Nahuat of the Sierra de Puebla

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Nahuat of the Sierra de Puebla

ETHNONYMS: Mācēhualmeh (commoners), Mexica, Mexicanos, Sierra Nahuat


The Nahuat of the Sierra de Puebla, also known as the "Sierra Nahuat," are speakers of an Aztec language who live on the eastern edge of the central Mexican highlands in the northern Sierra de Puebla. Their language is commonly referred to as "Mexicano," which derives from the term "Mexica," an ethnic label applied to Aztec speakers.

Location. The Sierra Nahuat live in nineteen municipios between the Nahuatl speakers of the high plateau and the Totonac on the coastal lowlands. These nineteen municipios, at elevations between 800 and 1,200 meters, are within a triangle marked by Teziutlán, Cuetzalán del Progreso, and Tetela de Ocampo. The municipios occupy a range of ecological niches, all of which have plentiful rainfall supporting luxuriant vegetation and abundant crops. At lower elevations, where there are no winter frosts, maize can be grown throughout the year, as well as coffee, sugarcane, and citrus fruits. At higher elevations, in the winter frost zone, summer maize, apples, plums, avocados, and flowers are grown.

Demography. Approximately 100,000 adults and children about 40 percent of the region's populationspeak Sierra Nahuat as their first language in the home. The other 60 percent are Spanish-speaking Mexicans, who sometimes describe themselves as gente de razón ("people of reason").

Linguistic Affiliation. Sierra Nahuat is the Zacapoaxtla variant (Key and Key 1953) that is close to the Nahuatl spoken by the ancient Aztec of the central Mexican highlands. Karttunen (1983, xxi) defines Sierra Nahuat as "a T-dialect" that, although it has "lost the characteristic lateral release" of the el sound, "lexically is very similar to Colonial Period Nahuatl."

History and Cultural Relations

The earliest mentions of Sierra Nahuat settlements appear in post-Conquest reconstructions of Aztec history referring to the extension of the tribute empire of Moctezuma I (1440-1468) into what is now known as the northern Sierra de Puebla. The Sierra Nahuat contributed maize, beans, and cotton and provided men for Aztec armies fighting the Nahuatl of Tlaxcala. Hernán Cortéz apparently passed through the region on his way to the Valley of Mexico early in the sixteenth century, but Spaniards did not settle in the region until late in the next century. The first settlers, who opened mines in Tetela de Ocampo, Tlatlauquitepec, and Teziutlán, were followed by cattle ranchers and farmers. With the development of railroads in the last decades of the nineteenth century, many Spanish-speaking Mexicans moved into lower-elevation Sierra Nahuat communities to grow sugarcane and coffee. Spanish and mestizo settlement created a number of biethnic communities with clearly defined Sierra Nahuat and Spanish-speaking populations organized into systems of ethnic stratification. Spanish-speaking Mexicans have taken the bulk of the land, with help from the Colonization laws of 1883 and 1894, which forced the Sierra Nahuat, who held land corporately, to adopt fee-simple tenure (ownership with unrestricted rights to dispose of the land) and register their land in the district capitals. Many could not prove ownership and lost their land in public sales or pawned it to Spanish-speaking merchants. Some regained less productive land as ejidos during the Agrarian Land Reform of the 1930s and 1940s, but changes made in Mexican law in 1992 create the possibility of converting ejidos into private property. Spanish-speaking Mexicans export the vast majority of cash crops (coffee, sugarcane, plums, apples, and avocados); occupy the most important state, regional, and municipio offices; and run many of the schools. Sierra Nahuat in the few monoethnic communities retain their land and run their municipio government.


The policy of congregación, by which the colonial government relocated indigenous families in planned settlements of perpendicular and parallel streets that were organized around a central plaza, affected the settlement pattern of some areas more than that of others. Municipios in the vicinity of Teziutlán are more congregated than those in the vicinity of Cuetzalán. The Sierra Nahuat live in the rural areas, and the Spanish-speaking Mexicans occupy the centers of most major towns and villages. Railroads, automobiles, trucks, and buses provide transportation among the communities in the northern Sierra de Puebla. Highway construction was uneven, however, until an ambitious interserrana project, initiated during the regime of Luís Echeverría (1970-1976), created roads passable by car, truck, and bus; roads reached the municipios between Cuetzalán and Tetela de Ocampo for the first time. Interserrana highways facilitated the transportation of people and goods from the northern Sierra de Puebla to the main market centers on the central Mexican highlands.

