Mixteca: Geography and Climate
Housing, Dress and Food
Values and Beliefs
The Mixtec are the third largest group of native Mexican peoples. They call themselves the Ñuu Savi, "People of the Rain."
Their homeland is the Mixteca, a region which occupies the western half of the Mexican state of Oaxaca and small parts of Guerrero
and Puelba, states on Oaxaca's nothern and western borders. The Oaxacan Mixteca is home to about two thirds of all Mixtecs.
According to best estimates, there were about 500,000 Mixtecs residing in Mexico in 1999. The story of the
Mixtecs is one of movement. They migrate from the Mixteca into other parts of the Mexican republic - large numbers are concentrated
in Mexico City and in the states of Sinalos and Baja California - as well as to the United States, especially the West Coast,
the Southwest and the rural South (Bartolomé, 1999).
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The Mixteca - Geography and Climate
The Mixteca region occupies some 40,000 square kilometers of very diverse geographic and climatic regions. It lies between the intersection of the Sierra Madre del Sur and Sierra Madre de Oaxaca mountain ranges. The Mixteca is a predominantly mountainous region of small, narrow valleys and gores, hills, peaks, and coastal plains (Acevedo, 1995).
The Mixteca is traditionally divided into three sub-regions that roughly correspond to three principal climate and geographic zones. The Mixteca Alta is made up high, pine-covered mountains and fertile valleys. It has elevations ranging from 1700 to 2300 meters above sea level, although some peaks rise over 2500 meters. The Mixteca Baja is high, arid zone of rolling hills that range in altitude between 1200 and 1700 meters above sea level. The Mixteca de la Costa is a tropical region of sandy costal pains that rise almost 1200 meters to meet the foothills and the Sierra Madre Mountains (Acevedo, 1995; Bartolomé, 1995).
Rainfall in the Mixteca is “patchy,” unpredictable in amounts and timing. The rainy season lasts from mid-May through the beginning of October, with a dry spell occurring in August. Temperatures along the coast range from mild to hot. In the Mixteca Alta and Baja, temperatures can be extreme from one season to the next, dropping to freezing the winter months and hitting 108º F in the summer.
The Contemporary Mixtec
Mixtec families have traditionally practiced agriculture. The lands, or at least the rights to farm the community-owned plots, are handed down through the father. Plots are usually small, one-half to two hectares1 in size (Acevedo, 1995; Bartolomé, 1999) and farming is generally carried out for subsistence purposes. Because of the poor quality of the soil and sparse, erratic rains, the land is not very productive. In some areas of the Mixteca Alta and Baja, a family’s harvest may only carry them through six to eight months of the year (Bartolomé, 1995). This means they must find outside, cash-based work in order to buy food. Some Mixtecs work for families with large frams or they go to work for families whose men are absent. They may abandon agriculture altogether, and/or emigrate (Acevedo, 1995).
The Mixteca’s principal crops are corn, beans, wheat, garlic, tomatoes, and onions. Onions and garlic may be cultivated for commercial purposes. Avocadoes, peaches, apples, pears, and other fruits may also grow. Some sheep and goat raising is practiced which only contributes to soil damage and erosion (Acevedo, 1995).
The Mixtecs produce many beautiful artisan crafts: weaving, wool and cotton woven textiles, pottery, baskets, and other palm products. Most famous perhaps are the heavily embroidered huipiles (women’s blouses and dresses). These products are marketed commercially, but according to economists, the income from sales has not significantly improved living conditions for the Mixtecs (Bartolomé 1999). A prime example is men’s woven palm hates. Since 1940, the Mixteca has produced 65% of the sombreros so ubiquitous among rural Mexican men, but because of the chain of middle men separating weaver from consumer, hat production has never been very profitable.
Traditional occupations are giving way to trends toward cash crop-based agriculture, the replacement of traditional artisan crafts by manufactures items, and the exodus of great number of Mixtecs seeking work as wage laborers (Carrasco, 2001). The broader employment panorama is changing for the Mixtec, too. They work in all types of jobs and sectors; they are becoming business people, doctors, and other types of professionals. Many have become teachers, important agents of progress and social change who are re-awakening ethnic consciousness and pride (Bartolomé, 1999). Education and social and economic success do not change identification with the land, however; even highly educated professionals may maintain a small parcela, and periodically hook up with a team of oxen to plow and plant corn.
