Although anthropologists and census takers classify them according to language groups (such as Mixtec, Zapotec, or Nahua), indígenas typically identify themselves as residents of a particular locality rather than by language or ethnic grouping. And although as a group they are referred to as indígenas (native, or aboriginal), individuals are generally made uncomfortable (or may even feel insulted) by being labeled as such.
While the mestizos are the emergent self-conscious majority class, the indígenas remain mostly invisible, keeping to their country hamlets, except during town market days and fiestas. Typically, they are politically conservative, socially traditional, and tied to the land. On market day, the typical indígena family might make the trip into town. They bag up some tomatoes, squash, or peppers, and tie up a few chickens or a pig. The rickety country bus will often be full, and the mestizo driver may wave them away, giving preference to his friends, leaving the indígenas to trudge stoically along the road.
Their lot, nevertheless, has been slowly improving. Indígena families now often have access to a local school and a clinic. Improved health has led to a large increase in their population. Official census counts, however, probably run low. Indígenas are traditionally suspicious of government people, and census takers, however conscientious, seldom speak the local dialect.
Recent figures nevertheless indicate that about 40 percent of Oaxacans are indígenas—that is, they speak one of Oaxaca’s 16 native languages. Of these, about a fifth speak no Spanish at all. These fractions, moreover, are changing only gradually. Many indígenas prefer the old ways.
Once a year, in mid-July, thousands of indigenous people, from hundreds of ethnically distinct Oaxaca communities, converge on Oaxaca City  for the Guelaguetza  (gay-lah-GHET-sah) folk dance festival. Dazzled by the whirling color and spectacle, visitors begin to grasp the richness and sheer magnitude of Oaxacan folk tradition. Although their diversity is staggering, the simple fact is that the majority—about three of every five—of indigenous Oaxacans speak some dialect of one of two languages, Zapotec or Mixtec. Of these, the most numerous and visible are the Zapotecs, the people whom visitors encounter first in excursions from Oaxaca City.