One of 15 different ethnic groups (based on the criteria of language) originating in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico, Zapotec communities are concentrated in the central and eastern parts of the state, ranging from the Sierra Juaez in the north, to the Central Valleys located around Oaxaca City, to the Isthmus area of the state bordering Chiapas, to the Sierra Sur that backs onto the Pacific coast of Oaxaca. Because the Zapotec have always been entrepreneurial and have traveled widely and migrated throughout their history, communities and individuals are also found in Mexico City, in northern Mexican border towns such as Tijuana and Ensenada, and throughout the United States, with the largest concentration in the Los Angeles greater metropolitan area. The 2000 Census puts the Zapotec-speaking population at about 350,000 within the state of Oaxaca.

While Mexican government census data relies on the criteria of ability to speak one of the five branches of the Zapotec language family as the sole indicator of "Zapotecness," contemporary anthropological concepts of ethnicity focus on the expression and practice of ethnic identity in action and on processes of identity construction. In the state of Oaxaca, language as a basis for a sense of shared Zapotec ethnic identity is a recent phenomenon, tied to the emergence of a national movement for indigenous rights and autonomy in the 1990s. Traditionally, people who speak Zapotec identified themselves more closely with their community of origin than with the fact that they were Zapotec speakers. Through the process of migration, particularly since the 1980s, language became the basis of a pan-Zapotec identity outside of Oaxaca and for a pan-indigenous identity among migrants (Kearney, 1995a, 1995b, 1996). Nevertheless, while language is still critical to self-definitions and boundaries in many parts of contemporary Oaxaca, as the Zapotec and other indigenous groups migrate to other parts of Mexico and the United States, language is not necessarily the only or primary ingredient of ethnic identity. Shared identity based on customs, forms of social organization, place of origin, and shared cultural elements increasingly function along with or in place of language as markers of ethnicity for Zapotecs born outside of Oaxaca or who have migrated. In fact, a majority of the Zapotec population are now bilingual in Zapotec and Spanish.

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