Indigenous peoples

Mexicans in a mestizo land

Descended from great civilizations whose ruined pyramids still exalt the national landscape, Mexico's multicoloured tapestry of indigenous peoples is one of its most endearing features. Their cultures, which collectively predate the Conquest by tens of thousands of years, continue to fascinate anthropologists, ethnologists and travellers alike.

But the political and economic reality of Mexico's indigenous peoples is a harsh and lamentable one. Once masters of their own land, Mexico's
indigenas
now occupy the poorest and most disenfranchised sectors of society, often lorded over by powers that have changed little since colonial times. For Mexico's national identity is firmly anchored in its
mestizo
heritage. The struggles for independence and nationhood - in which Mexico was baptized with blood - were first and foremost
mestizo
struggles. Today,
mestizos
form the largest and most dominant racial group in what is a grossly unequal society. This is in stark denial of the incontrovertible facts of
mestizo
origin:
mestizos
, by definition, are born of both Spanish and indigenous blood.

The
mestizo
relationship to its indigenous mother is a curious one, for it illustrates a glaring contradiction in Mexico's psychology. Historically oppressed and humiliated, Mexico's
indigenas
have long suffered the brunt of racism, first imported and institutionalized by the Spanish
conquistadores
.

Even after Independence, the newly forged Mexican nation continued to operate along lines of racial preference. This time it was the
mestizos
, not the Spanish, who occupied the nation's institutions of economic and political power. Fortunately, this is starting to change. Once upon a time it was deemed desirable to assimilate
indigenas
into the 'ethnically superior'
mestizo
majority, but lately, subordination to
mestizo
dominance is seen as an obstacle to modernity.

Since the 1917 Constitution, rights have been extended to give many indigenous groups their own forms of social organization, land ownership, political integration and educational provision. Today, Mexico's official line is multiculturalism, not monoculturalism. But beneath this politically noble veneer the same old divisions and inequalities persist. As a nation, Mexico seems comfortable in making touristic capital out its indigenous peoples. But whether or not its
mestizo
population is truly ready to regard them as equals is a complex issue that may take many more generations to solve.

Northwest cultures

Mexico's northwest is a vast and inhospitable territory where European forces struggled to penetrate. Composed of rugged sierras, arid deserts, undulating valleys and rich coastal zones, the region supplied niches for only the toughest and most tenacious groups.

As fierce nomadic and semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers - in many ways related to the Native Americans of the southwest US - they strongly resisted Hispanicisation. Today, their myths and beliefs are now interpreted in the context of Christian tradition, but remain overwhelmingly pre-Hispanic in content. Their spiritual world is one of coyotes, dwarves and giants, with the forces of nature personified and open to petition.

The Tarahumara, known as the Rarámuri in their own language, are one of the largest northwest cultures, with 121,835 persons scattered throughout the rugged Copper Canyon region of Chihuahua state. Agriculture, spiritual devotion and a social code founded on unconditional giving form the basis of their culture.

The Mayo, also known as the Yoreme, number 91,261 and are focused in southern Sonora, where farming, fishing and wage labour are the main economic activities. Their story is one of brutal suppression and rebellion, with a fervent adherence to Jesuit teachings.

The Yaqui, known to themselves as Yoeme, were particularly resistant to Spanish domination and remain one of the most organized and politicized groups in Mexico. Essentially autonomous, they self govern through a central council.

The Huichol

The Huichol are one of the most vibrant, least evangelized and culturally fascinating indigenous groups in all the Americas. Known as Wixarika in their own language, a word meaning 'seers' or 'healers', they occupy dispersed and remote communities throughout the rugged sierras of Jalisco, Nayarit, Durango and Zacatecas. The region, often called El Gran Nayar, is shared with groups of Coras, Nahuas and Tepehuanes.

Geographically isolated and historically resistant, the Huichol - now believed to number around 44,000 - answer to no one. Descended from semi-nomadic hunter- gatherer tribes, less than half of their population speak Spanish, instead employing their native Uto-Aztecan tongue.

Central to their lives is a complex pantheistic belief system which makes no distinction between the sacred and the profane - for in the Huichol universe everything is alive and imbued with soul. It is said that the Spaniards soon gave up trying to destroy Huichol sacred sites when they realized that everywhere was hallowed to them.

Their gods, who number too many for any individual to recall, are continuously honoured through prayer and ritual. The mitote, an annual ceremonial calendar, is essentially a dramatic reenactment of the creation of the world. It involves multiple pilgrimages to the edge of the Huichol universe in which the forces of nature - affectionately called Father, Mother and Grandfather - are honoured through days of non-stop ritual chanting, dancing and retelling of epic ancestral myths.

