The landlocked State of Guanajuato — located in the center of the Mexican Republic — shares borders with San Luis Potosí and Zacatecas on the north, with Querétaro on the east, the state of México on the southeast, Jalisco on the west, and Michoacán on the south. Guanajuato is a relatively small state ‒ twenty-second in terms of size among the Republic’s thirty-one states ‒ with a surface area of 30,768 square kilometers of territory, giving it 1.6% of the national territory. Politically, the state is divided into 46 municipios.
Guanajuato’s 2010 population was 5,853,677, representing 4.9% of Mexico’s total population and ranking sixth among the 31 states and the Distrito Federal (DF). The capital of Guanajuato is the City of Guanajuato, which was founded in the 1550s after Spanish entrepreneurs found rich veins of silver in the mountains surrounding the city.
The indigenous tribes in the region noticed the numerous frogs in the area and referred to the area as “Quanax-juato,” combining the Tarascan “quanas” (frogs) and “huato” (mountainous), which essentially means a high place with many frogs. The Spaniards would later translate Quanax-juato into Guanajuato.
The Guanajuato state surface is part of the following physiographic provinces which are illustrated in the Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía (INEGI) map below:
- The Sierra Madre Oriental Mountains occupy a small portion in the extreme northeast that represents 5.32% of Guanajuato.
- Mesa del Centro (The Central Mesa) occupies 45.31% of north and northwest portion of the state. This region is characterized by the presence of wide plains of alluvial origin interrupted by scattered mountain ranges.
Eje Neovolcánico(Neovolcanic Axis) occupies 49.37% of the southern part of the state and is made up of large volcanic mountains with interspersed plains and lake basins. This feature — also known as the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt — is a volcanic belt that crosses central Mexico from Colima and Jalisco in the west to central Veracruz in the east. Several of its highest peaks have snow all year long.
Guanajuato is recognized as part of El Bajío (The Lowlands) which includes parts of the states of Aguascalientes, Jalisco, Guanajuato, and Querétaro. According to Wikipedia, the Bajío has received recognition as the region with the best quality of life in Mexico. The region is a strong business and economic center and considered one of the safest areas of the country.
The Guanajuato Economy Today
The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Guanajuato was about 765 trillion pesos in 2015 and contributed 4.5% of Mexico’s national GDP. In 2015, the five primary contributors to Guanajuato’s GDP were: manufacturing (33.2%); wholesale and retail trade (16.0%); real estate and rental and leasing (10.0%); construction (8.1%); and information (6.3%). Guanajuato’s 2.5 million workers in 2016 were employed in a wide range of industries, including manufacturing (22.7%) and commerce (20.6%). The mining, electricity and water industry ‒ once an important element of Guanajuato’s economy ‒ now employs only 0.7% of the work force.
Early Spanish Exploration
It is believed that the Spanish explorer Cristóbal de Olid explored some parts of Guanajuato in the early 1520s, after advancing northward from Michoacán and the Kingdom of the Purépecha. The Spaniards sent more explorers into the area in the following decades.
Ciudad de Guanajuato
In the 1540s, Franciscan missionaries first visited the area around the present-day City of Guanajuato and by 1546, a cattle estancia had been established in the area. Then, in 1552, Captain Juan de Jaso discovered the silver veins in the area, leading to the establishment of mines in 1557. (The rich Zacatecas silver mines —148 miles (238 km) to the northwest —had been discovered a decade earlier in 1546). By 1570, it was reported that 600 Spanish miners lived in the camps around the Guanajuato mining area. Four years later, Guanajuato was elevated to the status of a city. However, Guanajuato’s silver production fell significantly during the Seventeenth Century, but experienced a revival in the Eighteenth Century after the discovery of the rich Valenciana Mine Complex.
The Valenciana Mine Complex
The massive silver vein ofthe Valenciana Mine Complex, seven kilometers north of Guanajuato, was discovered in 1750 with the mining operations starting in 1774. The silver reserves of Guanajuato were huge and produced 20% of the era’s total silver while the Valenciana Mine dug out 30% of the world’s yearly total of silver.
