The Fallacy of Oaxaca’s 16 Ethnolinguistic Groups:

The Zapotec Experience

By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.

It’s generally accepted that there are 16 indigenous ethno linguistic groups in Oaxaca, and that the Zapotecs constitute the largest in terms of both numbers and geographical distribution throughout the state. However a closer examination reveals that, at least for Zapotecos, the variation in dialect, dress, food, religious observance and a plethora of day-to-day customs is remarkable.

Regarding the origins of the word Zapotec, according to many the word in the Náhuatl language, tzapotecatl, was a somewhat derogatory term used during pre-Hispanic times by the Aztecs to describe people of the region they were conquering. The inhabitants had darker skin than their invaders, more like the meat of the zapote fruit.

You may be surprised to know that Zapotec is a language family, as opposed to being a single tongue. In fact the Mexican government recognizes 60 Zapotec languages. If you want to learn to speak Zapoteco and attend at the Amate bookstore in Oaxaca to buy a dictionary, you’ll find two; one English-Zapotec and the other Spanish-Zapotec. But neither will assist you much in mastering the dialects spoken in Oaxaca’s central valleys, both are translations of Zapoteco spoken on the coast or along the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.

Until about ten years ago, without giving it much thought I had assumed that the diversity of cultural norms, including dialect, was a function of geographical isolation of individual communities which had endured for centuries, millennia to be more accurate. For example, it was reasonable to surmise that the traditions of Zapotecos on the coast would be different from those of residents of Oaxaca’s central valleys, because of the formidable mountains separating towns and villages on the Pacific from those inland. It surprised me to learn that within the Tlacolula valley alone – an expansive flat valley between the city of Oaxaca and the archaeological zone known as Mitla – there are significant differences in cultural traits.

The Zapotec villages of San Lucas Quiavini, San Bartolomé Quialana and San Marcos Tlapazola are located just below the foothills of the mountain range located a few miles behind the town of Tlacolula. The villages themselves are situated on a flat agriculturally based plain connected by dirt and paved roads, each no more than a couple of miles from the other. Yet their cultures are distinctly different, including language. The residents of San Lucas speak much faster than those of the other two villages. Their word for “no” is té-ebc. In San Bartolomé it’s té-ela and in San Marcos it’s e-ecá. Their word for “yellow” is en-gatz, the same as in San Marcos but spoken with a different tone. However in San Bartolo it’s b-jatz, altogether different.

Greetings amongst the residents of the three villages are also distinguished from one another. In San Marcos they shake hands just as we do in the US and Canada. However two miles down the road in San Bartolomé one merely touches the fingertips of another though hands are extended as if a “normal” handshake was about to happen; and in San Lucas, the third in the string of villages, one’s hands are extended together cupped palm side up, while the other person similarly extends cupped palm side down, into the hands of the fellow villager.

At first blush the dress of the women of the three pueblos may appear to be the same, but a closer look reveals differences. The neck and sleeve forms and the embroidery, if any, of the dresses worn are distinct for each village. The colors worn by the women of San Lucas are more understated, and the dresses worn by those of San Bartolomé are much more floral than for the women of the other two villages. Females of any age from San Bartolo wear a wide sash around the waist, whereas in the other villages the sash is used by only more elderly women. Those of San Bartolo wear only one model of shoe, while in the other pueblos the women are not so ritually restricted and can wear whatever style of shoe they want.

Both sheep and turkeys are raised in all three villages. However mole for festive occasions, including Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), in San Lucas is traditionally served with mutton (barbacoa de borrego), while in San Marcos and San Bartolomé turkey is the norm. And in San Bartolo mezcal is imbibed much more so than in the other two villages. There is surely a relationship between level of alcohol consumption and extent of celebrating. During Muertos in San Bartolomé. the comparsas – parades through the streets – are much larger, costumes more elaborate and music and reveling much more remarkable than in San Lucas. Yet a couple of miles down the road in San Marcos the tradition of comparsas is completely absent, notwithstanding that Muertos traditions are a melding of Catholicism with indigenous ritual and belief.

Though the villagers in all three pueblos are predominantly Catholic, religious ritual also varies. While the same padre officiates in each of the three, choir customs are different, in some cases distinguished by the singing of different songs depending upon in which church, while in other cases the song may be the same but its pitch, tone and chorus may be differ. Regarding the Easter tradition of attending a station of the cross, or the calvario, residents of each village make pilgrimage to a different cross on a hill. Only the residents of San Bartolomé also do so New Year’s Eve; while at the cross they fashion figures made of predominantly clay, offerings to leave behind as a means of making a request of Jesus, be it for improved health of a friend or relative, success in a venture, and so on.

While some differences in cultural norms manifest at only certain times of the year, idiosyncratic behavior and custom is apparent throughout the year, in at minimum language, greetings and dress. When visiting the Sunday market at Tlacolula, see if you can distinguish residents of one village from those of another.

Alvin Starkman began regularly visiting Oaxaca in 1991 and has been a full-time resident since 2004. He operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca.

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