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ETHNONYMS: Ayuuk, Mije


Identification. The Mixe are one of the major Middle American Indian groups in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. They were usually referred to as "Mije" in the early literature, but the standardized spelling is currently "Mixe." This name was probably given to them by Indian auxiliaries arriving with the Spaniards; it is derived either from the Nahuatl term for "death" or the term for "datura." The Mixe use the word "Ayuuk," meaning "language" or "word" to designate themselves. This word is etymologically closely related to their term for "people of the mountains."

Location. The Mixe occupy an area of 5,829 square kilometers in the Sierra Madre of northeastern Oaxaca. Elevations range from 400 meters to more than 3,300 meters. Their habitat is characterized by pine-oak and tropical mountain forests, and open grasslands. Much of the area is under cultivation and in various states of reforestation by secondary vegetation. There are several lowland, riverine communities, situated in a wet, tropical-forest zone in the northeastern portion of the Mixe region. The average annual rainfall is from 150 to 250 centimeters, with the greatest portion occurring from June to October. The climate is a moderately warm, pluvial one with cold winters and hot summers.

Demography. In 1872 the Mixe population was 31,736. By 1950 it had increased to 52,754, and in 1991 it was estimated to be about 76,000, distributed among fifty villages and numerous small hamlets. Some reside in Isthmus of Tehuantepec towns and Mexico City, but the vast majority of the population have remained in the Mixe region.

Linguistic Affiliation. Comprising three major dialects, the Mixe language is a subgroup of the Mixe-Zoque Language Phylum, which includes Zoque, Sierra Popoluca, and Tapachultec; the latter is now extinct.

History and Cultural Relations

Mixe territory originally extended from the Río Nexapa to Coatzacoalcos and from Villa Alta to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. At the beginning of the fourteenth century, Mixe continuity on the Gulf Coast was disrupted by a series of Central Mexican (Pipil) and Maya invasions. They were also forced to cede the western isthmus region to the Huave, and Nexapa to the Zapotec. Under a succession of kings, the Mixe waged war against the Zapotec, the Mixtec, and their allies. Despite their numerical superiority, these groups, seeking tribute and territory, were unable to defeat the Mixe. By 1522, however, the Mixe had become tributary subjects of the Zapotee lord of Tehuantepec. The Spaniards and their Indian allies were unable to defeat the Mixe in several expeditions launched against them. Although the Spaniards were able to subdue a few settlements in 1531, by 1560 the Mixe had not been conquered. The final pacification of the Mixe nation was carried out by Dominican friars, who established parishes and centers of evangelization throughout the region. Cruel treatment and excessive tribute resulted in serious insurrections in 1570, 1660, and 1661. Following the initial expeditions of the Conquest, there were no large movements of Spanish settlers into the region. In 1660 a decree ordering the consolidation of the dispersed settlements into larger nucleated towns, in order to administer and missionize the Mixe more effectively, resulted in the decimation of the population from typhoid, smallpox, and influenza epidemics.

Although forced labor drafts had been discontinued by 1650, tribute in goods was drawn from the Mixe region as late as 1789. In 1780 the Dominicans were replaced by Spanish secular priests, who were expelled after the War of Independence. Thereafter, the region was served by only one priest, who came to the villages for the annual religious feast. In the latter part of the twentieth century, the Mixe region has undergone marked economic, political, and religious change brought about by the construction of roads, the advent of state development agencies, and renewed Catholic missionary activity.

Contemporary Mixe culture is an amalgam of indigenous, Spanish-colonial, and regional Oaxaca traits. The retention of the Mixe language and territory was instrumental in preserving many native religious beliefs and practices. Spanish influence is most evident in village layout and housing construction, religion, livestock, and the use of metal tools. Slash-and-burn agriculture and digging-stick technology is complemented, in some villages, by European plow agriculture. Regional influence, such as the presence of the dress and music of the Isthmus in eastern Mixe villages, is also a factor. The construction of roads in the region has greatly facilitated the introduction of new foods, industrial goods, and the replacement of thatched roofs with corrugated-metal ones.