La Gran Chichimeca
When the Spaniards started exploring Guanajuato in the 1530s and 1540s, they encountered several nomadic tribes occupying the area which they referred to as La Gran Chichimeca, which included large parts of Guanajuato, Jalisco, Zacatecas, San Luis Potosí, Aguascalientes and Durango. Although the Aztecs had collectively referred to these Indians with the umbrella term, Chichimecas, they were actually composed of several distinct cultural and linguistic groups inhabiting a large swath of territory.
All of the Chichimeca Indians shared a primitive hunting-collecting culture, based on the gathering of mesquite and tunas (the fruit of the nopal). However, many of them also lived off of acorns, roots and seeds and hunted small animals, including frogs, lizards, snakes and worms. Over time, the Chichimeca label became synonymous with the word “barbarian” among the Spaniards and Mexica. The map below shows the rough distribution of the Chichimecas across a seven-state region of central Mexico [Grin20, “Map Depicting Geographic Expanse of Chichimeca nations, ca. 1550” at Wikipedia, “Chichimeca War” (Published Jan. 4, 2012)].
The historian Philip Wayne Powell has written several books that dealt with the Chichimeca Indians and the Spanish encounter with these Indians. In his publication Soldiers Indians and Silver: North America’s First Frontier War, Professor Powell noted that “Hernán Cortés, the Conqueror, defeated the Aztecs in a two-year campaign” but that his “stunning success created an illusion of European superiority over the Indian as a warrior.” Continuing with this line of thought, Mr. Powell observed that “this lightning-quick subjugation of such massive and complex peoples as the Tlaxcalan, Aztec, and Tarascan, proved to be but prelude to a far longer military struggle against the peculiar and terrifying prowess of Indian America’s more primitive warriors.”
The Chichimeca War (1550-1590)
Professor Powell writes that rush to establish new settlements and pave new roads through Zacatecas and Guanajuato, “left in its wake a long stretch of unsettled and unexplored territory…” As these settlements and the mineral output of the mines grew in numbers, “the needs to transport to and from it became a vital concern of miners, merchants, and government.” To function properly, the silver mines “required well-defined and easily traveled routes.” These routes brought in badly-needed supplies and equipment from distant towns and also delivered the silver to smelters and royal counting houses in the south.
Professor Powell wrote that these highways “became the tangible, most frequently visible evidence of the white man’s permanent intrusion” into their land. As the natives learned about the usefulness of the goods being transported (silver, food, and clothing), “they quickly appreciated the vulnerability of this highway movement to any attack they might launch.” In time, the Zacatecos, Guachichiles and Guamares, in whose territory most of the silver mines could be found, started to resist the intrusion by assaulting the travelers and merchants using the roads. And thus began La Guerra de los Chichimecas (The War of the Chichimecas), which eventually became the longest and most expensive conflict between Spaniards and the indigenous peoples of New Spain in the history of the colony.
combat, the Chichimeca warriors gained a reputation for courage and ferocity.
Even when the Chichimeca warrior was attacked in his hideout or stronghold, Mr.
Powell writes, “He usually put up vigorous resistance, especially if unable to
escape the onslaught. In such cases, he fought – with arrows, clubs, or even
rocks! Even the women might take up the fight, using the weapons of fallen
braves. The warriors did not readily surrender and were known to fight on with
great strength even after receiving mortal wounds.”
Guanajuato’s Indigenous Groups
The following paragraphs discuss the indigenous tribes that lived in the region of present-day Guanajuato, all of which took part — in one way or another — in the Chichimeca War.
The Otomíes as Spanish Allies
The Otomíes were a Chichimeca tribe that occupied parts of Querétero, Guanajuato, the State of México and northwestern Hidalgo. The Otomíes belong to the extensive Oto-Manguean linguistic family. (The Mixtecs and Zapotecs of Oaxaca also belong to this language family).
