The 1990 Mexican census tallied 29,203 Popoluca speakers living in southern Veracruz. They are culturally and linguistically similar to the Mixe and Zoque Indians of nearby Chiapas and Oaxaca. There are four separate social groups, which have distinctive cultures and languages. The largest of these groups, the Sierra or Highland Popoluca, is dispersed in twenty-five towns and hamlets. The other four groups live in the towns of Oluta, Sayula, and Texistepec.
The various Popoluca groups inhabit two greatly different environments. The Sierra Popoluca live at elevations of 100 to 800 meters; precipitation there is abundant, and there are oak and pine forests at higher elevations, savanna at lower elevations. In contrast, the villages of Oluta, Sayula, and Texistepec are located very close to sea level and are very dry, as well as dusty in the spring; the terrain is covered by savanna.
Despite their earlier conquests by the Nahua and by the Spanish, the Popoluca had little contact with non-Popoluca until the twentieth century, when the social agitation caused by the Mexican Revolution brought them into contact with other groups.
The Popoluca subsist through the cultivation of maize, beans, and squashes, although they also raise tomatoes, pineapples, chayotes, camotes (yams), manioc, and other fruits and vegetables. They grow coffee to sell for cash. Swidden agriculture (in the milpa pattern) is practiced, and two crops are planted annually. Fields are usually planted with digging sticks, although a few people use plows. Small numbers of poultry and pigs are kept. Some men hunt with featherless arrows, taking deer, boars, rabbits, and some birds. Fish are caught with the aid of nets and poisons.
Houses are simple structures. Four posts at the corners hold up the roof, which is woven of zacate grass and lasts as long as twenty-five years. The walls are made of vertical sticks, which do not exclude wind and rain. Lofts are constructed for the storage of maize and domestic goods. People sit on a unique type of bench made from a log, or on hammocks, and sleep on beds made of cane splints.
The Spanish had very limited success in urging the Popoluca to live in dense villages, and no success whatsoever in influencing them to line up streets in a grid pattern, although terrain limitations were at least partly responsible for the latter failure.
Men wear clothing of a type sold in most parts of Mexico—muslin pants and shirts. Women wear precontact-style wrap skirts and no garments above the waist.
Women tend to domestic chores and raising children, take care of the domestic animals, and weave. Men do the agricultural work, construct houses, and hunt and fish. Unmarried women also work in the fields. The Popoluca have no markets, but instead buy and sell to itinerant traders from outside their society. Some towns have resident Zapotec traders, and there are a few Popoluca stores that sell alcoholic beverages and, occasionally, household goods. There is usually very little wealth left when the expenses of living have been met, and this little is spent on fiestas.
Social and economic organization is based upon the nuclear family—or, sometimes, upon polygynous families. Kinship reckoning is bilateral.
Town political organization is by municipio, but because this scheme is of foreign origin, the people themselves find little meaning in it. The municipal president is elected. A few villages have barrios, although, like the municipios, they hold no significance for the people.
The supernatural world is largely pre-Columbian and very similar to the conceptions of the Aztec, Zapotec, and Maya. Figures similar to those present in the Popol Vuh, a sacred Mayan text that has been preserved from versions recorded just after the Conquest, are common, including the hurricane god, who can either help or can destroy agricultural fields. The Popoluca also have maize gods and chanekos, small spirits who live in caves and take care of game animals. There are in addition dangerous spirits, who live in specific places and who can kill people. The nagual, or witch, may be either a supernatural being or a human, and can transform himself or herself into an animal. The Popoluca take great care in making offerings to supernatural beings so that their maize will grow well or their hunting and fishing expeditions will be successful. Illness is believed to be caused by the supernatural intrusion of objects into the body and by loss of soul, the latter indicated by a weak pulse.
Women deliver their children while either kneeling or sitting at the end of a bench. Children are given Spanish names. Education and socialization consist primarily of teaching adult tasks. A prospective groom enlists an aide to ask the family of a prospective bride for her hand in marriage. Once the prospective groom's offer has been accepted, he must perform bride-service; later the marriage is finalized by a feast. Marriages tend, however, toward easy dissolution. The dead are buried with grave goods believed necessary for the long journey to their final destinations, as well as a coin to pay for admittance to the afterworld.
Baez-Jorge, Felix (1973). Los zoque-popolucas, estructura social. Mexico City: Instituto Nacional Indigenista; Secretaria de Educación Publica.
Foster, George M. (1982). A Primitive Mexican Economy. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.
Foster, George M. (1969). "The Mixe, Zoque, Popoluca." In Handbook of Middle American Indians, edited by Robert Wauchope. Vol. 7, Ethnology, Part One, edited by Evon Z. Vogt, 448-477. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Munch Galindo, Guido (1983). Etnología del istmo veracruzano. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Instituto de Investigaciones Antropológicas.