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The Mixtec Culture

Mixtec Culture

The Mixtecs are an indigenous people from a region in southern Mexico known as Mixteca. Today, there are an estimated half million Mixtec speakers.

The Mixtecs are an indigenous people from a region in southern Mexico known as Mixteca (western Oaxaca). They are famous for their artistic skill, agricultural traditions and rich written and spoken linguistic history. A group historically on the move, a large percentage of today’s Mixtec population continues to stay mobile. Poor soil quality due to erosion and challenging economic conditions in Mixteca have caused large percentages of Mixtecs to look for work in other parts of Mexico and in the United States. Many of those remaining depend on the money sent back to the community by those that have left.

Sometime before the Spanish conquistadors arrived to the area in 1521, the Mixtecs had moved into the Valley of Oaxaca. In the 1450s, an expanding Aztec empire under Emperor Moctezuma took over the area of Mixteca after a series of battles between these tribes. The Aztecs demanded that Mixtecs work the fields and pay tribute to them with artwork made of gold, turquoise and other stones and metals. Decades later, the conquered Mixtecs received, with great interest, news of an unknown people with beards and strange weapons invading the eastern shores of the Aztec empire.

When the conquistadors arrived, they calculated the Mixtec population to be about one million. They lived divided in hundreds of isolated villages due to the rugged and mountainous landscape that separated their communities. This physical separation created much diversity of languages within this ethnic group. The Spanish conquest, along with its diseases such as small pox, devastated huge portions of the population, not just the Mixtecs, but any tribe that came into contact with the European invaders.

The Mixtec tradition of using script to record history and mythology has left us with detailed depictions of pre-Columbian genealogy and Mixtec religion. They used bark paper or deer skin to make books called codices which feature images and glyphs. Some of these manuscripts survive today. Several tell tales of the ruler 8 Deer Jaguar Claw, a legendary king born in the 11th century, who unified the Mixtecs into one kingdom. Most codices describe events such as weddings, births, wars and alliances.

Pre-Columbian Mixtecs took the name of their birthday’s day sign. 20 signs represented by glyphs make up a 260 day calendar. 8 Deer Jaguar Claw was born on the 8th day of the deer. His wife’s name was 13 Snake. Other signs include eagle, crocodile, house and death.

Today, despite the massive movement away from Mixteca, with some villages becoming ghost towns, the language is experiencing a surprising revival in Mexico and in the US. The revival reflects a trend in the growth of some regional languages. Widespread efforts by educators and advocates to preserve regional languages and a growing awareness of cultural identity have helped encourage this trend. There are an estimated half million Mixtec speakers, more than twice as many as there were in 1930. Nearly one fifth of these speakers live or have lived in the United States, with many Mixtec speaking communities in California, Texas, New York and Oregon.

After hundreds of years of surviving conquest and adverse conditions, Mixtec language, culture and arts have survived and flourished thanks in part to a historical ability to adapt. First adapting to the rugged mountain terrain of Mixteca then to the harsh rule of the Aztecs and the violent conquest of the Spanish; today, Mixtec communities continue adapting to new environments throughout much of North America.