Soon after the European contact, the Otomíes allied themselves with the Spaniards and Mexica Indians. As a result, writes Mr. Powell, Otomí settlers were “issued a grant of privileges” and were “supplied with tools for breaking land.” For their allegiance, they were exempted from tribute and given a certain amount of autonomy in their towns. Beginning in the 1550s, Luis de Velasco (the second Viceroy of Nueva España) used Otomí militia against the Chichimecas in the Chichimeca War.
Unlike most of the other Chichimeca tribes, the Otomíes have survived to the present day and their language is the seventh most commonly spoken indigenous language in Mexico today.
Of all the Chichimec tribes, the Guachichile Indians occupied the largest territory, — an estimated 100,000 square kilometers — from Saltillo, Coahuila in the north to Lake Chapala in eastern Jalisco on the southern end. Their territory extended through parts of eastern Zacatecas, western San Luis Potosí, parts of eastern Jalisco, Aguascalientes and western Guanajuato. According to John R. Swanton, the author of The Indian Tribes of North America (Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 145-1953) classified the Guachichile tribes as part of the Uto-Aztecan linguistic family. This would make them linguistic cousins to the Aztecs.
The name Guachichil ‒ given to them by the Aztecs ‒ meant “head colored red.” They had been given this label, writes Mr. Dunne, because “they were distinguished by red feather headdresses, by painting themselves red (especially the hair), or by wearing head coverings (bonetillas) made of hides and painted red.” The archaeologist Dr. Paul Kirchhoff wrote that the following traits characterized the Guachichile Indians: “painting of the body; coloration of the hair; head gear; matrilocal residence; freedom of the married woman…”
development of tribal alliances, the Guachichiles were considered the most
advanced of the Chichimec tribes. They were a major catalyst in provoking the
other tribes to resist the Spanish settlement and exploitation of Indian lands.
“Their strategic position in relation to Spanish mines and highways,” wrote Mr.
Powell, “made them especially effective in raiding and in escape from Spanish
reprisal.” The Spanish frontiersmen and contemporary writers referred to the
Guachichiles “as being the most ferocious, the most valiant, and the most
elusive” of all their indigenous adversaries.
The Guamares Confederation
The nation of the Guamares took up portions of western and central Guanajuato, northeastern Jalisco and eastern Aguascalientes. The 17th Century author Gonzalo de las Casas called the Guamares “the bravest, most warlike, treacherous, and destructive of all the Chichimecas.”
Before the Spanish contact, the Guamares had established a confederation of tribes in what is now Guanajuato, Aguascalientes and northeastern Jalisco in response to the threat of conquest from the Aztec Empire to the southeast and the Purépecha Kingdom to the southwest. Their tribal alliances stretched eastward into the present state of Querétaro and westward towards Lagos de Moreno in Jalisco and included both the Zacatecos and Guachichiles (other Chichimec tribes). The following map (from AndresXXV, “Mapa Territorial de Guaxabanes y Sauzas, Incluyendo Toda la Confederación de Pechichitane” (March 17, 2013) provides a map of the Guamar Confederation:
At the time of the Spanish arrival in the region, the Guamares inhabited many parts of present-day Guanajuato, including Ciudad de Guanajuato, Pénjamo, León, San Felipe and San Miguel el Grande. The Guamares took an active part in the Chichimeca War during the 1560s, after which they fell into decline, while the Guachichiles and Zacatecos continued to fight on until the 1590s. According to the anthropologist David Frye, the last reference to the Guamares dates from around 1572, after which they apparently assimilated alongside the “civilized” Indians that moved into their region.
One of the few scholars to study the lifestyle of both the Guachichiles and Guamares was the archaeologist Paul Kirchhoff. His work, “The Hunting-Gathering People of North Mexico,” is one of the few reference works available that describes the social and political organization of both the Guamares and Guachichile.
