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Most Americans have heard of Oaxaca and its copious diversity.  Usually this knowledge is spread by word of mouth or through informative newspaper and magazine articles. However, Mexico’s census Mexico’s Census Agency — the Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía (INEGI) — known to Americans as the National Institute of Statistics and Geography — is the original source for much of the census data regarding Indigenous Mexican languages today. And this information will be outlined below.

Location and Description

The State of Oaxaca is located in the south of Mexico where the Eastern Sierra Madre and the Southern Sierra Madre mountain ranges merge. Oaxaca shares common borders with Guerrero (on the west), Puebla (on the north), Veracruz (on the north and northeast), and Chiapas (on the east).  Oaxaca also shares a long coastline with the Pacific Ocean on its south.  

Oaxaca’s Regions

As the fifth largest state of Mexico, Oaxaca has a square area of 93,757 square kilometers (36,200 square miles), equal to 4.8% of the national territory. Only Chihuahua, Sonora, Coahuila, and Durango are larger than Oaxaca. Politically, the State of Oaxaca is divided into 570 municipios (almost one-quarter of the national total). However, the 570 municipios are split into 30 districts, and the state itself is divided into eight geographic regions as illustrated in the following map [AutoFran, Mapa Que Muestra al Estado Mexicano de Oaxaca Dividido Según sus Regiones” (Nov. 2, 2013)].

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The People of Oaxaca

In 2010, Oaxaca had a population of 3,967,889 people, ranking it tenth among the Mexican states in terms of population. The capital of the State is the City of Oaxaca de Juárez, which had a population of 225,029 in 2010, representing 6.4% of the state’s total population. The name Oaxaca was originally derived from the Náhuatl word, Huayacac, which roughly translated means The Place of the Seed in reference to a tree commonly found in Oaxaca.

Extreme Geographic Fragmentation

As the fifth largest state of Mexico, Oaxaca is characterized by extreme geographic fragmentation. In fact, Oaxaca is crossed by three mountain ranges which cover 81.62% of the surface area of the state. In between the mountains lay narrow canyons and alluvial river valleys, and only about 9% of Oaxaca’s surface area is arable, which explains why only 6.3% of Oaxaca’s GDP is dedicated to the Agriculture, Forestry, Fishing and Hunting sector of the economy.

Physiographic Provinces

Oaxaca’s geographic fragmentation is evident in its three physiographic provinces, which are described as follows and illustrated in the Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía (INEGI) map on the following page:

  1. Sierra Madre del Sur: The Sierra Madre del Sur takes up 70% of the state territory, covering the west, center and the south of the entity. This province includes several subprovinces, including the southern coastal ranges, the eastern mountains, part of the Isthmus and the Mixteca Alta (which is in the northwest part of the state that was named after the indigenous group).
  2. Cordillera Centroamericana (The Central American Mountain Range): The Central American Cordillera covers 17.64% of the state territory in the eastern part of the state. This section includes the eastern portion of the Isthmus in the southeast.
  3. Llanura Costera del Golfo Sur (The Coastal Plain of the South): This province is mainly represented by a narrow strip of the Veracruz Coastal Plain in the northeastern part of the entity, near the border with Veracruz.
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The Isolation of Tribal Groups

According to Professor Francie R. Clausen-López, Oaxaca’s mountainous terrain has created “the physical isolation of many areas and the existence of distinct ecological niches within short distances of each other.” Because individual towns and tribal groups lived in isolation for long periods of time, historian María de Los Angeles Romero Frizzi believes that this isolation allowed sixteen individual ethnic groups to maintain their individual language, customs and ancestral traditions intact well into the colonial period and… to the present day.” For this reason, Oaxaca is ­ by and large ­ the most ethnically complex of Mexico’s thirty-one states.

Linguistic Diversity

Linguistic expert Thomas C. Smith-Stark once noted that there is a linguistic diversity in Oaxaca — which is slightly larger than Portugal — that is comparable to the entire continent of Europe. In Europe there are five linguistic families, while Oaxaca boasts five indigenous linguistic families plus the Spanish language.

