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ETHNONYMS: Cuextecatl, Huastec, Panoteca, Teenek


Identification. The Wasteko are Mayan-language speakers who live in San Luis Potosí and Veracruz, Mexico, distant from other Mayan groups in Guatemala, Belize, and southern Mexico. They migrated north from the Mayan heartland in Guatemala around 2200 b.c., but, despite 4,000 years of separation from other Maya, they have maintained their Mayan cultural patterns and beliefs. The Wasteko refer to themselves as "Teenek" (te'en inik, "laughing people," or tehe' inik, "right-here people"). The name "Wasteko" (Spanish: Huasteco) derives from the Nahuatl cuextecatl, a name used by the Aztecs that may be derived from two Wasteko words, kweech (coil) and te' (tree), in reference to the crown of coiled vines that Wasteko women wore on their heads. Traditional women's garb remains distinctively Wasteko. The costume in San Luis Potosí is a mid-calf to knee-length black sarong skirt and a short, embroidered cape, worn over one or more ruffled blouses. A small embroidered bag is carried over the shoulder. Through the 1960s, embroidery patterns served to identify the home community of the wearer. Hair is tucked over a thick circle of bright yarn, a replacement for the traditional coil of vines. An embroidered cloth is folded and placed on top of the coronet on special occasions. In Veracruz and in a few San Luis Potosí communities, traditional women's clothing includes a long, flounced skirt instead of the shorter sarong, and the hair is worn in braids. Today men and most women wear factory-made apparel.

Location. According to Laughlin (1969), in the late 1400s the Wasteko occupied a large area of highland desert, mountain jungles, and coastal lowlands that encompassed much of the state of San Luis Potosí, southern Tamaulipas, northern Veracruz, and parts of Queretaro and Hidalgo. In the early 1500s the Spanish invaders forced the Wasteko out of their coastal towns, westward into the foothills and mountains of the Sierra Madre Oriental. Many Wasteko were sent as slaves to the Antilles, large numbers died as a result of the introduction of Old World diseases, and others succumbed to mistreatment by the Spanish conquerors. Today the Wasteko occupy a more limited area, living in small hamlets or isolated farmsteads at elevations from 60 to 500 meters above sea level on the Gulf Coastal slopes of the Sierra Madre Oriental in eastern San Luis Potosí and northern Veracruz. This region, known as the Huasteca, is populated by several other ethnolinguistic groups: Nahua, Totonac, Pame, Otomí, Tepehua, and mestizo. The Huasteca is a diverse area, with forested mountains to the west and drier plains to the east. Average rainfall ranges from 115 centimeters per year in the Gulf Coastal areas of Veracruz up to 315 centimeters per year in the moist tropical forests of San Luis Potosí. The area is drained by many small streams and several major rivers. Temperatures are generally very warm, averaging from 20° C to 24° C, but lows sometimes approach freezing during winter. The Huasteca remained an isolated backwater until the discovery of oil around 1910. The Pan-American Highway opened the area to international traffic in 1935, but even today secondary roads remain relatively few, and footpaths are common.

Demography. Since 1970, the Wasteko population has nearly doubled, but the absolute number of people reported as monolingual has remained stable. In 1970 the total number of Wasteko speakers in the states of San Luis Potosí and Veracruz was 64,888, of whom 18 percent were monolingual. Wasteko communities in San Luis Potosí are more isolated than those in Veracruz, and they report having almost twice as many monolinguals. In 1990 the total Wasteko population of the two states was 115,630, and 10 percent were monolingual: 14 percent of women and 6 percent of men. (There were only 5,109 Wasteko in the rest of Mexico.) In spite of the decrease in the percentage of monolinguals, Wasteko remains the primary language of most of the Huastec people. In San Luis Potosí in 1980, for example, half the children ages 5 to 9 spoke only Wasteko. Most adults over 40 are illiterate.

Linguistic Affiliation. Thirty mutually unintelligible living languages form the Mayan Language Family. Of these, nineteen are spoken primarily in Guatemala and Belize and eleven primarily in Mexico. The fifth-largest Mayan language of Mexico, but the most linguistically isolated, is Wasteko. Its two main dialects, Potosino and Veracruzano, are mutually intelligible but differ slightly in vocabulary and in details of pronunciation. A third dialect, Sierra Otontepec, has been reported from an isolated area in northern Veracruz. One colonial grammar and vocabulary of the language survives (Tapia Zenteno 1767). Modern studies of the language include Larsen's (1955) dictionary and Edmonson's (1988) grammar, which has an extensive bibliography of linguistic and other material pertaining to the Wasteko.