The semi nomadic Pames constitute a very divergent branch of the extensive Oto-Manguean linguistic family. They were located mainly in northcentral and eastern Guanajuato, southeastern San Luis Potosí, and also in adjacent areas of Tamaulipas and Querétaro. To this day, the Pames refer to themselves as “Xi’úi,” which means indigenous. This term is used to refer to any person not of mestizo descent. They use the word “Pame” to refer to themselves only when they are speaking Spanish.
The Pames lived south and east of the Guachichiles, with some living as far south as Acámbaro, Orirapúndaro and Ucareo. Their territory overlapped with the Otomíes of Jilotepec, the Purépecha of Michoacán, and the Guamares in the west. In 1531, an Otomi force under Don Fernando de Tapia, formerly known as Conín, conquered and dispersed the southern Pame and founded in the town of Querétaro. As the 1530s and 1540s progressed, Spanish cattle ranchers and Otomíes had begun taking over the Pame lands in eastern Guanajuato and western Querétaro.
Initially, the Pames were minor players in the Chichimeca War. According to Professor Frye, they took part in small raids on cattle ranches in the Bajío. However, in the 1570s, they became more involved in the hostilities, but settled down peacefully when the war ended. Today the Pames continue to exist as a cultural group with a living language.
The Purépecha (Tarascans)
In pre-Hispanic times, the Purépecha — also referred to as the Tarascan Indians — occupied and reigned over most of the state of Michoacán, but they also occupied some of the lower valleys of both Guanajuato and Jalisco. Celaya, Acámbaro, and Yurirapúndaro were all in Purépecha territory.
According to Professor Frye, the Spanish advances of the 1520s had pushed both the Purépechas and the Otomíes to advance into new regions in Guanajuato. As allies of the Spaniards, these two groups took advantage of the military protection offered by the conquerors and thus been able to survive as cultural entities to the present day.
Peace through Luxury Items
Unable to defeat the Chichimecas militarily in many parts of the war zone, the Spaniards offered goods and opportunities as an incentive for the Guachichiles and Guamares to make peace. Many of the Chichimecas had been nomadic (or semi-nomadic) and had not possessed most of the luxury items that the Spaniards had (i.e., warm clothes, agricultural tools and supplies, horses, and beef). Those who made peace were given agricultural implements and permitted to settle down to a peaceful agricultural existence. In many cases, Mexica, Tarascans and Otomíes were settled among them to help them adapt to their new existence.
Assimilation and Mestizaje
In the area of the Ciudad de Guanajuato mines, Tarascans, Otomíes and Mexica had steadily replaced the original Chichimeca inhabitants, while Tarascans and Otomíes also replaced the Chichimecas living in the Celaya and San Miguel el Grande districts. In Pénjamo (in the western region), a settlement of Tarascans, Otomíes and Christianized Guamares became a defensive settlement against Chichimeca attacks.
After the Chichimeca Indians were persuaded to settle down in the late Sixteenth Century, Guanajuato experienced a high degree of mestizaje. This would be due in great part to the huge influx of a very diverse group of people from many parts of the Spanish colony of Mexico. The influx of more established and refined Indian cultural groups combined with the establishment of the Spanish language and Christian religion as the dominant cultural practice. And a result there was a high degree of assimilation, in which most traces of the old cultures were lost.
With the end of the Chichimeca War, Guanajuato became a magnet for more Spaniards and indigenous peoples from the south. As the Seventeenth Century progressed, several new villas were established across the region: Salamanca (1603), Valle de Santiago (1606), Salvatierra (1643) and San Pedro Piedra Gorda (1680 —now Manuel Doblado).
The 1790 Census
Late in the colonial period, the 1790 census of Nueva España (México) revealed that the Intendencia of Guanajuato had a population of 430,022, of which 186,312 were indios (43.3%) and 115,927 (27.0%) were Españoles. Another 127,783 (29.7%) belonged to “otras castas,” such as mestizos, mulatos and castizos.
Although the Indians made up only 21.5% of the population of the large district of Guanajuato City, they represented half or more of many other locations within the intendencia, including Salamanca (49.0%), Celaya (50.9%), Silao (50.8%) and Piedra Gorda (59.7%). However, as indicated in later censuses starting in 1895, it is believed that the “indio” classification did not include the speaking of indigenous languages, which had almost ceased in this part of México.
