Otomí of the Valley of Mezquital

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Otomí of the Valley of Mezquital

ETHNONYMS: Hñahñu, Otomi, Otomíes


The, term "Otomí" comes from otomitl and, by inference, from totomitl ("one who hunts birds with [bow and] arrow"). Sources on pre-Hispanic culture refer to "Totomihuatzin," who represents birds shot with arrows, and "Totomihuacan," which means "place where those who hunt birds with [bow and] arrow live." The Otomí in the Valley of Mezquital call themselves "Hnahnu," a term made up of the words hña (to speak) and hñu (nose) and signifying "those who speak a nasal language."

Location. The Valley of Mezquital is located in the Mexican state of Hidalgo between 20°11 and 20°41 N and 98°50 and 99°20 W. The area abuts with Queretaro on the west, with San Luis Potosí on the north, and with Tlaxcala and parts of the states of Mexico and Puebla on the south. The Valley of Mezquital is made up of twentyeight municipios. Those with the highest density of Otomí speakers are Actopan, Alfajayucan, El Cardonal, Chilcuautla, Ixmiquilpan, Nicolás Flores, San Salvador, Santiago de Anaya, Tasquillo, and Zimapan.

Demography. The Mexican census of 1990 registered a total of 313,838 people in the state of Hidalgo, 5 years of age or older, who spoke an indigenous language. Of these, 117,393 were Otomí speakers. In the ten municipios in the Valley of Mezquital that show the highest density of Otomí speakers, the census indicated a total of 80,775 people aged 5 years or more.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Otomí language belongs to the Otopamean Branch of the Otomanguean Language Family. Other languages also forming part of this branch can be grouped into three subbranches: Otomí Mazahua, Matlazinca-Ocuilteca, and Pame-Chichimeca-Jonaz. Among the Otopamean speakers there are two distinct cultural traditions: the Otomí, Mazahua, Matlazinca, and Ocuilteca influenced by the highly developed Mesoamerican culture and the Pame and Chichimeca-Jonaz influenced by hunters-gatherers from northern Mexico. In the Valley of Mezquital there are fourteen variants of spoken Otomí.

History and Cultural Relations

The Otomí were firmly established in the valleys of Toluca, Tula, and Mexico before the first Nahua invasions. Theirs was a sedentary life-style, and they lived in peaceful coexistence with the Olmec and other peoples of the area. The first Nahua who arrived were the Toltec who established themselves by force toward the year 800, founding the city of Tula. The Otomí were incorporated into the Toltec Empire as a subject people. In the twelfth century hunting peoples (generally known as Chichimec) invaded the highlands; they destroyed the Toltec capital of Tula around the year 1200.

After the fall of Tula, the Otomí settled in Xillotepec and Chiapan in the Valley of Toluca. In 1220 they moved east and founded the city-state of Xaltocan to the north of the Valley of Mexico. In 1395 their territory was conquered by the Tepanec. From then on, many Otomí emigrated northeast and east, settling in the provinces of Meztitlan, Tutotepec, Cempoala, and Tlaxcala.

Under Aztec rule, the Otomí became tributaries. The Aztecs did not interfere very much in the affairs of the Valley of Mezquital because it was desertlike and unproductive, and therefore of little interest to them.

When the Spaniards arrived, the Otomí of the Mezquital allied themselves with them, envisoning the possibility of freeing themselves from Aztec rule. During the colonial period, the Otomí played an intermediary role between the Spaniards and the nomadic tribes of the north, thus avoiding serious conflicts and confrontations, especially during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, silver mining induced the Spaniards to colonize the area and to begin frontal attacks and open warfare against the Chichimec, a war that turned into one of extermination. The Otomí were made to work in the mines, and many fled toward the more arid areas.

Although they were not able to free themselves from servitude under the encomienda (labor-tribute system), the Mezquital Otomí nevertheless benefited from the fact that theirs was not a rich area and so did not attract a large number of White migrants; low population density allowed the Otomí to have extensive landholdings.

The Otomí were involved in the armed conflicts of the nineteenth century, including the War of Independence. Independence did not ameliorate their economic condition, however. Large landed estates were divided into small landholdings that became the property of criollos and mestizos, but the Indians remained laborers.

As a result of the agrarian reform of the 1930s, the Otomí of the Valley of Mezquital were given lands of very bad quality and low productivity, in the form of ejidos. Beginning in 1975, the semiarid lands began to receive drainage and sewage waters for irrigation from Mexico City, thereby becoming productive.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Each family group can count on an average of two hectares of land, either ejido land or their own small property. The economy is based on small-scale agriculture and wage labor. Cattle ranching is practiced on a small scale, and the production of handicrafts brings in supplementary income.

