The Opata today are a distinct ethnic entity, but their culture is similar to that of the non-Indian people of the area. The Opata live in the western foothills of the Sierra Madre Occidental, in the Mexican state of Sonora, between Hermosillo and the Chihuahua border. The villages that can trace direct Opata ancestry are Pívipa, Terapa, Tépupe, Guayacora, Turuachi, and Wachierieno. There are also remnants of a smaller Indian group, the Jova, scattered within the Opata region. The land that the Opata occupy is variegated and ranges from semiarid plains at 400 to 500 meters to higher regions reaching about 2,000 meters in elevation. Travel is difficult.
The Indians of Sonora numbered around 60,000 at the time of Conquest. The Opata were reduced to around 5,000 by 1750 because of epidemics and warfare with the Apache. Hinton estimated in 1959 that the Opata numbered between 500 and 600. The Opata language belongs to the Cahita Branch of the Uto-Aztecan Language Family. It is virtually extinct: only twelve speakers were registered in the 1990 census.
The Opata were sedentary agriculturists at the time of the first intrusion of the Spaniards in 1540. The Jova, on the other hand, were primarily gatherers. Missions were established by the Jesuits in 1614. The Opata rebelled against oppressive Spanish overlords in 1820 and were defeated. In 1825 they joined the Yaqui and Mayo in battles against the forces of the newly formed republic.
Archaeological evidence has revealed that at the beginning of the sixteenth century the Opata lived in two types of houses: large circular or rectangular semisubterranean dwellings and rectangular adobe houses. Today the Opata build two types of houses: one is rectangular with a stone foundation, adobe walls, and a flat roof; the other is made of sticks packed with clay. The houses serve as dwellings; there is often a separate kitchen house. Furnishings consist mainly of tables, chairs, benches, cupboards, wooden chests, beds, cots, and sleeping mats. Fenced flower gardens and animal corrals are commonly set up near the houses.
Most agricultural land is held privately. There are also some ejidos. Most Opata grow maize, beans, and wheat. Some grow onions, chilies, garlic, tobacco, watermelons, and citrus fruits. A few foods—such as quelites (edible leafy ground plants such as amaranths), watercress, nopal leaves, and nopal fruit—are gathered. In the 1970s cotton was introduced as a cash crop to add to the other cash crop, wheat. Men in land-poor families work for richer ranchers. Various crafts are practiced in Opata communities. Men make trays and wood and leather products. Women weave baskets and hats from palm leaves. Pottery is also manufactured locally.
The primary kinship group is the nuclear family. Extended households are formed by coresidence with both maternal and paternal kin. Men have the highest authority within the family, but women also have a say in family affairs and have control over children. The Opata are monogamous. Marriage outside the ethnic group is permitted. Unmarried women with children live with their parents, and their children are accepted without question by the family and the community.
The political organization of the villages follows the legal structure set up by the state. There is no special indigenous form of government. Opata religion has been greatly influenced by Spanish Catholic missionaries; however, many of the festival dances seem to have a pre-Hispanic origin. The Opata perform a Pascola ritual during Easter, as do the Yaqui, the Mayo, and other Indians of Sonora. Besides celebrating Easter and Palm Sunday, each village celebrates the feast of its patron saint.
Basauri, Carlos. (1940) "Los Opatas." In La población indìgena de México. Mexico City: Secretaria de Educación Pública.
Braniff C, Beatriz (1992). La frontera protohistorica Pima-Opata en Sonora, México: Proposiciones arqueológicas preliminares. Mexico City: Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia.
Hinton, Thomas B. (1959). A Survey of Indian Assimilation in Eastern Sonora. University of Arizona, Anthropological Papers, no. 4.
Hinton, Thomas B. (1969). "Remnant Tribes in Sonora: Opata, Pima, Papago, and Seri." In Handbook of Middle American Indians, edited by Robert Wauchope. Vol. 8, Ethnology, Part Two, edited by Evon Z. Vogt, 879-888. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Wence Angel, Jorge (1982). Los opatas y los jovas. Mexico City: Instituto Nacional Indigenista.