Today, two centuries after the end of Mexico’s colonial period, sixteen different indigenous groups have been formally registered as indigenous communities, all well-defined through dialect, customs, food habits, rituals, cosmogony, etc. However, the Professor Romero Frizzi suggests that “the linguistic categorization is somewhat misleading” partly because “the majority of indigenous peoples in Oaxaca identify more closely with their village or their community than with their ethnolinguistic group.”

A Cultural Mosaic

By the time the Spaniards arrived in the 1520’s, many of Oaxaca’s inhabitants had split into hundreds of independent village-states. This established a tradition of community fragmentation that survives today, giving the region a cultural mosaic quality. Today literally thousands of tiny villages dot the surrounding hillsides and valleys.

Of the sixteen languages in Oaxaca, eleven belong to the Otomanguean family (Amuzgo, Chatino, Zapotec, Chinanteco, Chocho, Ixcatec, Mazatec, Popoloco, Mixtec, Cuicatec and Trique).  Two languages, Mixe and Zoque, belong to the Mixe-Zoquean family, and three (Chontal, Náhuatl, and Huave) are single representative of their own families.

Oaxaca in the 1921 Census

In the unique 1921 census, 675,119 residents of Oaxaca claimed to be of “pure indigenous” descent, equal to 69.17% of the state population.  Another 274,752 persons were listed as “indigenous mixed with white” (called mestizo or mezclada), representing another 28.15% of the total population.

However, although nearly 70% of Oaxaca’s 976,005 inhabitants were classified as of “pure indigenous” origin, only 482,475 persons five years of age or more spoke an indigenous language, representing slightly less than half of the total population (49.4%). The most widely-spoken languages in the 1921 census were:

  1. Zapotecos:  210,342 persons
  2. Mixtecos: 127,474 persons
  3. Mazatecos: 37,873
  4. Mixes: 26,017
  5. Chinanteco: 20,484
  6. Cuicateco: 9,583
  7. Chontal: 8,151

Oaxaca in the 2000 Census

By the time of the 2000 census, 1,120,312 indigenous speaking persons aged five and older living in Oaxaca represented 37.11% of the state population, a significant drop from 49.4% in 1921. Out of this total, 477,788 persons were classified as monolingual (i.e., not Spanish-speaking), representing 11.02% of the state population five years of age and older and 19.56% of the indigenous-speaking language.

Language Variants

In 2005, Instituto Nacional de Lenguas Indígenas (known as INALI or the National Institute of Indigenous Languages) first published the “Catálogo de Lenguas Indígenas Mexicanas” (the Catalog of Mexican Indigenous Languages), which utilizes the word variante lingüística (linguistic variant), in place of language or dialect.

Definition of Linguistic Variant

According to INALI, a language variant is a specific form of natural language, characterized by a set of linguistic features used by a certain community of speakers linked by social, geographical or cultural relationships. The term linguistic variant is a neutral way of referring to linguistic differences among speakers of the same language. The use of the term variant is intended to avoid the ambiguity of terms such as “language” or “dialect,” since there are no unambiguous criteria to decide when two varieties should be considered as the same language or dialect, or as different languages or dialects.

Oaxaca’s 176 Linguistic Variants

In the Twenty-First Century, according to INALI, the State of Oaxaca now had within its borders: five language families, 15 language groups ​​and 176 linguistic variants, which includes 62 Zapotec, 81 Mixtec and 11 Chinantec variants. Most of the languages belonged to the Oto-Manguean language family. The author Nicholas A. Hopkins, in his article “Otomanguean Linguistic Prehistory,” states that glottochronological studies of the Oaxaca Indian groups indicate that the first diversification of this group of languages had begun by 4400 B.C.  It is believed that nine branches of the Oto-Manguean family were already distinct by 1500 B.C., and that some of this linguistic differentiation actually took place in the Valley of Tehuacán in Oaxaca.

