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Identification. The Tepehua are a farming people occupying mountainous regions of eastern Hidalgo and northern Veracruz in Mexico. They are most closely related linguistically to the Totonac, who inhabit nearby lower regions to the east, in the state of Veracruz. The name "Tepehua" may be derived from either of the Nahua words tepetl (mountain) or ueialtepetl (town dweller).

Location. There are two regions of Tepehua settlement: a band stretching from Huehuetla, Hidalgo, northwestward through Tlachichilco, Veracruz, where the Tepehua are surrounded by Otomí and mestizo settlements; and a U-shaped area at lower elevations to the northeast of Pantepec, Veracruz, where they are surrounded by Totonac and Otomí settlements. These regions are at the southern boundary of a region generally known as the "Huasteca." All Tepehua settlements are found between 20°25 and 20°40 N and 97°40 and 97°15 W. They extend over a wide range of elevations between 150 and 1,700 meters, but most are at the lower levels.

Demography and Language. The total number of Tepehua speakers in the 1990 census was 8,702. Out of these, 2,001 were in Hidalgo and 5,742 in Veracruz. The Tepehua language is in the Totonacan Subfamily of the Macromayan (Mexican Penutian) Family.

History and Cultural Relations

Little is known about the pre-Columbian history of the Tepehua. One theory is that for a long time they occupied the region in which they are now found and have been reduced in numbers as the Otomí moved in from the south. During the colonial period, Tepehua lands were turned over to Spanish owners without proper authority. At various times, some of their lands were placed under the control of the Catholic church. After independence, Tepehua communal lands were divided, and the titles were gradually acquired by mestizos. The Mexican Revolution provided some redress of the land imbalance. For example, before the Revolution, only 2 lots among the lands of San Pedro Tzilzacuapan, Veracruz, were legally in the hands of Indians. In 1926, after the Revolution, 56 were registered to Indians, as opposed to 172 to mestizos (Williams García 1963, 90). Struggles with mestizos unwilling to have lands classified as ejidos led to armed conflict in the early 1930s. "White guards," armed bands of mestizo ranchers, terrorized Indians at that time. The southern Huasteca was still an area of agrarian conflict in the 1990s.


A typical Tepehua village has a central plaza around which are arranged shops, public offices, and a school. There may be a covered area for meetings and religious rituals. The streets radiate outward and end in paths leading to homesteads and hamlets (rancherías ).

The typical house is a rectangular structure with a thatched roof rounded at the ends. There is only one room, with two doors and no windows. The walls are made of vertical poles, sometimes plastered with mud-and-straw mortar. Tepehua utilize small wooden chairs and tables as furnishings. Houses near a source of water will have a washing stand on the patio. Normally there is a separate kitchen. In the kitchen a ceramic griddle (comal ) laid on three hearth stones on the floor is used to cook tortillas.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Tepehua agriculture uses a slash-and-burn method. Fields (milpas) are abandoned and allowed to accumulate natural cover; this monte is later cut and burned to reopen the field. Each farmer cultivates his own land, but neighbors also provide mutual aid. Two crops of corn are sown, one in December and the other in June. Beans, squash, and some chili peppers are planted in the milpas. Tomates and an edible leafy plant called misis grow wild in the fields without requiring cultivation. The following fruits are grown in small quantities: pagua, mangoes, avocados, melons, papayas, and bananas. In the twentieth century, new vegetable crops such as lentils, onions, garlic, peas, and sesame have been introduced.

Many farmers cultivate sugarcane as a cash crop. The cane is pressed in local wooden presses (trapiches ) powered by oxen. It is boiled and made into raw sugar cakes (piloncillos in Spanish, za'as in Tepehua) for sale. Another important cash crop is coffee.

Industrial Arts. Women weave sashes and quexquémetl (an ancient style of small poncho) from cotton and wool, on belt looms. They also sew and embroider blouses. As with the various other ethnic groups, the traditional female garb (liado ) immediately identifies the ethnicity of the wearer. The Tepehua liado consists of a barrel skirt gathered by a sash, a blouse, and a quexquémetl. It is gradually being replaced by cotton dresses. Weaving and sewing by the women provide clothing for the family and products that can later be exchanged or sold. The Tepehua also manufacture pottery griddles, harvesting baskets (chiquihuites ), fishing nets, and candles.

Weekly open-air markets are held throughout the region. The traditional market centers are in the capitals of the municipios, but other market centers appear wherever there is a need and some motivation to open one. At the markets, the various ethnic groups from this regionTepehua, Totonac, Nahua, Otomí, and mestizointeract. Merchants who travel from market to market are often accomplished linguists. Some Tepehua have established stores in the larger villages. These stores stock the basic necessities between markets. Often the store owners become mule drivers, traveling afar to bring new items to their establishments. As a consequence of dealing with mestizos, they tend to replace elements of their Indian culture by more commercially acceptable mestizo ones. In the smaller rancherías, small stores offer only a meager selection of soap, rum, cigarettes, and soft drinks.

