Defying the Myth of Native Desolation: Cultural Continuity in Oaxaca

“There is no remedy, and the Indians are coming to an end.” – Don Felipe Huamán Poma de Ayala, 1615 (quoted in Restall, 100)

Despite the passage of nearly four hundred years, Huamán Poma’s dismal pronouncement remains the sad ending to many popular narratives of the conquest. In classrooms throughout the United States, students learn that the arrival of Columbus spelled the end of Native American civilization and that the Spanish conquest obliterated indigenous culture and society in the Americas. As Matthew Restall notes in “The Seven Myths of the Conquest”, this pervasive “myth of native desolation” (102) obscures the strength and vitality of indigenous people throughout history and into the present.

In Oaxaca, Mexico, the lives and work of indigenous people belie the myth of native desolation and attest to thousands of years of continuous, evolving culture. In July, over 30 educators from the United States convened in Oaxaca for a summer institute funded by the National Endowment of the Humanities. Our goal was to better understand the histories and cultures of indigenous people in the region so that we might help illuminate and preserve them through our teaching. With unit plans that we designed and shared, we hope to disturb and diminish the myth of native desolation and to enrich our students’ perspectives on native culture.

The myth of native desolation has roots in the tremendous decline in indigenous population that accompanied the Spanish conquest. Within two generations of the Spanish conquest in 1521, the native population of Mesoamerica plummeted by up to 90 percent. This massive decline, widely regarded as “the greatest demographic disaster in human history” (Restall 128), lends itself to an easy interpretation of indigenous ruin. On the contrary, the resurgence of indigenous populations after such a devastating loss is a powerful testament to their survival. Today, indigenous people in Mexico number more than 34 million and comprise 30 percent of Mexico’s total population (CIA World Factbook). In the state of Oaxaca, nearly half of the people are indigenous (Comisión Nacional para el Desarrollo de los Pueblos Indígenas, CDI), and they carry ancient cultures forward through the languages, foods, arts, and community practices of the region.


Precolonial Oaxaca was a complex linguistic and cultural map marked by multiple distinct languages and multiple dialects within each language. At least sixteen of these prehispanic languages – along with the unique worldviews they embody – have survived and evolved in the centuries following the conquest. Today, these languages make Oaxaca one of the most linguistically diverse regions in the world, and this remarkable linguistic diversity serves as a testament to the cultural survival of a vast array of indigenous communities.

With over 350,000 speakers, Zapotec is the most prevalent indigenous language, sustained by the descendents of the ancient Zapotec Empire. Even among Zapotec speakers, however, there is a significant diversity of dialects, and speakers of one dialect may find it difficult or impossible to communicate with speakers of another. This tremendous diversity makes language an important marker of cultural identity. In Oaxaca, one’s home village may be the only place in the world where a specific dialect is spoken.

In the nearly 500 years since the conquest, indigenous languages have faced multiple threats. After Mexico won its independence in 1810, the new Mexican government, eager to unite diverse people under a shared banner of “mexicanidad,” insisted that Mexicans speak one language – Spanish. Children were punished for speaking their native languages in school, and maintaining an indigenous language was considered deviant or unpatriotic. It was only in 1996, after indigenous rights movements demanded respect for native languages and cultures, that the government promised to establish bilingual schools in places like Chiapas and Oaxaca with high concentrations of indigenous people. More recently, the migration of young people threatens to undermine the survival of indigenous languages. People who move to Spanish-speaking cities or to the United States do not often teach their children to speak their native tongues.

Globalization and the spread of technology also pose threats to endangered indigenous languages. However, the innovative ways in which the people of Oaxaca are using language and technology provide evidence of the renewed vitality of many ancient languages. In a presentation to our group, Dr. Michael Swanton, a linguist at the Burgoa Library in Oaxaca, shared examples of websites, text messages, and even a skateboarding documentary posted on YouTube – all in indigenous languages. A group of indigenous teachers undertook the project of translating Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, into Zapotec, and new words for modern youth phenomena like “goths” and “punks” are emerging in dialects of Mixe.