Sierra Nahuat dwellings vary in their construction materials but conform to a similar plan. Most are set off from roads and footpaths by a well-marked or well-understood space, which a visitor should not enter without announcing his or her presence. The dwelling itself usually consists of a single room, at one end of which stands a family altar decorated with flowers and candles and displaying images of saints. Family members sleep on mats (petatmeh ) laid down at night on the earthen floor or on boards raised above the ground. A number of houses, particularly in the area around Teziutlán, have beds with box springs and mattresses. The kitchen occupies a corner of the main room or is a separate room. The traditional Sierra Nahuat kitchen is a hearth (a ceramic pot buried in the ground) for a wood fire surrounded by three stones supporting a flat ceramic or metal griddle (comāl), around which are placed a variety of ceramic cooking pots. Near the hearth are a grinding-stone base and stone pin (metat and metlapīl ) for grinding dried maize boiled in lime water (nixtamal ), a large ceramic vessel for storing water, and small containers for spices, coffee, and sugar. Harvested maize may be stacked in neat rows inside the dwelling, and dried maize, beans, processed sugarcane, and chilies are placed in the attic above the hearth. The attic is demarcated by reeds placed sufficiently apart to permit smoke from the hearth to rise into the food-storage area and drive away pests. A number of Sierra Nahuat families have kerosene or propane-gas stoves, and many now have electric lights.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Sierra Nahuat have traditionally cultivated milpas, plots planted with rows of maize interspersed with beans and squashes. Small chili and tomato gardens, avocado trees, and herbs gathered in the forest provide the ingredients for a variety of sauces. Domesticated turkeys and small game (deer and armadillos) are important sources of meat. Spaniards introduced chickens, domesticated pigs, sheep, cattle, goats, sugarcane, oranges, wheat, and coffee. A number of villages specialize in the production of baskets and pottery. Women weave cloth on backstrap looms in some communities, and men weave on European looms in others.

Trade. The northern Sierra de Puebla is a region with many villages occupying diverse ecological niches and specializing in different crops and crafts. A complex system of periodic markets for exchanging goods was developed during the pre-Hispanic era. Patterns of trade changed after the construction of railroads and highways and the introduction of cash crops intended for the domestic and, particularly, the international market. Coffee orchards replaced many milpas, and the subsistence cultivation of maize and beans decreased dramatically in lower-elevation communities. Higher-elevation communities send plums, peaches, apples, avocados, and flowers to the regional market centers and Mexico City.

Division of Labor. Traditionally, women have brought water from springs; simmered maize in lime to make nixtamal; ground maize on metates; made tortillas, bean soups, and sauces; fed domesticated turkeys; cared for small children; and washed and mended clothes. Men have hunted, cultivated their milpas, and collected and split firewood for the kitchen. Women and men gathered crayfish in rivers, harvested and transported milpa crops, shelled maize, and bought and sold in local markets. Changes in the economy have modified the division of labor: many Sierra Nahuat now work on the coffee plantations, where men transplant coffee trees and cultivate orchards, and women and children harvest the crop. Men migrate to coastal sugar and maize plantations and work on construction projects in the central Mexican highlands (particularly in Mexico City). Women work as domestic servants or prepare food for workers in migratory labor groups.

Land Tenure. Most arable land is held in fee simple and as ejidos, which will become private property because of changes in agrarian law.


The Sierra Nahuat have cognatic descent and do not form descent groups. Kinship terminplogy in the first ascending generation is Eskimo; father (taht ) and mother (nan ) are differentiated from father's and mother's brother (tahitzin ) and father's and mother's sister (āhui ). Terms in Ego's generation are either Hawaiian, with one term (icnīuh ) applied to all cognatic blood kin in the speaker's generation. The Nahua of the sixteenth century used different terms for siblings, depending on the gender of the speaker, and terminologically distinguished siblings by their gender and their age relative to the speaker. Male and female Sierra Nahuat speakers of today generally use the same sibling terms and specify gender and relative age by adding qualifying words to the general term for sibling/cousin (icnīuh). Nocnīuh tācat ("my sibling/cousin who is a man") and nocnīuh cihuāt ("my sibling/cousin who is a woman") denote gender. Nocnīuh tayacāna ("my sibling/cousin who is ahead") and nocnīuh tacuitapan ("my sibling/cousin who is behind") specify relative age. Many speakers use the abbreviated terms tayacānqueh ("he who is ahead") for oldest or firstborn sibling and taxocōyot ("spoiled one") for youngest or lastborn sibling. Tayacānqueh sometimes refers to the eldest brother who succeeds the father as head of the household. Men and women still use different affinal terms for spouse's siblings.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. One may not marry anyone who is a blood relative or ritual coparent, but most communities are highly endogamous. A boy customarily begins marriage negotiations by asking an old and respected woman (cihuātanqueh ) to convey his intentions to a girl's parents. The boy and his family deliver to the girl's family a bride-gift, usually consisting of turkeys, spices, alcohol, cigarettes, and some money. The cihuātanqueh directs the couple to embrace in front of the family altar and surrounds them with a cloud of incense. A second celebration takes place several months later in honor of the godparents of the marriage, who often become the godparents of the baptisms of the couple's children.

Domestic Unit. The most important kin group is the household, identified by the expression cē coza tequiti ("work for one thing"), referring to the communal organization of labor to fill a common granary and purse. The majority (80 percent) of couples begin married life in the household of the groom's parents, but a substantial number (20 percent) live matrilocally. Many young couples move several times between the two parental domestic groups. The men of a household work together on a common milpa; women cook either at a common hearth or at separate hearths.

Inheritance. Most privately owned land passes patrilineally from parents to sons, but Sierra Nahuat inheritance exhibits a wide range of variations. Bilateral bequests are more frequent in families and communities where land is abundant and when the mother has acquired property from her own parents.

