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ETHNONYM: Shuta enima ("those who work in the forest")


Identification. The Mazatec, together with other ethnic groups, inhabit the Sierra Madre Occidental in central Mexico. They took their name from their ancient capital, called Maza-apatl or Mazatlan, founded around a.d. 890.

Location. Until around the 1950s, the Mazatec were concentrated in the northern part of the state of Oaxaca. In 1954 the construction of a system of dams over the effluents of the Río Papaloapan (Río de las Mariposas) had a serious effect on some of the Mazatec and Chinantec communities. Consequently, they were relocated elsewhere in Oaxaca and in the southern part of the state of Veracruz.

Mazatec territory consists of two areas that have distinct environments and cultures. In the highlands, or the sierra, elevations vary from 1,800 to 3,200 meters, and the climate ranges from temperate to cold. It is humid, and there is cloud cover almost year-round. There is abundant rainfall in summer. The natural vegetation consists of forests of pine, oak, and madroño (Arbustus ).

The lowlands lie in both tropical and temperate zones, at elevations from sea level to 1,800 meters. Irrigated by the four effluents of the Río Papaloapanthe Santo Domingo, the Río Tonto, the Qiuotepec, and the Usilathe lowland area has a great variety of ecosystems within humid mountain-tropical forests at 400 to 1,700 meters above sea level, which contain woods like balsam (Myroxy-Ion ), primavera (Tabebuia ), and guanacaste (Enterolobium ).

Demography. The 1990 general census reported a population of 168,374 Mazatec, most of them in an area of approximately 2,400 square kilometers, within the states of Oaxaca, which has the largest population (146,928), and Veracruz. The remainder are distributed principally in the state of Puebla and in Mexico City. Population density in some zones approaches 60 inhabitants per square kilometer. Approximately 70 percent of the Mazatec live in the highlands, 30 percent in the lowlands. The municipios with the largest indigenous populations are Huautla de Jiménez, San José Tenango, and San Cristóbal Mazatlán (in the highlands) and Santa Maria Chilchotla, San Miguel Soyaltepec, and San Lucas Ojitlan (in the lowlands).

Linguistic Affiliation. Morris Swadesh (1960) classified Mazatec as belonging to the Popoloca-Zapoteca Language Group, a subgroup of the Macro-Mixtecan Family. Other linguists place it within the Mazatec-Popoluca Family, of the Savizaa Trunk of the Otomanguean Group. Mazatec is a tonal language: the meaning of a word depends on the tone in which it is pronounced. There are at least four different dialects that are mutually intelligible.

History and Cultural Relations

The origins and history of the Mazatec are little known. They are possibly descendants of the Nonoalca-Chichimeca who emigrated from Tula at the beginning of the twelfth century, settling in the highlands in the villages of Teotitlán, Eloxochitlán, Mazatlán, and Chinchotla. According to other scholars, the Mazatec already inhabited the area before the arrival of the Nonoalca-Chichimeca, who subdued them around the year 1170. In 1300 the Mazatec freed themselves, founding two kingdoms: one in the highlands, or the East, and another in the lowlands, or West.

Before the arrival of the Spaniards, these kingdoms were invaded and subordinate by the Mexica (Aztec) Empire between 1455 and 1456, during the reign of Montezuma Ilhuicamina. Military posts were established in Teotitlán and Tuxtepec, and there tribute was collected. The first Spanish conquerors arrived in Mazatec territory in 1520, at which time the process of evangelization was begun by the Franciscans, who founded the first church in Teotitlán in 1542.

The Mazatec have participated actively in two major social movements in Mexico during the last two centuries, the War of Independence and the Revolution of 1910.

In 1954 a gigantic development project was begun in the area, of which the Papaloapan Commission (dependent on the federal government) was in charge. This brought about momentous changes for the Mazatec. Hydroelectric dams were built, which, besides helping to control the great cyclical floods of the Rio Papaloapan, provided the basic infrastructure for the area's economic development. This scheme focused on the lowlands and favored the development of cattle raising and commercial agriculture for export. Large tracts of the jungle were cut down, the monoculture of sugarcane was promoted, and private banks supported the development of pasture for cattle. In the process, the territorial and cultural unity of the Mazatec was severed: approximately 22,000 villagers who inhabited the basin of the Miguel Aleman dam were moved and relocated to five areas in the states of Oaxaca and Veracruz, some 250 kilometers away from their traditional habitat. With the construction of the dam, the lowland Mazatec lost 500 square kilometers, equivalent to 50 percent of their cultivable land.

