Otomí of the Sierra

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Otomí of the Sierra

ETHNONYMS: Hñąhñų, Nąñų, Nųhų, N'yũhũ, Otomí of the Eastern Sierra of Hidalgo, Otomí of the Sierra Norte de Puebla, Otomí of the Southern Huasteca


Identification. The Otomí could have been the original inhabitants of the Valley of Mexico, before the Nahua speakers arrived. Today they are split into two main groups: the Highland Otomí, living mainly to the north of the Valley of Mexico, and a smaller group, the Sierra Otomí, who live in the mountains of eastern Hidalgo and in adjoining parts of the states of Veracruz and Puebla. The Otomí of the Sierra refer to themselves as "Nąñų," meaning " speakers of the Otomí language," or, more formally, as "Nųhų," meaning "Otomí people."

The subgroup of Sierra Otomí who live in and around the village of Santa Ana Hueytlalpan, Hidalgo, are considered by some to be a separate cultural group. Their culture is adapted to the highland environment of the Tulancingo Basin; however, their commercial and social contacts are with the other Sierra Otomí to the east in the mountains, rather than with the Highland Otomí.

Location. In 1990 the Sierra Otomí occupied the area within 20°7 to 20°46 N and 97°56 to 98°27 W. The environment in which the Sierra Otomí live is varied. Ninetyfour percent of the population live in mountains ranging from 160 to 2,000 meters in elevation. The mountains are steep and folded. Monthly rainfall ranges from 0.5 centimeters in February to 50 centimeters in September at the lower elevations and from 0.6 centimeters to 44 centimeters during the same months at the higher elevations. Temperatures vary from a monthly average of 18° C in December to 28° C in June at the lowest elevations and from 14° C in December to 19° C in March at the highest inhabited elevations. The mountain climate has been classified as (A)C(fm)a(e) in the Köppen system. Natural vegetation ranges from tropical rain forest at the lower elevations to tropical cloud forest at the higher elevations. The natural vegetation has been cut back to make room for villages, fields, and pastures. The remaining 6 percent of the population live in the intermontane plain around the village of Santa Ana Hueytlalpan, Hidalgo, at 2,150 meters, where the rainfall and temperature patterns are quite different.

Demography. In 1990 the Sierra Otomí population (as defined by language) was approximately 40,000. Their populations in the three states where they were located was: Hidalgo, 22,500; Puebla, 6,500; and Veracruz, 11,000.

Linguistic Affiliation. Otomí is a member of the Otopamean Language Family, which is a subfamily of the Otomanguean Language Group. Among the Sierra Otomí there are many dialects, not all of which are mutually intelligible.

History and Cultural Relations

The Sierra Otomí culture arose from the complex civilizing influences that began in the Preclassic period in central Mexico. The legendary Toltec traversed the Sierra Otomí region, which was probably part of their empire. The Otomí were known to the Aztec, who regarded them as one of the important races in central Mexico. Between the fall of the Toltec Empire at Tula, in 1168, and the rise of the Aztec in 1400, the Sierra Otomí were isolated from the Highland Otomí.

At the time of the Conquest, the Sierra Otomí region was governed as a principality from Tutotepec, Hidalgo. The Indians rebelled against the Spanish but were put down several times in the sixteenth century. During the colonial period, the Sierra Otomí remained isolated and resisted the control of secular and ecclesiastical authorities.


The Sierra Otomí live in Indian villages ranging in population from 500 to 1,500 persons, in smaller Indian hamlets, and in towns often politically controlled by a non-Indian elite. The villages and hamlets are dispersed, irregularly organized settlements with fields between the houses. Traditional dwellings are small, averaging 5 by 9 meters. The construction varies with climate: at the higher elevations, vertical or horizontal wooden walls and wood-shingled roofs prevail; at the lower elevations, vertical pole walls with thatched roofs are common. Stone masonry is often used for public or religious buildings. Modern houses are being built of concrete blocks, manufactured roofing, and reinforced concrete. The main agricultural structure is a crib for storing dried maize on the cob.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Sierra Otomí are primarily subsistence farmers. They are smallholders who farm 1 to 3 hectares per nuclear family. Many own goats or cows. The crops grown depend on elevation. The main subsistence crops are maize, beans, chili peppers, tomates, and squashes. One seasonal crop of maize is grown above 1,500 meters. At lower elevations, two crops can be grown. Forests are exploited for timber and fuel. The people of Santa Ana also grow barley and alfalfa.

