Nahua of the State of Mexico

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Nahua of the State of Mexico



Identification. Most of the communities in the state of Mexico in which Nahuatl is still spoken are located in three areas within the neovolcanic axis: on the western slope of the Sierra de Tlaloc to the northeast of the basin of the Valley of Mexico, on the western slopes of the volcanoes Iztaccihuatl and Popocatépetl to the southeast of the Valley of Mexico, and on the spurs of Montes de Ocuilan in the western part of the Valley of Toluca. Thus, these Nahua live in high mountain valleys and on slopes, where conifers are the most common type of vegetation. Although no municipios in the state of Mexico are registered as more than 30 percent Nahua speaking, in 1990 the total population of Nahua speakers stood at 26,927, or S.6 percent of the Indian population of the state.

History and Cultural Relations

These communities can be considered highly modified remnants of Aztec civilization. Because the current Nahua settlements are a result of Spanish Conquest and colonization, it would be imprecise to maintain that they are a direct legacy of Aztec culture. In the first place, most are products of colonial policies of resettling pre-Hispanic populations after the demographic collapse of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Furthermore, during the nineteenth century, when laws freeing communal lands were decreed by liberal governments, the resources of these communities were seriously affected. In many cases, they lost a large share of their lands as a result of the impressive growth of the haciendas during the nineteenth century. Only in some instances, in the first half of the twentieth century, through agrarian reform laws, were they able to recuperate a portion of the lands granted them by the Spanish Crown.

The recovery of Nahua lands was mainly attributable to strong agrarian consciousness and the fact that they joined the Zapatistas during the Mexican Revolution. At the end of the armed conflict, and after decades of bureaucratic proceedings, the Nahua were able to recover the farm and forest lands that belonged to them before the nineteenth-century laws abolishing communal property led to their loss. Now, in the form of ejidos, or communal property, the Nahua control a good portion of the resources that had previously belonged to the haciendas.

To a certain degree, these communities remained isolated until the first decades of the twentieth century. In the area of the Sierra Nevada, they share some cultural traits with Nahua communities in the states of Puebla and Tlaxcala, on the other side of the Sierra Nevada. In the Valley of Toluca, they are totally surrounded by Matlantzinca and Otomí groups. By the beginning of the twentieth century, there was evidence of a high degree of sharing between Nahua and Hispanic-colonial cultures. During the middle of the twentieth century, with accelerated urbanization and industrialization, cultural patterns in these communities, which were shaped during the colonial and independence periods, began to change considerably. Nowadays one can observe an accelerated process of homogenization toward forms of national culture.


There is great variety in settlement patterns among Nahua communities in the state of Mexico, which range from highly dispersed, formless agglomerates of houses to the lattice pattern characteristic of the colonial period. The former are found in the area of Texcoco, where the settlement pattern is closely linked to the irrigation system; this network determines the way streets and paths are laid out within the community. Here houses are next to cultivated terraces.

In the southern part of the Valley of Toluca, the settlement pattern is in the form of an aggregation of houses around a church. The villages are generally located in small valleys near a source of water and are surrounded by broad extensions of agricultural land dependent on seasonal rainfall. Pueblos (towns) laid out in the Spanish rectangular form are also found in the Valley of Toluca, especially in areas near the plains. This same rectangular settlement pattern is found in the lower part of the slopes of Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl.


Owing to their location on the slopes of mountains on the neovolcanic axis, most Nahua communities have access to a great variety of natural resources, for example, forests of oak, oyamel (Abies religiosa ), and pine and various types of pastureland. Besides, all these communities have access to unirrigated lands dependent on seasonal rainfall. Access to irrigated arable land is the exception and only occurs in the area of Texcoco and, in isolated cases, toward Ozumba, on the slope of Popocatépetl.

In the majority of these towns, landownership is in the form of ejido property. The form of land tenure is closely related to the necessity of proving to the agrarian authorities that the original titles granted by the viceregal authorities during the colonial period contain the requisite elements to make them legally valid communal titles.

Among the most common cultigens are maize, beans, broad beans, wheat, and barley, all destined for household use. The most important for commercial purposes are fruit trees, flowers, and medicinal plants. Several kinds of livestock are kept: cattle (for investment), horses and mules (for transportation) sheep (for meat and wool) and, among penned animals, mostly hens and turkeys.