Socialization. Parents teach their children to work. Children develop very strong filial loyalties because of weaning practices and sleeping arrangements. A mother weans her nursing infant during the sixth month of her next pregnancy by applying a bitter herb (chichicxihuit ) to her nipples. The weaned infant, who is usually about 18 months old, is moved to the sleeping mat of the father, who provides the child with warmth and comfort at night for several years. The father-weaned infant sleeping arrangements help form strong father-son loyalties, which reinforce the bonds of the patrilineally extended household.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social and Political Organization. The pre-Hispanic social and political organization of the Sierra Nahuat is unclear. Today communities throughout the northern Sierra de Puebla have a political and administrative organization that may have developed from a pre-Hispanic structure, according to the process Lockhart (1992) described for the Nahua of central Mexico. The pre-Hispanic Nahua had a cellular corporate organization consisting of the ethnic state (āltepētl ), its cālpolli (localized kin group) or tlaxilacālli (house of lords), and member households. The Spanish introduced the town council (cabildo ) as the governing body of the ethnic state, which eventually broke into cellular units now called municipios and barrios. Rank became less marked among Nahua families, and the term for "commoner" (mācēhualli ) came to mean "Indian." Contemporary Sierra Nahuat call themselves "Mācēhualmeh," they are governed by a town council, and organized into municipios and barrios, which only remotely resemble the pre-Hispanic altepetl and calpolli.

Social Control and Conflict. The formal agents of social control are municipio judges, who listen to disputes and handle cases of petty crime. Those accused of more serious offenses appear before judges in the regional capitais. Spanish-speaking Mexicans generally control the regional and local town councils and use their power to maintain their economic and social position. Some parts of the northern Sierra de Puebla have experienced extensive peasant insurgency. In 1978 the Unión Campesina Independiente (U.C.I.) organized Sierra Nahuat in Huitzilan de Serdán. To control insurgency, the ruling Institutional Revolutionary party (PRI) sponsored a second peasant group called the Antorcha Campesina (Peasant Torch). The U.C.I, and Antorcha fought bloody battles from which the latter emerged victorious and took over the town council and school. Both groups have appeared in other parts of Mexico.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Sierra Nahuat identify themselves as Christians, but their mythology expresses a mixture of Spanish Catholicism and pre-Hispanic beliefs (Taggart 1983). Myths depict a geocentric conception of the universe, according to which the masculine sun revolves around the feminine earth. Creation of the universe resulted from the interaction of masculine and feminine forces in a process on the same order as, or analogous to, human reproduction and agricultural production. Anthropomorphic supernaturalism mixes with Christian symbolism; the sun is Christ, and the moon is the Virgin Mary. Humans have animal companions, and some humans, considered to be lightning-bolt diviners, have animal companions that are serpents. Diviners support the moral order by punishing thieves, adulterers, and Spanish-speaking Mexicans bent on taking Sierra Nahuat land. Some Sierra Nahuat have abandoned Catholicism and joined Protestant sects. Missionaries representing many different Protestant denominationsparticularly Methodists, evangelicals, and Pentecostalshave operated small churches in the northern Sierra de Puebla for many years. Mass conversions took place in the 1970s in communities like Huitzilan, where peasant insurgency also has been rife.

Religious Practitioners and Ceremonies. The efficacy of ritual is extremely important for the Sierra Nahuat who remain within the Catholic church. Their ceremonies mark major life stages and honor important saints. Individual sponsors (mayordomos ) of saints support communitywide celebrations arranged according to a ceremonial calendar that is a fusion of pre-Hispanic and Catholic tradition. Ritual offices (cargos ) are generally separate from civil ones, but elders, who have had many years of civil-religious ceremonial service, are the governing group in some smaller Sierra Nahuat communities.

Arts. The northern Sierra de Puebla is particularly well known for beautiful textiles. Women in villages near Teziutlán weave and embroider very colorful shawls with animal and flower designs that may derive from pre-Hispanic themes.

Medicine. Women are midwives, and men and women cure disease with herbal remedies and rituals designed to remove impurities sometimes introduced into the bodies of victims by means of witchcraft.

Death and Afterlife. Destiny after death depends on the sacraments and on moral conduct in life. Infants who die before being baptized cannot see God, and sinners become the slaves of the Devil, who appears as an animal (often a goat) and lives in the underworld (Mictān). The baptized who have committed few sins go to paradise (Tālocan), where milpas grow tall, and animals graze on rich pastures.


Karttunen, Frances (1983). An Analytical Dictionary of Nahuatl. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Key, Harold, and Mary Ritchie Key (1953). Vocabulario de la Sierra de Zacapoaxtla, Puebla. Mexico City: Instituto Lingüístico de Verano.

Lockhart, James (1992). The Nahuas after the Conquest: A Social and Cultural History of the Indians of Central Mexico, Sixteenth through Eighteenth Centuries. Mexico City: Instituto Macional Indigenista.

Taggart, James M. (1983). Nahuat Myth and Social Structure. Austin: University of Texas Press.


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Nahuat of the Sierra de Puebla

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