Oaxaca: Land of Diversity

A higher level of indigenous diversity than any other Mexican state

By John P. Schmal
Published on LatinoLA: January 28, 2007

Oaxaca: Land of Diversity

The Mexican state of Oaxaca has been receiving a great deal of attention lately. Although most Americans know that Oaxaca is a state with a heavy concentration of indigenous peoples, many are not aware that Oaxaca has a higher level of indigenous diversity than any other Mexican state. The Mexican state of Oaxaca, located along the Pacific Ocean in the southeastern section of the country, consists of 95,364 square kilometers and occupies 4.85% of the total surface area of the Mexican Republic. Located where the Eastern Sierra Madre and the Southern Sierra Madre come together, Oaxaca shares a common border with the states of Mexico, Veracruz and Puebla (on the north), Chiapas (on the east), and Guerrero (on the west).

The name Oaxaca was originally derived from the N?íhuatl word, Huayacac, which roughly translated means "The Place of the Seed" in reference to a tree commonly found in Oaxaca. As the fifth largest state of Mexico, Oaxaca is characterized by extreme geographic fragmentation. With extensive mountain ranges throughout the state, Oaxaca has an average altitude of 1,500 meters (5,085 feet) above sea level, even though only about 9% of this is arable land. With such a large area and rough terrain, Oaxaca is divided into 571 municipios (almost one-quarter of the national total).

Oaxaca's rugged topography has played a significant role in giving rise to its amazing cultural diversity. Because individual towns and tribal groups lived in isolation from each other for long periods of time, the subsequent seclusion allowed sixteen ethnolinguistic groups to maintain their individual languages, customs and ancestral traditions intact well into the colonial era and - to some extent - to the present day. For this reason, Oaxaca is - by and large - the most ethnically complex of Mexico's thirty-one states. The Zapotec (347,000 people) and the Mixtec (241,000 people) are the two largest groups of Indians, but they make up only two parts of the big puzzle.

Even today, it is believed that at least half of the population of Oaxaca still speaks an indigenous dialect. Sixteen different indigenous groups have been formally registered as indigenous communities, all perfectly well defined through dialect, customs, food habits, rituals, cosmogony, etc. However, the historian Mar?¡a de Los Angeles Romero Frizzi suggests that "the linguistic categorization is somewhat misleading" partly because "the majority of indigenous peoples in Oaxaca identify more closely with their village or their community than with their ethnolinguistic group." In addition, Ms. Romero writes, some of the language families - including Zapotec, Mixtec, and Mazateco - "encompass a variety of regional languages, making for a more diverse picture than the number sixteen would suggest."

When the Spaniards arrived in the Valley of Oaxaca in 1521, the inhabitants had split into hundreds of independent village-states. In the unique 1921 census, 25,458 residents of Oaxaca claimed to be of "pure indigenous" descent, equal to 3.96% of the state population. Another 328,724 persons were listed as "indigenous mixed with white" (called mestizo or mezclada).

By the time of the 2000 census, 1,120,312 indigenous speaking persons aged five and older living in Oaxaca represented 37.11% of the state population. Out of this total, 477,788 persons were classified as monolingual (i.e., not Spanish-speaking), representing 11.02% of the state population five years of age and older and 19.56% of the indigenous-speaking language.

Without a doubt, the Oto-Manguean language family is the largest linguistic group in the state of Oaxaca, represented by at least 173 languages. The author Nicholas A. Hopkins, in his article "Otomanguean Linguistic Prehistory," states that glottochronological studies of the Oaxaca Indian groups indicate that the first diversification of this group of languages had begun by 4400 B.C. It is believed that nine branches of the Oto-Manguean family were already distinct by 1500 B.C., and that some of this linguistic differentiation actually took place in the Valley of Tehuac?ín. Both the Zapotecs and the Mixtecs belong to this linguistic family.