The most famous pilgrimage of all leads 300 miles from the Huichol heartland over the desolate mountains and into the Sierra de Real de Catorce. Here, the desert of Wirikuta is home to one of the most beloved of all Huichol gods: hikuli, the hallucinogenic peyote cactus, who has protected and nurtured Huicholes for centuries.

Myth recalls how the first ancestors consumed hikuli, became filled with visions and ascended to heaven. Today, male Huicholes are duty-bound to make the pilgrimage at least once in their lives. The journey is arduous, involving much fasting and purification, and if successful, concludes with their being granted 'nierika' - 'the power of seeing'. Thereafter, they have the option to train as shamans.

It is forbidden to retell the content of any peyote vision, but many Huicholes immortalize their encounters with the serpent rain god, grandfather fire and the other great spirits of their pantheon through vibrant and intricately detailed yarn paintings. Sought after by international collectors, Huichol artwork can fetch thousands of dollars and provides a much needed supplement to their often struggling economy. Poverty, high infant mortality and malnutrition remain endemic to these isolated people.

The Otomí

The Otomí number 646,875 and are Mexico's fifth largest indigenous group. Scattered over the rugged mountains and central plateau north of the capital, as well as the arid semi- desert region near the pre-Hispanic city of Tula, of which they were once a subject, the
Otomí inhabit several states including México, Queretero, Hidalgo and Veracruz. Roughly half speak their native language which has multiple and often mutually unintelligible variants.

Life for the majority of Otomís remains impoverished with an economy based on small-scale agriculture, craft and wage labour. Many have now migrated to other parts of the country or the US in search of reliable employment.

Their traditional culture - largely based on the cargo system - has been significantly eroded by state-run civic organizations and Protestant missions, but remnants of pre-Hispanic practices survive. Many Otomí homes have family altars with small candles and other offerings for the saints, deceased family members and ancestors, whilst traditional herbal medicines are widely used in the treatment of day-to-day ailments.

The Otomí are most famed for their creative utilization of the maguey plant. The thorns supply nails and sewing needles, the pulp is used as soap, the hearts are roasted and eaten, fibres are extracted to make coarse textiles, and the larvae that feed off the plant are considered a supreme delicacy. The maguey is also used in the production of pulque, an ancient alcoholic drink believed to have been invented by the Otomí and still widely consumed across Mexico.

The Totonacs

The Totonacs are a fairly robust ethnic group, presently numbering 411,266 persons. Just over half retain their native language, related in unconfirmed ways to Mayan and Huastec linguistic families. Occupying territories of northern Veracruz and Puebla states since around AD 1000, the Totonacs remained relatively autonomous during the colonial era thanks to their inhospitable surroundings. However, violent
mestizo
incursions during the revolution changed all that.

The famous Dance of the Voladores, in which dancers swing through the air from a tall pole, is a vivid survivor of their pre-Columbian culture and thought to relate to the ancient calendar. But generally, traditional Totonac customs are declining.

Time-honoured indigenous and Catholic religions now compete with Pentecostal churches who dismiss their heritage as mere 'superstition'. And where once the system of cargos conferred prestige, younger Totonacs can now attain social status by becoming preachers. But beyond this, medicinal plants, sorcery and shamanism continue to play vital roles in their communities, as do the Lord of the Mountains and the God of Thunder, who preside over cycles of drought and deluge.

Since pre-Hispanic times, Totonacapan, as the territory is known, has been a voracious producer of salt and vanilla. After the Conquest, sugar, tobacco, coffee and pepper were introduced with great success. Today, agriculture is so closely tied to the essence of Totonac being that the saints are adorned in garlands of local produce during festival times.

However, such valuable crops have not been without their price. The high demand for intensive labour has disrupted traditional conjugal roles, deforestation has obliterated the ancient dwellings of spirits, and conflict over land has been an ongoing issue. Today, Totonac peasant movements continuously petition the government for fair treatment.

The Nahuas

The present-day Nahuas are descended from a vast network of pre-Hispanic polities - the Aztecs among them - who traded, warred, worshipped or otherwise interacted in complex and intensive ways. As such, the term Nahua is a generic and somewhat inadequate category applied to those peoples who today speak dialects of the ancient lingua franca, Nahuatl, which means clear or intelligible.

