Language, Location and Demographics
The Mixtec language is thriving in South America, principally in the state of Oaxaca in south-east of Mexico. Here you will find a vibrant mix of Zapotec and Mixtec culture along with those of many other cultures.
The “Mixteca” usually refers to three ecologically distinct areas in Oaxaca: the Mixteca Alta, the Mixteca Baja, and, the Mixteca de la Costa.
The Mixtec region is comprised of Western Oaxaca and the neighboring areas of Guerrero and Puebla. Most of the Mixteca region lies in the vast Sierra Madre of Oaxaca, which is separated from the central highlands of Mexico by the Balsas River.
In 1980, the population of the greater Mixteca was approximately 450,000, with growth consistently below that of the country in general, and somewhat below the state of Oaxaca as a whole. The slow demographic growth is the result of high mortality and emigration rates.
Mixtec Culture / World View
Mixtec believe that each person is born sharing the spirit of that of an animal and therefore the fate of a particular animal alter ego. Not only does the human share a spirit with an animal, but the part that pertains to the human being is believed not to be absolutely bound to the physical body, but can leave the human body during dreams or as a result of fright. It is entirely possible for an ordinary human to become an animal, especially as result of special dance rituals and incantations.
Individualism is an important aspect of Mixtec culture. Individualistic competition among Mixtec’s is more apparent than cooperation, with the exception that a Mixtec’s personal identity as a member of his or her family and as belonging to a particular village is very significant. Group cohesion exists within the family and among close relatives. While Mixtec’s are highly individualistic, they still prefer to do things in small groups with at least one other person.
All family relationships are structured with a strong top-down orientation. Examples of this type of patriarchal hierarchy are that adult needs are met first if there is extra money. Children’s needs are considered secondary. Younger children are expected to obey their older siblings as long as they are part of the same household, and sometimes even after that. Within the hierarchical structure of the family, there is cooperation and sharing of the workload according to prescribed roles.
The Mixtec pronoun system is one important clue to what they consider some important classifications. Mixtec have different pronouns for male humans and female humans, animals, spirits and divinity, rain god and liquid, wood, spherical things, and inanimate objects. For example, having a separate pronoun for liquids is an expression not only of the importance of water for the survival of crops, but also for the traditional importance of the water god Savi, from whom the Mixtec derive the name for themselves: “The Rain People.” The Mixtec rain god, Savi, also goes by the name of St. Mark and is the most important traditional deity or santo in Mixtec culture. Savi is represented by a large stone on the top of a certain mountain in the village, and by twelve smaller stones that represent thunder, lightning, mist, drizzle, and other characteristics of rain. There are special sacrifices required at certain times to Savi and only certain shaman who can perform them. A ritual that Savi requires from everyone is participation in his fiesta, which happens in the early spring, about the time that the rainy season begins. People count on Savi sending the requisite amount of rain at the right times so that the corn will grow and they will not go hungry.
Mixtec classify things according to good and bad, valued and not valued. Generosity is a cardinal virtue.
Most sicknesses are believed to be caused by spirits either ancestral or evil. People often wear amulets such as necklaces of garlic and other herbs in order to ward off evil and sickness. If a Mixtec does get sick, he or she will go to the local curer and find out what types of sacrifices or appeasing ritual should take place so that the spirit will be satisfied and the person will heal.
According to the Mixtec worldview, most events have supernatural causes that can be ascribed to various spiritual beings all around them, and only indirectly to the High God. Though these spirits can be somewhat appeased to mitigate catastrophe, people cannot do very much to influence or change what has already been determined in the spiritual realm.
The Mixtec conception of time does not revolve around minutes or hours, but instead, is organized around special fiestas and rituals. A few of these fiestas coincide with specific seasons. For example, fiestas associated with Savi (or St. Mark) take place at the beginning of the rainy season. The All Saints Fiesta in honor of all ancestral spirits is celebrated at the peak of the harvest season in late October.
Another aspect of time that is particularly important in Mixtec culture is what is referred to as “time orientation.” Time orientation is mainly concerned with events of the past and present while concentrating very little on events in the future. The past is of particular importance because of the ancestral passage of the “Mixtec Way” (virtues, practices and cultural traits). The handing down of the Mixtec Way is important as if it is not followed, then the ancestral spirits may become angry. For this reason, the Mixtec believe that is best not to try and change anything. As for the present, Mixtec daily lives are consumed with survival skills like getting enough food, and taking care of other daily responsibilities. In this scope, conservation is taken for granted as there is a general belief that it is best to “get what you can now before it is all gone.” A practical matter that further perpetuates a present orientation to resources and time rather than a futuristic conservation attitude, is that material things do not sustain in damp climates where the houses have dirt floors and only wooden crates or cardboard boxes available as storage mechanisms. For the Mixtec, there is no point in trying to preserve things for the future because they will rot, rust, or have been eaten up and stolen. The most “future oriented” aspect of Mixtec life is their children.
Each Mixtec family usually has two houses. One is an adobe brick house with a tile roof used to sleep in and store things in, while the second house is made of bamboo sticks and used to cook and eat in. Houses are strictly functional and not really made for the intent of being “lived in.” People usually perform domestic chores and visit neighbors while sitting outside. Within each house, there is little “personal” space. There are no more than three rooms in the adobe house and this space is shared by families with up to 10 children. Children usually sleep three to five in a bed (a bed is made of a straw mat and blankets placed over connected bamboo poles). In addition to family members coming in and out of the houses, animals such as turkeys, chickens and dogs enter and exit the houses as they wish. Often corn is scattered on the floors of the houses and this is where the chickens feed.