Oaxaca in the 2010 Census

In the 2010 census of Oaxaca, more than one million people in Oaxaca spoke indigenous languages. Out a total population of persons 3 years of age and older (3,563,438), one-third (1,203,150 persons or 33.8%) spoke an indigenous language. The 2010 languages in the state were distributed as follows:

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Oaxacan Linguistic Regions

The territories of Oaxaca’s native language groups are illustrated in this map created by graphic illustrator, Eddie Martinez.

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The Zapotec Indians — a sedentary, agricultural city-dwelling people — are believed to be among the earliest ethnic groups to gain prominence in the region. As a matter of fact, the Zapotecs have always called themselves Be’ena’a, which means The People. The implication of this terminology is that the Zapotecs believe that they are“The True People” or “The People of this Place.” Unlike many other Mesoamerican Indians groups, the Zapotecs have no legend of migration and their legends claim that their ancestors emerged from the earth or from caves, or that they turned from trees or jaguars into people. Upon death, they believe, they would return to their former status. 

It is this belief that gave rise to the term Be’ena Za’a (Cloud People), which was applied to the Central Valley Zapotecs. In the pre-Hispanic era, Aztec merchants and soldiers dealing with these people translated their name phonetically into Náhuatl: Tzapotecatl. When the Spaniards arrived, they took this word and transformed it into Zapoteca. The Mixtecs, a sister culture of the Zapotecs, also received their “Aztec” name due to their identity as “Cloud People” (Ñusabi), but in their case the Náhuatl translation was literal, as Mixtecatltranslates directly as “Cloud Person.”

The Zapotecs in the 2010 Census

In the 2010 census, 397,837 persons 3 years of age and more spoke a Zapotec language in Oaxaca. INEGI tallied five Zapotec languages in Oaxaca, but 93% of Oaxacans identified as speaking a generic “Zapoteco” language. Among all the Zapotec speakers throughout Oaxaca, 43,670 do not speak Spanish, giving Zapotec a modest monolingual rate of 11%. Today, most analysts consider the Zapotecs to consist of the following four primary geographic subgroups:  

  1. The Valley Zapotecs, who occupy the fertile Valley of Oaxaca in the center of the state.
  2. The Sierra Zapotecs (Mountain Zapotecs), who occupy the districts of Ixtlán, Villa Alta, and Choapán in the Sierra Norte.
  3. The Isthmus Zapotecs, who live on the tropical Isthmus of Tehuantepec, which is the narrowest part of the Mexican Republic.
  4. The Southern Zapotecs of the Sierra Miahuatlán region of southern Oaxaca.

According to Mexico’s agency, INALI (Instituto Nacional de Lenguas Indígenas), the Zapotec linguistic group has 62 language variants, second only to the Mixtec group in all of Mexico. In total, 460,683 persons 3 years of age and more within the entire Mexican Republic actually spoke a Zapotec language in 2010. Eight-six percent of them lived in Oaxaca and another 9% lived in Veracruz, Mexico State and Distrito Federal.

The locations of Zapotec pueblos in 2015 are shown in the following government map [Instituto Nacional de los Pueblos Indígenas (INALI), “Atlas de Los Pueblos Indígenas de México. “Zapotecos – Lengua: Mapa de Lengua” (2018). Online:].

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Today, the Mixtec Indians inhabit a geographic region of more than 40,000 square kilometers in northwestern Oaxaca and smaller portions of southern Puebla and eastern Guerrero (189 municipios in all). The Mixtec territory is divided into three subregions: the Upper Mixteca, Lower Mixteca and the Coast Mixteca. The Upper Mixteca, covering 38 municipios, is the most populated region. The Lower Mixteca covers another 31 municipios in northwestern Oaxaca. Today, the Mixtecs call themselves Ñuu Savi, the People of the rain.