The Nahuas constitute Mexico's largest indigenous group with a population of 2.4 million (only 1.6 million speak Nahautl, however), mostly concentrated in the Huasteca, the Sierra Puebla, and in more dispersed settlements across Guerrero and Morelos. Other communities are widely scattered throughout the states of Hidalgo, San Luis Potosí and México, with additional pockets surviving in the capital and across the country.

Consequently, Nahuas are far from culturally or politically homogenous. During the colonial era, Catholic authorities rigorously supplanted Nahua gods with Christian saints, but their system was similar enough to the existing one to be easily accepted. Today, Catholic festivities are intimately tied to the ancient agricultural calendar with often intriguing results.

On 3 May, the day of Santa Cruz, the Nahuas of Guerrero conduct a pilgrimage to the sacred Ameyaltepec mountain to petition the gods for rain. In the village of Totoltepec, the community annually performs the Tecuani or 'tiger dance', where a marauding 'jaguar' is symbolically sacrificed for the cosmic blessing of their crops. In the mountain town of Cuetzalan, the feast of Saint Francis is a well-attended affair marked by the sublime dance of the Quetzal, where performers adorn magnificent circular headdresses of coloured ribbon, strips and feathers. The highly choreographed dance, which continues for hours at a time, symbolizes the cyclical procession of time and the seasons.

The Nahua economy continues to be based on maize, although some highland communities now complement this with lucrative exports of coffee, flowers, avocados, citrus fruit and sugar cane. Textiles have always been a major Nahua commodity and are still woven with hand looms, although wool and silk now complement the traditional coyuchi cotton.

The Purépechas

Directly descended from the mighty Tarascans, the Purépechas occupy the highlands and valleys of the present-day state of Michoacán. Their craft traditions, institutionalized by the 16th-century humanist Bishop Vasco de Quiroga, are arguably the country's finest, with individual communities specializing in the work of copper, clay, textiles, lacquer and others.

The Purépecha number 202,884 and until 1950 retained some degree of social autonomy. Thereafter, self-governing indigenous institutions were ousted by
mestizo
municipios
. They continue to practise a folk version of Catholicism with widespread devotion to the saints and virgins. However, a rich oral tradition complements European cultural forms, as does a vibrant cycle of festivities, songs and dances intended to honour the ancestors and encourage bountiful harvests. The New Year celebrations on 1 February, for example, closely echo the ancient 'New Fire' ceremonies where community hearths were lit using a
single, divinely proffered flame.

Ritual healing and herbalism are also widespread. A wealth of specialist practitioners include those who help souls vacate the body during the trauma of death. Music is much loved by the Purépecha with some Pierericha (singers and composers) attaining national renown. Most recently a pan-Purépecha movement has begun and Purépecha communities now rally under their own flag and closely coordinate during festival times. There have also been moves to introduce their native language into the school system.

Peoples of Oaxaca

Jungles, forests, dunes, rivers, plains and the sweeping fertile spaces of the Valles Centrales are among the multitude of Oaxaca's ecological settings. Diverse indigenous groups have occupied and exploited these ecological niches for millennia. It is likely that maize cultivation established itself here first, making Oaxaca the cradle of Mesoamerican civilization.

Some fifteen distinct peoples now inhabit these lands where the Sierra Madre del Sur and the Sierra Madre Oriental converge, pursuing fishing, flock-tending and forestry in addition to traditional maize cultivation. Much like during the pre-Hispanic eras, two groups predominate.

The Zapotecs, builders of the mountain city of Monte Albán, now number some 777,253 and occupy the central and eastern parts of the state. Their main rival, the Mixtecs, whose name means 'people of the clouds', number 726,601 and are concentrated in western Oaxaca, Guerrero and Puebla. Together they form one of Mexico's largest indigenous populations.

The market place is a point of meeting and convergence for Oaxaca's groups with everything from squawking livestock to hand-crafted pottery traded in labyrinthine networks of stalls and alleys. Here, little has changed since pre-Columbian times.

Daily life also continues to be governed by traditional forms of organization with communally owned land, obligatory community service and ancient devotional festivities tied to maize production. Dances and processions are vital components in their cultural life with the Zapotec feather dance - where the Conquest is re-enacted with enormous headdresses of red, blue and white feathers - a particularly famous innovation. Craft traditions are another aspect of Oaxaca's culture for which its people have always been famous. Dazzling black pottery, wildly colourful wooden animals, palm textiles and tin-work are all widely produced. But it is weaving, particularly Mixtec weaving, for which the state is most renowned.

