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The State of Nuevo León is located in the northeast of México and touches the United States of America to the north along 14 kilometers of the Texas border. Nuevo Leon is surrounded by the states of Coahuila, Tamaulipas, San Luis Potosí, and Zacatecas. Nuevo Leon is made up of 64,156 square kilometers, which is equal to 3.3% of the national territory and makes the state the 13th largest state of Mexico.  Politically, the state is divided into fifty-one municipios.

With a 2010 population of 5,119,504 people, Nuevo Leon has the eighth largest population in the Mexican Republic. The capital of Nuevo Leon is Monterrey, which had a population of 1,135,512 in 2010, representing over one-fifth (22.5%) of the state’s total population. Monterrey is internationally renowned as the business capital of México for its infinite range of industrial, commercial, and service companies that are located in the city.

The Physical Description of Nuevo León

The relief of the State of Nuevo León is shaped to the north by an immense plain interrupted by hills. Through the center of the state, the Sierra Madre Oriental forms a large arc south of Monterrey; and to the south is a high plateau.  While hills cover 42.84% of the surface of the state, mountain ranges encompass 25.13% of the state and plains make up another 17.36% of the territory. The state is part of the following three physiographic provinces, which are described below and illustrated in the Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía (INEGI) map on the following page:

  • The Sierra Madre Oriental (Eastern) Mountains cover 50.9% of the state territory and contains both mountains and plains in the western half of the state.
  • Grandes Llanuras de Norteamérica (The Great Plains of North America) cover 34.6% of the state territory, primarily in the northeast of the state and made up of low hills, alluvial plains and valleys.
  • Llanura Costera del Golfo Norte (The Coastal Plain of the North Gulf) encompasses 14.5% of the state territory, mainly in the east central part of the state.
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Indigenous Nuevo León

The original inhabitants of the State of Nuevo León before the arrival of the Spaniards were nomadic hunters and gatherers. In general, the Spaniards at first called all inhabitants in the north frontier of Mexico by the generic term, Chichimecas. But these indigenous people actually consisted of several indigenous linguistic groups. In Nuevo León, they included the Alazapas in the north, the Guachichiles in the south, the Borrados and Tamaulipec groups in the east, and Coahuiltecans in the west.

The map below shows the approximate territories of the four primary indigenous groups at the time of the Spanish contact in the 16th century [Fernández Garza, Hilda and Victor Manuel Rodríguez, Nuevo Leon: La Entidad Donde Vivo: Tercer Grado. Mexico, D.F.: Secretaría de Educación Pűblica, 2011, p. 46].

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The following graphic from a Nuevo León educational publication shows the locations of the four main indigenous groups within the state [Santos Rivera, Mi Libro Historia de Nuevo León: Primer Grado (Nuevo León Secretaría de Educación, 2015). Online:].

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Some historians have estimated that there were roughly 250 tribes with different denominations in the Nuevo León region, and some tribes were known by multiple names. Early observers noted that these small tribal groups appeared to be at war with each other a great deal and had minimal contact with native groups outside of their immediate areas. Most of their languages have been lost to history. The primary sources of information available about the Nuevo León, Coahuila and Tamaulipas indigenous groups are:

  • Gabriel Saldivar, Los Indios de Tamaulipas” (Mexico City: Pan American Institute of Geography and History, 1943).
  • J. R. Swanton, Linguistic Material from the Tribes of Southern Texas and Northeastern Mexico” (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1940).
  • Rudolph C. Troike, “Notes on Coahuiltecan Ethnography,” Bulletin of the Texas Archeological Society 32 (1962).
  • Thomas N. Campbell, “Coahuiltecans and Their Neighbors,” in Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 10 (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1983).
  • Martin Salinas, “Indians of the Rio Grande Delta: Their Role in the History of Southern Texas and Northeastern Mexico.” Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990.
  • Frederick Henry Ruecking, The Coahuiltecan Indians of Southern Texas and Northeastern Mexico. Master’s Thesis: The University of Texas, August 1955.

The Coahuiltecan Tribes

The Coahuiltecan tribes were made up of hundreds of autonomous bands of hunter-gatherers who ranged over the eastern part of Coahuila, northern Tamaulipas, western Nuevo León and southern Texas south and west of San Antonio River and Cibolo Creek. It was the practice of the Coahuiltecans to move from one traditional campsite to another, following the seasons and herds of migrating animals.

According to Frederick Henry Ruecking’s Master’s thesis for the University of Texas in 1955, certain Coahuiltecan bands were “clustered around a central, dominant band.” Referred to as “band-clusters,” these groups were “bound together by (1) geographic proximity, (2) historic association, (3) cultural or linguistic affinity, and/or (4) a similarity in band names. In his thesis, Ruecking recognized eight band-clusters, suggested three more and indicated four others as possibilities.