Prior to the conquest, the Mixe lived in nucleated settlements and small farms dispersed along mountain crests and slopes, and concentrated in valleys. Contemporary settlements consist of nucleated, compact communities or single homesteads and hamlet clusters centripetally dispersed from the community center. People may live in the village except for a three-month period, when they reside and work in their coffee plantations. In communities where good agricultural lands are distant from the village, families reside on small farms during the planting, weeding, and harvesting periods. Since community members are required to serve in the civil-religious organization and participate in communal labor each year, homestead families must carry heavy household goods and food back and forth over the mountains to and from the community center, fomenting discord between centers and outlying farms. Population growth and consequent use-pressure on land resources has resulted in diminished yields of maize. The necessity of modifying their settlement pattern, by moving to distant land better suited to agriculture, has been checked by the cash cropping of coffee and by intervillage trade.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Maize as well as beans, chilies, and squashes are grown by means of slash-and-burn agriculture. Bananas, potatoes, root crops, and a variety of tropical fruits are also cultivated to a certain extent. Turkeys and chickens are kept around the household, and, in some villages, sheep, goats, pigs, and cattle are raised. Fishing and hunting constitute a significant, but not major, means of obtaining provisions. The Mixe also take on part-time occupations as merchants, traders, and craft specialists. In various villages, coffee is grown and sold as a cash crop. Because many villages are inaccessible to motorized transport, supplies such as maize, sugar, salt, and beer are brought in by pack animals. Store owners in larger villages sell dry goods to the local and surrounding population. Many store owners also sell maize and beer in large quantities to muleteers who then transport this merchandise to surrounding villages, where it is exchanged for coffee or cash. The Mixe region participates in the national and world economy by exporting large amounts of coffee. The profit from the cash crop, coffee, and the price paid for commercial maize and other imported merchandise depend on how far a village is from motorized transport facilities.

Industrial Arts. Pottery, baskets, and woven wool and cotton cloth for ponchos, women's blouses, sashes, belts, and headdresses are produced in a few villages for the local market. Each village has one or more specialists in sandal- and leatherworking, carpentry, butchering, bread baking, masonry, and the construction of clay griddles for heating maize-meal cakes. Most male adults are able to construct habitations with adobe, wattle and daub, or logs, and furniture such as wooden stools.

Trade. The Mixe region has a number of village markets, where a wide variety of foodstuff products and merchandise, such as clothing, is sold. Village marketplaces operate on different weekdays to form a mutually interdependent regional market system. Itinerant traders carrying fish, rope, sandals, hats, and other merchandise ply their wares from house to house. These items are usually exchanged for coffee, which serves as an all-purpose exchange medium. The traders bring the coffee to the lowlands to be sold, and return with more merchandise.

Division of Labor. Men do most of the agricultural work, but they are assisted by women in the weeding, harvesting, shelling, and storing of the maize. The two sexes also share in the harvesting and preparation of coffee beans and in attending to the pigs and poultry, gathering firewood, sewing, housekeeping, marketing, and carrying loads. Men are responsible for the pasturing of livestock and beasts of burden, house building, hunting and fishing, distant marketing, and the repair of tools. Politics, government, and the administration of village feasts are also in the hands of the men. Women care for the children, prepare and cook the food, do laundry, and clean the house.

Land Tenure. In villages that annually shift plots, cultivated fields are held in usufruct by a family for one season, after which it reverts back to the community. In villages with longer intervals between fallow periods and annual cultivation, the land is held by a family as long as it is worked continuously. Since the land is legally owned by the community, only usufruct rights and capital improvements made on the land may be transferred to another individual by cash payment. Only coffee trees can be sold, not the soil on which the trees are grown. Lands unsuitable for agriculture are used as a communal source of firewood and grazing.


Kin Groups and Descent. Mixe kin groups are comprised of nuclear and extended families in one household and of nonlocalized, Ego-oriented, bilateral kin networks, or kindreds. Although kinship is reckoned bilaterally, virilocal residence and the predominant control of land and inheritance by males place emphasis on the patriline.