On unirrigated land the Otomí raise maize, beans, nopal (an edible cactus), squashes, and chickpeas, which form the basis of their diet, together with a juice (aguamiel ) extracted from the maguey plant. Their diet is complemented with vegetables, fruits, the meat of wild animals, and products purchased with the scant income they obtain from selling their handicrafts and their wage labor.

It is quite usual for the Otomí to rent out irrigated land to the area's mestizo agrobusinessmen, who plant it with alfalfa and vegetables and hire indigenous people as day laborers or peons. Although the sewage waters used for irrigation are a grave health hazard, they are one of the few means by which the Otomí of the Valley of Mezquital can earn a minimal income.

Limited production and the small size of their plots have led the Otomí to emigrate. The migratory flow is directed mainly toward Mexico City and the conurban municipios of the state of Mexico, where the men are hired as day laborers in construction work and the women as domestic servants. Since the mid-1970s, the migratory flowespecially that of menhas also been directed toward the United States, where they are hired as agricultural day laborers in the state of Florida. In both cases, the Otomí make an effort to return to their communities of origin when village fiestas are held.

Industrial Arts. In Ixmiquilpan and surrounding areas, the Otomí make baskets, flowerpots, and a number of ornaments out of reeds. They make pot scrubbers and mats from maguey fiber, tortilla baskets from willow switches, and hats from palm leaves; the hats are woven and sewn by hand. They also produce dove-shaped rattles. In Alfajayucan, they make pottery water pitchers that are used to store water or pulque (beer made from maguey juice).

Trade. Commercial networks are controlled by mestizo intermediaries who buy products from the Otomí at very low prices. Since the beginning of the 1980s, the Otomí have struggled to take over the commercialization of their products. For example, women have turned their efforts to the organization of cooperatives for selling their handicrafts, and now have a store in Ixmiquilpan. Other organizational effortspertaining to the production and commercialization of cheeses and to the sale of birds and other productshave also been undertaken mainly by women, who have received the support and advice of government institutions and civil associations.

Division of Labor. The entire family participates in agricultural labor, and children begin to help from the age of 5 or 6. Young people, men as well as women, emigrate from the area, looking for wage labor; old men and the children are left to tend the fields. During planting and harvesting, the men return to their communities to take part in agricultural labor. Women are left in charge of small children and apply themselves to making handicrafts. They are assisted by their older daughters, who later will also form part of the migratory flow.

Land Tenure. Frequently, the same family will have a small plot within the ejido and another as their own small property, the latter obtained through purchase. In general, the total amount of land they hold does not exceed two hectares.


Kin Groups and Descent. Families are nuclear, and residence is patrilocal. When an Otomí man marries, he takes his wife to live in his paternal home until their first child is born. At that point the couple will build their own house on land that has either been purchased or given them by the husband's father. Descent is reckoned bilaterally, although the paternal line is predominant, and the father's family name is inherited.

Family ties through consanguinity and affinity tend to be reinforced by compadrazgo, an institution that is of vital importance to the Mezquital Otomí because it creates a network of relationships and obligations of great permanence, which unite families during an entire lifetime. Compadrazgo is associated with Catholic sacraments, particularly baptism. The two baptismal godparents become the child's new spiritual relatives, who will guide him or her and be a substitute for the father, should this become necessary. The Otomí term for godparenthood is shatsi.

The compadre, the godparent of one's child, is a central figure in situations of mutual help; in family matters, he or she acts as an adviser, offering moral support, settling controversies, and participating in the solution of diverse problems.

Kinship Terminology. In several of the Otomí communities in the Valley of Mezquital, native kinship terms are still used. There are terms for mother, father, son, daughter, brother, sister, grandfather and grandmother, grandson and granddaughter, compadre and baptismal godfather. In several of these terms there is a marked recognition of sex as a referent, including the sex of the speaker, which is recognized in terms for brother, sister, father-in-law, mother-in-law, sister-in-law, and brother-in-law. The word for cousin (primo ) has been adopted from the Spanish. There is no differentiation among cousins. No distinction is made between parallel and cross cousins, whether from the maternal or paternal side.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage is monogamous. Owing to migration, marriage of Otomí to nonindigenous partners is common, especially the marriage of Otomí women to mestizo men. Marriage generally takes place between 17 and 20 years of age in the case of men, and 15 and 17 years of age in the case of women. The marriage proposal is made by the man to his future in-laws. If the bride's parents approve, the betrothal period lasts between six months and a year. During this time, the young man will help his bride's family in agricultural work and will give presents to his future father-in-law.