Technology also serves as a way to maintain and preserve indigenous languages. Dr. Stephanie Wood, professor at the University of Oregon and the director of our program, has worked with speakers of Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, to create an extensive online dictionary of the language. Additionally, she heads the ongoing “Mapas Project” to digitize hundreds of documents created by indigenous people of Mesoamerica. Published on line for free, the “mapas” are available to anyone interested in understanding history from an indigenous perspective. These efforts represent a new way for indigenous languages and cultures to persist, adapt, and survive.


As in other parts of the world, food in Oaxaca is a crucial element in cultural identity, cultural expression, and cultural continuity. Maize, in particular, has sustained native people for thousands of years. Oaxaca is recognized as the first place in the world where maize was domesticated, and it is one of only five regions in the world identified as a “cradle of civilization,” a place where sedentary agriculture developed independently to support a stable, stratified society. Maize growing in Oaxaca today may have genetic ancestors that are over seven thousand years old. Depictions of maize appear in sculptures, pottery, architecture, and manuscripts, documenting its importance as a foundation of indigenous culture both before and after the conquest. Another indication of maize’s vital role in society is language; the Popoluca have sixteen different words for maize. The staple foods of Oaxaca, from tortillas to tamales, also attest to the centrality of maize in indigenous life.

Today, maize is still recognized as the backbone of life and culture in the valleys of Oaxaca. In Teotitlan del Valle, our group visited the home of Francisco “Paco” González Vicente and his mother, Petra Vicente, where we shared a meal and toured the family’s maize field. The Vicente family, along with many other families throughout Oaxaca, continues to plant and harvest maize, even though they could save both time and money by buying it. Corn produced on large, corporate farms is cheaper, but its origins are outside the community and, compared to local maize, its history is shallow. The Vicente family has an intimate knowledge of the corn planted in their community; genetically, it is the same corn that was cultivated by their ancestors. At a cost to themselves, they continue to plant, harvest, and pass down not just the practice of farming but the corn itself. This act is not only environmentally sustainable but culturally sustainable. Its value is not its price but its crucial role as a marker of cultural identity and a conduit between a rich past and a sustainable future. As the local saying goes, “No pais sin maiz” (No country without maize).


In preconquest Oaxaca, art rarely served a single purpose. Most art was created in the service of multiple purposes – functional, religious, to mark status, record history, or define territorial boundaries. Many prehispanic art forms have survived, and today, they serve yet another purpose – supporting Oaxaca’s tourist market.

Since long before the conquest, textiles have played an important role in indigenous life and culture. Women used back strap looms to weave huipiles that served both as clothing (women’s blouses) and as an important marker of community and ethnic identity (with a distinct woven pattern for each village). The colors were drawn from local resources. The cochineal, an insect that lives on the nopal cactus, was used to create red dye; indigo was transported along trade routes for shades of blue; and various mosses and flowers were collected for yellows. The colors and patterns allowed women to embed symbols of their religion, worldview, individual and ethnic identity into the fabric they wore daily. Examples include symbols that represent rain and lightning, the legendary “feathered serpent” (Quetzalcoatl), or the six cardinal directions of the indigenous worldview (encoded in the quincunx). While huipiles have endured as important markers of identity, weavers have innovated the design and function of textiles to appeal to tourists, and the industry now helps to support countless families in the region.

Today, Oaxacan weavers still use natural dyes, but most weave on the higher-yield foot treadle loom introduced by the Spanish at the time of the conquest. The practice of weaving on a back strap loom, however, persists as a powerful form of cultural expression both at home and abroad. In Oaxaca, the Textile Museum (link to web site) preserves both the product and the practice of back strap weaving with exhibitions of ancient artifacts as well as demonstrations of the process used to create them. And in migrant communities abroad, like Greenfield California, indigenous women sustain the practice in a new context (link to article:

Crafting clay pottery by hand is another practice that connects pre-conquest Oaxaca and Oaxaca today. Clay vessels and sculptures on display in the Rufino Tamayo Museum in Oaxaca attest to their significance in the Zapotec and Mixtec Empires and serve as vital sources of information about daily life in indigenous communities thousands of years ago. Like textiles, pottery now has the added dimension of being a product that can be sold to tourists. However, many indigenous communities still create, use, and sell clay pottery for daily use.