The Wasteko are great storytellers, and, in their tales and legends, they employ a parallel-couplet structure that is common to all of the Mayan languages. Successive lines in a story are linked in terms of either their grammatical structure or their content. In effect, the second line of a couplet repeats the information contained in the first line, altered slightly for variety. There are several different genres of Wasteko speech, from ritual incantations pronounced by a shamanic curer, to well-known stories told by an accomplished storyteller, to the conversations of everyday life. Even when explaining so mundane a topic as how to plant a maize field, native speakers slip almost unconsciously into couplets.

History and Cultural Relations

Despite an abundance of house and temple mounds throughout the region, there has been relatively little archaeological exploration in the Huasteca; however, excavations at Tamuin, in San Luis Potosí, and at Teayo, in Veracruz, among others, have produced examples of native architecture, mural paintings, sculpture, and pottery of Wasteko origin. The area near Tampico, particularly the land known as Pánuco, was heavily populated at the time of the Spanish Conquest.

According to the sixteenth-century Franciscan historian Sahagun, the Wasteko were distinguished by their tall, sloping foreheads (the result of head deformation); their tattooed skin; and their blackened, filed teeth. They were notorious for their male nudity, homosexual rituals, and indulgence in alcoholic pulque, which they drank and also administered as enemas. They wore colorful woven cloaks and nose ornaments and bracelets made from feathers, gold, jade, and turquoise. Warriors wore large metal bells and padded-cotton armor, and they were believed to wield powerful sorcery in battle. Their weapons included bows and arrows, throwing sticks, curved clubs, and, possibly, obsidian-edged swords. Aztec tribute lists show that the Wasteko traded cotton textiles, maize, deerskins, tropical fruits, and exotic birds. Other historical records indicate that the sixteenth-century Gulf-coastal forest cultures managed forest orchards as well as swidden agricultural plots and may have drained fields in swampy areas. Archaeological evidence of agriculture from this area has been dated to 1700 b.c.

At the time of the Conquest, the Wasteko were organized into independent territorial groups that engaged in wars under shifting alliances. On the Gulf Coast, Wasteko society included nobles, commoners, and, possibly, slaves. From the seventeenth century to the mid-nineteenth century, the northern and coastal areas of the Huasteca were occupied by expanding haciendas, but small Indian communities also occupied refuges scattered in the forested foothills to the west. On the haciendas, Wasteko served as laborers in return for rights to use plots of land for raising their own food. In foothill settlements, they provided unpaid labor and tribute to the Catholic church.

Under Spanish domination, a major cultural distinction was drawn between mestizos (those who participated in the national, Spanish-derived culture, regardless of their genetic heritage) and indios (a pejorative term for indigenous people). In eighteenth-century censuses, Negroes and mulattoes were grouped with Spaniards, whereas Indians were considered a race apart. Although the Wasteko distinguish themselves from neighboring Nahua, Otomí, and Totonac, they recognize a more fundamental cultural difference between mestizos and indigenous peoples. Mexican government policy has consistently encouraged cultural assimilation of indigenous peoples through promotion of Spanish-language schools, incentives for concentration into townships, and other means.


Most Wasteko live in scattered farmsteads, but there is a trend toward the development of hamlets comprised of second homes that are located where electricity is available. The few roads that exist are in bad condition, and, although bus and taxi service is available in the larger town centers, most outlying hamlets are accessible only on foot. A trip to the weekly market can require a walk of two hours or more.

The typical household cluster on each farmstead includes a one-room apsidal structure and a one-room round structure, both with thatched roofs, walls of unplastered vertical poles, and dirt floors. Furnishings are minimal: a table and a chair or so, a traditional three-stone hearth for boiling dried maize kernels with ash to soften them, a metal grinder for the initial coarse grinding of the softened maize, and a metate (grindstone) to grind it fine for tortilla dough. A raised hearth with an inset pottery griddle for cooking tortillas, a few pots, and a small altar complete the household furnishings. Some households have raised beds made of wooden poles, but most people put their sleeping mats on the dirt floors or outside on their patios. A cleared open space around the house and the area under the wide roof overhang provide additional living space. Households often include extended families, and the house cluster may support several hearths. Households belong to communities that occupy sites that range in size from 500 to several thousand hectares. The communities are integrated into municipios, which include blocks of Wasteko settlements scattered on the marginal lands around ranches and small private parcels owned by mestizos. Each municipio is named after the main town center, which is the site of the weekly market and the focus of churchgoing on Sundays. Few Wasteko live in the town center. The population density of municipios with significant Wasteko presence is approximately 100 persons per square kilometer.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Subsistence is derived indirectly by purchases with cash from seasonal wage labor and from the sale of raw sugar, coffee, or other cash crops, and directly from production of maize, fruits, firewood, plant-derived medicines, and construction materials. The basic diet of tortillas and beans is supplemented by fruits, wild greens, garden foods, and occasional small game. Most of the maize and beans are purchased with cash. The Wasteko agro-ecosystem is a fluid mosaic of several resource zones, including permanent planted fields (primarily sugarcane or henequen), periodically planted fields (for maize production and gardens), fallows in various stages of forest regeneration, orchards, dooryards, permanent forests, and streams. The Wasteko use a short-fallow version of the Mesoamerican swidden system known as "milpa." This system produces sufficient firewood from the regenerating forest in fallows but insufficient maize to meet subsistence needs. Approximately 25 percent of an average San Luis Potosí Wasteko community's land is under forest, 50 percent in fallow-milpa cycled land, and 25 percent in sugarcane. Coffee is grown under native forest.