Zapotecs. The Zapotec Indians, a sedentary, agricultural city-dwelling people, are believed to be among the earliest ethnic groups to gain prominence in the region. As a matter of fact, the Zapotecs have always called themselves Be'ena'a, which means "The People." The implication of this terminology is that the Zapotecs believe that they are "The True People" or "The people of this place." Unlike many other Mesoamerican Indians groups, the Zapotecs have no legend of migration and their legends claim that their ancestors emerged from the earth or from caves, or that they turned from trees or jaguars into people.

The Zapotecs are, by far, the largest indigenous group of Oaxaca and presently occupy 67 municipios of Oaxaca. The Zapotec language is the most widely spoken language of Oaxaca. In the most recent census county of 2005, the Zapotecs, tallied at 357,134 individuals who speak that language, represented 32.7% of all Oaxaca residents speaking indigenous languages. Of the 173 living Oto-Manguean tongues, sixty-four are Zapotecan.

Mixtecs. Today, the Mixtec Indians inhabit a geographic region of more than 40,000 square kilometers in northwestern Oaxaca and smaller portions of Puebla and Guerrero. The Mixtec territory is divided into three subregions: the Upper Mixteca, Lower Mixteca and the Coast Mixteca. The Upper Mixteca, covering 38 municipios, is the most populated region. The Lower Mixteca covers another 31 municipios in northwestern Oaxaca. The 2005 census count tallied 242,049 Mixtec speakers, representing 22.2% of the states' indigenous-speaking population. Today, the Mixtecs call themselves ?æuu Savi, the People of the rain.

In addition to the Zapotec and Mixtec Indians, fourteen other indigenous groups have lived and flourished throughout the present-day state of Oaxaca. While they never achieved the numbers and influence attained by the Zapotecs and Mixtecs, they, nevertheless, represent an important factor in the historical and cultural panorama of Oaxaca. These indigenous groups are described below:

Mazatecos. Occupying the northernmost region of the state, the Mazatecos occupy two environmentally and culturally well-defined regions: the upper Sierra Madre Oriental mountains and the Papaloapan Basin. The Mazatecos call themselves Ha shuta enima, which means "People of Custom." In recent decades, the Mazateco Indians have represented one of the largest linguistic groups in Oaxaca. With 164,673 individuals aged five and older speaking Mazatec in the 2005 census count, this linguistic group made up 15.1% of the state's total indigenous population. A significant number of Mazatecos also occupy Veracruz and Puebla.

Mixes. Although they represent the fourth largest of Oaxaca's ethnic groups, the Mixes are an isolated ethnic group that inhabits the northeastern part of Oaxaca, close to the border with Veracruz. This region consists of 19 municipios and 108 communities. The Mixes call themselves Ayuuk, which means "The People." Some historians believe that the Mixes may have migrated from present-day Peru in search of Zempoaltepetl, a pagan god, and the Hill of Twenty Gods.

In the 2000 census, 105,443 persons aged five or more were classified as speakers of one or more of the seven distinct dialects of the Mixe. The Mixe thus represented 9.4% of the total indigenous speaking population, with approximately 38,000 of these people classified as monolingual, making them the Mexican indigenous group with the highest rate of monolingualism. The number of Mixe speakers in Oaxaca dropped to 103,089 in the 2005 count.

Chinantecos. The Chinantecos, numbering more than 104,000 people, presently inhabit the Chinantla region of north central Oaxaca near the border of Veracruz. As a division of the Oto-Manguean linguistic group, the Chinantecos speak as many as 14 different dialects. The Chinantecos of San Juan Lealao in northeast Oaxaca, who speak a divergent variety of the language, call themselves Dsa jmii (Plains people) and refer to their language as Fah jmii (Plains language). The Chinantecos presently inhabit an area in which archaeologists have located temples that were apparently used as ceremonial centers, and where prisoners were supposedly sacrificed during the most important celebrations of the year. In the 2000 census, the number of Chinanteco speakers was tallied at 104,010, equivalent to 9.28% of Oaxaca's total indigenous population.

