Zapotecs, a linguistically related population of indigenous people in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, of whom there were some 300,000 in the 1990s. Zapotecs have occupied the Oaxaca area since at least 1500 b.c.
The Zapotecs call themselves bene zaa, which means either "the native people" or "the cloud people." The term "Zapotec" derives from the Nahuatl Tzapotecatl, meaning "people of the zapote tree." It was first applied to native inhabitants in Oaxaca by the Aztecs in the fifteenth century.
Present-day Zapotecs are generally divided into four major groups: the Valley Zapotecs, who occupy the fertile Valley of Oaxaca in the center of the state; the sierra or Mountain Zapotecs, occupying the districts of Ixtlán, Villa Alta, and Choapán; the Isthmus Zapotecs, who live on the tropical Isthmus of Tehuantepec; and the Southern Zapotecs of the sierra Miahuatlán region. This distribution corresponds roughly to their location at the time of the Spanish conquest in 1521.
The Zapotec languages (Zapotec and Chatino) belong to Otomanguean, a large linguistic stock that is one of the oldest in Mesoamerica. It includes a number of other language groups, such as Mixtec, Cuicatec, and Mazatec in Oaxaca, Otomí in the states of Mexico and Hidalgo, and Mangue in Central America, none of which is related to the Mayan or Uto-Aztecan stocks.
Zapotec is a language family or group rather than a single language. The languages within it differ from one another as much as do the modern Romance languages. Scholars disagree about the number of Zapotec languages, some recognizing as few as five while others postulate as many as forty-five.
In pre-Spanish times the Valley Zapotecs had developed one of the earliest writing systems in Mesoamerica (ca. 500 b.c.). Hieroglyphic inscriptions are found in abundance at the ancient Zapotec city of Monte Albán, now a famous Mexican archaeological site. This metropolis rivaled other Classic Period (ca. 100–900) Mesoamerican cities such as Teotihuacán in central Mexico, and was built earlier than those in the Maya area. After the fall of Monte Albán around 800, the Zapotecs continued to maintain a distinctive and complex stratified culture at such sites as Zaachila, Mitla, and Yagul in the Valley of Oaxaca and Guiengola near Tehuantepec. The power of Zapotec elites, however, was considerably undermined by invading Mixtecs and Aztecs before the Spanish conquest.
During the Spanish colonial period, Zapotecs were reduced to tribute-paying peasants and today are still predominantly villagers and farmer-artisans. Thus modern Zapotec culture is largely a village culture since Zapotec is, for the most part, spoken only in the home and the village. Modern Zapotec culture is very similar to that of many other parts of rural Mexico and is a complex amalgam of modern Mexican, Spanish colonial, and pre-Hispanic characteristics.
Since the 1970s, many Zapotecs seeking work have migrated to cities in Mexico and to the United States. During this same period, some Valley Zapotec villages, such as Teotitlán del Valle, have specialized in the production of crafts for which they have become nationally and internationally famous. The success of the Teotitlán weavers has brought to the village a renewed pride in its Zapotec heritage that is manifest in the development of programs to preserve Zapotec language and customs. Another town that has shown a particular interest in preserving its Zapotec heritage is Juchitán in the Isthmus region.
The most famous Zapotec is Benito Juárez, born in the sierra village of Guelatao, who was president of Mexico from 1858 to 1872. In recent times, each president of Mexico has made an annual pilgrimage to Oaxaca to celebrate Juárez's birthday, a national holiday. Today, Isthmus Zapotec poets such as Victor de la Cruz, Victor Terán, Natalia Toledo Paz, and Sierra Zapotec Mario Molina Cruz are some of the most prolific and respected indigenous writers in Mexico, leading the way in the renaissance of Mexican indigenous literary production.
A general overview of the Zapotecs from earliest times to the present is Joseph W. Whitecotton, The Zapotecs (1984). For the pre-Hispanic period, see Kent V. Flannery and Joyce Marcus, eds., The Cloud People (1983). Good ethnographies of modern Zapotec villages are Lynn Stephen, Zapotec Women (1991), and Laura Nader, Harmony Ideology: Justice and Control in a Zapotec Mountain Village (1990).
García Antonio, Epifanio. Imagen de un pueblo indígena a fines del siglo XX. Mexico City: INI, 2001.
Joseph W. Whitecotton