Many nonagricultural resources are obtained from the mountain ecosystem. Forests provide lumber, firewood, charcoal, cane (used for the construction of pens), and pine boughs (for decorations). The mountain bushes provide wood for handcrafted animal figurines and handmade brooms. They are also the source of medicines, as are some smaller plants. The Nahua also gather numerous varieties of edible mushrooms, another widely used resource.

Cattle and sheep raising and the use of oxen for plowing are increasingly important, mainly because of the availability of various kinds of pastureland for grazing, especially during the rainy season. During the dry season, animals are fed mostly maize, wheat, and barley stalks.

An important factor in the economic development of Nahua communities in the state of Mexico is their proximity to large market centers. For communities in the Texcoco and the Amecameca-Ozumba regions, the commercial center is Mexico City, especially the markets of la Merced, Jamaica, and Central de Abastos. For communities located in the Valley of Toluca, the market center is the city of Toluca.

Besides the direct link to markets in urban centers, the communities of the Amecameca-Ozumba region enjoy a system of weekly traditional rotating markets. The main open market is in Ozumba. The Valley of Toluca has another system of rotating markets; their main open market center is in Santiago Tianguistengo.

Throughout the twentieth century, the Nahua communities have responded to the demands of urban markets. At the beginning of the century, commerce was based mainly on the sale of forest products (lumber, firewood, and charcoal) and handmade crates. In the 1940s, with the ban on the use of forest resources (decreed to accelerate the production of natural gas from the recently expropriated petroleum industry), the communities' strategy became to diversify the range of products for sale. In Nahua towns located in the Valley of Mexico, this strategy translated into the cultivation of flowers and medicinal plants, the collection of edible mushrooms, and the collection of wild medicinal plants. In the Valley of Toluca, besides gathering mushrooms, people began to raise sheep and goats in order to sell the meat. In addition, in some cases, people began to sell ornaments made from pine branches.

Nonagricultural occupations within these communities consist of work in the construction trades, as gardeners, as maids, and in other service occupations. In certain highland towns in the area of Texcoco, local bands of musicians are formed, from which, in earlier times, musicians were recruited by important musical groups in Mexico City, such as the military band of the Secretaría de la Defensa Nacional (Department of National Defense).

New small commercial businesses that sell flower arrangements, medicinal plants, juices, and handmade Christmas decorations were added to these occupations in the 1990s. Furthermore, an emphasis on formal education by the state has increased entry into nonagricultural occupations. These educational opportunities have resulted in more Nahua obtaining white-collar jobs in industry and government.

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

The most common family unit is the nuclear family; the extended family can be considered only a temporary phase before the formation of a nuclear family. Generally, when a son marries, he lives in his parents' home for two or three years, during which time he will build his own home on land given him by his father. A married daughter generally lives in the home of her in-laws, if her husband is of the community. In any case, the bride always leaves her paternal homeit is said that she "se ajena" (becomes separated from the community). Only in isolated casesfor example, when there are no male siblingswill a woman remain in her parents' home with her husband and stand to inherit a piece of land from her parents.

In the 1970s there was still a tendency toward endogamy within the communities, or at least there were matrimonial relations only between members of neighboring communities. Nowadays there are indications that women are marrying men from outside the local region.

The custom of sponsoring as godparent the most important ritual events in a family's lifemarriage and baptismcreates the bond of ritual coparenthood (compadrazgo ). In fact, compadrazgo derives not only from these rituals, but also from other, less intimate, sponsorship, such as confirmation, the celebration of a girl's fifteenth birthday, and school graduation.

The community is in essence a collection of nuclear-family households. The social or political participation of an individual in community life is based on his or her membership in a household, in this sense representing the special interest of a family.

The nuclear family is the fundamental unit of production and consumption. Within the family, there is a clear sexual division of labor. Men devote themselves to agricultural activities, the collection of mushrooms, the extraction of forest products, and the sale of flowers, mushrooms, cattle, and handicrafts. For their part, women attend to domestic chores, the care of their children, raising penned animals, and the cultivation, harvesting, and sale of medicinal plants. Among the family-unit activities in which both sexes cooperate are the making of handicrafts and floral arrangements.