Land Tenure. Land is held as private property or as an ejido. Whether or not a community has an ejido depends on the outcome of various agrarian struggles with the land grabbers of pre- and post-revolutionary Mexico. The Huastecabecause of its valuable potential for cattle raisinghas been a zone of agrarian conflict throughout the twentieth century.

Marriage and Family

A proper marriage requires that the groom's family formally petition the bride's family. The two families meet weekly at the house of the potential bride. The petitioning family brings gifts of rum. At the last meeting, quantities of beer and rum are given to the future in-laws to distribute to their kin. The date of the delivery of the bride to the groom's house, the formal culmination of the marriage, is agreed upon. This will often be delayed for a year. There is a feast in honor of the bride and her family when the bride is delivered. Turkey mole (a sauce made from many ingredients including cacao) is served. The bride's family dresses her in new clothes. The couple then lives with the groom's family (patrilocal residence) until a new house can be built on the groom's family land.

This traditional marriage usually takes a year to complete. Reluctant to wait, many young men take their brides without the formal ceremonies. Seductions and rapes also occur. In these cases, the woman is taken to the man's home and the tension between the families is resolved through quiet diplomacy. A shaman may be called in to perform a ritual that assures that the children born of such a union do not suffer supernatural consequences because of the aggressive acts leading to their conception.

Sociopolitical Organization

An agente municipal is the maximal authority in Tepehua villages located in the state of Veracruz. He is elected every three years by a public assembly in the village, and his election is certified by the president of the municipio. Other offices make up the civil government of the village. In the Tepehua village of Pisaflores, for example, four tupiles are appointed to assist the agente, and a village judge (juez auxiliar ) is also chosen by the assembly. The judge is aided by police (alwásil ) selected from the young men of the Community. The police have the responsibility of collecting levies, guarding public areas when necessary, apprehending wrongdoers, and notifying people to appear before the village authorities. Pisaflores recognizes another respected councilor called the jefe de la comunidad, who is not formally recognized by the municipio authorities. This post derives from an earlier period of agrarian conflict when strong autonomous leadership was needed. The jefe de la comunidad does not interfere with the normal workings of the other authorities in the village but does oversee their activities.

Public work groups (faenas ) are organized to repair trails and roads, to construct needed public facilities, and to cultivate the public lands supporting the school. Public oratory (lacachínchin ) is the responsibility of an official called the mayordomo, who is aided by four other appointees (vocales ), who collect assessments from all the villagers to pay for the major ritual at the lacachínchin. The mayordomo remains in office as long as he carries out his ritual duties properly.

The agente names an older man to serve as a fiscal, an official who has ritual duties related to the New Year's celebration. The fiscal is aided by three pixcales mayores, also named by the agente. According to custom, the pixcales mayores should be either sickly or feebleminded, as the Tepehua define these categories. The fiscal keeps the village's images of Catholic saints in his own house and takes them to the covered area in the center of the village for the rituals when the time arrives.

Women are also appointed as cantantes. Their duty is to sing Spanish songs during the Christmas celebrations. Four campaneros, one of whom is a leader called the mapaulán, are appointed by the authorities to take charge of the festivities during the Days of the Dead.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Christian religions have made only moderate impressions on Tepehua culture. Tepehua villages generally did not have Catholic churches until after the 1950s. The native religion is the most important. It is part of a religious complex that is found also among the Otomí and Nahua people of the same region. It involves the worship of nature gods, ceremonies that address soul forces represented by paper figures, and musical flower rituals carried out in homes, at shrines, and in native oratories.

The supreme Tepehua deity is the Sun (Wiicháan). When he sets at night, he leaves the stars to guard over the world. The Moon (Małkuyu) is a troublesome character associated with the Devil (Tlakakikuru, derived from the Nahua word tlacatecólotl, meaning were-owl). The Lord of the Earth (Xalapanlakat'un) is offended by urination and buried afterbirth and so must receive periodic offerings of appeasement. He is nasty and eats the bodies of humans after they have died. Earth is the father of fire because cooking fires are made on the ground.

The Lord of the Water (Xalapána-k Xkán) has a male and a female guardian, the sirens (Sereno and Serena). Both are dressed in green. The first is the Lord of the Animals, and the second has duck's feet and lives in a hidden place of human pilgrimage from whence the wind and rain are sent. The Lord of the Air is called Xalapanakún.

