayer makers, sacristans, and "companions") favors community integration through family ties and compadrazgo, which unite the constituents of mayordomías. Compadrazgo is established between parents and godparents at the time of baptism, confirmation, first communion, and marriage. Compadrazgo also results from seeking godparental sponsors for a funeral, a girl's fifteenth birthday, a Bible, a priest's new habit, a house, an oratorio, or clothing for a religious image. Lay compadrazgo results from secular ritual events related to primary- or secondary-school graduation and the sponsorship of football and basketball teams. Religious fiestas are accompanied by prayers, music, floral arrangements, and dances and, in general, are complemented with a feast.

Ceremonies. Each village/town holds its main fiesta on the day of its patron saint; there are also two sanctuaries, shared by the Mazahua and the Otomí, to which pilgrimages are made. The shrine of the Holy Cross of Tepexpan celebrates the day of the Holy Cross in May and the day of Saint Theresa in October. The other sanctuary is Chalma, a famous mountain shrine to the southwest of Mexico City, on the edge of the Mazahua area. During rituals in which a community participates in the religious fiestas of a nearby pueblo, the patron saints "visit" one another. Among the most important ritual dances are the "Moors and Christians," the "Arrow Shooters" ("Huehueches"), and the "Shepherdesses." There are also dialogues (stagings) called "Charles the Great" and "The Shepherds."

Medicine. There are several traditional specialists, among them midwives, curers, bonesetters, and sorcerers. On different levels, they are knowledgeable about medicinal plants, the human body, the world in general, and the supernatural world. Illness may be caused by sorcery. As is the case with the majority of indigenous peoples of the area, the Mazahua have recourse to three types of medicine in case of illness: biomedical, traditional, and domestic. The last involves folk and herbal remedies and is mainly the domain of women and elders in treating their families. Migrants have recourse to health centers in the cities where they live, that is to say, when it is not a matter of culturally defined illness, in which case they return to their place of origin to be cured.

Death and Afterlife. Death, like birth, is an important ritual moment in which ties of compadrazgo and group solidarity are reaffirmed. For the Mazahua, the supernatural world is the origin of many illnesses and of death. When someone becomes ill, a curer must be consulted for a "cleansing" and to determine the origin of the illness. The illness may be caused by the "masters of the earth," some deceased person, the animas solas (lonely souls), the envy of a still-living person, or the failure to comply with some social or ritual norm. The dead can cause illness when their relatives forget them or when they enjoy the benefits of an inheritance that was not rightfully theirs. In order for the dead to rest, they must receive prayers, and a mass and offering must be given them. The dead must be remembered on the Day of the Dead (Todos Santos) ; offerings of flowers, fruit, drink, and breads are placed on domestic altars.


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MAYA LORENA PÉREZ RUÍZ (Translated by Ruth Gubler)