Kinship Terminology. The Mixe kinship system follows the generational or Hawaiian scheme, except for terms of reference for aunts, which are lineal: there is one term for mother, another for mother's sister and father's sister. Moreover, in several villages, cousins are terminologically differentiated from sisters. Ritual-kinship terms are extensions of the consanguineal terminology.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage is regulated by the parents as an alliance between kin groups, formalized by gift exchange. Although the nuclear family is the predominant type, limited polygamy occurs in several villages. Marriages are village endogamous and prohibited with individuals whose ancestors are separated less than four generations from Ego. Couple- and father-dominated households vary according to residence location and differential wealth. The residence pattern is virilocal after marriage, with subsequent shift to neolocal residence, once such a move is economically feasible. Divorce is rare and informal.

Domestic Unit. The nuclear family is the dominant form of household composition. Extended families typically consist of two families of procreation from adjacent generations, as well as the offspring of siblings and affines. Stem families consist of two- and three-generational families and married siblings living jointly in one household.

Inheritance. Property is ideally distributed to all children, irrespective of age or sex. In some cases, the father will give more to his sons and less to his daughters or, if there is insufficient land, all will go to the son. A woman retains the rights over her lands and other property after she becomes married. In case of divorce, she retains her property. Offspring who are faring poorly are given more consideration than siblings in a better economic position. The expenses for a son's marriage or education may be considered his inheritance, and the house lot and lands divided among the other siblings. Inheritance from husband to wife is rare.

Socialization. Obedience is stressed in late childhood but is seldom enforced. Older children learn gender-related domestic and economic tasks by observing and imitating their parents. Siblings and nonkin playmates obey each other on the basis of age. Children are scolded and restrained from displaying aggression toward siblings and playmates, and begin to perform public service at early adolescence.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Families extend solidarity and economic reciprocity by establishing fictiveor ritual-kinship ties, often at life-cycle celebrations. Reciprocal ritual-kinship relations may be between two families or extended into highly elaborate, interwoven networks within the community and beyond it. Mixe age sets involve an array of roles and obligations related to the politico-religious organization. Kinship terms are used to address nonkin on the basis of age relative to the speaker. Except for that of the elders, Mixe age sets are noncorporate and serve to underscore the status of villagers as equals, juniors, and seniors.

Dancers and musicians are organized into formal groupings. There are also communal work groups and informal groups for agricultural production and other daily activities. The construction of new roads linking the Mixe region with the national economy has led to incipient class formation in the form of large retail enterprises and a truck-owning elite.

Political Organization. The Mixe region is composed of territorial districts, divided into a number of municipios and an administrative head town. Each municipio administers its own affairs and those of smaller villages and farms within its territorial boundaries. Villages are divided typically into two landowning divisions or wards. Civil officials are chosen from each ward in alternating years; kin groups tend to be ward localized. Except for the secretary, elected town officials receive no salary and work as a community service. Refusal leads to banishment. Positions are ranked in a hierarchy and prestige is largely related to the kinds of positions a man has held in the political and religious organizations. A formal, corporate organization that owns land or cattle provides for the administration, upkeep, and religious services of the village church. In addition, there is a complex hierarchy of religious officials appointed by the civil officials and village elders. Each of these religious officials or "stewards" is required to provide work, goods, and funds for a village feast lasting from one to several days.

Social Control. Grievances resulting from theft, inheritance, debts, and drunkenness are handled by town courts; major crimes, such as homicide, by the district court. Informal mechanisms of social control include fear of gossip, threats of sorcery, and ostracism from social life. A strong deterrent is the belief that anger and aggression cause illness and death.