Coahuiltecan Population Figures

According to the “Handbook of Texas Online,” estimates of the total Coahuiltecan population in 1690 vary widely. One scholar estimates the total nonagricultural Indian population of northeastern Mexico, which included desert lands west to the Río Conchos in Chihuahua, at 100,000.

The American anthropologist John R. Swanton listed 212 Coahuiltecan bands, and this was considered to be an incomplete list. General Fernando Sanchez Zamora listed 161 bands in northern Nuevo Leon, and 71 of these bands were located within ten to twelve leagues of Cerralvo.

In 1953, Ruecking compiled a list of 614 group names (Coahuiltecan) for northeastern Mexico and southern Texas and estimated the average population per group as 140 and therefore reckoned the total population at 86,000. He estimated that the entire Coahuiltecan area encompassed approximately 198,000 square miles.

Classification of the Coahuiltecans

Initially, the Spaniards had little interest in describing the natives or classifying the Coahuiltecans into ethnic units. There was no obvious basis for classification, and major cultural contrasts and tribal organizations went unnoticed, as did similarities and differences in the native languages and dialects. The Spanish padres referred to each Indian group as a nación, and described them according to their association with major terrain features or with Spanish jurisdictional units. Only in Nuevo León did observers link Indian populations by cultural peculiarities, such as hairstyle and body decoration. Thus, modern scholars have found it difficult to identify these hunting and gathering groups by language and culture.

Eventually, many of the ethnohistorians and anthropologists came to believe that the entire region was occupied by numerous small Indian groups who spoke related languages and shared the same basic culture, the Coahuiltecan culture. By the mid-nineteenth century, Mexican linguists had constructed what is now known as “Coahuiltecan culture” by assembling bits of specific and generalized information recorded by Spaniards for widely scattered and limited parts of the region.

During the Spanish colonial period, most of the Coahuilatecan natives were displaced from their traditional territories by Spaniards advancing from the south and Apaches advancing from the north. A large number of the small tribal groups or bands belonging to the Coahuiltecan stock remain unknown to this day and even their locations – in some cases – are not clear.

Tamaulipecan Groups

The Tamaulipas groups included some sedentary peoples who were dedicated to agriculture, with well-structured religious practices. The Tamaulipec groups were mainly small tribes that occupied the central and southeastern parts of the present-day state. Today, it is believed that the so-called Tamaulipecan family was related to and perhaps a subset of the Coahuiltecans. Through their Coahuiltecan ties, it is believed that the Tamaulipecos were part of the Hokan language group, but very few fragments of their languages survive today.

Guachichiles (Huachichiles)

The Guachichiles, of all the Chichimeca Indians, occupied the most extensive territory, extending some 100,000 square kilometers from Lake Chapala (Jalisco) in the south to Saltillo (Coahuila) in the north. Considered both warlike and brave, the Guachichiles roamed through a large section of the present-day state of Zacatecas and as far north as Coahuila and Nuevo León. The Aztecs used the term “Guachichile” as a reference to “heads painted of red,” a reference to the red dye that they used to paint their bodies, faces and hair. The Guachichil group of tribes is regarded as connected with the present-day Huichol language group (of Jalisco and Nayarit) and has been classified as part of the Aztecoidan division of the Uto-Aztecan linguistic family.

The Guachichiles and their “Chichimeca” cousins, the Zacatecos, waged the 40-year war (1550-1590) known as the “Chichimeca War” against Spanish forces, primarily in the vast region south of Coahuila (Zacatecas, Northern Jalisco, Aguascalientes, Western San Luis Potosí and Guanajuato).  They were never decisively defeated in battle, but were pacified through gifts that included many of the materials used by Spaniards and “civilized” Indians to live and thrive in their Spanish settlements.


The Alazapas are a Coahuiltecan group that lived in several present-day municipios of Nuevo León, including San Nicolas de los Garza, which is just five miles from Monterrey. Between 1637 and 1647, the Alazapas attacked the Spaniards in several areas near Monterrey, including the mines at Cerralvo and several small settlements. Although the Alazapas contained the Spanish expansion into the area for ninety years, eventually they were forced to move north to the area around Lampazos.Lampazos is close to the present-day boundary between Nuevo León with Coahuila.


