Indigenous San Luis Potos?

Home of the Guachichiles, Huastecos and N?huatl Speakers

By John P. Schmal
Published on LatinoLA: July 10, 2014

Indigenous San Luis Potos?

The land-locked state of San Luis Potos? is located in center-north Mexico. With a surface area of 61,138 square kilometers (representing 3.1% of the total area of the Mexican Republic), San Luis Potos? is politically divided into 58 municipios and touches nine other Mexican states. The state is adjacent to Coahuila on the north, Nuevo Le??n on the northeast, and Tamaulipas on the northeast. Additionally, San Luis Potos? has a common border with Veracruz Llave (on the east), Guanajuato, Quer?taro and Hidalgo on the south, Jalisco on the southwest, and Zacatecas to the west.

San Luis Potos? had a 2010 population of 2,585,518 which represented 2.3% the Mexican Republic's entire population, and is distributed into 64% urban and 36% rural (in contrast to the national figures of 77% versus 22%, respectively). The capital of San Luis Potos? is the city of the same name. The state name was originally granted in honor of the city's founder, Luis de Leija, but also to honor Viceroy Luis of Velasco. Potos? was added to the name because the mines of this region had a richness similar to the famous mining settlement of that name high in the Bolivian Andes, the source of so much silver.

The early settlers of this area felt sure that this region also had immense silver deposits. Their hopes were certainly fulfilled, though not only in the way they had originally envisioned. Besides silver, which was mined in vast quantities, major deposits of gold, fluorite and mercury were also discovered.

The State of San Luis Potos? has a very angular look dominated by three natural regions:

1. Altiplano (the Highland Plateau or Mesa del Centro) occupies most of western SLP or roughly two-thirds of the state's total area. Most of this high plateau is broken by spurs of the Eastern Sierra Madre Oriental Mountain Range. It is largely desert in the north.
2. Sierra Madre Oriental Range takes up the northwest of SLP
3. Planicie de Golfo dominates the southeast of SLP.

Indigenous Groups at Contact

In pre-Hispanic times, two primary indigenous groups dominated what we now know as the present state of San Luis Potos?: The Chichimecas (in the west) and the Huastecas (in the east).

The Chichimecas occupied the entire western region at the time of Spanish contact. The Chichimeca's actually consisted of several groups, including:

Guachichiles (the most numerous group)


The Otom? are one of the largest and oldest indigenous groups in Mexico. The different language groups in the Otom? family, including Otom?, Mazahua, Matlaltzinca, Ocuiltec, Southern and Northern Pame and Chichimec Jonaz (Manrique), have been molded by their various relationships with other central Mexican nations and by their own dispersal and migration to settlements. The Otom? called themselves ?a??hu, which means those who speak ?uju.


The Guachichiles, of all the Chichimeca Indians, occupied the most extensive territory, extending some 100,000 square kilometers from Lake Chapala (Jalisco) in the south to Saltillo (Coahuila) in the north. Considered both warlike and brave, the Guachichiles roamed through a large section of the present-day state of Zacatecas. The Aztecs used the term "Guachichile" as a reference to "heads painted of red," a reference to the red dye that they used to paint their bodies, faces and hair. Although the main body of the Guachichile territory lay in Zacatecas, they also inhabited or travelled through large sections of western San Luis Potos?, northwestern Guanajuato, eastern Aguascalientes and the Los Altos area of Jalisco.

The Guachichiles were among the first of the northeastern peoples to be "reduced" to settling down in Spanish towns that included the agricultural town of Saltillo and the mining towns of Mazapil in the far north, as well as seven agricultural and mining towns of central San Luis Potos?.


The Guamares inhabited the Guanajuato Sierra but extended north into the southwestern portion of San Luis Potos? and parts of Quer?taro in the east. The author Gonzalo de las Casas called the Guamares "the bravest, most warlike, treacherous and destructive of all the Chichimecas, and the most astute (dispuesta)." Guamares, Pur?pechas and Otom?es cofounded the town of P?njamo in southwestern Guanajuato in 1549. But eventually mention of the Guamares disappears and by 1572, they are no references of Guamares establishing Pueblos.


