Cultural Overview

Groups of Zapotec-speaking people who developed a culturally distinct set of settlements and city-states, such as Monte Albn, are believed to have at least a 3,000 year history in the region now known as Oaxaca. Documented as stratified societies with nobles, commoners, landless sharecroppers, and traders, Zapotec city-states and communities have long-standing internal differences in status, prestige, and material wealth. This also affected gender roles historically within Zapotec communities, where roles for elite men and women were different from those for commoners (Sousa, 1997; Spores, 1997). Well-known for their traders, merchants, and in the case of Juchita for their fierce sense of autonomy and independence (see Campbell, 1994), the Zapotec have dominated other ethnic groups in the Oaxaca region for hundreds of years. In the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the Zapotec drove out the Huave and the Chontal to marginal areas of lagoons and coast 200 years or more before the arrival of Cortes. In the mountains of the North, the Zapotec have dominated trade and commerce, marginalizing other ethnic groups such as the Mixe.

Unlike indigenous groups further south in the state of Chiapas, the Zapotec were able to remain in possession of their land for the first part of the colonial period. In many areas they held more land grants than did the Spanish through the 16th century. Land grants held by the Zapotec could be defended in Spanish courts. While the ability of Zapotec communities to hang onto their land varied throughout the state, in general indigenous communities continued to control significant amounts of land during the last 100 years of colonial rule (Taylor, 1972). Historically the Zapotec have engaged in a wide range of economic activities including farming (both for subsistence and trade), craft production, and trade. In larger population centers Zapotec elites emerged that were able to maintain family dominance in community politics, economic, and social life.

In the state of Oaxaca, and even when they have moved elsewhere, people from Zapotec communities have maintained locally rooted cult celebrations of patron saints and other significant religious holidays (see Chias, 1973). In the Central Valleys of Oaxaca, these are known as mayordomias.

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