Public works are performed by work groups (faenas ). Men are expected to work a prescribed number of days each year. The other costs of public works are paid by monetary assessments.

Industrial Arts. The peasant way of life includes the production of traditional manufactures such as pottery, cloth, clothing, agricultural tools, and furniture. At the higher elevations, the traditional female garb is a barrel skirt and heavy blouse, whereas at the warmer, lower altitudes, pleated cotton skirts and cotton dresses are worn. Manufactured cloth has replaced most handwoven cloth, and Indian garb for men is being replaced by modern manufactured clothing.

Trade. The region has many weekly markets. The main cash crops are coffee, peaches, and sugarcane. Subsistence crops are also sold. Some families specialize in trading. Traders may make trips lasting several weeks during which they buy, sell, and transport products to take advantage of market-price differentials between the highlands and the lowlands.

Division of Labor. Men do most of the cultivation. Women do most of the domestic work such as gathering water and preparing food. Both sexes share the work of harvesting. Women may work in the fields when and if men migrate to find well-paying jobs. The following occupations are often practiced in conjunction with peasant agriculture; shaman, mason, potter, woodworker, trader, store owner, bonesetter, herbalist, and musician.

Land Tenure. Land may be held privately, communally, or as an ejido. Forest land tends to be communal and belong to a village. Private land is purchased or inherited. Ejido land may be agricultural or forested and is allocated by a local ejido commission under national law. It is in the process of being privatized. There is a strong tendency toward keeping private landownership in the hands of local families. As a nuclear family matures, it receives parental land on which to farm independently.


Kin Groups and Descent. The nuclear family is the most important kin group, but extended families are also common.

Kinship Terminology. Kin terms are bilateral. Sibling terms are extended to first and second cousins. In Ego's generation, sibling-cousin and affinal terms depend on the sex of the speaker. There are dialectal differences in the kinship terminology.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. There are three validations of marriage: native custom, marriage by Mexican civil law, and marriage by the Catholic church. The native custom is the most important. The groom's family petitions the bride's family. Later, if the negotiations are successful, the bride is escorted to the groom's house during a native ceremony called the "delivery (d'äpi ) of the bride." The ceremony includes formal counsel, a procession to the groom's house, and a feast. If the parents do not agree, elopement is possible. Postmarital residence is virilocal and then neolocal.

Domestic Unit. The household is either a nuclear family or an extended family made up of parents, married children, and their offspring. In the extended-family household, each nuclear family usually has its own house within a residential complex.

Inheritance. Land is inherited by both sons and daughters but not necessarily in equal amounts. Parents determine who receives what. The amount of land inherited depends on the needs of the offspring and their ability to work the land. Oratorios, religious buildings housing family religious images, are inherited patrilineally.

Socialization. Newborn infants are secluded. Infants are swaddled until they are a year old. Mothers play with nursing children and tease them with their breasts. Complete weaning may not take place until 4 years of age. Infant play is relatively unrestricted. On the peasant farm, children perform traditional gender roles as soon as they are able. Schooling is encouraged for both sexes up to the third gradeand beyond, if there are facilities. Government-run secondary schools are available in the towns and some villages. Children from more remote communities who desire more education live with another family in a town and go to school there.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Kinship, residence, and religion are the primary forces organizing the society. Family-to-family compadrazgo (ritual coparenthood) knits the society together. Neighborhoods are organized in a peaceful manner by local oratory groups. A core family owning an oratory with images will select another person to be the ritual godfather. Supporters of the owning family and the supporters of the godfather regard themselves and refer to each other as compadres during the annual fiesta of the image.

Political Organization. The vast majority of the population are Otomí Indians, but they share political power with a small mestizo elite. Profits to be made from trade, cattle ranching, and coffee production have attracted such elites into the sierra. Municipio government may represent Indian interests, but it more often reflects the interests of a town-dwelling mestizo elite.

