The Spanish label “Zapoteco” comes from Aztec, rather than Zapotec, tradition. The Zapotecs call themselves Ben Zaa, or “People of the Clouds.” The Aztecs heard this as Tsapotécatl, or “Zapote People,” a less-than-flattering “fruit eater” label.
Zapotec speakers, who number upward of 400,000, make up about one-third of Oaxaca’s native people. The Zapotecs, moreover, are the most visible for more reasons than their numbers. In contrast to the Mixtecs, the Zapotecs, led by their kings Cosijoeza and Cosijopí, allied themselves with the Spanish right from the beginning. Nearly unique among Mexican indigenous groups, Zapotecs have figured prominently in national politics. Mexico’s most beloved president, Benito Juárez, was of pure Zapotec origin. Lately, Zapotecs, including many women, have strongly influenced politics and government in the Isthmus through the Coalición Obero, Campesino, y Estudiantil de Istmo (Confederation of Workers, Farmers, and Students of the Isthmus, COCEI).
Zapotec influence goes much further. Although frequented by nearly all of Oaxaca’s indigenous groups, a number of Oaxaca’s largest native markets, such as Oaxaca City, Tlacolula, Tehuántepec, and Juchitán, are run by Zapotecs. Backcountry centers, where Zapotecs own and manage most stalls and stores, are hostile to penetration by mestizo merchants.
Individual Zapotec-speaking persons usually identify themselves more strongly with region or locale than language. (You might expect this, since the several Zapotec regional dialects are virtually separate languages, differing as much as French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese.) Living and work patterns, likewise, depend much more on locale—tropical coast, cool mountain, or highland valley—than ethnicity. Oaxaca’s four Zapotec regions (and their important market centers), moving clockwise from Oaxaca’s center, are the central valley (Oaxaca City, Tlacolula, Ocotlán), northern Sierra (Ixtlán, Yalalag, Villa Alta), Isthmus (Tehuántepec, Juchitán), and southern Sierra (Miahuatlán, Pochutla).
Zapotec communities, moreover, are generally skillful at resolving disputes. If informal means—neighborly discussion, arbitration, or the council of elders—fail, then the argument will nearly always be resolved in the local court. Blood feuds, common in some Oaxacan indigenous communities, are rare among the Zapotecs.
Although Zapotec speakers are gradually adopting new ways, many still remember the old gods, especially the god of rain, fertility, and lightning, known as Cocijo, in the central valley. On masks you may see him as a lizard. He controls the clouds and may even release granizo (hail) onto a wrongdoer’s crops. Some southern Zapotecs visualize the world as an island in a vast sea, watched down upon by Cocijo and his retinue-hierarchy of heavenly hosts.
Other old beliefs persist. Influential animals, such as the correcamino (roadrunner), who brings good luck; the tecolote (small owl), who brings bad; and the mariposa (butterfly), who signifies death; are important actors in Zapotec fables. Besides mysterious incantations, Zapotec traditional healers, both men and women, use a wealth of herbal cures: wild garlic for high blood pressure, cloves for toothaches, rosa de fandango (a type of mint) for conception, epazote morada (a type of basil) for worms.
Although midwives traditionally preside over birthing, fathers are expected to be present to ensure a healthy baby. Pregnant women are often exhorted not to eat honey or mamey fruit. If possible, mothers are treated royally after giving birth. They traditionally remain in bed for three weeks, get plenty of massages, take temascal steam baths, and eat lots of chicken, chilies, and salt.
© Bruce Whipperman from Moon Oaxaca, 5th edition