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ETHNONYMS: Totonaca, Totonaco


Identification. The word "Totonaco" is recognized as the name of this Amerindian ethnic group by its own members. According to oral tradition, "Totonaco" is derived from two words in their language: tutu (three) and naku (heart). The interpretation most frequently given, which is also noted by Kelly and Palerm (1952), is that the name refers to the three historical centers of the Totonac population. The exact locations of these three centers vary according to historical references and regional traditions. The area inhabited by the Totonac has been known as the Totonacapan since at least the sixteenth century.

Location. The Totonacapan includes portions of the Mexican states of Puebla and Veracruz. In the former, the Totonac lived in the mountainous region known as the northern Sierra de Puebla. In Veracruz, the Totonac were found from the mountain highlands to the coastal plains, between the Río Cazones and the Rio Tecolutla. Currently, this area continues to have the highest concentration of the Totonac population; however, a growing number have migrated to cities in search of higher wages. There are Totonac living in urban areas such as Mexico City, Poza Rica, Jalapa, Cholula, and Puebla de Zaragoza.

Demography. According to the 1990 census, there were 207,876 speakers of the Totonac language who were 5 years of age or older. The state of Puebla had 86,788 speakers of Totonac, and the state of Veracruz had 111,305; 3,056 Totonac speakers resided in Mexico City. There are also Totonac migrants in the states of Tlaxcala and Mexico.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Mesoamerican language closest to that of the Totonac is Tepehua, the language of their nearby neighbors. Together they form a linguistic group known as Totonacan, which is related to the Huastec and Mayan linguistic groups, although the nature of this relationship is under discussion. Totonac has some dialectal variations, but these can be understood without difficulty by native speakers.

History and Cultural Relations

According to Totonac oral tradition, their ancestors helped build the ancient city of Teotihuacán, located 42 kilometers northeast of Mexico City; however, there is no archaeological evidence to support this claim. After the decline of the city, Totonac legend maintains, they migrated to the area that became known as Totonacapan. They established important centers of population at Cempoala and Taj in, in coastal Veracruz. Traditional deities are still worshiped at the temple complex at Tajin. Aztec warfare and domination weakened the Totonac rulers. Archaeologists have developed a different, more objective view of the early history of the people of this area, but this is the history the Totonac accept.

Eager to defeat the Aztec, the Totonac helped the Spanish invaders, as was noted by the chronicler Bernal Díaz del Castillo. Nevertheless, they fared no better than any other Indian group under Spanish colonial rule. In areas where the Spanish colonists resided, newly introduced diseases ravaged the Amerindian population, and forced labor occasioned a soaring mortality rate. The Franciscan clergy evangelized Totonacapan, building churches with Indian labor and converting the communities to a somewhat superficial Catholicism.

Fortunately for the Totonac, the region's hot, wet climate and uneven terrain made it unattractive to most of the Spanish colonizers, thus affording a certain amount of political and cultural autonomy for the indigenous people during the colonial period. Essentially self-governing, Totonac communities experienced limited external influence.

Following Mexican independence in 1821, the Totonac of Veracruz became enmeshed in conflict with mestizos over land and over interference with Totonac ritual life. In 1836 the bishop of Puebla, Francisco Pablo Vazquez, prohibited the Indians from celebrating their Holy Week rituals. The ensuing rebellion (1836-1838), led by Mariano Olarte, began at Papantla. Eventually, the establishment of conduenazgos (the legal term for the recognition of communal lands by the state) permitted the Indian communities of Veracruz to defend their lands for the remainder of the nineteenth century.

The Totonac of the northern Sierra de Puebla were able to maintain a greater autonomy. They proved to be valuable allies to the regional leaders, usually mestizos. The Totonac supported these strongmen as long as Totonac villages were left alone. They also contributed to the triumph of liberal forces at Puebla in the Batalla del Cinco de Mayo in 1863.

During the Mexican Revolution, Totonac villages were attacked and burned by different factions. People from remote areas entered Totonacapan, and growing numbers of mestizos entered Totonac villages. The situation of social unrest allowed mestizos to establish themselves and find economic opportunities in villages in which mestizos had been previously unwelcome, and conflict over landownership became acute.