The Mixtecos of 2010

In the 2010 census, 264,769 persons 3 years of age and more spoke a Mixtec language in Oaxaca. INEGI tallied five Mixtec languages in Oaxaca’s 2010 census, but nearly all Oaxacans identified as just speaking “Mixteco.” According to INALI’s “Catalogo de las Lenguas Indígenas Nacionales,” there are 81 language variants of Mixtec, most of which are spoken in Oaxaca (but 22 are spoken in Guerrero). However, Mixtec speakers have spread throughout the Mexican Republic in their search for gainful employment.

In total, 494,454 persons 3 years of age and more within the entire Mexican Republic actually spoke a Mixtec language in 2010. Fifty-four percent of the Mixtecs lived in Oaxaca and another 28% lived in the neighboring state of Guerrero. In 2010, the Mixtecs had one of the highest monolingual rates in the Mexican Republic. More than one in five Mixtecs in Mexico did not speak Spanish.

The locations of Mixtec pueblos in Puebla, Guerrero and Oaxaca in 2015 are shown in the following government map [Instituto Nacional de los Pueblos Indígenas (INALI), “Atlas de Los Pueblos Indígenas de México. Mixtecos – Lengua: Mapa de Lengua” (2018). Online:].

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Occupying the northernmost region of the state, the Mazatecos inhabit two environmentally and culturally well-defined regions: the Upper Sierra Madre Oriental Mountains and the Papaloapan Basin. The Mazatecos call themselves Ha shuta enima, which means People of Custom. In recent decades, the Mazateco Indians have represented one of the largest linguistic groups in Oaxaca.  With 164,673 individuals aged five and older speaking Mazatec in the 2005 census count, this linguistic group made up 15.1% of the state’s total indigenous population. A significant number of Mazatecos also occupy Veracruz and Puebla. To the southeast, Mazatec territory borders with the lands of the Chinantecos.

Like the Zapotec and Mixtec linguistic groups, the Mazateco language is part of the Oto-Manguean family and, according to INALI, has 16 linguistic variants. Although Mazateco is primarily spoken in Oaxaca, it also has one variant spoken in the state of Puebla. In the 2010 census, 230,124 persons 3 years of age and more spoke Mazateco in the Mexican Republic. The 175,970 Mazatec speakers in Oaxaca made up 76.5% of the entire Mazatec speaking population in the Mexican Republic.

The locations of Mazatec pueblos and their 16 linguistic variants in southeast Puebla,  north central Oaxaca and a small sliver of Veracruz in 2015 are shown in the following government map [Instituto Nacional de los Pueblos Indígenas (INALI), “Atlas de Los Pueblos Indígenas de México. Mazatecos – Lengua: Mapa de Lengua” (2018). Online:].

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Although they represent the fourth largest of Oaxaca’s ethnic groups, the Mixes are an isolated ethnic group that inhabits the northeastern part of Oaxaca, close to the border with Veracruz. This region consists of roughly 19 municipios and 108 communities. The Mixes call themselves Ayuuk, which means The People. Some historians believe that the Mixes may have migrated from present-day Peru in search of Zempoaltepetl, a pagan god, and the Hill of Twenty Gods. Another theory claims that they came from the tropical zone of the Gulf of Mexico. 

In the 2000 census, 105,443 persons aged five or more were classified as speakers of one or more of the seven distinct dialects of the Mixe.  The Mixe thus represented 9.4% of the total indigenous speaking population in Oaxaca, with approximately 38,000 of these people classified as monolingual, making them the Mexican indigenous group with the highest rate of monolingualism.

The Mixes in the 2010 Census

By 2010, INEGI reported that 136,736 Mixe speakers lived in the Mexican Republic. Of these, 117,935 individuals 3 years of age and older lived in Oaxaca, representing 86.3% of the Mixe speakers in the entire Republic.

The locations of Mixe pueblos and their six linguistic variants in northeastern Oaxaca in 2015 are shown in the following government map [Instituto Nacional de los Pueblos Indígenas (INALI), “Atlas de Los Pueblos Indígenas de México. Mixes – Lengua: Mapa de Lengua” (2018). Online:].

