Nahua of the Huasteca

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Nahua of the Huasteca

ETHNONYMS: Aztec, Mexicano, Mexijcatl (pl., Mexijcaj), Nahuatl


Identification. The Nahua are the most populous Native American group living in Mexico. The name "Nahua" is used by scholars to designate people who speak the Nahuatl language. The appellation derives from Nahuatl and appears to mean "intelligible," "clear," or "audible." Nahuatl speakers recognize the name "Nahua," but rarely employ it themselves. More commonly, they use the word "Mexicano" to refer to the Nahuatl language and as a general name for their ethnic group. "Mexicano" also derives from Nahuatl but has been Hispanicized and is pronounced and pluralized as in Spanish. Some writers use "Nahuatl" to refer both to the people and the language. Older-generation Nahua in the Huasteca sometimes refer to a member of their ethnic group as a "Mexijcatl," recalling the term of self-reference used by the ancient Aztecs. The name "Aztec" is properly used to refer only to the short-lived Mexica Empire that was forged by certain highland groups of Nahua before the Spanish Conquest. Scholars commonly divide contemporary Nahua into subgroups based on the geographical area they inhabit. The Nahua described here live in the Huasteca east-central Mexico. William Madsen (1969) noted the relative lack of ethnographic studies of Huastecan Nahua culture at that time.

Location. The Huasteca is a cultural-geographic region composed of portions of six states on the Gulf Coast of MexicoVeracruz, San Luis Potosí, Tamaulipas, Hidalgo, Querétaro, and Puebla. The precise boundaries of the Huasteca are disputed by local inhabitants and experts alike. The region is bordered on the east by the Gulf of Mexico and on the west by the great Sierra Madre Oriental range. Many authorities agree that the Río Cazones defines the southern limit, and the Sierra de Tamaulipas forms the northernmost boundary. The Nahua generally occupy the hilly southern and western portions of this vast region; they are concentrated in northern Veracruz and northern Puebla, northeastern portions of Hidalgo, and southeastern San Luis Potosí. At lower elevations the climate is tropical and the territory well watered, with numerous rivers and arroyos flowing from the mountains and emptying into the Gulf. At higher elevations the climate becomes dryer and colder, supporting pine forests. There are distinct wet and dry seasons corresponding to summer and winter, respectively.

Demography. It is impossible to determine the precise population of the Nahua of the Huasteca. Official counts are suspect because census takers usually do not have access to all members of the population. The Nahua live in communities scattered widely throughout hilly or mountainous terrain penetrated by few roads. Furthermore, when census takers determine linguistic affiliation, they count only people 5 years of age and older. Finally, there is the problem of deliminiting the boundaries of the Huasteca. Defining the Huasteca as consisting of ninetytwo municipios, the 1990 census recorded 431,805 speakers of Nahuatl 5 years of age or older who live in the region.

Linguistic Affiliation. Nahuatl belongs to the UtoAztecan Family and is related to several languages spoken in Mexico and North America. It was the language spoken by the Aztecs (Mexica-Tenochca), Toltecs, Tlaxcalans, and many other pre-Hispanic and contact-era peoples. Speakers are generally concentrated in the highland region of central Mexico. Linguists divide Nahuatl spoken in the Huasteca into eastern, western, and T dialects, although these are probably 95 percent mutually intelligible. The western dialect is spoken mainly in San Luis Potosí, Hidalgo, and a small area of Veracruz. Eastern Huastecan Nahuatl is spoken in extreme eastern Hidalgo, Veracruz, and the northern tip of Puebla. The T dialect (called Nahuat, as opposed to Nahuatl) is represented by an island of speakers located in and around the town of Huejutla de Reyes in Hidalgo.

History and Cultural Relations

Neither the prehistory nor the history of the Huasteca is well known. A number of archaeological sites have been explored, and from these it appears that the earliest identifiable people to occupy the region were Huastec speakers. At the time of the Spanish invasion, the Huastec were struggling against Mexica expansion in their region.