In the highlands, on the other hand, where the emphasis was on coffee production, the infrastructure and services were left relatively undeveloped.


The Mazatec population is distributed over twenty-three municipios. Small towns and hamlets of less than 500 inhabitants that are dispersed within the territory are subordinate to the capitals of the municipios. The houses in the towns are built from a variety of materials, depending on the area and the natural resources at hand. In the tropical climate of the lowlands, cane and wood are used for the walls, and roofs are constructed of palm and banana leaves. In the highlands, the most frequently used materials are adobe, plaited cane and mud, and wood; roofs are of hay and batten. As roads increasingly penetrate the area, however, other types of construction material have become available: roofs made of asphalt-impregnated cardboard sheets and, in some cases, houses made of brick and mortar.

The houses are usually quadrangular, built on a floor of packed-down earth; they have a single large room, with a wood-burning hearth for cooking. This multifunctional room serves as a kitchen, a place to eat, a setting where family members get together, and, at night, as a family room in which hammocks are hung or cots are set up.

Houses are surrounded by a patio or plot of land on which some domestic animals (e.g., chickens, pigs) are generally kept for household consumption. Frequently, there is a steam bath of pre-Hispanic origin, called a temascal, with walls made of mud and a straw roof. In many communities houses are still built collectively through tequio, a type of exchange of work and mutual help in which an individual who wants to build a house gathers the necessary materials and invites his friends and relatives to help him, offering them abundant food and drink. Whoever receives such help is socially obliged to repay in like manner all those who participated in the construction of the house.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Mazatec life revolves around the production of maize, beans, chilies, and squashes. Any surplus of these staple foods is sold in local markets. Various noncultivated foods are also gathered to complement the diet. Mamey (Calocarpum sapota, a member of the Zapote family), sapodilla, mango, banana, papaya, tamarind, citrus, and avocado trees are planted for their fruits.

The cultivation of maize is not only an economic activity, but is the foundation of the group's social organization and symbolic interaction. Generally, in the cultivation of maize and that of the group's other subsistence cultigens, cooperative forms of food production are the rule. Two maize crops are grown annually: that of the tonamil (the dry season, extending from November to May) and that of the rainy season, harvested in October.

Besides providing subsistence, there is also an important commercial aspect to Mazatec agriculture. In the highlands of the sierra, coffee is cultivated extensively, but because of the infrequent use of fertilizers, productivity per hectare is far below the national average. Sesame is grown in the lowlands, as is sugarcane (which is sold directly to the area's sugar mills), and large tracts of land are set apart for pasture for cattle. On a lesser scale, tobacco, cacao, and achiote (which is used as a spice) are harvested and sold in the local market. In the area of Ayautla and Jalapa de Díaz, great mullein, a tuber from which certain hormones are obtained, is collected and sold to both national and international pharmaceutical companies.

The Mazatec have organized their commerce along two levels: national and international commerce for commercial products and, parallel to that, local commerce, wherein people of the sierra deal with people from the lowlands, exchanging products of regional specialization like clay pots, chairs, clay griddles, paper made from the bark of amate trees, leather sandals, bread, salt, fruit, eggs, candles, chilies, and so forth. This local commercial network is very important because it is a mechanism for integrating the more isolated producers. Exchange is by cash or barter. Handicrafts include the embroidering of textiles for the manufacture of huipiles. These traditional Mazatec women's garments are shifts with round necks and short sleeves; they are richly embroidered with floral or faunal motifs, depending on the village. Some artisans create ceramic objects or weave basketry from cane or palm leaves.

Land Tenure. Land is held communally, privately, and by ejidos. Until shortly before the Papaloapan Commission development project, private landownership was rare. Since then, as a result of the influx of capital and the movement and relocation of large contingents of the population, the dispossession of land has been facilitated, especially in the lowlands, and land has been redistributed into private hands. As of 1992, with the modification of Article 27 of the Mexican constitution, the judicial status of the ejido system was altered, and, as a result, problems regarding landownership are becoming more acute in the area.