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The Chinantecos presently inhabit the Chinantla region of north central Oaxaca near the border of Veracruz. As a division of the Oto-Manguean linguistic group, the Chinantecos occupy an area in which archaeologists have located temples that were apparently used as ceremonial centers, and where prisoners were supposedly sacrificed during the most important celebrations of the year. Historians believe that the Indians living in this region were struggling to maintain their independence against sudden and numerous attacks by the Zapotecs, Mixtecs, Mixes and Aztecs. In the 2000 census, the number of Chinanteco speakers was tallied at 104,010, equivalent to 9.28% of Oaxaca’s total indigenous population.

Chinantecos in the 2010 Census

In 2010, 137,413 individuals spoke one of the seven Chinantec languages recognized by INEGI, but the vast majority of them (135,353, or 98.5%) spoke the generic Chinantec language. Nearly seven in ten Chinanteco speakers lived in Oaxaca, and nearly 80% of them lived in both Oaxaca and Veracruz. In addition, almost 5,000 Chinanteco speakers also lived in the Distrito Federal and the State of Mexico. The locations of Chinantec pueblos and their eleven linguistic variants in north central Oaxaca and southern Veracruz in 2015 are shown in the following government map [Instituto Nacional de los Pueblos Indígenas (INALI), “Atlas de Los Pueblos Indígenas de México. Chinantecos – Lengua: Mapa de Lengua” (2018). Online:].

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The Chatino nation — boasting an area of about 3,071 square miles (7,677 square kilometers) — is located in southwestern Oaxaca. The Chatino people reside in some 55 communities in the Sierra Madre del Sur. Forty of the communities are in eight municipios of the District of Juquila and rest are in the District of Sola de Vega.

Some historical researchers believe that the Chatinos were one of the first indigenous groups to inhabit the State of Oaxaca. In his book, Historia de Oaxaca, the historian José Antonio Gay speculates that they arrived in a scarcely-populated area (now in the municipio of Juquila) from a “distant land” long before the arrival of the Zapotecs and Mixtecs.

The Chatinos call themselves Kitse cha’tnio, which means Work of the Words. In 2000, the Chatinos represented sixth most common indigenous tribe of Oaxaca, represented by 40,004 persons aged five and over who spoke the language (3.57% of the population).

The Chatinos in the 2010 Census

In the 2010 census, 46,817 persons 3 years of age and over spoke the Chatino language, in the Mexican Republic and 46,817 of those individuals — or nearly 99% — lived in Oaxaca. According to INALI, their six language variants did not overlap with a neighboring state and represented the sixth most spoken language of the state.


The Triques inhabit a 193-square-mile area in the southern Sierra Madre Mountains in the westernmost part of Oaxaca. Historians believe that the Triques, long ago, had fled from some distant land, seeking refuge from warring neighbors. Once in Oaxaca, they were defeated by both the Zapotecs and Mixtecs. Then, in the Fifteenth Century, the Aztec armies defeated them decisively and forced them to pay tribute. In the 2000 census, 15,203 inhabitants of Oaxaca aged five and over spoke the Trique language, making it the eighth month common tongue in the state.

The Trique in the 2010 Census

By the time of the 2010 census, 27,137 people in the Mexican Republic spoke the Trique language. However, only 19,378 of the speakers of Trique (71.4%) lived in Oaxaca, representing 1.6% of the state’s indigenous population. Like the Mixtecs and Zapotecs, the Triques have experienced high rates of migration to other states and the U.S. In particular, 2,802 Triques lived in Baja California and another 1,400 lived in the State of Mexico in 2010.


The Huave (also spelled Huavi and Wabi) have been called Monticos and Mareños (People of the Sea). Occupying the coastal area along the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the Huave lived primarily in four communities: San Mateo del Mar (originally Guazontlán, Santa María del Mar (Ocelotlán), San Dionisio del Mar (Tepeguazontlán), and San Francisco del Mar (Ixtaltepec del Mar).