A few Indian strongmen (caudillos ) arose after the Revolution, but mestizos obtained political control with the help of regional leaders who were able to obtain power on a national level. The most notable case is that of Manuel Avila Camacho, who was president of Mexico in the 1930s and was from the northern Sierra de Puebla, where his wealthy family was prominent in mestizo society.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The principal crop, maize, is considered a basic part of every Totonac's diet. In the highlands, there is only one season for the cultivation of maize (March to September or October). In the lowlands, two crops per year are possible; however, land erosion and overuse of the soil have made double cropping more difficult. Agriculture is labor intensive. Other subsistence crops are beans, chilies, and, on a lesser scale, other vegetables that are grown on small family plots near the houses.

Sugarcane became an important commercial crop in Totonacapan during the colonial period, although production could not rival that of the great sugar plantations. Coffee began to be cultivated on a large scale around 1950. The ecological conditions in many communities are favorable for this plant, and production boomed in the following decades. Prices, however, are dependent on the international market for coffee beans, and cultivators suffer great losses when they go down.

In Veracruz, vanilla has traditionally been an important commercial crop. Because of a growing consumer rejection of artificial chemical substitutes for vanilla, the cultivation of this crop has expanded and may offer an alternative to dependence on coffee as the only cash crop.

The oil industry has created new jobs for many Totonac men living on the coastal plains of Veracruz, but it has damaged the marine environment and some agricultural lands.

Industrial Arts. Tools, household items, and clothing are made by family members. There is no external market for these goods.

Trade. The Totonac rely on middlemen to take their agricultural produce to distant markets. Aware that these individuals were monopolizing the transport and distribution of produce to the detriment of the growers, the Mexican government created agencies to replace the middlemen, who had become local caciques, but corruption and mismanagement proved difficult to eradicate. The Instituto Mexicano del Cafe, a government agency for the purchase and marketing of coffee beans, was terminated in 1989. Attempts to create nonprofit marketing agencies that aid the small growers of cash crops continue, with varied results.

Division of Labor. For many years, men were in charge of the maize fields and women took care of the household and the family vegetable plots. Coffee cultivation, which requires a great deal of labor, has altered these patterns; women, childrenin fact, entire familieswork together to harvest the delicate beans. Migration in search of wage labor has led to further changes: when the men are absent, women must work the fields themselves or find someone else to carry out the household agricultural labor.

Land Tenure. Small private holdings are predominant in Totonac communities. There are few ejidos in the northern Sierra de Puebla. Communal lands, which do not fall within the category of government-granted ejidos, are also scarce. The distribution of land is unequal; mestizo cattlemen own large ranches, whereas many Indian families are landless rural laborers. Many owners of small plots of land have formed cooperatives, often with government aid, to obtain mutual benefits. Along the coast of Veracruz, Totonac fishers are also organized into cooperatives.


Kin Groups and Descent. Some Totonac communities in the northern Sierra de Puebla had patrilineal systems of descent that were based on residence in a specific location and on a common surname. Conflicts over land, a consequence of the Mexican Revolution, destroyed these systems, although they are still remembered by aged persons. Great importance is given to the relationship of compadrazgo (ritual coparenthood).

Kinship Terminology. Few kinship terms in Totonac remainonly those for uncles, aunts, grandchildren, cousins, and members of the nuclear family. No distinction is made between maternal and paternal relatives.

Marriage and Family

Marriage was traditionally arranged by both families. Preferably, a high "price" was paid for the bride, in goods or the groom's labor. When this was not possible, couples eloped and negotiation of payment followed. A church-sanctioned marriage is an ideal today, but the cost of a wedding feast deters many couples.

Domestic Unit. The ideal domestic arrangement is a nuclear family living near the relatives of the husband. Extended families spanning at least three generations are also common. The practice of polygamy, which is considered a symbol of wealth, is diminishing because of the efforts of both Catholic priests and Protestant preachers.

Inheritance. Customarily, among the Totonac of the northern Sierra de Puebla, upon a man's death, his land is inherited by his eldest son. Among coastal Totonac, a father bequeaths land to all sons equally. Direct inheritance from father to daughter is highly exceptional.