Sometime probably during the late pre-Hispanic era, groups of Nahua, along with Otomí and Tepehua, migrated into the Huasteca. Ethnohistorical sources indicate that the first Nahua to settle on the Gulf Coast may have been refugees from the highlands escaping a great famine during the mid-1450s. Other sources mention that Motecuhtzoma II sent colonists to the coast to repopulate the area following a series of epidemics there. Documents record a number of military invasions launched by the Mexica and their allies. Archaeological evidence confirms a Mexica presence in the southern Huasteca; the best-known site is Castillo de Teayo. This ruin has not been excavated, nor even surveyed. It features a pyramid, ceramics, and at least fifty-two sculptures, all purportedly of Mexica origin. Dates for the site are uncertain, but the late fifteenth century seems reasonable. Based upon the few ethnographie studies conducted among the Nahua of the Huasteca, Nahua culture is linked to that of the highland peoples. Many rituals, deities, and beliefs, for example, are similar to those reported by sixteenth-century chroniclers of the Mexica. Nahua from more western regions of the Huasteca may originally have been part of the Aculhuacán Empire; they have remained largely independent of the Mexica.

During the colonial period, the Nahua of the Huasteca, along with most Native Americans in Mexico, experienced a cataclysmic decline in population owing to social disruption, forced labor, and disease. The scattered remnants of the population caused difficulties for Spanish administrators, who instituted a policy of establishing reducciones (areas where indigenous peoples were forced to settle) as early as 1592 in the southern Huasteca. These centralized locales were also known as congregaciones (congregations). Many contemporary Nahua communities are products of these colonial programs. Spanish missionary work began in the Huasteca prior to 1630, spearheaded by the Franciscans. Despite long exposure to missionaries, the southern Huasteca remains a conservative stronghold of pre-Hispanic religious beliefs and practices.

The Nahua areas of the Huasteca played an active part in the Mexican War of Independence in the early nineteenth century. Many people, probably including the Nahua, also participated in the war against France in the late 1860s and in the Mexican Revolution in the early part of the twentieth century. The Revolution brought land reform and the establishment of the ejido system, which effectively redistributed private land to many Native American communities, including some Nahua.

In 1901 the first government concessions were granted to oil companies to exploit reserves in the southern Huasteca. This development and other factors led to the building of roads into the interior and subsequent changes entailed by increased contact with urban Mexico. Prior to World War I, sugarcane was the major cash crop grown by people in the Huasteca. Following the war, people in the higher elevations, including many Nahua, began to grow coffee for the international market. Also during this time, cattle ranching became a lucrative business for people of the region. Most cattle ranches were owned by mestizos, but Nahua participated in production by acting as temporary laborers on ranches and, among the more affluent, by owning a few head of cattle that they raised in conjunction with their farming activities.

Population increases following World War II, along with economic and political instability, have caused a crisis for many Nahua farmers. Economic exploitation of small-scale village farmers and competition with cattle ranchers for arable land have led to a series of sometimes violent confrontations. Land invasions and military repression have given the Huasteca a reputation among urban Mexicans as being a lawless and dangerous region. Political crises, violence, and lack of economic opportunity have led increasing numbers of Nahua to leave the region and migrate to cities in search of employment. In 1992 the government of Mexico amended the land-reform laws established after the Revolution. It remains to be seen what effect this fundamental change in land tenure will have on Nahua of the Huasteca.


In general, the Nahua live in villages that range in population from 200 to 800. Larger, more acculturated communities may be organized according to the Spanish model, with a church and plaza at the center. Smaller villages are often scattered groupings of houses belonging to kin. Dwellings of less acculturated people usually consist of a single room with a thatched roof. The floor plan is rectangular, although sometimes one of the short ends of the rectangle is curved. The walls are made from vertical poles tied to a framework with vines, and mud mixed with dried grass is sometimes applied to form a solid wall. Floors are of packed earth, kept clean by women who sprinkle them with water and sweep them daily. An architectural cycle is evident in which people use a newer house for sleeping and other activities while using the older habitation as a kitchen. Interiors are sparsely furnished with few manufactured items. Increasingly, houses have tar-paper or corrugated-iron roofs and may be constructed from cement block. Such houses frequently have cement floors as well. More acculturated villages may have electricity.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Nahua of the Huasteca practice a mixed form of agriculture based upon the subsistence farming of maize. Members of some communities use a horse- or mule-drawn plow to turn the soil, whereas people in other communities, sometimes constrained by hilly terrain, use the slash-and-burn method with a dibble stick for seeding. Besides maize, the Nahua grow beans, chili peppers, squashes, onions, tomatoes, papayas, citrus fruits, tobacco, and condiments such as cilantro. Major cash crops include maize, sugarcane, and coffee. Animals raised include turkeys, chickens, pigs, bees, and, in well-to-do households, cattle. Virtually all Nahua families supplement their farming activities with secondary occupations.