Although the origins of the Huave nation have not been indisputably determined, some historians believe that this group came from a distant land, possibly from Nicaragua or even as far away as Peru. It is believed that the Huave arrived by sea, traveling along the coast as they sought out a new home. Finally, they reached the Tehuantepec coast, inhabited by the Mixe nation, who did not oppose their settlement. Even today, the Huave call themselves Mero ikooc, which means The True Us.

The Huave in the 2010 Census

As small as their group is, the Huave had the ninth most-spoken language spoken in Oaxaca in 2010. In that census, 18,264 people in Mexico spoke the Huave language, but most of them — 17,395, or 95.2% — lived in Oaxaca.

Náhuatl of Oaxaca

Although the Aztec Empire conquered several portions of Oaxaca in the early Sixteenth Century, some parts of the state remained independent of the Aztecs. In their book, Aztec Imperial Strategies, pp. 279-284, Professors Michael E. Smith and Frances F. Berdan describe the Aztec provinces located in the present-day state of Oaxaca. Náhuatl was the language of the Aztec Empire and continues to endure as Mexico’s most spoken language today.

However, today, the Náhuatl language in Oaxaca is mainly spoken in the Mazatec Sierra of Oaxaca, extending from Teotitlán del Camino and Santa María Teopoxco to the region near Tochtépec. Of the 30 Náhuatl dialects recognized by INALI, Náhuatl de Oaxaca is related to two other Náhuatl dialects from nearby states: Náhuatl of the Sierra Negra de Puebla and Náhuatl de Orizaba (of Veracruz).

Náhuatl of Oaxaca in the 2010 Census

In the 2010 census, nearly 1.6 million people in the Mexican Republic spoke the Náhuatl language. However, only 11,690 of the Náhuatl speakers lived in Oaxaca, representing 7.4% of the national total but only one percent of the indigenous speakers in the state.  Nearby Puebla had 447,797 Náhuatl speakers, which represented more than one-quarter (28.2%) of the Náhuatl speakers in the country.


Cuicateco territory is located in northwestern Oaxaca and occupies an approximate area of 3,243 square miles. At the time of the 2000 census, only 12,128 persons five years of age or more claimed to speak the Cuicateco language, representing more than one percent of Oaxaca’s total indigenous population, living primarily in northwestern Oaxaca.

Before the arrival of the Spanish, both the Canada and the highlands were occupied by speakers of Cuicateco. Today, however, settlements in the more accessible and agriculturally productive Canada are dominated by mestizos. Contemporary speakers of Cuicateco are confined largely to the more remote highlands. They retain many elements of Cuicatec culture, including language, cosmology, and decorative arts. They also retain a relative degree of political and economic equality and an economy that emphasizes production for subsistence.

The Cuicateco in the 2010 Census

In the 2010 census, there were 13,037 speakers of the three linguistic variants of the Cuicateco language. The majority of them — 11,653, or 89.4% — were residents of Oaxaca.


The Zoque tribe — also called Aiyuuk — is closely related to the Mayan family. The Zoque call themselves O’deput, which means People of the Language” or “Word of Man,” which may be construed to imply “authentic” or “true.”  The main nucleus of the Zoque historic settlement is in the present-day state of Chiapas. Zoque belongs to the Zoquean branch of the Mixe-Zoque family.

According to the census of 1990, the total number of Zoque speakers in México five years of age and older numbered 43,160. Of this number, 34,810 lived in the state of Chiapas and were distributed through 57 municipios which stretched across 3,000 square kilometers of northern Chiapas. By the year 2000, the population of the Zoques had dropped to 41,609 individuals five years of age or older, representing 5.14% of Chiapas’ indigenous-speaking language.

According to INALI, there are eight linguistic variants of the Zoque language group, one of which is spoken in Oaxaca and the rest in Chiapas. In the 2010 census, 65,372 people spoke the Zoque language in the Mexican Republic, and 53,839 of them (or 82.3%) lived in the State of Chiapas.

