Montaña de la Flor
The mountains on either side of the Yoro-Sulaco road are the last bastion of the Tolupán, who once lived from the Guatemalan border to Olancho. Formerly one of the most widespread indigenous groups in Honduras, the Tolupán — or Jicaque, as they are called by ladinos — numbered approximately 10,350 at last count (the 2001 census). In preconquest times, the Tolupán lived across a wide swath of present-day Honduras from northern Olancho almost all the way to the Guatemalan border. Today, their numbers are concentrated in the Montaña de la Flor area
Unlike the Pech, a neighboring indigenous group who came originally from the jungles of South America, the Tolupán are thought to have migrated to Honduras from the southwestern United States, as their language, Tol, is closely related to that of the Sioux. Now the Tolupáns are found primarily in the department of Yoro, with a small number in the northernmost corners of Comayagua and Francisco Morazán, and the westernmost tip of Olancho.
Because the Tolupán refused to convert to Catholicism, opting to fight or retreat into the mountains rather than accept Spanish rule, they were a constant target of colonists needing laborers. Many thousands are thought to have died in the construction of the fortress at Omoa, and countless others were enslaved or perished working in dye factories or transporting sarsaparilla.
By the mid-19th century, only about 8,000 Tolupáns still clung to their traditional ways in the mountains of Yoro, living in villages surrounded by wooden palisades deep in the forests and avoiding contact with outsiders whenever possible. Unfortunately for these remaining communities, they happened to live in an area rich in sarsaparilla; in the 1860s, the world market for this root boomed when adding it to beverages became all the rage. The governor of Yoro, Jesús Queróz, ordered his soldiers to force the Tolupáns to gather the root year-round, even in the torrential rainy season, and march it to the coast at Trujillo or Tela.
This bleak period of slavery, which continued into the 20th century, is burned deep into the minds of the surviving Tolupáns. They still speak of how, when an Indian died from exhaustion or disease while carrying sarsaparilla, the soldiers only stopped the column long enough to redistribute the dead man’s load, but not long enough to bury him.
A handful of Tolupán families, desperate to flee the Yoro soldiers and live in peace, learned of an unpopulated forest on the far side of the Montaña de Yoro, out of the jurisdiction of the Yoro governor. They escaped there in 1864, just ahead of pursuing soldiers. The small group, led by men who had taken the names Juan Martínez, Francisco Martínez, Pedro Soto, and León Soto, settled in a region called Montaña de la Flor, at that time raw forest.
The villages of Montaña de la Flor now have about 700 inhabitants, all descendants of those first three families, and they are the only Tolupán communities retaining some of their original traditions and language. Most villagers still speak Tol, although all also speak Spanish. They do not drink alcohol, do not practice Catholicism, and for the most part disdain surrounding ladino villagers and their money-oriented ways.
It is said that the Tolupáns of Montaña de la Flor are the only ones to still observe the traditional death rite of keeping vigil with the deceased in the kitchen for 24 hours, the body wrapped in a sheet, while those who keep watch quietly contemplate the life of the deceased.
The Montaña de la Flor communities are also some of Honduras’s poorest, plagued by extreme poverty.
How long their traditional ways will continue is uncertain, as Montaña de la Flor can now be reached by road from nearby ladino villages and towns, and some Tolupáns have married with ladinos. One can hope they will fare better than their former compatriots in Yoro, who only vaguely remember their Tolupán past.
Getting to Montaña de la Flor
© Chris Humphrey and Amy E. Robertson from Moon Honduras, 5th Edition