Industrial Arts. The only widespread industrial production entails the manufacture of sugarloaf. A wooden, or, in the late twentieth century, a metal trapiche (cane press) is used to squeeze the cane stalks and extract the juice. This liquid is boiled until a thick syrup is rendered, then poured into molds and cooled, with the resulting loaf wrapped in cane leaves and sold in the market.

Trade. Major trading takes place in weekly markets organized throughout the region. Many Nahua attend one or more markets, often at considerable distances from their home base.

Division of Labor. The major division of labor is by sex. Women prepare food, make and repair clothing, attend to domestic chores, help with the harvest, and provide major care for children. They may also engage in one of a number of secondary occupations to help increase family income. These activities include baking bread, embroidering, gathering and selling firewood, pottery making, bonesetting, curing, midwifery, or operating a stall in a regional market. Men clear and plant fields, care for animals, build and maintain houses, weave fishing nets, hunt and fish, carry produce to the market for sale, and make sugarloaf. They may also engage in clearing forest and brush for regional cattle ranchers, picking coffee beans, temporarily working as a laborer in an urban area, playing music, curing, raising bees, or selling produce or animals at the regional market. Both men and women may choose to run a small one-room shop in their community as a means of earning extra money.

Land Tenure. The land-tenure situation in the Huasteca is exceedingly complex. Many Nahua have rights to ejido land. Many others had invaded private ranch land and were in the process of applying for ejido status. Still others sharecrop or farm as tenants, and many families combine several such approaches in order to gain access to farmland.


Kin Groups and Descent. The nuclear family is the most important kin group in Huastecan Nahua communities, but these units are often linked through male and sometimes female ties to form functioning extended families. Descent is determined bilaterally.

Kinship Terminology. Huastecan Nahua kinship terminology has characteristics of both the Hawaiian and Eskimo systems. Parents are distinguished from parents' siblings, and grandparents are distinguished from their siblings, although not according the side of the family to which they belong. Cousins and those married to cousins are in some instances equated with Ego's siblings and their spouses.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage customs vary according to degree of acculturation. In more remote communities, a couple may elope without the permission of the bride's parents, usually following a villagewide ritual or social occasion held for other reasons. Sometimes the bride's father feigns anger upon learning of the elopement, but he is eventually reconciled to the inevitable union. In some communities, marriage is a more formal affair in which an older kinsman of the husband-to-be acts as a go-between with the family of the potential wife. Gifts are exchanged, feasts may be held, and the two families enter into ritual kinship with each other. Weddings derived from Catholic or Protestant traditions are increasingly common in Nahua communities throughout the Huasteca. Postmarital residence is ideally patrilocal, but actual practice is in fact more flexible.

Domestic Unit. A majority of the domestic units in Huastecan Nahua communities are nuclear families. Related household heads often build their dwellings near one another, thus forming nonresidential patrilocal extended families. After marriage, young couples may live in the household of the groom's parents until they are able to build their own place of residence. This creates a temporary extended family living in the same household.

Inheritance. In theory, property is passed equally to male and female descendants; however, family lands usually pass to male heirs under the assumption that it is they who will farm them. Daughters acquire access to land through their husbands. In the absence of male heirs, daughters inherit land rights. In cases where arable land is scarce, the eldest son or daughter inherits the bulk of the estate, leaving younger siblings to face the problem of gaining access to additional fields. The house usually reverts to the youngest son with the expectation that he will care for his surviving aged parents.

Socialization. Nahua children are provided much attention, love, and support by both their fathers and mothers. Often an older sister cares for her younger siblings during the day, freeing parents to pursue their work unhindered. A child is normally surrounded by many relatives who are nearly the same age, and children have the run of the community and surrounding areas. Parents usually value education for their children and support local schools.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Nahua social organization can be conceived of as a series of concentric rings surrounding the individual nuclear- or extended-family household. One step removed from the household is the nonresidential extended family. The next largest subdivision is a toponymic group composed of residents of a named subarea in a community. These subareas are based on residence, may entail shared ritual obligations, and usually include nonkin. In some cases, the toponym functions as a type of surname for residents. Smaller Nahua communities are often divided into upper and lower halves, which constitute an extension of the social circle beyond named subareas. Larger communities may be divided into two or more barrios, and these can be important extrakin groupings as well. The entire village or town constitutes the next encompassing circle. Daughter communities, usually established by families in search of land, extend the social circle outside of the local community. These may serve as a buffer between individual communities and the municipio and state levels of government.