The Oaxaca branch of the Zoques is much smaller and, in 2010, only 5,336 persons (or 8.2% of the national total) spoke Zoque. Significant numbers of Zoque speakers also lived in Veracruz.


As a part of the Oto-Manguean language family, the Amuzgo Indians inhabit the border region of southeastern Guerrero and southwestern Oaxaca. The Amuzgos call themselves Tzjon non, which means People of the Textiles. In the 2000 census, 4,819 individuals aged five or more claimed to speak the Amuzgo language, representing 0.43% of Oaxaca’s total indigenous speaking population.

The Amuzgo Language in the 2010 Census

In the 2010 census, 53,122 people 3 years of age and older were tallied as speaking Amuzgo, Amuzgo de Guerrero or Amuzgo de Oaxaca. According to INALI, the Amuzgo language has four language variants, of which two are spoken in Guerrero and two are spoken in Oaxaca. However, the vast majority of Amuzgo speakers in 2010 lived in Guerrero: 45,836 (or 86.3%).  And only 5,409 Amuzgo speakers were tallied as residents of Oaxaca, slightly more than one-tenth of the national population of Amuzgos across all states. However, it was significant that nearly one-fifth of the Amuzgo speakers in Oaxaca were monolingual (did not speak Spanish) in 2010.


Living in the northern zone of “Mixteca Alta” (Upper Mixteca), near Oaxaca’s border with Puebla, the Chocho people (also known as Chochones and Chocholtecas) call themselves Runixa ngiigua, which means Those Who Speak the Language. Inhabiting a region that is rich in archaeological sites, this tribe belongs to the Oto-Manguean family. In the 2010 census, only 407 persons in Oaxaca spoke the Chocho language. Only 814 persons spoke the language in the entire Mexican Republic.


Chontal is the name of two very distinct languages spoken in the states of Tabasco and Oaxaca. Because this group’s physical separation is enhanced by its different geographical and climactic conditions, it has been divided into Coastal and Mountain groups. Chontal Tabasco is a member of the Mayan language family and Chontal Oaxaca is a member of the Hokan language family, which is more widely represented in the Southwestern United States and the border states of Baja California and Sonora. The Chontales of Oaxaca refer to themselves asSlijuala xanuc, which means Inhabitants of the Mountains.

The origins of the Oaxacan Chontal population have not been conclusively determined, but some archaeologists believe that they originally came from Nicaragua. Warfare may have motivated them to move north, through what is now Honduras, Yucatán and Tabasco. Eventually, they settled down in both Oaxaca and Tabasco. Founded in 1374, the Kingdom of the Chontales eventually came into conflict with the Zapotecs. After a series of ongoing confrontations, the Zapotecs finally defeated them. Under Spanish rule, the Chontales carried on a formidable resistance for some time.

In the 2000 census, 4,610 Chontal de Oaxaca were tallied at 4,610, representing 0.41% of the state’s total indigenous speaking population.  Today, the Chontal Oaxaca inhabit the southernmost region of Oaxaca and speak two major dialects. In 2010, the number of Chontal de Oaxaca speakers in the state of Oaxaca was down to 4,396 individuals three years of age and older.


The Tacuates speak a variant of the Mixtec language and occupy only two of Oaxaca’s municipios. It is believed that their name evolved from the Náhuatl word, Tlacoatl, which was derived from tlal (Land) and coal (serpent, snake). The implication is that the Tacuates lived in the land of the serpents. In the 2010 census, Tacuate speakers numbered only 1,578 individuals three years of age and older in Oaxaca.


The term Popoloca was applied by the Aztecs to all those nations that did not speak a tongue based on Náhuatl. Therefore, the term had the connotation of stranger or foreigner and, at the same time, a derogatory term for barbaric, stuttering and unintelligent. The Spaniards continued using the term in the same manner.