Industrial Arts and Trade. Raw sugar is produced as a cottage industry. Cane is harvested by hand and put through an animal-powered press to extract the juice. The juice is then boiled in a large open vat until it reaches the sugaring stage, when it is poured into small pottery molds. The unmolded raw sugar is sold to mestizo traders or to cooperatives. Other trade is limited to small-scale selling at weekly markets or church-festival events. Women make pocket money by selling piglets, chickens, eggs, fruit, garden produce, cooked food, small amounts of ground coffee, and embroidered cloths. A few men in any given community are specialists in the repair of tools, radios, or tape recorders. Some work as barbers. The Wasteko construct their own houses, weave cloth on backstrap looms, and produce pottery and clay votive figures for personal use.

Division of Labor. Women are responsible for cooking, cleaning, laundry, child care, caring for domestic livestock, and gathering firewood. They also bear the primary responsibility for carrying water from wells or springs for household use, a task that can become onerous in the dry season, when even the nearest source of stagnant or polluted water may be as far as several kilometers away. In mountainous areas, women often have to climb down into caves to find a source of water. Men clear and plant fields for milpas, cut sugarcane and henequen for processing, and build houses. Both sexes weed and harvest crops, process sugar, and weave henequen bags for sale. Children assist adults from an early age. The division of labor is not rigid; a man may take on household responsibilities if a woman is ill or if he has free time.

Land Tenure. Wasteko land rights were lost in the late 1800s, when federal laws eliminated indigenous peoples' communal-property rights. After the Mexican Revolution, the 1917 Constitution recognized community ownership of land under Article 27 in the form of ejidos and comunidades. Ejidos were granted to groups of people who petitioned for access to resources to which they had had no prior claim. Comunidades are preexisting corporate entities, whose rights were recognized if their members could demonstrate prior, longstanding, community-based use of the land and waters. Because it was easier to establish rights to ejidos, the Wasteko claimed property in both ways. In either case, the community is the primary allocator and enforcer of local rights to resources within its boundaries, and it regulates both inheritance and membership. The corporate group's cultural and social integrity reinforces a unified approach to management decisions. Communities can grant to individual households the rights to manage and benefit from long-term, private access to specific community resources. Thus, each household owns, operates, and passes on inheritance rights to its own farmstead within the borders of the comunidad or ejido, but it cannot sell or rent community lands outside the community. Some Wasteko own small plots of individually titled property (parcelas particulares ). Households share the rights to harvest their crops or use their land with poorer community members and kin to ensure that the subsistence needs of all are met.


Kin Groups and Descent. Modern Wasteko have adopted the Spanish system of reckoning descent through both parents. Surnames are all Spanish, and the Spanish pattern of given name plus father's surname plus mother's surname is followed.

Kinship Terminology. Wasteko words for kin are still in common use. There are separate terms for "father" and "mother" and for "grandfather" and "grandmother," but a single term is used for "grandchild." The word meaning "sibling" can be specified for sex by adding "male" or "female." Cousins are called by the Spanish term primo. Traces of an older system remain; for example, in addition to "son" and "daughter," used by both parents, there is a separate word meaning "woman's child," and, whereas there is a single term meaning both "uncle" and "nephew" and another meaning both "aunt" and "niece," there are also separate words for uncles who are "father's brothers," and aunts who are "mother's sisters." A distinction is also made between a "man's brother-in-law" and a "woman's brother-in-law" and between a man's and a woman's sister-in-law. Terms for "step-" and "adoptive" kin are derived by adding the suffix -le ' to the basic term. Catholic priests introduced the concept of ritual kinship, such as "godparent" and "godchild," and the relationship between "parent" and "godparent" (Spanish comadre and compadre ). These ritual kin relationships are described either by Spanish-derived terms or by a combination of Spanish and Wasteko terms.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. The isolation and the sedentary living patterns of Wasteko families ensure that most marriages are contracted locally. They usually take place in the Catholic church, but they are arranged by a traditional broker and require a ritual process.