In sum, there are five important themes in Mixtec culture. They are (1) the spirit world is in control of our lives, (2) change in the “Mixtec Way” is not a good thing, (3) we live in a closed system of limited good, (4) all relationships are hierarchically organized, and (5) corn is the basis of physical life. The Spirit World theme is the most dominant of all five. The Mixtec worldview concerning the supernatural is interwoven and penetrates all other themes of the culture. The Mixtec view themselves as relatively powerless over their own fates as their animal alter-egos possess total control.
The preceding worldview is a traditional viewpoint of the Guerrero Mixtec and not necessarily one that applies to Mixtec living outside the state or to assimilated Mixtec As is the case with all cultural groups, observance levels and viewpoints vary across cultures and between individuals.
Modern Mixtec Culture
Mixtec culture today is undergoing a bit of change in that its surroundings are starting to differ and “open up.” Roads and electricity have recently arrived. Modern technologies as well as modern ideologies are starting to appear. Since there has never been a cultural importance placed on the sustainability of crops and crop rotation, much of the soil has been stripped of its nutrients and unable to support life. Due to the loss of agriculture, many Mixtec have been forced to move and migrate to other areas in hopes of sustenance income.
Diet / Food
Corn, beans and squash are the main staples of life for the Mixtec The role of corn in Mixtec culture is incredibly important. There are different pronouns used that distinguish corn from all other foods. Furthermore, corn and tortillas, provide the basis of Mixtec society by being completely acceptable to the Mixtec deities. Tortillas are so critical that foods are classified as to whether or not they are eaten with tortillas. There is also a classification system of foods that are helpful and medicinal during times of sickness. Consequently, during times of illness, there are certain foods which are considered bad, and even taboo. Some of the taboo foods include: pork, beef, any kind of fat, and chili.
Mixtec Women and Migration
Mixtecos have been part of the labor migrations to agricultural fields not only in Mexico, but also in the United States. Mixtec migrants work in Veracruz, Morelos, Sinaloa, Conora, and Baja California. In the US they work in California, Arizona, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. The migrant experience shapes Oaxacan women lives very differently than that of men or children. Their experiences of adolescence, engagement, marriage, birth, and death are shaped by the to and fro activities of migration. Although the reasons a woman first migrates are different in each case, fairly constant factors are her youthfulness and a contact with another migrant that shapes her future. The majority of Mixteco women became migrants in their adolescence, just like the majority of all migrants. Yet, while the majority of women migrate by choice, some do so as a consequence of marriage.
Constant migration makes “place of destination” a relative concept, referring to a month in Mexico City, another in Culiacan, some spent on the coast of Hermosillo, maybe afterwards a few years in Baja, or many more in the United States. But, the final destination seems to be a Mixtecos own place of origin. This seems the principal ethnic feature of this migratory movement: the constant link with the community of origin. In this venture, women play a notable role. By preserving home, whether in their Mixteca towns or in intermediate destinations, they make it possible for other members of the family, men and women, to achieve the mobility necessary for travel on old routes or new ones. Their keeping of the home fires includes not only awaiting and welcoming but also supporting family members who remain at home.
Much of the information in this section is based on an unpublished paper on Guerrero Mixtec worldview by Carol Zylstra of the Summer Institute of Linguistics, whose cooperation we gratefully acknowledge.”
Laura Velasco Ortiz’s article, “Mixteco Women on the Migration Route”, which can be found on the web at http://www.smithsonianeducation.org/migrations/bord/women.html
The Mixteco Team:
A useful site that contains resources for all aspects of Mixtec life. Once at the site, along the left, are a list of links. The bottom link says English site, which will translate the site for you if that is preferable.
Oaxaca’s Tourist Guide:
A page for tourists visiting Oaxaca but still containing useful information about the Mixtec people.
University of Minnesota Department of Anthropology:
A page centered on ancient MesoAmerican civilizations including the Mixtec people. The site explains the political and religious systems of the ancient Mixtec people along with the writing system.
A links page to Mixtec related sites.
Alfaro, V. C. (1991). Los Mixtecos en la Frontera (Baja California).Mexicali: Instituto de Investigaciones Sociales de la Universidad Autonoma de Baja California:
Bade, B. L.(1994). Sweatbaths, Sacrifice, and Surgery: The Practice of Transmedical Health Care by Mixtec Migrant Families in California. Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Dissertation Services, A Bell and Howell Company.
Daniel, C. R. (1981). Bitter Harvest: A History of California Farmworkers: 1870-1941. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.
Rivera-Salgado, G. (1999). “Mixteco Activism in Oaxacalifornia,” American Behavioral Scientist, 42(9): 1439-1458.
Spores, R. (1984). The Mixtecs in Ancient and Colonial Times. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press.
Winter, M. (1992). Oaxaca: The Archaeological Record. Mexics.
Invisible Indians: Mixtec Farmworkers in California / Teaching Traditions: Maestros of Mixtec Culture. http://www.uctv.tv/library-test.asp?showID=5597
“This important interdisciplinary video explores the history; culture, and current social and economic conditions of the Mixtec Indians of Oaxaca, Mexico. It examines the factors causing ever increasing numbers of Mixtecs to become migrants, living part of each year in California, where they make up between five and ten percent of all farmworkers.”