Centuries of tradition comprise this much revered art, passed between generations of mothers and daughters. Hand-woven without patterns on waist-strap looms, Mixtec textiles often feature colourful geometric shapes or stylised animals, all worked into unique productions that instantly identify their village of origin. Some articles are designed with magical purposes, effectively warding off evil spirits. So revered is this art, weavers are buried wrapped up in their finest huipils. On the international market, some rugs fetch many thousands of dollars.

The Mayans

Prior to the Conquest, the Mayans, much like the Nahua of central Mexico, were a highly developed and complex body of peoples - a patchwork of competing civilizations engaged in a process of dynamic social evolution. But unlike the Nahua, the Mayans continued to occupy the same geographical space long after the Conquest.

Grounded in the vast regions of Chiapas, Yucatán, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, Mayan heritage is formidable. But whilst geographically united, the Mayans remain culturally diverse thanks to the process of colonization. Over the centuries of colonial rule, the Maya became fragmented by rugged topography and Spanish imposition, evolving into some 29 distinct ethnic groups, each with their own language. Very broadly, they can be divided into lowland and highland Mayans.

In the lowlands, the Yucatec Mayans, occupying the Yucatán peninsula of southern Mexico, are the single largest contiguous faction. Numbering some 2.45 million (with 892,723 Yucatec speakers) they are Mexico's biggest indigenous group after the Nahuas. The Yucatec Mayans speak a single language with many distinct (but mutually intelligible) regional dialects. They follow lives with differing degrees of modernity.

Life in the villages remains traditional, agricultural and family orientated. But increasingly, many Mayans now reside in the famous tourist resorts of Quintana Roo where they find employment in the service sector. Typically, they will return to their villages to partake in festivities, important life events or major agricultural activities. Shamanism is widely practised by the Yucatec Mayans. Chac, the god of rain, so vital to the parched peninsula, continues to be worshipped with fervour.

In eastern Chiapas, the Lacandón are a particularly fascinating, though sparsely numbered, lowland Mayan group. Known as Hach Winik in their own language, which means 'real people', they are believed to be descended from refugees who fled Guatemala and Yucatán during the Spanish Conquest.

Hidden in the deep rainforests, they successfully fought off Hispanicisation for centuries and thus retained many aspects of their Pre-Columbian culture. Instantly recognisable from their long black hair and white tunics, the Hach Winik traditionally forged an existence through hunting and subsistence farming, whilst dwelling in scattered family units throughout the jungle. Religion often involved pilgrimages to ancestral sites - Bonampak and Yaxchilán included - where offerings of copal incense and
balché
, a mild beer made from tree bark, were made to the gods.

Today, the Hach Winik have settled in larger communities and traded their resources for modern infrastructure, which include an air strip and an ambulance. They now hunt with guns, not bows and arrows, watch television and listen to the radio. Traditional religion has been largely abandoned, due in part to the misguided efforts of North American evangelist groups who have established missions in the area.

The last great spiritual leader of the Hach Winik was Chan Bor Kin, now immortalized as a kind of national hero. He is reported to have lived beyond 110 and fathered some 13 children by three different wives, the last when he was 99. He was a life-long smoker of cigars and highly active until his death.

The Chontal, numbering some 40,000, are another major lowland group occupying central Tabasco. Now modernized by the oil industry which mushroomed off their shores, the Chontal traditional economy was based on the bounty supplied by their lush surroundings. A closely related group, the Chol, continue to be occupied by maize and coffee production. Hardworking
milperos
, or field workers, are especially esteemed in their communities.

In the highlands of Chiapas, the rugged topography provides niches for a network of 13 distinct ethnic groups, each with their own attire. Tzeltal, Tzotzil, Tojolabal and Mam are their main languages. Community life is orientated around the family, a cargo system of civic duties, and religion - for which Alteños, as highlanders are called, are especially famous.

In the staunchly individualistic Tzotzil village of San Juan Chamula, traditions have been adhered to with an unmatched ferocity. Outsiders are generally mistrusted and barred from settling in the community. Shamans practise archaic healing ceremonies in the Catholic church, including the ritual sacrifice of chickens.

An annual round of Chamulan festivals includes some striking fusions of Christian and pre-Columbian elements. Most famous is their five-day Festival of Games, a symbolic destruction and recreation of the universe enacted on the fourth day of carnival. Whilst correlated to the Christian cycle, the event corresponds to the five-day 'lost month' of the ancient pre-Hispanic calendar. The occasion includes much feasting, exploding gunpowder and a dramatic dance on burning embers, right outside the Catholic church.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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