Kin Groups and Descent. The kinship system is based on nuclear and extended patrilineal and patrilocal families. Within this system, relationships of reciprocity and family alliances are sustained by the Council of Elders, the traditional Mazatec form of government.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage is generally monogamous, although polygamy and concubinage are tolerated. There are communities in which approximately 20 percent of families are polygamous.

Marriage is normally between young people of the same village and the same neighborhood. Villages are subdivided into districts, on the basis of which marriage is regulated. This is arranged by the parents and is a time for establishing alliances between extended families. Marriage prohibitions extend to second cousins of both sides, although the father's side is emphasized.

Domestic Unit. The basic domestic unit is the nuclear family integrated within an extended family, entailing reciprocal obligations for collective labor and other forms of social solidarity.

Inheritance. Because the Mazatec have a patrilineal society, it is generally the older son who inherits his father's land and other property, although sometimes land is divided among the children, causing increasing fragmentation of property and lessening the opportunity for productive gain.

Socialization. Mazatec children are taught the tenets of their indigenous worldview as they are cared for by the women in the household. Their symbolic world is organized on the basis of the Mazatec language. When they enter school, however, they are inculcated with the basic strategies for getting along in the mestizo world that surrounds them, usually by a bilingual teacher.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The profound inequalities relating to landownership and the resources to make land productive, as well as differentiated access to services, characterize the Mazatec as a highly stratified ethnic group. This stratification is especially marked in the lowlands. Large and medium-sized landholders (with more than 100 hectares under cultivation) and wholesale merchants, called shuta nya (principales ), are linked to the regional and national middle class and have large amounts of money. It is generally the members of this group who hold the government posts in town and borough councils and the more important religious cargos. The shuta yuna ("those who own something") include small businessmen and smallholders who grow commercial products on 3 to 5 hectares of land. The shuta shun'da (poor people) own no land and are hired as day workers on coffee and sugar plantations. They generally live as "settlers" in the communities, that is, on land that has been lent or given them by the community.

Political Organization. The largest political organizational unit is the municipio, which is generally in the hands of mestizos or, in some cases, wealthy Indians. There is no government that could be called typically indigenous, but the most honest and capable elders meet around the town hall; they have served their communities in public or religious posts, and it is they who constitute the Council of Elders, or Chotj Chinka. This council, together with the president of the municipio, can designate the alcaldes and other members of the town hall. Elders on the council are generally men who head patrilocal extended families. Only rarely does one find two elders who are members of the same family on the Council of Elders. Any problem that affects the community or the municipio must be dealt with by the Council.

Social Control. The norms established by religion in the form of myths and ritual practices are important forms of social control. It is through them that a great portion of daily life is ruled.

Conflict. The main conflicts in the area are over the demarcation of boundaries of the community's landed property. The chief authority with the power to resolve such conflicts is the Council of Elders.

Religion and Cultural Expression

Religious Beliefs. The predominant religion is Catholicism, although pre-Hispanic concepts of understanding and ordering life persistfor example, the cult of the spirits, the veneration of mountains, and the sacred relationship with nature. Sorcerers, witches, and shamans, together with prayer makers and singers, are present in the most important moments in the life of an individual or of the community.

Religious Practices. Mayordomos are in charge of the entire process of arranging religious festivals to honor the patron saint of each community. Besides the patronal festivities, Holy Week, the Day of the Dead, Palm Sunday, and New Year are observed.

Medicine. Medicinal practice is linked to the pre-Hispanic concepts of the body, life, death, health, and sickness. The shaman is an intermediary between the deities and humans. The most common illnesses are mal aire (evil wind), mal de ojo (evil eye), susto (sudden fright), and soul loss. There is also a beliefpresent in all Mesoamerican belief systemsin tonales (animal protectors) and nahuales (the evil tonales of sorcerers, into which they have the power to change). Knowledge of herbal medicine is widely held. The most frequently used therapeutic methods are the extraction of objects through suction, limpias (cleansing) with bird's eggs, exorcisms, and divination with maize kernels.


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MARIA ANA PORTAL ARIOSA (Translated by Ruth Gubler)