Chatinos. The Chatino nation, boasting an area of 3,071 square miles (7,677 square kilometers) is located in southwestern Oaxaca. The Chatinos belong to the Oto-Manguean language group and speak seven main dialects. Historical researchers believe that they were one of the first indigenous groups to inhabit the State of Oaxaca. In his book, "Historia de Oaxaca," the historian Jos?® Antonio Gay speculates that they arrived in a scarcely-populated area (now in the municipio of Juquila) from a "distant land" long before the arrival of the Zapotecs and Mixtecs.

The Chatinos call themselves Kitse cha'tnio, which means Work of the Words. In 2000, the Chatinos represented sixth most common indigenous tribe of Oaxaca, represented by 40,004 persons aged five and over who spoke the language (3.57% of the population). In the 2005 census count, the Chatinos' numbers increased slightly to 42,477, or 3.9% of the state's indigenous population.

Trique. The Triques inhabit a 193-square-mile area in the southern Sierra Madre Mountains in the westernmost part of Oaxaca. Historians believe that the Triques, long ago, had fled from some distant land, seeking refuge from warring neighbors. Once in Oaxaca, they were defeated by both the Zapotecs and Mixtecs. Then, in the Fifteenth Century, the Aztec armies defeated them decisively and forced them to pay tribute. In the 2000 census, 15,203 inhabitants of Oaxaca aged five and over spoke the Trique language, making it the eighth month common tongue in the state. In the 2005 census count, the number of Trique speakers reached 18,292, representing 1.7% of the state indigenous population.

Amuzgos. As a part of the Oto-Manguean language family, the Amuzgo Indians inhabit the border region of southeastern Guerrero and southwestern Oaxaca. Speaking three primary dialects, an estimated 28,000 Amuzgos were registered in the 1990 Mexican census. However, only twenty percent of this number were living in Oaxaca, with the majority residing in Guerrero. The Amuzgos call themselves Tzjon non, which means People of the Textiles. In the 2000 census, 4,819 individuals aged five or more claimed to speak the Amuzgo language, representing 0.43% of Oaxaca's total indigenous figure. This makes the Amuzgo language the thirteenth most common linguistic group of all Oaxaca's indigenous tongues.

Chocho. Living in the northern zone of "Mixteca Alta" (Upper Mixteca), near Oaxaca's border with Puebla, the Chocho people (also known as Chochones and Chocholtecas) call themselves Runixa ngiigua, which means "Those Who Speak The Language." Inhabiting a region that is rich in archaeological sites, this tribe belongs to the Oto-Manguean family. In the 2000 census, only 524 citizens of Oaxaca spoke the Chocho language.

Chontales. Chontal is the name of two very distinct languages spoken in the states of Tabasco and Oaxaca. This group's physical separation, enhanced by its different geographical and climactic conditions, has propitiated its division into Coastal and Mountain groups. Chontal Tabasco is a member of the Mayan language family and Chontal Oaxaca a member of the Hokan language family, which is more widely represented in the Southwestern United States and the border states of Baja California and Sonora. The Chontales of Oaxaca refer to themselves Slijuala xanuc, which means "Inhabitants of the Mountains."

The origins of the Oaxacan Chontal population have not been conclusively determined, but some archaeologists believe that they originally came from Nicaragua. Warfare may have motivated them to move north, through what is now Honduras, Yucat?ín and Tabasco. Eventually, they settled down in both Oaxaca and Tabasco. Founded in 1374, the Kingdom of the Chontals eventually came into conflict with the Zapotecs. After a series of ongoing confrontations, the Zapotecs finally defeated them. Under Spanish rule, the Chontales carried on a formidable resistance for some time. In the 2000 census, 4,610 Chontal de Oaxaca were tallied at 4,610, representing 0.41% of the state's total indigenous speaking population. Today, the Chontal Oaxaca inhabit the southernmost region of Oaxaca and speak two major dialects.

Cuicateco. Cuicateco territory, located in northwestern Oaxaca, occupies an approximate area of 3,243 square miles. At the time of the 2000 census, only 12,128 persons five years of age or more claimed to speak the Cuicateco language, representing more than one percent of Oaxaca's total indigenous population, living primarily in northwestern Oaxaca.