The Spaniards applied the name Borrados to several, widely distributed groups over a period of two centuries. In the sixteenth century, one of the Borrado tribes lived in the Monterrey-Cadereyta-Cerralvo area of Nuevo Leon, as well as adjacent areas of Tamaulipas. The Borrados were also known as Rayados (“Stripped Ones”). The name derived from the almost universal habit among these Indians of covering their faces with tattoos which the aborigines produced by opening a trace-work of cuts on the skin with a sharpened stone, then rubbing into charcoal. The resulting design distinguished members of one tribe from members of other tribes.


The Catujanes Indians lived in the Mesa of the Catujanes and in the area of Lampazos de Naranjo, which is a present-day city and municipio located in northwestern Nuevo León, 97 miles (156 km) north of Monterrey.


The Gualeguas Indians lived in the region of Agualeguas, a city and a municipio located in the northeastern Nuevo León, 80 miles (128 km) northeast of Monterrey. The name “Agualeguas” honors the first known inhabitants of the region, the Gualegua tribe.

Cacalote Indians

Cacalote (“crow” or “raven”) is the name of an Indian groups that lived south of the Rio Grande in Nuevo León and Tamaulipas in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Cacalotes were believed to have been a Coahuiltecan group.

Pajarito Indians

Pajarito, which is Spanish for “little bird,” was the name of a Coahuiltecan band that originally inhabited northeastern Nuevo León, but later migrated northwestward to the north bank of the Rio Grande above the site of present-day Laredo. Eventually most of the Pajarito Indians ended up along the lower Rio Grande near the coast, principally in northern Tamaulipas.


The Tortugas (“Tortoises”) are believed to have lived on the upper tributaries of the Rio San Juan in eastern Nuevo Leon. However, the Tortugas may also have been referred to as Pelón or Pelones (“bald” or “hairless”) because the males removed their head hair in a number of ways, but several unrelated Indian groups of Nuevo Leon were also known by the Spaniards as Pelones. The Tortugas were first recorded in eastern Nuevo Leon in 1716-1717 as one of several rebellious groups that settled at Mission Purificación in the Pilón Valley near Montemorelos. The Spaniards considered the Tortugas to be very troublesome because of their far-reaching raids, as far south as Montemorelos, as far west as Cadereyta and as far north as Cerralvo. From the 1740s to the 1760s they were recorded at various missions in eastern Nuevo Leon, but their ethnic identity was lost in the nineteenth century.


Carrizos (Spanish for “canes” or “reeds”) is a descriptive name that was applied after 1700 to several widely distributed Indian groups of both northeastern Mexico and Texas. Apparently, Indians of this name lived in houses whose frames were covered by canes or reeds. The western Carrizos were reported in various locations, including Mission Nuestra de los Dolores de la Punta de Lampazos (near modern Lampazos). It is believed that they may also have inhabited Starr and Zapata counties of present-day Texas. And in 1735, it was reported that they were one of several Indian groups who had attacked the Spanish settlement at Cerralvo during the preceding 20 years.

Although they continued to conduct raids in Nuevo Leon over a period of decades, the Carrizos appear to have allied themselves with the Spaniards from 1790 to 1792 against the Mescalero and Lipan Apaches. During the early 18th Century, the Carrizos were known to be in the region of Laredo, Texas and east of Lampazos, Nuevo Leon.


In 1688, Zalayas were mentioned in connection with the Convent of San Francisco of Cerralvo, and it’s likely that they lived in the Cerralvo area. In 1735, Zalayas reportedly were among the Indian groups that had been causing trouble at the Spanish village of Agualeguas, about 17 miles north of Cerralvo in northeastern Nuevo Leon.


The Zacatiles lived near Cadereyta in west central Nuevo Leon. The word Zacatil appears to be related to zacate, a word of Náhuatl origin that the early Spaniards applied to several groups, including the Zacatecos Indians of Zacatecas. During the 1730s, there was considerable unrest among the surviving Indian groups of eastern Nuevo Leon, and some documents refer to the Zacatiles as being one of the indigenous groups that raided Spanish settlements as far north as Cerralvo and as far south as Montemorelos.

Native Groups Continuously at War

According to Omar Santiago Valerio-Jiménez, the various tribes of this area “were almost continuously at war with one another. Inter-tribal strife made it relatively easy, during the early stages of the conquest, for the Spaniards to master many of these small, mutually antagonistic tribes.”  However, the natives who sought refuge in the Sierra Madre were harder to locate in their mountain refuges. The mountain strongholds served as a base of operations for raids on Spanish settlements and as refuge for natives who fled the mission settlements.

