The Cuicatec language, by contrast, is holding its own, due to the isolation and richness of the homeland of the Cuicatecos (“People of Song”). About 15,000 Cuicatec people inhabit their present territory, mainly the municipios of Concepción Pápalo, San Juan Tepeuxila, San Pedro Teutila, and Santiago Nacaltepec in the mountains east of district capital Cuicatlán and south of the Río Santo Domingo canyon.
Archaeological digs around Pápalo and other sites reveal Toltec influences, hinting that the Cuicatec lands may have been a haven for some of the refugees from the fall of Tula, the Toltec capital in the north, around A.D. 1060.
Historians believe that Cuicatec speakers numbered about 60,000 before the conquest. They were defeated by both the Aztecs, around 1456, and Spanish soldiers, commanded by conquistador Martín Mezquita, in 1526. Nevertheless, during the colonial era the Cuicatecs resisted both Catholic conversion and forced plantation labor by fleeing into the mountains, where they remain today. Although the Dominicans established a church in Pápalo in 1630 and tried to convert them, Catholic influence remains weak. The old gods, notably jáiko, the lord of their sacred mountain, Cerro Cheve, still live on in the hearts and minds of many Cuicatec people.
Today you might hear some Cuicatec spoken at the busy market at Cuicatlán, where Cuicatec women come down from the mountains to sell their highland handicrafts: wool serapes and jackets, flower- and animal-motif embroidered huipiles, and palm-leaf sombreros, petates, and cestas (hats, mats, and baskets, respectively).
Cuicatec people also earn cash collectively from the concession in which they allow the paper mill in Tuxtepec to harvest some of their forest trees. The money goes to finance community projects.
© Bruce Whipperman from Moon Oaxaca, 5th edition