Housing, Dress and Food
The construction of Mixtec homes varies depending on the local climate, natural resources available, and the family’s economic means. Homes may be built of cement block, adobe, stone, logs or wooden planks. They may be roofed with grass, ocote or maguey leaves, aluminum or concrete. Towns and larger urban centers show patterns of housing construction typical to other parts of Mexico. A surprising, but increasingly more common sight are homes reminiscent of California suburbia, even in rather remotes areas; a bi-product of Mixtec international migration experience.
A traditional Mixtec home is rectangular, composed of small rooms. It will have only one entrance that opens onto the yard, not the street. Windows, if any, are small. The kitchen is separate, and if it is a structure, it is often made of wood. Running water and electricity, if the home has them, have usually been financed by migrants who have worked abroad. Indoor plumbing is not common, even in small towns; outhouses are built in yards at a distance from the main house. Homes are sparsely furnished (Acevedo, 1995).
Western-style dress is seen most commonly now for men and women, girls and boys. Men have all but abandoned the white muslin pants and shirt adopted during the colonial period, except for very special occasions. Older women and some very young girls may continue to wear traditional style dress consisting of a skirt and a huipil (long or short blouse). The exact style and color vary considerably from one town and region to the next. However, almost all Mixtec women continue to wear the classic black and white or navy blue and white rebozo (shawl) at all times, just as a standard item for Mixtec men continuous to be the short-brimmed, woven palm hat.
The Mixtec diet is based on corn and corn products, beans, chile, tomatoes, and other traditionally cultivated crops of their ancestors. In addition to being farmers, the Mixtec are gatherers, so their diet includes wild greens, fish, crustaceans, frogs, insects, fungi, hare and deer. They also routinely eat wheat, rice, and noodle products. Some Mixtecs now distinguish between an “Indian diet” (traditional foods) and a “Mestizo2 diet” (more processed foods and meat). “Junk food” is also increasingly popular. For reasons of poverty and lack of availability, many Mixtecs’ diet is nutritionally deficient. In many semiarid regions, for instance, the basic dish is simply tortillas and salsa; even beans may not be eaten on a daily basis (Bartolomé, 1999).
Politically the state of Oaxaca is divided into over five hundred small municipios, more than any other state in Mexico. A municipio is equivalent in concept to a county in the United States; geographically, however, municipios may be much smaller in size (the size of a town). The survival and functioning of so many tiny units is testament to the value Mixtecs place on their ethnic and geographic diversity. Practically speaking though, such fragmentation has problematic implications for governance, resource allocation and articulation and coordination among the municipios.
Local governing officials (the presidente municipal and the ayuntamiento or “governing board”) are elected by a vote of the assembled citizen community. Traditionally officials (men) were elected then promoted up the ranks to higher positions on the basis of strict seniority. Once again, migration is modifying this system. Men who go abroad cannot ascend the political ladder according to traditional patterns (Acevedo, 1995). Some localities have adjusted by requiring candidates to have served on a migrant governing board during their time spent outside of Oaxaca (Bartolomé, 1999).
The smallest social unit is the nuclear family: father, mother, and children. Sons who marry may build their homes on their parents’ property or close by. As parents age, they may move in with a son (usually) and his family. Orphaned brothers, sisters, nieces, or nephews may also live with them.
Traditional, intact Mixtec families are patriarchal in structure. The father is the family’s head and is responsible for decision-making and overall support of the family; he works the family’s parcel of land, tends the animals, and supplements the family income by hiring out as an agricultural or other wage worker. The mother’s main responsibilities include taking care of her husband, children, and home; they may also assist their husbands in the fields. Migration has disrupted traditional patterns of family life and gender roles. Women who find themselves on their own for many years at a stretch are more frequently taking on roles traditionally fulfilled by male family members (Acevedo, 1995).