The natives of colonial Nuevo León were almost constantly on the move in their search for food. Although the region had a distinct dry season, many streams still flowed from the eastern slopes of the Sierra Madre, and this led to the lush growth of vegetation in the foothills and coastal areas. In normal times, many of the tribes engaged in hunting and food gathering. They moved about in small groups and their rancherias usually consisted of one or two families, which rarely numbered more than eight or ten persons altogether. In times of war, these small nomadic communities would coalesce to form aggressive raiding parties.

The Establishment of Monterrey (1577)

In 1577, Alberto del Canto, a Portuguese immigrant, founded a settlement named Ojos de Santa Lucía, which was renamed San Luis in 1583 by Luis Carvajal y de la Cueva. However, it was abandoned and then re-founded as the City of Monterrey on September 20, 1596 along the Santa Catarina River. However, the hostility of the local natives, was so intense that Monterrey became an isolated stronghold standing in hostile territory.

Establishment of the Kingdom (1579)

On May 31, 1579, Luis Carvajal signed an agreement with King Felipe II of Spain to pacify the region and to establish the Kingdom of Nuevo León, which extended from the Pánuco River on the south and the Gulf of Mexico on the east, while its western sector extended well into the Sierra Madre Oriental. The northern border of the province ran roughly along the lower Río Grande.

Carvajal was both the first governor and encomendero of the area, but, according to historian Sean F. McEnroe, his “brief and unsuccessful conquests” were “motivated by the profits of slave raiding and mining” and “provoked fierce resistance from local populations.” This hostility, followed by his subsequent arrest leading to a power vacuum led Spain to abandon the area for some time.

Slavery in Nuevo León

As mentioned in the preceding paragraph, some of the Spaniards turned to Indian slavery for profits. In establishing the towns of Monterrey and Cerralvo, Spaniards captured Indians to sell as slaves for labor in the mines of Zacatecas. This cruelty provoked several results. In 1624, as an example, the local tribes assaulted the Monterrey and slaughtered the Franciscan missionaries living in the area. However, in his Ph.D. dissertation, Professor Rodolfo Fernández discussed the complexities of the local system, noting that some indigenous people also became slave owners.

The Encomienda System in Nuevo León

According to Professor Rodolfo Fernández, the encomienda system gave some Spaniards “the legal right to negotiate tribute in the form of labor from specific indigenous groups. The encomienda was the most widespread labor relation between Indians and Spaniards in northeastern New Spain.” In this system, the tribute-receiving soldier, known as an encomendero received a grant in the form of land, municipios or Indian labor. He was also obliged to provide military protection and a Christian education for the Indians under his command. The Indian laborers under his command were called encomendados.

Fernández notes that in the northern frontier area, “the structure of Indian communities was completely different since the native Chichimecas did not own a particular piece of land permanently, and they did not have the type of political elites that existed in Mesoamerican societies.”

In his Ph.D. Dissertation, Professor Fernández noted that Indians of the north “were not bound by ownership of land or coercive political systems. Encomendados could literally pick up their belongings and move beyond the encomendero’s reach, yet many of them chose to live and work in an encomendero’s commercial property. One reason why many Indians chose to stay with the Spanish was not because of coercion or control from imperial structures of power, but because they saw joining them as a way to find relief in times of scarcity, or protection in times of war.” Fernández also notes that many of the northern indigenous groups “viewed the encomienda as a temporary alliance to counter emerging threats. When Indian groups felt conditions under Spanish rule to be intolerable, they often escaped, joined other groups and in many extreme cases rebelled.”

The Decline of the Coahuiltecans

When the Spaniards arrived in Coahuila and Nuevo Leon, they settled into “choice locations” which led to strains on local food supplies and eventually led to displacement of many Coahuiltecan bands. Ruecking believed that this was “one of the fundamental reasons for the rapid missionization of the Coahuiltecans.” The Coahuiltecans in the missions had provided unskilled labor and engaged in intermarriage with other ethnic groups. As the missions closed in the 19th century, Indian families were given small parcels of mission land. Eventually, the survivors passed into the lower economic levels of Mexican society.

Missions as a Place of Refuge

Although the missions were established as a means of Christianizing the native people, they also became a vehicle for educating Indians in the ways of Spanish colonial living. But, with a more hostile environment on the outside, the missions also became a place of refuge. The former hunter-gatherers were willing to become part of the mission system for a number of reasons noted here:

  1. The irrigation system promised a more stable supply of food than they normally enjoyed.
  2. The presidio – frequently located close to a mission — offered much greater protection from the Apaches. 
  3. The missionaries and their lay helpers instructed the natives in the Catholic faith and in the elements of Spanish peasant society. The Indians learned various trades, including carpentry, masonry, blacksmithing, and weaving; they also did a great deal of agricultural work. 