Sociopolitical Organization

The structure of local political offices is established by state law. In this structure, each community is a delegación (delegation) belonging to a municipio. The highest local official in a community is the delegado (delegate). In addition, there is a series of subordinate officials to assist the delegate; these offices are held by people of the community for three years. The main functions of the delegate are to represent the community's interests before the municipal and state authorities and to seek help in providing for the community's most pressing public needs, which include roads and schools, government-operated electrical and telephone services, a safe public water supply, a functioning sewer system, and a bus-company franchise.

As these Nahua communities are not strategic groups in state and federal economic and political thinking, in most cases their petitions for help are delayed for several years, sometimes for decades. Governmental authorities thus make rendering these services contingent on unconditional community support of the government party (Institutional Revolutionary Party [PRI]), for example at political rallies and, above all, during elections.

Within each delegación, there are several sources of friction. Members of the communities accuse their local officials of not working sufficiently hard to satisfy their needs. When support is finally obtained to implement some type of public works, the state government contributes only the materials essential to its implementation; the community must contribute the necessary labor. The ability of the delegate to mobilize community members is made evident when he calls on them to provide the required labor.

Although local officials traditionally judged cases of petty crime (e.g., fights, thefts), nowadays problems of this type are referred to the municipio capital, where formal legal resources are available for resolving them. Presently, local authorities only function as advocates.

There are also officials in charge of the agricultural affairs of a community who are totally independent of the delegate's authority. The natural resources and the agricultural and wooded lands of all the communities within the Nahua area of the state of Mexico are under communal and/or ejido control. These forms of land tenure are regulated by the federal agrarian-reform laws, which stipulate that local ejido and communal property must be administered locally by the community. The most important function of the agricultural officials is to resolve conflicts related to use of community resources.

The election of local authorities, civil as well as agricultural, is done with full independence from the government authorities themselves. Generally, it is through the system of religious cargos that the community evaluates a potential candidate's capacity for occupying one of the offices, basing their judgment on how he has moved through the system. Important criteria are honesty, an interest in community affairs, and an ability to speak and read Spanish.

These communities are not exempt from the problem of having corrupt officials. When their dishonesty is not serious enough to threaten the economic and social stability of the community, the officials become the butt of jokes and ridicule throughout the community. On the other hand, should their corrupt acts seriously threaten the stability of the community, for example putting at risk the community's agricultural and forest resources, the people will not hesitate to use violence to remove them.


Like the majority of Mesoamerican indigenous communities since the Conquest, the Nahua in the state of Mexico have developed an elaborate system of religious cargos centered on Catholic religious practices.

The objective of the system is to carry out the festivals honoring the patron saint of each community and to perform other religious celebrations in the Catholic ritual calendar. A committee is formed for each festival and placed in charge of organizing the event, collecting funds from the town's inhabitants, and mounting the celebration. In most cases committees are reconstituted annually, creating a general understanding that everyone will eventually be involved in organizing these religious rituals. One consequence of this system of religious duties is that it produces a deep feeling of unity and identification with the community.

Nevertheless, the cargo system is deteriorating because of the high cost of organizing festivities and the influence of Protestant sects that are beginning to change how people think about religious matters. In addition to these factors, the impact of the the modern national culture on the traditions of these communities is posing an enormous challenge to those who want to maintain their culture.


Bataillon, Claude (1978). El Valle de Toluca, raíces indígenas, luchas campesinas y suburbanizatiõn. Toulouse: Université de Touluse.

Fabilla, Gilberto (1958). Los ejidos del Estado de México. Toluca: Gobierno del Estado de México.

García, Carlos (1981). Naturaleza y sociedad en Chalco-Amecameca. Mexico City: Biblioteca Enciclopédica de Estado de México.

Giménez, Carlos (1985). "El régimen comunal agrario: Estudio comparativo de los bienes comunales en España y México." Ph.D. dissertation, Universidad Complutense (Madrid).

Huitron, Arturo (1972). Bienes comunales en el Estado de México. Toluca: Dirección General de Hacienda.

Sokolovsky, Jay (1978). "Local Roots of Community Transformation in a Nahuatl Village." Anthropological Quarterly 50(3): 163-173.

JOSÉ GONZÁLEZ RODRIGO (translated by Ruth Gubler)

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Nahua of the State of Mexico

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