Conflict. Quarrels arising from village boundary disputes and religious factionalism are adjudicated by the state government. In conflicts within the kin group, lineal relatives or in-laws will often act as mediators. In nonkin conflicts, apart from self-help and recourse to sorcery, the case proceeds to the court.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Mixe religious belief consists of diverse elements of Spanish Catholic and indigenous origin. In some villages, Protestant groups have had significant success in converting the villagers. Devotion to God and the Catholic saints is expressed by the maintenance of household altars and a cycle of religious feasts. Native deities include Thunder, a rain and crop deity; Earth, a source of sustenance and the repository of wisdom; Great Lady Life, the deity of conception, childbirth, and medicine; and the Lord of the Underworld, a source of illness and wealth. There are also a number of lesser spirits, demonic beings, and supernatural serpents related to heavy rains and wealth. Along with body souls, an individual possesses one or more guardian spirits. Typically in animal form, these alter egos reside in forests and fields. Mixe mythology revolves around the sacred twins, a boy and girl, who after a series of episodic adventures, ascend to the sky to become the Sun and Moon.

Religious Practitioners. Each community has a lay organization responsible for the care and functioning of the church. There are also shaman-curers, who vary in the extent of their healing knowledge and skills. Curers obtain the knowledge to cure through dreams, plant-induced visions, apprenticeship, and by means of cash payments to other shamans or the exchange of information with them. Divination with maize and the interpretation of the pulse are the primary means of diagnosis; curing is done primarily by means of medicinal plants and ritual sacrifices. The propitious days for rituals or any major undertaking, the meaning of dreams and omens, and the causes of social disequilibrium and affliction are ascertained by a class of calendar priests.

Ceremonies. Mixe culture commands a large corpus of ceremonies, including rites of passage, rituals related to agriculture, hunting, and other economic pursuits, rituals for civil-religious authorities, and rituals for the well-being of the family and the community. These ceremonies include offerings of bundles of split wood, eggs, maize meal, agave brandy, candles, tobacco, and sacrificial offerings of fowl.

Arts. Preoccupied with subsistence activities, the Mixe are perforce restricted in their concern for arts and crafts. A few communities engage in textile weaving, basketwork, and ceramics. Women's blouses are woven for the tourist trade. Great artistic attention is given to music, dance, and costume, which are exhibited primarily during community feasts. Aesthetic sentiment is also expressed in festive household altars and in the elegant arrangement of candles, pine needles, and other objects for nocturnal ceremonies.

Medicine. Dispensaries and practitioners of cosmopolitan biomedicine are limited to towns accessible by motorized transport. Some illnesses are recognized as owing to natural agencies, such as sudden shifts in body temperature, anger, and overexertion. Diarrhea, skin infections, and many other illnesses are treated with medicinal plants and sweat baths. Superhuman causes of illness include nonfulfillment of ritual obligations, social conflict, soul loss, witchcraft, and sorcery. Shamanic curing rituals of sacrificial burned and blood offerings are carried out to expiate a moral offense, retrieve a soul, or remove an injury caused by malevolent human forces. There are also specialists for childbirthing, setting broken bones, massaging body ailments, and healing snake bites.

Death and Afterlife. Prior to the Spanish Conquest, the dead were buried in fields; the bones were later hung in baskets from trees or placed in temple charnel houses. Although burial within cemeteries was instituted by the Catholic missionaries, until the nineteenth century, the dead were also buried inside churches. Prior to interment, a wake and feast are held, and some communities have elaborate ceremonies to insure that the ghost does not harm or frighten its living relatives. The spirits of the dead are believed to dwell in the vicinity in which they had previously lived. Another belief is that the errant soul is purified in an underworld flame prior to its journey to heaven. During a yearly feast for the dead, food is given to household visitors who are said to represent the ancestral spirits.


Beals, Ralph K. (1945). Ethnology of the Western Mixe. University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology, vol. 42, no. 1. Berkeley.

Kuroda, Etsuko (1984). Under Mt. Zempoaltépetl: Highland Mixe Society and Ritual. Senri Ethnological Studies, no. 12. Osaka.

Lipp, Frank J. (1991). The Mixe of Oaxaca: Religion, Ritual, and Healing. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Nahmad Sittón, Salomón (1965). Los Mixes. Memorias del Instituto Nacional Indigenista, vol. 6. Mexico City.


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