Although many of the Guanajuatenses are believed to be descended from the indigenous inhabitants of their state, the cultures and languages of their ancestors – for the most part – have not been handed down to the descendants. In the 1895 census, only 9,607 persons aged five or more spoke indigenous languages. This figure rose to 14,586 in 1910, but dropped to only 305 in the 1930 census, in large part because of the ravages of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), which took the life of one in eight Mexican citizens.
The 1921 Census
As a matter of fact, Guanajuato’s total population fell from an all-time high in the 1910 census (1,081,651 persons) to a Twentieth Century low of 860,364 in the 1921 census. But the 1921 Mexican census gives us a very interesting view of the widespread mestizaje of Guanajuato’s modern population. In this census, residents of each state were asked to classify themselves in several categories, including “indígena pura” (pure indigenous), “indígena mezclada con blanca” (indigenous mixed with white), and “blanca” (white).
Out of a total population of 860,364 people, only 25,458 inhabitants of Guanajuato (or 2.96%) claimed to be of pure indigenous background. A much larger number – 828,724, or 96.33% – classified themselves as being mixed, while a mere 4,687 individuals (0.5%) classified themselves as white. The following table illustrates the 1921 data for the State of Guanajuato:
Twentieth Century Indigenous Guanajuato
From the latter half of the Twentieth Century into the present century, the population of indigenous speakers has remained fairly small. When the 1970 census was tallied, Guanajuato boasted a mere 2,272 indigenous speakers five years of age and over. The Otomí speakers made up the most significant number (866), followed by the Purépecha (181) and Náhuatl (151). The Chichimeca-Jonaz language, a rare language spoken in only in Guanajuato and San Luis Potosí, was not tallied individually in the 1970 census, but was probably among the 790 persons listed under “otras lenguas Indígenas.”
The 2000 Census
According to the 2000 Mexican Census, the population of persons five years and more who spoke indigenous languages in Guanajuato amounted to only 10,689 individuals, or 0.26% of the total state population. These individuals spoke a wide range of languages, many of which are transplants from other parts of the Mexican Republic. The largest indigenous groups represented in the state were:
- Chichimeca Jonaz (1,433 indigenous speakers)
- Otomí (1,019)
- Náhuatl (919)
- Mazahua (626)
- Purépecha (414)
- Mixteco (225)
- Zapoteco (214)
The Chichimeca-Jonaz language is classified as a member of the Oto-Manguean language family and is divided into two major dialects: the Pame dialect, which is used in San Luis Potosí, and the Jonaz dialect used in Guanajuato. With a total of 1,433 Chichimeca-Jonaz speakers living in the state of Guanajuato in 2000, it is interesting to note that the great majority – 1,405 persons five years of age or more – actually lived in the municipio of San Luis de la Paz in the northcentral part of the state (adjacent to San Luis Potosí).
The 2010 Census
In the 2010 census, Guanajuato ranked 30th among the Mexican states and the Distrito Federal in its percentage of indigenous speakers. In fact, only 0.3% of Guanajuato’s residents actually spoke an indigenous language. Within the Mexican Republic, only Aguascalientes and Coahuila had smaller percentages.
More than one-third of the 15,204 indigenous speakers 3 years and older in Guanajuato in the 2010 census did not specify which language they spoke, as noted in the following table:
Although several native languages were spoken in Guanajuato, most of them were transplants from other Mexican states. Otomí was the most commonly-spoken language (21.6%), followed by the Chichimeca-Jonaz tongue.
Municipios with Indigenous Speaking Populations
In 2010, the Municipio of León had 3,270 indigenous speakers, with 21.5% of all Indigenous language speakers in Guanajuato. The majority of the languages spoken there were Náhuatl (the language of the Aztecs still spoken by one-quarter of Mexico’s indigenous languages speakers) and Otomí.