Values and Beliefs
The Mixtec have an ancient, extremely rich and complex spiritual life. Many of these beliefs continue to exist, in syncretic fashion, alongside Roman Catholicism and, increasingly evangelical Christian faiths, with no apparent contradictions. According to traditional Mixtec belief, all things, living or inanimate have a spirit (also known as animism). For example, a Mixtec informant related that there is a proper time of day to cut down a tree. One would never harvest a tree in the heat of the day, when its sap would run freely, effectively torturing the tree. This would be done more appropriately in the coolness of the morning hours. In Mixtec, the divine or sacred is denoted by “I” at the end of a word.
Greetings and expressions of courtesy are extremely important in Mixtec culture. Even a chance encounter with a stranger calls for a polite greeting and a handshake. Failing to acknowledge some is not only considered rude, it characterizes the individual, literally, as an ignorant brute as the Mixtec ascribe certain types of behaviors to animals, others to humans. Coming up on friends in the street or arrival at someone’s home require length and elaborate inquiries after health and family members.
The Mixtec, like many other peoples of Oaxaca, embrace the concept of mutual or reciprocal help. Da’an is a Mixtec word akin to the meaning to offering or gift. It is appropriate to provide the host of a large party, for example, with a da’an of several cases of beer or soft drinks. Tequio is service to the community, and traditionally is required of all male members. Tequio is taken extremely seriously; even those who have migrated to other parts of Mexico or the United States are expected to return home to meet this obligation. It is becoming somewhat more common for women who remain at home to fulfill this service.
The most important celebrations among the Mixtec mark key life moments (baptisms, funerals or weddings) and observances on the Catholic liturgical calendar. Arguably, most important at the community level is the celebration of the town’s patron saint day. Preparations for the elaborate festivities may begin a year in advance with the selection of a mayordomo to host, and finance (with the assistance of family members and friends) many of the central activities. It is a profound honor to be selected mayordomo, a position of great responsibility and political significance. Community members living abroad make every effort to return home for this event. The multiple-day celebration includes fireworks, masses and processions to hone the patron saint, dancing, equestrian events and of course, lots of eating and drinking. A second, extremely important annual event is Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), All Saints and All Souls Days (November 1,2) on the Catholic liturgical calendar. On this day, families honor their dead by setting up altars in the home replete with their loved ones favorite earthly foods, drink and other pleasures, photos and other memorabilia. They participate in candlelight processions to the cemetery, where tombs have been cleaned and decked with marigolds and candles, to hold an all-night vigil.
The Mixteca is historically one of Mexico’s regions with the largest out-migration. This is not just a 20th or 21st century phenomenon: an exodus of 11,000 Mixtecs is documented for the year 1895 (Acevedo, 1995). Veracruz, Valle Nacional, Oaxaca City, Puebla, Mexico City and later Sinaloa and Baja California were the most common destinations. Poverty, drought, and a lack of work opportunities were the most common push factors.
It wasn’t until the mid-1980s, however, that large numbers of Mixtecs began migrating to the United States. And before that time migration to the US, like migration to other parts of Mexico, was circular in pattern. But now the expense and difficulty of making an undocumented border crossing have led to longer term, quasi-permanent residence in the United States. They are now sizable, well-established communities of Mixtecs and other Oaxacan indigenous peoples in “Oaxacalifornaia,” as the area has been designated, notably in the San Joaquin Valley, metropolitan Los Angeles, and northern San Diego County. They also have been a growing presence in Texas, Florida, New York and Oregon.
The Mixtecs typically seek work in the agricultural sector. By best estimates, there were 45,000-55,000 Mixtecs working in California’s Central Valley alone by the early 90s. The pace of Oaxacan migration is accelerating, with rates doubling from 6.1% (1993-1996) to 10.9% (1997-2000). Researchers project that by 2010, Mexican indigenous peoples will comprise more than 20% of California’s indigenous migrant worker population (Fox and Salgado-Rivera, 2004). Most migrants are men, but women and entire families also migrate. The funds these migrants send back to Mexico, remesas, are now the largest single source of Mexican foreign exchange.
1 One hectare is equivalent to 10,000 square meters.
2 "Mestizo" is a term referring to the mix of Spanish or European with Indian bloodlines. Most of Mexico's population is considered mestizo.