The Pames of San Luis Potos? call themselves X? ??i, which means "native." The Pames were a seminomadic tribe, constituting a very divergent branch of the Otomanguian linguistic family. They were located mainly in the southeastern part of San Luis Potosi south and east of the R?o Verde and also in adjoining areas of Tamaulipas, Quer?taro and Guanajuato.

The Huastecos (Teenek)

The Huasteco Indians, who speak a form of the Mayan language, presently occupy 55 municipios in the modern-day states of Veracruz, San Luis Potos? and Hidalgo, as well as smaller sections of southern Tamaulipas and eastern Quer?taro. The Huastecas who refer to themselves as Teenek -- are what remains of an early Mayan expansion northward up the Veracruz coast from the more traditional Mayan regions of the Yucatan Peninsula. However, the Huastecas were "left behind" after other Mayan groups retreated south and east. Linguists have estimated that the Hausteca precursor language diverged from the early Mayan language between 2200 and 1200 B.C.

The Huastecs became culturally dominant in the region between 750 and 800 AD. Over the next few centuries, the Huastecas managed to spread their influence over a large territory from the Tuxpan River to the P?nuco with most settlements along the banks of the Huayalejo-Tames? River, along the northern Veracruz and southern Tamaulipas coast and west into the Sierra Madre Oriental. However, they never built cities and ceremonial centers as large as in other parts of Mesoamerica. One reason for this was that the Chichimeca were a constant threat from the West.

In the Post Classic period, Huastec territory shrank due to incursions by Nahuas and Otom? in the south and west, culminating into Aztec conquest of much of their territory by 1450 A.D. The Aztecs had become jealous of the Huastecas because of the abundance and diversity of fruits in their territory; so they declared war on the Huastecs. After hard-fought battles, the Huastecs were defeated and forced to pay taxes of skins, paper, feathers, cotton and blankets.

Some of the Huasteco Indians lived in the eastern part of SLP. The geographic entity named for them the Hausteca comprises a vast region of Mexico, covering parts of the states of Veracruz, San Luis Potos?, Tamaulipas and Hidalgo. When the Spaniards arrived in 1519, the Huastecos put up a fierce resistance in the area known as P?nuco (now in northern Veracruz).


After the fall of Tenochtitl?n (August 1521), Hernan Cortes sought to extend Spanish domination to the areas between Tenochtitl?n and the Gulf Coast to secure his supply lines with the mother country by way of the road to Veracruz. Cortes came to regard the Huastecas as a threat and in October 1522 led an army toward P?nuco. After meeting with considerable resistance, Cort?s defeated the Huastecos and founded the Villa de San Esteban (in Veracruz) in 1522, where he stationed 130 forces. However, revolts by the Huastecos in October-December 1523 and 1525-26 were put down with great cruelty.

Chichimeca War (1550-1590)

The Spaniards began arriving in the Gran Chichimeca following the discovery of silver in Zacatecas in 1546 and Guanajuato in 1552. (Gold and silver were not found in SLP until 1592 when the mine of "San Luis de Mezquitique," was opened at the present-day location of SLP). During the 1550s, when the silver discoveries began drawing more settlers towards the north, the so-called Chichimeca War started and lasted 40 years. That war, which resulted in a high cost in both lives and material resources, prevented the Spaniards from expanding their earlier conquests in the northern region.

However, by 1590, the Guachichiles who occupied much of western SLP had been pacified. A report of a distribution of clothes to the Guachichil settlements in November 1593 described several thousand Guachichiles as living in SLP pueblos immediately after the Chichimeca War, and an undeterminable number still living in rancher?as outside of Spanish control around Matehuala and further east.