In San Marcos Tlapazola, our group visited the home of Marta and Constantino Santiago. Constantino’s mother, Virginia Gutierrez, now seventy-four years old, has been making and selling pottery since she was twelve. In the fifties and sixties, Doña Virginia walked to market centers in Tlapazola or Oaxaca with no money and with a donkey laden with pottery. At the market, she would hope to sell enough pieces to earn the money for food to take home. Today, Doña Virginia rides the bus, but she travels to the same markets with the same utilitarian earthenware – cazuelas for stews and sauces, comales for making tortillas, and gourd-shaped jugs for liquids. All of these vessels, essential to prehispanic cooking, are still in demand in the markets today. And just as Doña Virginia supported her family with her craft as a young woman, she supplements her family’s income with the sale of her pottery today.

Pottery for the tourist market is crafted with the same prehispanic techniques but indigenous women have innovated with elaborate patterns and black glazes to adapt their craft to a more decorative purpose. Doña Sofia Reyes, of San Bartolo Coyotepec, has also been potting for decades. She offers tourists a demonstration of her craft; within minutes, she transforms a slab of clay into an elegant pot. She and Doña Virginia both throw the locally extracted clay on the floor of their homes; both use a simple wheel made of two clay disks and shape the clay by hand or with bits of leather or corn cob; both fire their pieces in backyard fires. The difference is that Doña Sofia’s pieces are fired black instead of red, and she stocks the store in her home with candle-holders, decorative bowls, and replicas of animals that she hopes will attract the attention of tourists. Both women play a crucial role in supporting their families, and both are teaching young women their craft so that this cultural practice will be sustained for at least another generation.

Another example of cultural continuity in the arts is the production and use of amate, paper made from bark. Before the conquest, amate was used in the Aztec Empire to record history, business transactions, and sacred events. Some of these documents have survived and serve as rich sources of information about prehispanic life. Today, descendents of the Aztecs use the paper as canvas for paintings that depict village life. Luis Dominguez, a Nahuatl-speaking amatero, sells his work to tourists in Oaxaca. He visited our group to share examples of his work and to explain how he has adapted his craft to maintain a balance between representing the realities of his home village and painting elements that will be attractive to tourists.

Community Practices

The context for all of these cultural continuities – from language to maize to art – is the indigenous community. In Oaxaca, indigenous communities define themselves through distinct dialects, ancient territorial boundaries, and hundreds of years of shared cultural practices. Guelaguetza, now the name of an annual state-sponsored dance festival in Oaxaca, is also a prehispanic system for putting on community celebrations like weddings. In indigenous communities that still practice guelaguetza, every celebration has a sponsor or organizer. For weddings, the sponsors are the parents of the couple. For other events like the celebration of a village’s patron saint, a couple may volunteer to be mayordomos and take responsibility for planning. As the event draws near, families from throughout the village bring their offering – from turkeys to cases of beer – to the mayordomos, who keep meticulous records of the goods collected. That way, when it’s another family’s turn to sponsor a community event, they can repay the favor in kind. Essentially, it’s a way for villages without extravagant wealth to pitch in for the community-wide celebrations that make village life uniquely intimate. When we visited the Vicente family’s home, Paco showed us the book in which his family had been keeping records of guelaguetza for generations. In serving as mayordomos, his parents acted out of a sense of responsibility to the village and earned respect from the community.