Huave. Although the origins of the Huave nation have not been indisputably determined, some historians believe that this group came from a distant land, possibly from Nicaragua or even as far away as Peru. It is believed that the Huave arrived by sea, traveling along the coast as they sought out a new home. Finally, they reached the Tehuantepec coast, inhabited by the Mixe nation, who did not oppose their settlement. In the 2005 census count, Oaxaca residents who speak the Huave language numbered 15,324, or 1.4% of the total indigenous population. Even today, the Huave call themselves Mero ikooc, which means "The True Us." As small as their group is, they are actually the eighth-most common language spoken.

Ixcatecos. The Ixcateco Indians inhabit only the town of Santa Maria de Ixcatl?ín in the municipio of the same name, in the north part of the state. Living in one of the most arid, eroded and poorest regions of the country, the Ixcatecos are the only remnants of the pre-Hispanic Ixcateco nation, which once occupied another seven communities. At the time of the 2000 census, only 207 individuals in Oaxaca spoke the Ixcateco language.

Popoloco. The term Popoloca was applied by the Aztecs to all those nations that did not speak a tongue based on N?íhuatl, more or less understandable among them. Therefore, the term had the connotation of stranger or foreigner and, at the same time, a derogatory denotation for "barbaric", "stuttering" and "unintelligent". The Spaniards continued using the term in the same manner. The Popoluca call themselves Homshuk, which means God of Corn. Today, the Popolca population is divided in three fractions speaking six primary dialects, with no geographical continuity evident. In the 2000 census, only 61 Popoloco speakers were tallied in Oaxaca.

Tacuates. The Tacuates, who speak a variant of the Mixtec language, occupy two of Oaxaca's municipios. It is believed that their name evolved from the N?íhuatl word, Tlacoatl, which was derived from tlal (Land) and coal (serpent, snake). The implication is that the Tacuates lived in the land of the serpents. In the 2000 census, Tacuate speakers numbered only 1,726 individuals five years of age and older.

Zoque. The Zoque tribe, also called Aiyuuk, is closely related to the Mayan-Chique family. The Zoque call themselves O'deput, which means People of the Language. The main nucleus of the Zoques is in Chiapas, where approximately 15,000 speak the language. The Oaxaca branch of the tribe probably does not amount to more than 10,000 people. Many of their customs, social organizations, religion beliefs, and way of life were identical to those of the Mixe community, with whom they probably share a common origin in Central America.

Copyright ?® 2007, by John P. Schmal.


Adams, Richard E.W., "Prehistoric Mesoamerica." Oklahoma City: Un of Oklahoma Press, 1991., "Languages of Mexico. From Ethnologue: Languages of the World," 14th edition, Online:

Frizzi, Mar?¡a de Los Angeles Romero, "The Indigenous Population of Oaxaca From the Sixteenth Century to the Present," in Richard E.W. Adams and Murdo J. MacLeod (eds.), "The Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas, Volume II, Mesoamerica, Part 2." Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Gay, Jos?® Antonio, "Historia de Oaxaca." Distrito Federal, Mexico: Porr??a, 1982.

Hopkins, Nicholas A., "Otomanguean Linguistic Prehistory," in J. Kathryn Josserand, Marcus Winter, and Nicholas Hopkins (eds.), "Esays in Otomanguean Culture History - Vanderbuilt University Publications in Anthropology No. 31" (Nashville: Vanderbilt University, 1984), pp. 25-64.

Instituto Nacional de Estad?¡stica, Geograf?¡a e Inform?ítica (INEGI). "Tabulados B?ísicos. Estados Unidos Mexicanos. XII Censo General de Poblaci??n y Vivienda, 2000." (Mexico, 2001).

About John P. Schmal:
John P. Schmal is the author of "The Journey to Latino Political Representation," scheduled for publication in March. He is working on a book about indigenous Mexico.

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