Evangelizing the Chichimecas

With the pacification of the Chichimecs and Guachichiles, Viceroy Luis de Velasco II initiated a movement to evangelize the Chichimecas. In 1590, the Franciscans established a convent, San Miguel de Mexquitic, and built a small adobe church (now the Cathedral of San Luis). Then, the Viceroy commanded that 400 families of loyal, converted Tlaxcaltecans be brought north to be settled alongside the Guachichiles and other Chichimecas. In June 1591, a caravan of 100 wagons and 932 colonists began their journey. These 932 colonists consisted of 690 married individuals, 187 children and 55 single or widowed individuals.

On August 5, 1591 the caravan arrived at Uccello, where the caravan split up to go to its various destinations. One of the four groups 228 Tlaxcaltecans under Captains Francisco Vazquez and Juaquin Paredes --was sent from San Juan del Rio to the mines of San Miguel Mexquitic in SLP.

Early Spanish Settlements

On June 10, 1550, Cateano Medellin led a group of Spaniards and Tlaxcaltecans in the settlement of Matehuala. The area around the present-day cities of Matehuala and Charcas was then inhabited by a Guachichil group, known as Bozalos or Negritos. It has been estimated that the Guachichil population of the area at this time was about 25,000.

In 1574, Charcas Viejas was founded as Santa Mar?a de las Charcas by Francisco Ruiz with the help of miners and missionaries from Zacatecas. However, they were twice driven out by the Chichimecas, returning to the mining camp around 1583-84. Tlaxcaltecans settled in Charcas in 1591-92, setting up their own gobierno (government). Soon after, other mining centers and cattle ranches spread across the surrounding area.

When the Spaniards first arrived in the area that is now called San Luis Potos? Guadalc?zar R?o Verde and the surrounding region, there were three groups of hunters and gatherers living in the area:

Guamares occupied the southwest section
Pames occupied the south and east of Rio Verde.
The Guachichiles occupied the northern section

On November 3, 1592, Villa de San Luis Potos? was founded by Miguel Caldera. With the discovery of gold, Spanish and Christianized Indians from the south migrated to the area to work in the mines and on the haciendas. The Spaniards had gained control of the larger surrounding area by 1616-17 with the opening of Franciscan missions in the area.

La Huasteca Region

La Huasteca is a geographical and cultural region located along the Gulf of Mexico which includes parts of the states of Tamaulipas, Veracruz, Puebla, Hidalgo, San Luis Potos?, Quer?taro, and Guanajuato. Historically and ethnically, the La Huasteca region is roughly defined by the area dominated by the Huastecas when their civilization was at its height in the Mesoamerican period.

The Huasteca is considered a rich agricultural region with an abundance of water from the riverine system flowing to the Gulf. Geographically it has been defined as the area running from the Sierra Madre Oriental to the Gulf of Mexico with the Sierra de Tamaulipas as the northern border and the Cazones River as its southern border. It extends over the south of Tamaulipas, the southeast of San Luis Potos?, the northeast of Quer?taro and Hidalgo and the extreme north of Veracruz and Puebla and a very small portion of Guanajuato.

The actual area of the region is somewhat disputed. Some Mexican government institutions have defined the Huasteca region as a region of about 22,193 kilometers consisting of about 55 municipios divided between San Luis Potosi (19), Veracruz (28) and Hidalgo (8). Different organizations have their own classifications for the size and shape of the Huasteca, including SEDESOL (39 municipios), and CONAPO (83 municipios).

Today, despite the fact that the large region is named after them, the Huastecas occupy only a fraction of this region which is now home to six indigenous ethnic groups with over 250,000 speakers of various languages. However, those who live in the region share a number of cultural traits such as a style of music and dance along with religious festivals such as Xantolo. Of the 55 municipios, the indigenous population of the Huasteca region in 2000 was 1,575,078, of which 76.7% were Nahuatl and 21.64% were Teenek, followed by the Otom?es (2.2%); Tepehuas (0.64%); The Pames (0.35%); and the Totonacos and Chichimeca Jon?z, which represented less than 0.4%.