The Indian villages are the seats of Indian political power. The political organization of the Otomí villages has changed in modern times. After the Revolution, powerful armed caciques ruled the villages and exploited the people. The caciques were driven out, and the villages set up governments supported by religious cargo systems. The cargo system allowed men to exchange wealth for political power through the sponsorship of religious rituals. The religious redistributive philosophy of the cargo systems is being challenged by Protestantism and other reforms. The power of the elders who gained authority from cargo systems is waning; civil officers are now often elected by the citizens of the village rather than appointed by the elders.

In a village, the maximal authorities are a group of elders and a judge (juez ). The hamlets have "judges" who are executive officers with limited judicial powers; they take serious cases to the municipio president or to authorities in a nearby village or town.

Social Control. Age is the primary source of authority. Older persons are often called "grandfather" or "grandmother" as a sign of respect. Although codes of conduct are unwritten, issues of proper behavior are constantly discussed, and young people receive counsel from their parents and others. Assisted by elders as necessary, the judge of a village hears a wide variety of cases, including breach of contract, domestic disputes, assault, abandonment, and failure to perform civic duty. Persons may be jailed or fined if they do not obey the village authorities.

Conflict. The major source of conflict is land: neighbors may quarrel over the boundaries between their fields, and families may split apart over land inheritances. Other sources of conflict are breaches of commercial contracts, elopements, and adultery.

Interfamily feuding is maintained by a cycle of revenge. Sorcery is considered the equivalent of physical assault, so death from disease may be avenged by murder.

Conflicts are most easily resolved if they take place in a village, where the authorities can intervene. In the hamlets, conflicts can go on for generations without resolution. The effectiveness of municipio authorities in resolving conflicts varies with the degree of corruption of the judicial system. It is common for state-appointed judges to take bribes.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Religious beliefs have been affected by three major philosophies: Mesoamerican Indian, Catholic, and evangelical Protestant. The Mesoamerican Indian beliefs are influential and, are undergoing a revival in some areas. Tradition has it that a life force, zaki, animates all beingsplants, animals, humans, and superhumans. The world of beings is arranged in a hierarchy. A benevolent god, Sacred Father, and Sacred Mother are at the top. Below them are more approachable beings, all of whom influence the lives of humans: Lord Sun (Maka Hyadi), the Lady of the Waters (Maka Xumpø Dehe), Grandfather Fire (Maka Xita Sibi), and Lord Earth (Maka Häi). A pantheon of lesser lords (zidąhm ų), which includes Catholic saints, are beneath these "principal" lords. The life force of humans is weaker and vulnerable to sorcery. Rą Zudapi is an intercessor god to whom humans can appeal for influence with the higher gods. The lives of lesser beingsanimals and plantsmust be cared for by humans. The Sierra Otomí also believe in companion animal spirits, a special order of higher beings.

Most people believe that sorcery is possible. Evil airs are believed to cause sickness. The Sierra Otomí use the term nagual to refer to superhuman vampires and the companion animal spirits of sorcerers. Evil lords, such as Rainbow, Santa Catarina, and the Queen of the Earth, cause harm to humans. Some lords have a dual character, working evil at some times and good at others.

Sierra Otomí people who live near the towns that have priests often subscribe to Catholic doctrine. Many villages have been influenced by evangelical Protestantism, which rejects all other beliefs and provides an ideology for rejecting cargo service.

Religious Practitioners. Shamans are religious specialists who deal with personal and familial problems with other beingssuperhuman, human, plant, and animal. They are called vadi or badi, meaning "sage" or "one who knows." Besides providing personal consultations and cures, they also participate in and preside over public ceremonies for pagan deities. Thus, they have priestly functions as well, but they are not organized in a bureaucratic hierarchy.

Advised by elders, village cargo holders carry out the ritual duties specified by their offices. These vary with local tradition. "Godfather" is the most prestigious ritual office. Lesser titles, not as prestigious because they involve fewer expenses, are "first mayordomo" (tabtoni ) and "second mayordomo" (tedabetoni ). Even lesser titles are tąmbekhą, dądaju, and dągwenda.