Socialization. From infancy, a child is educated by the extended family. All children must go to elementary school, but what is taught there is not always adequate to meet the needs of the communities. Bilingual education has rarely been fully implemented.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Community identity is not always related to ethnic identity because various locations have multiethnic populations. The most important obligation to the community is communal labor, but this tradition has been weakened in some areas owing to religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants.

Political Organization. All Totonac communities have elected political authorities, but the political process itself is subject to outside control. Indian participation varies greatly from one location to another. Those who are elected to office tend to speak Spanish and to have migratory experience and at least a grade-school education. Religious and civil hierarchies were once united in all the communities; they are now separate, but this development is more recent in some areas than in others.

Social Control. Municipal authorities are responsible for maintaining peace in the communities. Officials rely not only on their limited knowledge of the Mexican penal code but also base decisions on local customs that establish the parameters of socially acceptable conduct. The influence of elders was once important but has been greatly weakened. When offenders commit major crimes, they are now judged and sentenced by higher authorities outside the community.

Conflict. Unequal distribution of land remains a principal cause of conflict. Agrarian struggles continue, and political parties have become involved in them. Peasant movements are widespread. Elections are highly contested, and factionalism is prevalent. The federal government all too often resorts to force to end conflicts. Violence is commonplace; the charge on which Totonac are most frequently incarcerated is homicide.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Totonac popular Catholicism is a complex reelaboration of elements of both Iberian and Amerindian religion. The concepts of the deities and their relations to humans are not those of institutional Catholicism. According to the Totonac view, there are sacred beings that have power over aspects and places of the world. These include not only the images of saints in churches but beings with Amerindian attributes, such as the Dueño del Monte, a mountain god. Many Totonac have been converted to Protestantism, especially that of the Pentecostals, who are highly critical of popular Catholic beliefs. In some communities, this has created conflict.

Religious Practitioners. Prestige was traditionally accrued by those who sponsored religious festivals honoring the saints and their images. Participation by all families was obligatory. Those persons who had held official positions in a cargo system (which governs sponsorship of festivals) received the important status of principales. The cargo systems were independent of the Catholic clergy.

Pentecostalism offered an opportunity for young people to obtain status outside the cargo system by becoming charismatic preachers. To counter the growth of Protestantism, the Catholic church also created pastoral programs for laypersons. Such programs often characterize traditional Indian religion with its Catholic borrowings as "superstitious."

Ceremonies. Rising costs have affected the system of individual-family sponsorship of religious festivals. An alternative to individual-family sponsorship has been the establishment of collective groups to finance the ceremonies.

Arts. The Totonac consider the Dance of the Voladores, in which the performers unwind from ropes attached to the top of a pole, to be an important symbol of their ethnic identity. Although other indigenous peoples of the region perform this dance, the Totonac regard themselves as the best performers. The dance is rich in symbolism; it represents birds descending from the sky. Professional troupes of Volador dancers travel to large cities within Mexico and abroad.

Medicine. There are various native health specialists. Parteras (midwives) are elderly women who attend pregnant women and supervise natural births, for which they enjoy high status. Curanderos heal through the use of medicinal plants and ritualized ceremonies. Brujos have knowledge of sorcery and can cast and break magic spells through contact with the supernatural. In the past, persons accused of sorcery often were murdered. Medical care is also given by doctors at government clinics that exist in most communities. The Totonac tend to consult either traditional or institutional medical practitioners, or both, depending on the circumstances.

Death and Afterlife. There are specific godparents (compadres ) of death, who help pay the cost of burial. The Day of the Dead, on which spirits are said to return to the village, is an important feast. Protestants, like Catholics, arrange flowers on the tombs of the dead, although they do not celebrate with alcohol or incur excessive expenditures.

See alsoTepehua


Garma Navarro, Carlos (1987). Protestantismo en una comunidad totonaca de Puebla. Mexico City: Instituto Nacional Indigenista.

Harvey, H., and Isabel Kelly (1969). "The Totonac." In Handbook of Middle American Indians, edited by Robert Wauchope. Vol. 8, Ethnology, Part Two, edited by Evon Z. Vogt, 638-681. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Kelly, Isabel, and Angel Palerm (1952). The Tajin Totonac. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

Masferrer, Elio (1986). "Las condiciones históricas de la ethnicidad entre los totonacos." América Indígena 46 (4).