Indigenous San Luis Potos? (1895-1920)

The 1895 Mexican census indicated that only 47,046 speakers of indigenous languages five years of age or more lived in the state of San Luis Potosi. This population group represented only 8.3% of the state population of 568,449. In the next census (1900), the indigenous speaking population dropped to 31,937, representing only 5.6% of the population. However, the 1910 census recorded a significant increase in the indigenous population to 63,448, bringing the percentage to 10.1%.

The 1921 Mexican Census

In the unusual 1921 Mexican census, residents of each state were asked to classify themselves in several categories, including "ind?gena pura" (pure indigenous), "ind?gena mezclada con blanca" (indigenous mixed with white) and "blanca" (white). Out of a total state population of 445,681,

136,365 persons (or 30.6%) claimed to be of pure indigenous background
275,812 persons (or 61.9%) classified themselves as being mixed
24,103 (5.4%) claimed to be "blanca" or white.

The 2000 Census

In the 2000 census, 235,253 inhabitants of San Luis Potos? spoke indigenous languages, representing 10.23% of the state population aged 5 or more. The most widely spoken languages were as follows:

N?huatl (138,523)
Huasteco (87,327)
Pame (7, 975)
Otom? (314)
Zapoteco (128)
Mixteco (130)
Chichimeca Jonaz (115).

The Zapoteco and Mixteco speakers were most likely migrants from Oaxaca or Guerrero.


N?huatl speakers live in almost every municipio of San Luis Potos?, but have a heavy concentration in several municipios in the southeastern portion of the state that border the states of Veracruz and Hidalgo. These municipios include Tamazunchale, Axtla, San Mart?n Chalchicuautla, Xilitla, Coxcatl?n and Matlapa. According to, the two most widely spoken N?huatl languages in SLP are:

Central Huasteca: spoken by an estimated 200,000 persons in the states of Hidalgo, Veracruz and SLP
Western (Oeste) Huasteca: spoken in 1,500 village by an estimated 400,000 persons (circa 1991) in both San Luis Potos? and Hidalgo. Centered in Tamazunchale, San Luis Potos? it is also called N?huatl de Tamazunchale

Huastecos de San Luis Potos? (Teenek)

In the 2000 census, the Huasteco Indians numbered 87,327 in San Luis Potos?, most of them concentrated in 11 municipios. Another 51,625 lived across the border in Veracruz. The population of the Huastecas in these two states alone 138,952 represented 92.5% of the 150,257 Huastecas living within the Mexican Republic. The indigenous languages in the Huasteca have evolved in recent decades, with more speakers that are bilingual than monolingual. In the Hidalgo Huasteca monolingual speakers in 2000 were 25% of the indigenous population, while in San Luis Potosi and Veracruz the percentages were 10.7 and 12.2% monolingual population.

Panes (xi'??i de San Luis Potosi)

The Pames who call themselves xi'??i speak a language that belongs to the Otomanguean Linguistic group. They use the word "Pame" to refer to themselves only when they are speaking Spanish. But in their religion, this word has a contemptuous meaning and they try to avoid using it. The xi'??i region, known as "The Pameria," occupies five municipios of San Luis Potos? (Ciudad del Ma?z, Alaquines, Tamasopo, Ray??n and Santa Catarina) and three communities in the Queretaro municipio of Jalpan de Serra. The Pameria municipios in SLP run from the northern border with Tamaulipas to the southern border with Quer?taro (in a narrow portion of the state).

In the 2000 Mexican census, the Pame only numbered 8,312 in the entire Mexican Republic. The largest share of Pame speakers -- 7,975 individuals lived in SLP, representing 95.9% of their total population. Their share of the total indigenous population within the Republic was less than four percent.


