It’s probably not an accident that the Mixtecs’ self-label, Nyu-u Sabi, “People of the Rain” (or “Clouds”) has the same meaning as the Zapotecs’ name for themselves. Linguists estimate that around 3,000 years ago, they were, in fact, the same people. They’re not the same today, however. Their languages, although related, are mutually unintelligible, and their homelands are on opposite sides of Oaxaca.
The Mixtecs, who number around 350,000, comprise about a quarter of all Oaxacan native speakers. Nearly all live in three geographic zones in western Oaxaca: the Mixteca Baja, Mixteca Alta, and Mixteca de la Costa. The Mixteca Baja is the dry plateau-land basin of the Río Mixteco, which runs adjacent to the Puebla–Guerrero border, about 100 miles (160 km) west by northwest of Oaxaca City. Major centers are Santiago Juxtlahuaca in the southwest and Huajuapan de León in the north. Bordering the Mixteca Baja to the southwest is the Mixteca Alta, a highland of pine-tufted peaks cut by lush deep canyons. Its major market centers, moving from north to south, are Tamazulapan, Teposcolula, and Tlaxiaco. Bordering the Mixteca Alta on the south is the Mixteca de la Costa, a roughly 50-by-50-mile (160-sq.-km) region of hills and valleys abutting the Guerrero border on the west and spreading southward from the foothills to the mangrove-fringed coastline. Its major centers are Pinotepa Nacional in the center and Santiago Jamiltepec to the east.
A few thousand Mixtec speakers also occupy a pair of intriguingly isolated enclaves: Cuyamecalco (near the market town of San Juan Chiquihuitlán) in the northern Sierra, and around Mixtequilla, the “Little Mixteca” just north of Tehuántepec, in the Isthmus.
Although Mixtec-speaking people have passed down a rich heritage, as a group they are now among Oaxaca’s poorest. Of the Mixteca’s three regional groupings, the people in the Costa are generally the best off. Santiago Jamiltepec, for example, where Mixtec-speakers compose 70 percent of the population, has many Mixtec shop owners, in contrast to upland Mixtec centers where mestizos often dominate commerce.
Exceptions notwithstanding, most Mixtecs are subsistence farmers. Agriculture is typically based on age-old slash-and-burn methods. Fields lie fallow for five years, then brush is burned, cleared, and the ground planted with corn, usually employing a coa (digging stick). Oxen, when they are used for plowing or hauling, are often rented. Irrigation, except near valley-bottom creeks, is not common. On the coast, the warmer climate allows more options for cash crops, such as bananas, mangos, panela (brown sugar from cane), cotton, and peanuts, although distribution is limited and local.
Another cash possibility that Mixtecs have not generally developed is coffee, which mestizo, Trique, and European immigrant growers harvest successfully on the Mixteca Alta’s semitropical forested mountainsides, using Mixtec day labor.
Moreover, despite their proximity to rich ocean resources, very few coastal Mixtecs fish. Instead, they buy dried fish from the many African Mexicans, descendants of African slaves, whose modest houses and fields dot the coastline.
Nevertheless, the Mixtecs seem to have cornered the palm-frond weaving market. In the dry Mixteca Baja, homeland to wild forests of short palms, people gather and dry the fronds, and whenever two hands are free, everyone—father, mother, children, grandmother, grandfather—weaves them into everything, from mats and hats to toys and baskets.
Lack of good roads hinders market access all over the Mixteca. A large proportion of Mixtec homesteads lie at the end of foot trails, along which produce must be hauled by hand or burro. Even if a farmer could harvest a ton of mangos (potentially worth maybe $500) from his four trees, how could he, his wife, a baby, and two children, and three neighbors haul them five miles by trail, then 20 miles by dirt road, to some market where people have the money to buy his mangos? He tells himself that maybe he and his neighbors will get together, widen the trail and buy a used truck. Yes . . . someday.
Faced with such odds, instead of saving for that someday truck, many Mixtec farmers opt to accumulate prestige by fulfilling compadrazgo (contributing to friends) or mayordomía (religious festival) obligations. Although such charitable action often leads to poverty, generosity, in the Mixtec (and Mexican) mind is, after all, much preferable to parsimony.
Coastal Mixtec women enjoy an unusual degree of autonomy. Besides often handling family purse strings and doing all the marketing, they typically keep their own family names and own property independently of their husbands. For some Mixteca Alta and Mixteca Baja men, traveling to the coast is believed to be dangerous, partly for fear that some Costa Mixteca woman, through witchcraft, might steal (or disable) their penis. So, men, watch out for the women, especially around the Pinotepa Nacional market, where they often wear their best finery, which customarily includes an heirloom pozahuanco (wraparound skirt) of brilliant natural-dyed red cochineal and deep purple horizontal stripes. From afar, you’ll easily recognize them, carrying themselves proudly, with their hat-like jicara (gourd bowl) tipped whimsically on their heads. Some women sell hand-loomed pozahuancos in the market. The authentic ones, by which coastal Mixtec women judge each other, sell for $150 or more.
© Bruce Whipperman from Moon Oaxaca, 5th edition