Mission Indian villages usually consisted of about 100 Indians of mixed groups who generally came from a wide area surrounding a mission. Although survivors of a group often entered a single mission, individuals and families of one ethnic group might scatter to five or six missions. The number of Indian bands (or groups) at each mission varied from fewer than twenty groups to as many as 100.

However, with so many people concentrated in a single area, the natives around the missions became more vulnerable to the diseases brought by Europeans. Because the missions had an agricultural base, the economic output of the mission declined when the Indian labor force dwindled. Missions were distributed unevenly. Some were in remote areas, while others were clustered, often two to five in number, in small areas.

Displacement and Loss of Ethnic Identity

In Coahuila, Nuevo León, Tamaulipas and Texas, the displacement of Coahuiltecans and other nomadic groups by the Spaniards and Apaches created an unusual ethnic mix. Inevitably, the numerous Spanish missions in the region would provide a refuge for the displaced and declining Indian populations.

As they lived in close contact with the Spanish colonial culture and learned agricultural techniques, most of the Coahuiltecan Indians lost their identity. Their names disappeared from the written record as epidemics, warfare, migration, dispersion by Spaniards to work at distant plantations and mines, high infant mortality, and general demoralization took their toll. Small remnants merged with larger remnants or were absorbed into the Apaches. By 1800 the names of few ethnic units appear in documents, and by 1900 the names of groups native to the region had disappeared. A large number of the small tribal groups or bands belonging to the Coahuiltecan stock remain unknown to this day and even their locations – in some cases – are not clear.

Political Chronology:

In 1582, Nuevo León was known as Nuevo Reino de León.  From 1777 to 1793, Nuevo León was made part of the Provincias Internas.  With the independence of Mexico in 1821, Nuevo León became a free and sovereign state by a decree of May 7, 1824.  When the Constitution of 1857 took effect on February 5, 1847, Nuevo León was incorporated into Coahuila.  On February 26, 1864, the state of Nuevo León was split from Coahuila.

The 1921 Census

In the unusual 1921 Mexican 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 state population of 336,412, only 17,276 persons (or 5.1%) claimed to be of pure indigenous background, as noted in the following table: 

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With only 5.1% of its people being recognized as of pure indigenous origin, Nuevo León boasted a large population of assimilated individuals, with 253,878 individuals – or 75.5% – being classified as mezclada (or mixed). However, nearly one-in-five of Nuevo León’s inhabitants – 64,697 (19.2%) – claimed to be white.

But Nuevo León’s long-term assimilation into the Spanish world was evident in the fact that only four people in the state spoke an indigenous language: two Huastecos, one Kikapoo and one Maya.

Migration from Other States

Over the next few decades, the number of persons who spoke indigenous languages in Nuevo León increased significantly in a unique reconfiguration of indigenous identity in Northern Mexico. From 787 individuals five years of age and older in 1970, Nuevo León witnessed an unprecedented increase to 15,446 speakers in 2000 and 40,237 in 2010. In fact, according to the Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía (INEGI), Nuevo León was the Mexican entity with the highest rate of growth of indigenous population (12.5% ​​per year) throughout the country as of 2005.  

Indigenous Languages Spoken in Nuevo Leon in 2010 In 2010, a total of 40,258 indigenous speakers 3 years and older in Nuevo Leon lived in Nuevo León, of which more than half (53.6%) spoke the Náhuatl language, and 17% did not even specify which indigenous language they spoke, as noted in the following table:

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While the speakers of the Otomí, Totonac and Huasteco languages most likely came from nearby states like Veracruz and San Luis Potosí, the Zapotec and Mixtec speakers probably came from the states of Oaxaca and Guerrero.

The 2010 census also reported the languages spoken within each municipio of each state. As indicated in the following table, Náhuatl — the most common language spoken in Mexico and the leading language in several states — is, by far, the most spoken indigenous language in Nuevo León. But, it is noteworthy that Náhuatl — and any other languages spoken in the state — are transplants from other states, due to Nuevo León’s position as a magnet for migration from a multitude of other states.

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Huasteco is the second most spoken language for both the state and most of the municipios. This is not surprising as the States of Veracruz and San Luis Potosí are states that are not far removed from Nuevo León.

As noted in studies by both Séverine Durin (2011) and Juan Luis Sariego Rodriguez (2016), in the twenty years between 1990 and 2010, the indigenous speaking population in Nuevo León was multiplied by eight. It is somewhat ironic that a state — whose indigenous population disappeared long ago (as a result of epidemics, warfare and assimilation) — has become an area of significant migration for indigenous people from many other Mexican states.

Copyright © 2018, by John Schmal. All Rights Reserved.


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