San Luis de la Paz was the municipio with the second largest number of indigenous speakers in the State (2,273 speakers or 15.0% of the state total), but nearly all of them spoke the Chichimeco-Jonaz language.
The Municipio of Tierra Blanca had the third largest population of indigenous speakers: 2,090 persons, or 13.7% of the state population. Tierra Blanca is the stronghold of the Otomí in Guanajuato, with 2,037 Otomí speakers in 2010.
Considered Indigenous Classification
In 2016, the Mexican government agency, Instituto Nacional de Estadística Geografía e Informática (INEGI), published the 2015 Intercensal Survey. One of the survey questions asked, “De acuerdo, con su cultura, se considera indígena?” Essentially, Mexican residents were being asked if they considered themselves indigenous through their culture. Based on the responses to this question, across all states, the survey reported that 21.5% of all Mexicans considered themselves to be of indigenous descent, which means that more than one-fifth of the entire population of the nation recognized its indigenous origins.
While only 0.2% of the people in Guanajuato speak indigenous languages today, nearly one-tenth of the population (9.1%) considered themselves to be indigenous in this survey. Today, many citizens of Guanajuato — although they are far removed from the cultures and languages of their ancestors —remain as the living representation of their indigenous ancestors.
At the following link, researchers will find links to each of Guanajuato’s municipios. Through this resource, interested readers can learn more about the indigenous people and history of each of their ancestral municipios:
Copyright © 2019 by John P. Schmal. All Rights Reserved. Read more articles by John Schmal.
De las Casas, Gonzalo. Noticias de los Chichimecas y Justicia de la Guerra Que Se les ha Hecho por los Españoles. Stuttgart, 1936.
Departamento de la Estadística Nacional. Annuario de 1930. Tacuba, D.F., Mexico, 1932.
Frye, David. “The Native peoples of Northeastern Mexico,” in Richard E. W. Adams and Murdo J. MacLeod, The Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas, Volume II: Mesoamerica, Part 1. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000, pp. 89-135
Gerhard, Peter. A Guide to the Historical Geography of New Spain. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1972.
Instituto Nacional de Estadística, Geografía e Informática (INEGI). Estadísticas Históricas de Mexico, Tomo I. Aguascalientes, INEGI, 1994.
Instituto Nacional de Estadística, Geografía e Informática (INEGI). Tabulados Básicos. Estados Unidos Mexicanos. XII Censo General de Población y Vivienda, 2000 y 2010.
INEGI. Anuario Estadístico y Geográfico de Guanajuato 2017. Aguascalientes, Mexico, 2017.
Kirchhoff, Paul. “The Hunter-Gathering People of North Mexico,” in The North Mexican Frontier: Readings in Archaeology, Ethnohistory, and Ethnography. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1971 (pp. 200-209).
Powell, Philip Wayne. Soldiers, Indians and Silver: North America’s First Frontier War. Tempe, Arizona: Center for Latin American Studies, Arizona State University, 1975.
Prado, Juan Jose. Guanajuato’s Legends and Traditions. Guanajuato, Guanajuato: Prado Hnos., 1963.
Robles Uribe, Josefina. Historia Regional de Guanajuato: Perfil Socioeconómico.Mexico, D.F.: Editorial Limusa, S.A. de C.V. Grupo Noriega Editores, 2000.
Secretaríat de Economía, ProMéxico Trade and Investment: Guanajuato. Online:
Secretaría de Programacíon y Presupuesto. 1er Censo de Población de la Nueva España. 1790: Censo de Revillagiedo. Mexico, D.F.: Dirección General de Estadística, 1977.
Thomas, Cyrus. Indian Languages of Mexico and Central America. Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Smithsonian Institution, 1911, Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 44.
Valenciana Mina. “Guanajuato Mine Guide.” Online:
Wikipedia. “Bajío.” Online: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baj%C3%ADo
Wikiwand, “Confederación Guamare.” Online: http://www.wikiwand.com/es/Confederaci%C3%B3n_guamare