Inheritance. Inheritance of land is through the paternal line. Women do not inherit land from their parents because they are incorporated into their husband's family; therefore they frequently inherit their husband's lands when they are widowed.

The oldest son receives part of the paternal landholdings when his first son is born; the same occurs with the other sons, except for the lastborn, who lives in his parents' home and will not inherit until his father dies. Migration diminishes the number of heirs and thereby reduces tension and intrafamily conflicts over landholdings.

Socialization. Socialization begins within the family nucleus and continues through early participation in work. With the declining importance of religious cargos, socialization is being transferred from the tutelage of elders to government primary school and, in some cases, to school hostels administered by the Instituto Nacional Indigenista. Children often drop out of school because they are needed to help with agricultural labor.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Social organization among the Otomí is based on family relations and the network of mutual help that is interwoven through compadrazgo. The political solidarity created by the system of religious cargos has weakened, whereas the civil organizations linked to the national state have begun to take on greater importance. The religious festivals create cohesion and social identity. Migrants return to their communities at fiesta time and participate in social conviviality. Community work groups (faenas ) and community service are still important in the construction of public works.

Political Organization. Otomí political organization is set by state and federal law. As a result of agrarian land reform, ejidos were created and, with them, organizational structures that link the community to municipio, state, and federal institutions.

Each ejido has an ejido commission that is the community's maximum authority dealing with problems having to do with landholding and agricultural work. In addition, there is a judge (juez auxiliar ), and, in several cases, he is also the president of the ejido commission.

Social Control. Social control is exerted through the judge and, in some cases, a councilor (juez conciliador ), named by the municipio authorities to solve minor conflicts, that is to say, those not involving bloodshed. Homicide is dealt with directly by institutions in charge of administering justice on a national level. The capital of the municipio is the regional political center; the highest political authority is the municipio president.

Conflict. In the 1980s primary and secondary school teachers in the state of Hidalgo, many of Otomí origin, mobilized to increase their salaries and gain control of their union. This struggle influenced other democratic movements in the municipios, generating electoral conflicts between political parties. Another source of conflict has been entrenched power holders, called caciques, who continue to dominate commerce and control the area's land and water resources. Finally, there are frequent conflicts over land boundaries.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Catholicism is the predominant religion in the Valley of Mezquital. In the more isolated and traditional communities, practices and beliefs that are probably of pre-Hispanic origin persist, linking native and Christian deities, the cult of the dead, nahualism (the capacity of witches to turn into animals), and beliefs relating to the causality of illness. In separating itself from the civil arm, the religious system has suffered an appreciable loss of authority. Protestantism has spread out over the area since the mid-twentieth century.

Ceremonies. Religious festivals are the main type of community celebrations, but they have lost their relationship to the agricultural cycle. The times for the festivals are now dictated by the Catholic calendar; among the most important are the festivities for the patron saint of the local town or village. Another important ceremony is the celebration of the Day of the Dead.

Religious Practices. The Otomí perform private religious rituals in their homes. The houses have small oratories where images of Catholic saints are venerated. There are small niches in a corner of the home, where candles are kept lit in honor of the saints and of the dead. Failure to perform religious services can make the saints and the dead angry, bringing misfortune on the family or the milpa.

Medicine. Among the Otomí, folk medicine is one of the most important means of dealing with illness and death. Herbs are used on a daily basis for maladies such as headaches, stomachaches, sprains, the general feeling of being unwell, emotional tension, and so forth. They are used to prepare teas, infusions, creams for massages, and balms. There are few traditional medical specialists in the communities, except for midwives.

Death and Afterlife. Because they believe in life after death, the Otomí feel an obligation to venerate the dead at their family oratories, together with the saints. The dead can become angry and send misfortune when proper rules of conduct are not observed. On the Day of the Dead, their souls come down to earth for a time of conviviality with the living, so offeringsfood, sweets, pulque, and everything the dead liked to eat when they were aliveare set out for them.


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Vázquez Valdivia, Héctor (1992). Los otomies del Valle del Mezquital, versión preliminar. Mexico City: Instituto Nacional Indigenista.

CRISTINA OEHMICHEN BAZAN (Translated by Ruth Gubler)