The Chichimeca-Jonaz language is found only in the states of San Luis Potos? and Guanajuato. Chichimeca Jonaz is classified as a member of the Oto-Manguean language family and is divided into two major dialects: the Pame dialect, which is used in San Luis Potos?, and the Jonaz dialect used in Guanajuato. With a total of 1,433 Chichimeca-Jonaz speakers living in the state of Guanajuato in 2000, it is interesting to note that the great majority - 1,405 persons five years of age or more - actually lived in the municipio of San Luis de la Paz. In 2000, only 115 persons living in the municipio of Alaquines and the village of La Palma still spoken the language in SLP.

The 2010 Census

In 2010, SLP had 361,653 persons who were identified as indigenous, and this represented 14% of the total population. As expected, however, not all of the people who were indigenous spoke an indigenous language. In 2010, SLP had 248,196 persons five years of age or more who spoke an indigenous language, representing 10.7% of the population. The four most spoken languages in this census were:

N?huatl (141,326 speakers)
Huasteco (99,464 speakers)
Pame (11,412 speakers)
Otom? (320 speakers)

San Luis Potos? was ranked 9th among the 31 Mexican states and the Distrito Federal in terms of its percentage of indigenous speaking populations. Three municipios had populations that were classified as 90% or more indigenous, and in a total of 14 municipios more than 50% of the population was indigenous. However, in total, only three municipios had 80% or more indigenous speakers (5 years of age and older) within its boundaries, and a total of 10 municipios had 50% or more indigenous speakers.

Tamazunchale -- the municipio on the southeastern tip of SLP on the border with Hidalgo had the largest indigenous population (60,609 or 62.6% of the municipio's population), in addition to having an indigenous speaking population of 38,226 (44.3% of the municipio's population 5 years of age and older).

Aquism??n also in southeast SLP - had the second largest indigenous population, 37,745 (or 79.6%), ranking a distant second place. Aquism??n also had a considerable number of indigenous speakers, numbering 30,289 (or 72.4% of the municipio population 5 years of age and older).

Primary Sources

Chemin B?ssler, Heidi. "Los Pames Septentrionales de San Luis Potos?" (M?xico: INI, 1984)

Departamento de la Estad?stica Nacional, "Annuario de 1930" (Tacubaya, D.F., Mexico, 1932).

Departamento de la Estadistica Nacional, Estados Unidos Mexicanos, "Censos General de Habitantes: 30 de Noviembre de 1921, Estado de Jalisco," (Mexico, Distrito Federal: Talleres Graficos de la Naci??n, 1926)

Frye, David. "The Native Peoples of Northeastern Mexico" in "The Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas: Volume II: Mesoamerica: Part 2" (edited by Richard E.W. Adams and Murdo J. MacLeod (Cambridge University Press, 2000)).

Gerhard, Peter, "A Guide to the Historical Geography of New Spain" (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1972).

Gerhard, Peter. "The North Frontier of New Spain" (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1982).

Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (ed.), 2005. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Fifteenth edition, "Languages of Mexico" (Dallas, Texas: SIL International). Online:

Instituto Nacional de Estad?stica Geograf?a e Inform?tica (INEGI). XII Censo General de Poblaci??n y Vivienda 2000; Censo de Poblaci??n y Vivienda 2010.
Nava, Fernando. "Chichimecas Jonaz" (M?xico: INI - SEDESOL, 1994).

Powell, Philip W., "La Guerra Chichimeca (1550-1600)" (M?xico: FCE, 1992).

Powell, Philip Wayne, "Soldiers Indians and Silver: North America's First Frontier War." Tempe, Arizona: Center for Latin American Studies, Arizona State University, 1975.

Wilkerson, J. "The Ethnogenesis of the Hausteca and Totonacs" (1972: PH Dissertation, Dept, of Archaeology and Anthropology, Tulane University).

About John P. Schmal:
John Schmal has written the indigenous histories of several Mexican states.
Author's website

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