The gods and beings worshiped by the Tepehua are all called antiguas. They live in a mythical place called the Golden Mountain. At a great table on the Golden Mountain sit the Sun and the Stars. At other tables sit lesser deities. There they judge the activities of humans.

The Tepehua believe in a life force called by outside observers, at various times, the spirit (espíritu ), soul (alma ), or shade (sombra ). The spirit can separate itself from a living person for a short time. Such a separation places the person in danger, and, if it goes on for too long, the spirit must be restored by a shaman to keep the person from dying. When the person does die, the spirit remains on the earth, normally for a short time. The spirits of humans, and of other beings, are represented by paper figures cut by shamans.

Religious Practitioners. Midwives and shamans are the main religious practitioners. Other religious officials, such as the mayordomo, are in charge of rituals; however, the Tepehua do not regard these religious officials as specialists, like shamans and midwives, who have an understanding of the superhuman world.

Shamans are usually people who have suffered in life and who have received visions directing them toward a curing profession. Novice shamans are encouraged byand trained byother shamans. Shamanic visions teach them how to cure. The shaman cuts magical paper figures, places them on a paper mat, and wraps them up to use in curing rituals. These figures symbolize the spirits of beings involved in the rituals. Shamans also acquire pottery figurines and other pieces taken from the earth to keep on their altars. Such spiritual objects are also called antiguas. They are images of the tutelary beings who appear to the shaman in dreams and visions. A shaman and his wife often work as a couple.

Midwives and shamanesses are all considered to be a single type of female religious curer called nat'aku-nu'. Great semidivine shamanesses and are called lak'ainananín. Midwives are usually widows. They may work alone or in conjunction with a shaman.

Ceremonies. Costumbre is the name given to the general ritual form through which the antiguas are worshiped. Costumbres are led by shamans, whose role in this context must be seen as a leader of public worship rather than as a magical healer. During a costumbre, musicians play sacred music on a guitar and violin. The shaman (or shamans) cuts paper figures representing the spirits of various beings. A sacred time opens as the actual superhuman invisible beings arrive to attend the costumbre in the evening. Offerings are made. As dawn approaches the beings leave.

Agricultural plants are important beings. Their spirits are attended by shamans in a major annual costumbre held at the public oratory (lacachínchin). The figures of the seeds are cut by shamans on mountaintops. Afterwards they are returned to the village and placed in chests in the lacachínchin. Music, dance, and a ritual meal are part of the lacachínchin celebration.

A planting ceremony is also held in family homes. During this ritual, turkey blood is sprinkled on a basket of maize seeds containing flower decorations, bottles of rum, and palm leaves.

Arts. Religious dances are performed during village fiestas. These are learned and maintained by groups of villagers who dedicate themselves to this sacred art. Among the dances are: Los Viejos de Todos Santos, Los Santiagos, Los Tambulanes (23 and 24 December), Palo Volador, and Los Pastores. Storytelling is a popular form of entertainment, particularly while men are performing routine tasks in the fields. The Tepehua have their own set of classic folktales.

Medicine. Medical treatment is given by shamans and midwives. Costumbres are held for curing as well as for public worship. The Tepehua believe that illness can be caused by anger or negative feelings toward a victim. The cure in these cases is for a shaman to restore the spirit of the victim. "Fright," a childhood illness that is caused by sudden falls or scares, is also cured by restoration of the spirit.

Death and the Afterlife. After death, a Tepehua goes to the Golden Mountain where he or she is judged before the tables of the gods. Those who have been faithful to the gods remain there on the Golden Mountain, whereas the rest are sent to La'nín, where they remain under the power of the Lord of the Earth. La'nín is not a place of punishment, however. Priests, midwives, musicians who play sacred music, and dancers of the sacred dances always remain on the Golden Mountain. Women who die in childbirth go to live with the Lord of the Water, who also has his residence on the Golden Mountain. The spirits of people who die tragically are condemned to wander the world of the living with evil spirits commanded by the Devil.

The body of the deceased is dressed in new clothes. A procession with musicians carries the body in a coffin to the graveyard. Men and women take different roles in the funeral rituals. The godmother of burial adorns the graves of children and adolescents with paper decorations. Adult graves are left plain. It is believed that the spirits of the dead remain in their homes for a week. At dawn on the seventh day after the death, a cross is erected over the grave.


Gessain, Robert (1953). "Les indiens tepehuas de Huehuetla." In Huastecos, totonacos, y sus vecinos. Mexico City: Sociedad Mexicana de Antropología.

Williams García, Roberto (1963). Los tepehuas. Jalapa: Universidad Veracruzana.

Williams García, Roberto (1972). Mitos tepehuas. Mexico City: Secretaría de Educación Publica.