Ceremonies. The ritual flower ceremony (costumbre ) is a model for the majority of the rituals. Carefully prepared flower offerings are delivered to a cross. This creates sacred space and time through a symbolic reference to the sun, the cross, giver of life. Sacred music and sacred dances are performed in an oratory. Offerings of food are left for whatever supernaturals are being summoned. The flower offerings are lowered from the cross, and the participants eat together. Flower ceremonies usually, but not always, take place during the night. Offerings may be left for the Lady of the Waters, Lord Sun, Rą Zudapi, or Lord Earth at other times and in other places.

Ceremonies include rites of passage, calendrical ceremonies, cargo rituals, cleanings (limpias), and curing. The primary rites of passage are for birth, marriage, and death. Grammar and secondary-school graduations are also important ceremonies. Calendrical rituals are both pagan and Christian. An important traditional ritual is the Fiesta of the Cross, during which seeds are taken to the top of a sacred mountain to be blessed by shamans and imbued with the life force of the sun god. Cargo rituals are performed for images in public churches and public oratories. A village usually has two fiesta seasons, one during the growing period and one at the end of the year. All the cargo holders perform rituals at these times. Every oratory has an annual religious fiesta.

Curing rituals are performed by shamans. They practically always make use of paper figures that represent the life forces of the beings that the shaman manipulates. Typical rituals cleanse a house and occupants of evil winds, restore the life force of a sick person, counter sorcery sent against a client, control envy, and restore love between couples.

Arts. Art is not practiced for art's sake but appears in the various crafts that the Sierra Otomí practice. One of the most colorful and popular art forms is embroidery, which originated as decoration on women's blouses.

Medicine. Diseases are classified into infectious diseases sent by God, for which there is a medicinal cure, and evil diseases, in which there is a supernatural element. In the latter case, a shaman is consulted to neutralize the supernatural element. Whenever supernatural elements are involved, there is the ever-present possibility that the evil is manipulated by a sorcerer working with enemies of the patient.

Minor aliments are treated in the home, either with commercial pharmaceuticals or with a wide variety of herbal cures. Poultices, teas, and purgatives are the most common forms of herbal treatment. Because of federal and private programs, modern biomedicine has reached most of the Sierra Otomí; however, this alternative is sought only after less expensive native remedies have been tried.

Death and Afterlife. After a person has died, the body is washed and a vigil is kept for a day, during which friends gather and make offerings of food, liquor, and cigarettes to the departing soul. The body is buried at dawn the next day in the village graveyard. Godparents of death are sought. A nine-day vigil is kept during which a prayer maker (rezandero ) sings prayers. The godparents deliver the cross on the ninth day, and it is taken to the graveyard at dawn. In the Tutotepec area, an altar called a "tomb" is erected in the house during the nine days.

Dead children receive the light-hearted music of "the little angels" played by a guitar and violin. Their souls go directly to heaven.

The souls of women who die in childbirth, people who drown, people who are killed by snakes, or people who die violently go to live with Thunder. The souls of persons who have died a natural death ordained by God journey across a river to find rest in heaven. Some souls who have been set loose by a particularly violent death may wander the earth like rabid dogs and bring sickness to the living. They are often conceived of as evil winds.

The souls return to their homes during the annual celebration of the Days of the Dead, first the little angels, then, on the following day, the adults. Altars are erected in the homes and sometimes in the graveyards. In Tutotepec during the Days of the Dead, a special ceremony recognizing the twelve months of the year is held in the graveyard of the ruined Augustinian monastery.


Dow, James (1974). Santos y supervivencias: Funciones de la religión en una comunidad otomí, México. Mexico City: Instituto Nacional Indigenista; Secretaría de Educación Pública.

Dow, James (1975). The Otomí of the Northern Sierra de Puebla, Mexico: An Ethnographic Outline, Monograph Series, no. 12. East Lansing: Michigan State University, Latin American Studies Center.

Dow, James (1986). The Shaman's Touch: Otomí Indian Symbolic Healing. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.

Galinier, Jacques (1979). N'yũhũ, les indiens otomis: Hiérarchie sociale et tradition dans le sud de la Huasteca. Mexico City: Mission Archéologique et Ethnologique Française au Mexique.

Galinier, Jacques (1990). La mitad del mundo: Cuerpo y cosmos en los rituales otomies. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Centro de Estudios Mexicanos y Centroamericanos; Instituto Nacional Indigenista.