Political Organization. Larger towns are invariably led by mestizo elites, with Nahua occupying lesser positions in the hierarchy. A cargo system or civil-religious hierarchy often characterizes larger communities. In this system, individuals work their way up a series of unpaid political offices and sponsorships of saints' celebrations. In traditional villages, an informal council of male elders may be looked to for leadership, particularly in times of crisis. Ejidos are run by elected political officials as mandated by federal and state law.

Social Control. Most social control is effectively handled within the community by means of gossip, accusations of sorcery, and the threat of ostracism. More serious offenses often result in the person having to leave the community for indefinite periods. In the severest cases, local authorities may bring an offender to officials of the municipio for trial and punishment.

Conflict. Disputes over access to scarce land resources are a common feature of many Nahua communities. Community members may band together in the face of external threats, but unsettled internal conflicts inevitably surface. Factions form along kinship lines and, if violence erupts, entire extended families may be forced to leave the community.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Nahua religious beliefs are generally a syncretic mix of Native American traditions and Spanish Catholicism; however, even in areas where Catholicism appears to prevail, beliefs tracing to pre-Hispanic practices often remain strong. The sun has been syncretized with Jesus Christ and is seen as a remote creator deity. The moon-related Virgin of Guadalupe, a manifestation of the pre-Hispanic earth and fertility deity Tonantsin, is widely venerated. The pantheon incorporates a complex array of spirits representing manifestations of a unified sacred universe: earth spirits associated with death and fertility, water spirits that distribute rain and provide fish, and celestial spirits that watch over people and also provide rain. A complex sacred geography is associated with mountains, springs, caves, lakes, arroyos, and the Gulf of Mexico. More acculturated communities may have a cult surrounding the saints. A significant religious development in the 1970s and 1980s was the conversion of increasing numbers of Nahua by U.S.-based Protestant-fundamentalist missionaries.

Religious Practitioners.

In more traditional Nahua communities, the primary religious specialist is the shaman, called tlamatiquetl ("person of knowledge"). These shamans may be either male or female, and they undergo an apprenticeship under an established master before practicing on their own. Other specialists include midwives, and, in more acculturated communities reflecting Catholic influence, catechists and prayer leaders. Few Nahua communities have a resident priest. During the 1980s, under the influence of North American missionaries, some Nahua have become lay Protestant pastors.

Ceremonies. The Nahua have a rich ceremonial life that is partially synchronized with the Catholic liturgical calendar. Major occasions include a winter-solstice ritual devoted to Tonantsin, planting and harvest ceremonies, and important commemorations of underworld spirits at Carnival in the early spring and on the Day of the Dead in the fall. In more Hispanicized communities, celebrations of saints' days may be part of a civil-religious hierarchy. Noncalendrical observations include curing and disease-prevention rituals, ceremonies to control rain, pilgrimages to sacred places, ceremonial washing of newborn infants, the creation of ritual kinship ties, house blessings, divinations, and funerals.

Arts. Nahua of the Huasteca generally do not recognize artistic expression as a separate sphere of activity. Women take pride in creating beautiful, colorful embroidery on their blouses and in constructing well-made clothing for their families. Men fashion headdresses from mirrors, folded paper, and ribbons and perform dances during important ritual occasions. Men also play musical instruments and are the ones most likely to engage in storytelling. Both male and female shamans engage in the practice of cutting intricate and aesthetically powerful images of spirits from paper; as part of their religious observations, they also construct complex altars designed to be beautiful places.

Medicine. Medical practices include the use of herbs to treat symptoms of disease, bonesetting through massage, and attendance by midwives at births. These pragmatic measures are supplemented by elaborate symbolic healing procedures orchestrated by shamans. The use of cut-paper figures to represent various spirits is characteristic of curing rituals held by the Nahua of the southern Huasteca. These rituals, which vary in complexity and length according to the seriousness of the symptoms, are usually preceded by a divination to determine the cause of the malady. In extreme or chronic cases, individuals may visit a regional clinic to seek help from a Western-trained medical specialist.

Death and Afterlife. Beliefs concerning the afterlife are in transition under influence from both the Hispanic dominant culture and late-twentieth-century Protestant proselytizing efforts. The fate of the soul is linked to the circumstances of death rather than being a reward or punishment for behavior. The yolotl soul, representing a person's life force, generally travels to an underworld place of the dead called mictlan, where it eventually dissipates. The tonali soul, linked to the personality, disappears at death. There is a widespread belief that the souls of those who die from water-related causes go to a kind of watery paradise. People who die prematurely are thought to become disease-causing wind spirits.


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Nahua of the Huasteca

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