Another unique feature of indigenous communities in Oaxaca is mandatory community service. While this is not a practice that predates the conquest, it is a way of maintaining indigenous community without relying on the aid of outsiders. A community member’s assigned service, or “cargo”, can range from irrigating communal lands to serving as mayor. This responsibility to the community is taken very seriously by its members. We heard one story of a businessman called back from Mexico City to serve as the mayor of the village where he grew up. He was given two months to settle his affairs and return to his village to live for the duration of his term. Leaders in Oaxaca are not selected through secret-ballot elections but rather through a deliberative, participatory process known as usos y costumbres.

Indigenous communities in Oaxaca also share land. Communal lands, or bienes comunales, are available to any member in good standing of the community. In San Marcos Tlapazola, communal land is the source for the rich clay that Doña Virginia uses to craft her pottery. In Arrazola, communal land is the source of wood for alebrijes, wood carvings for the tourist market. In many other villages, communal land is a place for planting crops that feed the community. In Arrazola, the community warns visitors against unauthorized sale of their communal land with a sign that reads: “Welcome to Arrazola, town of artisans and people of peace. In our community, the land, services, and resources are for the use of our own citizens. Don’t buy problems!”

While not all these practices are prehispanic, guelaguetza, mandatory community service, usos y costumbres, and communal land all serve to sustain the indigenous community as an independent entity. They are forms of self-definition, self-determination, and resistance to a Mexican state that would force assimilation. It is not surprising, then, that many indigenous communities in Oaxaca have banned outside political parties from taking part in municipal government. By protecting their communities, indigenous people protect the context in which cultural continuity is possible.

Being indigenous today

Despite the obvious strength of indigenous communities, despite the power evident in hundreds of years of cultural survival, being indigenous in Oaxaca today is difficult. Being indigenous means being connected to deep histories and strong communities, but it also means facing pervasive racism and oppressive poverty. In Mexico, the two states with the largest indigenous populations – Oaxaca and Chiapas – are also consistently the poorest two states in the country. Concepción Nuñez, a Oaxacan documentary filmmaker who focuses on indigenous issues, notes that the extreme poverty of indigenous communities often forces young people into one of two choices – “narco o norte” (narcotrafficking or the North). Her film, Deshilando condenas, bordando libertades (2005), documents the plight of poor indigenous women who have been sentenced to extraordinarily lengthy prison terms for carrying drugs such as marijuana. Many of these women were duped by relatives or friends into carrying suitcases, only to learn later that they contained illegal substances. Because these women have few resources, little formal education, and considerable difficulty with Spanish, they are easy targets of an aggressive campaign to “crack down” on narcotraffickers. And while they serve their prison terms, often fifteen to twenty years in crowded and underfunded jails, their children are often left to fend for themselves. As Nuñez points out, these women face the triple oppression of being female, being poor, and being indigenous.

Racism against indigenous people is evident on both local and systemic levels. Even with an invitation from the director of our program, amate artist Luis Dominguez was barred from entering the Santo Domingo Cultural Center in Oaxaca. The guards found it impossible to believe that an indigenous man would have any business presenting to a group of academic foreigners. This anti-indigenous racism extends to Latino communities abroad, as Gosia Woznicka points out in her article, “Latino-Indigenous Mexican Divide Stirs California Town”. And although the Mexican government pledged, in 1996, to support bilingual education in indigenous communities, many of the schools remain underfunded and poorly administered.

Globalization and transnational corporations also pose a significant threat to indigenous cultural continuity. Artisans in Oaxaca complained that Asian companies have been mass-producing textiles and wood carvings abroad and then undercutting the tourist market locally. As documented in several articles on this site, the agricultural corporation Monsanto aims to expand its reign into Oaxaca and eliminate small maize farms like the Vicente family’s. Drug cartels, their own breed of transnational organization, also jeopardize indigenous culture by increasingly luring young people into lives of violence far from home. These giants make for formidable foes in the fight for cultural survival, but the indigenous communities of Oaxaca have faced formidable foes in the past. From the Aztec conquest to the Spanish conquest to the present day, indigenous communities in Oaxaca have endured and evolved, defying the myth of native desolation and defining a culturally sustainable future for themselves.