Although the vast majority of Oaxacan indígenas consider themselves Catholics, their religion blends the catechism of the missionary fathers with ancient native beliefs. Deities in their age-old Mesoamerican pantheon assume thinly disguised identities among the host of Catholic saints. Besides paying obeisance at the village church altar, Oaxacan country folks also appease mountain, water, and underworld spirits with offerings and sacrifices at sacred summits, springs, and caves. Before killing a deer, for example, a hunter often asks permission of the señor del monte (lord, or spirit, of the mountain). Sometimes hechiceros (wizards) or ancianos lead entire communities in cornfield ceremonies for a successful harvest, with flower offerings, candles, food, and sacrificial turkeys and chickens.
Other old beliefs persist. Many folks, especially in remote areas, believe that animas (spirits) of the dead, besides the Catholic God and the saints, influence the living. Appeasement of animas peaks on November 1 and 2, respectively, the Day of All Saints and Day of the Dead, when many families gather all night at graves of their departed, with candles, flowers, incense, and the deceased’s favorite foods. People also appease saints for favors; however, if prayers are not answered, a person may also punish a saint by abusing its figurine. Sometimes evil dwarfs, the devil, or malevolent female spirits lure men to ruin. At birth, people acquire tonos, powerful guardian spirits, often in the guise of mountain lions, jaguars, and eagles, who, if treated with respect, might protect them throughout life. Sickness, commonly thought to be afflicted by an evil spell, loss of soul by fright, or “bad air” (mal aire), is treated by the incantations of a traditional village healer curandero or curandera.
Healers employ other remedies, such as consumption or avoidance of certain foods, sucking (to remove the mysterious object causing the illness), herbs and poultices, and also modern medicine. Especially common is a steam bath in the traditional temascal, a permanent wood or stone structure or temporary mat-covered brush hut, which many Oaxacan households maintain individually (rather than communally).
Catholicism, spreading its doctrine of equality of all persons before God and incorporating native gods into the church rituals, eventually brought the native Mexicans into the fold. Within a hundred years of the Conquest, nearly all natives had accepted the new religion, which raised the universal God of all humankind over local tribal deities.
Every Mexican city, town, and village celebrates the cherished memory of their Virgin of Guadalupe on December 12. This celebration, however joyful, is but one of the many fiestas that Mexicans, especially the indígenas, rejoice in. Each village holds its local fiesta in honor of its patron saint, who is often a thinly veiled sit-in for some local pre-Cortesian deity. Themes appear Spanish—Christians vs. Moors, devils vs. priests—but the native element is strong, sometimes dominant. During Semana Santa (Holy Week) at Pinotepa Nacional  in coastal Oaxaca, for example, Mixtec people, costumed as Jews, shoot arrows skyward, simultaneously reciting traditional Mixtec prayers.