Domestic Unit and Socialization. The minimum domestic unit consists of father, mother, and unmarried children, but most households also include grandparents, children of deceased relatives, godchildren, other kin, or unrelated individuals. Residence after marriage tends to be patrilocal, but it is not uncommon for a daughter's husband to move onto her family's farmstead, where the married couple usually occupies a separate house. Children learn traditional Wasteko values and behavior in the home. Schools attempt to socialize the children into the national mestizo culture, but few children attend school beyond the sixth grade. Secondary schools exist only in the larger town centers, which are often more than an hour's walk from most of the children's homes.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social and Political Organization. For most Wasteko, life revolves around the local Indian community. Community institutions have developed around the compadrazgo system of fictive kinship, kinship-based reciprocity, the cargo (the ritual obligation, shared by a set of communities, to sponsor the fiestas of saints), other church-based groups, marketing cooperatives, and the organizations that have been created by the state to regulate activities on community lands. The latter organizations include the General Assembly, in which each household is represented by one person, and two important elected three-person committees: the comisariado, which represents the community to outside authorities and settles land disputes, and the consejo de vigilancia, which monitors the activities of the first committee. Community decisions are made in General Assembly meetings by majority vote. At the municipio level, however, political power is held by mestizos. The Wasteko do not actively participate in pan-Mexican indigenous organizations.

Social Control and Conflict. Peer pressure derived from a shared value system is generally effective in maintaining community standards. Accusations of witchcraft are made against those who attempt to appropriate resources for private gain. Curers reinforce socially appropriate behavior during their interactions with patients by looking for illness caused by the patient's or others' misuse of resources or for other antisocial behavior.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs and Ceremonies. The Wasteko maintain a strong belief in pre-Hispanic religious traditions and possess a rich repertory of oral history. Although nominally Catholic, most Wasteko interpret the world in a pre-Hispanic cosmological framework. Saints are associated with particular native deities. The elaborate history of Thipaak, the culture hero who brought maize to the Wasteko, is linked to accounts of other supernatural beings. Creation stories include references to human origins in male homosexual relations; to the lintsi ("flat asses"), giants who, lacking orifices for elimination, wasted their food because they only inhaled its aroma; and to people who lost access to special powers because they failed to respect the gods. Major deities include the Earth, Time, the Sun, and rain bringers who are associated with the East, the North, and the West. In addition, minor deities, conceived as male and female pairs, control specific realms of human interest, including sorcery (associated with the South), dance, medicine, pottery, beekeeping, and weaving. They are called fathers, mothers, grandfathers, and grandmothers. The ancestral nature of these deities, their association with the landscape of Wasteko territories, and the powers they control all reflect the integration of social, ecological, and historical elements in Wasteko ontology and epistemology.

Major ritual ceremonies include those that are deemed necessary for marriage, naming a child, and death. There are also special rituals for the New Year, house protection, illness, and agriculture. Details of religious beliefs and curing are found in Alcorn (1984).

Arts. The Wasteko are known for their music and for their traditional dances, which are named for animals and birds. Artistic expression is no longer elaborated in their material culture, although in pre-Hispanic times the Wasteko were famous for weaving and for producing engraved-shell pectorals and stone sculpture.

Medicine. The combination of isolation and poverty has meant that most Wasteko have only minimal access to modern medicine. Malnutrition and lack of sanitation contribute to a high incidence of tuberculosis. Intestinal parasites are endemic, and fungal infections, respiratory ailments, and traumatic injuries are common. Women have scant medical assistance during pregnancy, and they give birth in unsanitary surroundings. Many are so malnourished that they lack adequate milk for their babies and are forced to feed them maize gruel or powdered milk mixed with dirty water. In addition, few children are immunized against the common childhood diseases. As a result, early-childhood mortality is high. The Wasteko response to these conditions is a reliance on a complex system of traditional medicine, which employs over 550 species of medicinal plants. Illness is considered a social and physical phenomenon; one or more of the four essential parts becomes disorderedheart, soul, spirit, and "growing shoot"Curers participate in a shamanic tradition, learning from their dreams and deriving their legitimacy from their innate ability to speak directly to the godsa necessary skill for curers, who are described as lawyers who argue the patient's case before the gods. Both men and women may be curers, and their spouses often assist them. The curer's tools include an altar, candles, crystals, pitch-pine sticks, a hollow cane tube for sucking out illness, shoots of special plants, music, copal incense, aguardiente liquor, and, most important, language. Curers identify the causes of an illness, remove these causes, and help the body to return to a normal state of order.


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