The Popoluca call themselves Homshuk, which means God of Corn. Today, the Popoloca population is divided into three fractions speaking six primary dialects, with no geographical continuity evident. In the 2000 census, only 61 Popoloco speakers were tallied in Oaxaca. In 2010, only 54 Popoloco speakers three years of age and older lived in Oaxaca.

One Language Nearly Disappears (Ixcatec)

The drop from 16 to 15 official languages in Oaxaca from 2000 to 2010 is likely due to the significant drop in the population of the Ixcateco speakers in the state.  Living in one of the most arid, eroded and poorest regions of the country, the Ixcatecos are the only remnants of the pre-Hispanic Ixcateco nation, which once occupied another seven communities. Today, the people who speak this language live in the small community of Santa Maria Ixcatlán in District of Cuicatlán in Northern Oaxaca.

In the 2000 census, 351 persons spoke the Ixcatec language in the state of Oaxaca. However, over the decades, anti-illiteracy campaigns by the Mexican government and migration to other states whittled away at their population, and by 2010, only 190 people spoke the Ixcatec language in the Mexican Republic. The majority of these — 124, or 65% — lived in Santa Maria Ixcatlán.

Oaxaca’s Amazing Diversity

In the present day, almost two-thirds of Oaxaca’s population do not speak an indigenous language. However, as indicated in the preceding paragraphs, an amazing number of indigenous languages have survived into the Twenty-First Century  (although some are endangered). The following map seems to illustrate something similar to a patchwork quilt of languages thriving throughout Oaxaca today [Aymatth2 and Rowanwindwhistler, “Primary Locations of Indigenous People of Mexico” (September 24, 2017) at Wikipedia, “Idioma chontal de Oaxaca”].

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Monolingualism in Mexico

The movement of indigenous peoples from their places of origin to other parts of Mexico — especially urban areas — has played a role in the continuing decline of most of Mexico’s indigenous languages.  As the number of indigenous language speakers decline, so, too, will the number of monolingual speakers.

In a certain sense, one can see monolingual speakers as representing the purest segment of the original indigenous language and culture, seemingly untouched by Mexican and Spanish mainstream culture. The reasons for the decline in the rate of monolingualism around the country include the following:

  1. Spanish is the official language of Mexico. Therefore the need to interact in the commercial field and participate in the dynamics of present-day society requires a person to be bilingual. In short, there are multiple social pressures that would persuade a monolingual speaker to become bilingual.
  2. For decades, anti-literacy campaigns by the Mexican Government discouraged speaking of indigenous languages in some areas of the country.
  3. The access to work sources and medical services requires some persons — especially men — to communicate with people in Spanish.
  4. For migrants who move to other states within the Mexican Republic (such as Zapotecs, Mixtecs and Triques), there is substantial pressure — especially on the younger generations — to learn Spanish and, in some cases, the younger generation may completely discard the ancestral language. That pressure in urban areas is even greater.

On the other hand, the distance of an ethnic group from the center of power (capitals of municipios) and a strong sense of pride and cultural identity among some indigenous groups helps ensure the survival of many of the languages and their monolingual speakers.

Monolingualism in Oaxaca in 2010

Oaxaca’s mountain terrain has separated its many indigenous citizens over time. This isolation has created significant monolingual rates among many of Oaxaca’s language groups.

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Oaxaca’s Archaeological Treasures
The 1.2 million people in Oaxaca who speak indigenous languages are the most important remnant of Oaxaca’s fascinating and diverse pre-Hispanic past. But Oaxaca is also rich in archaeological treasures as well. To date, there are around 4,000 archaeological sites that are known about in Oaxaca, including Monte Albán, Mitla, San José Mogote and Yagul. 

It is believed that the Oaxaca Valley was probably continuously inhabited as early as 8000 B.C. and had a higher agricultural potential than most surrounding areas. The Oaxaca Valley was home to the Zapotec civilization, one of the earliest complex societies in Mesoamerica, and the later Mixtec culture.

Today, Monte Albán is the most important archaeological site in Oaxaca, and historically it was the largest and most important City in Oaxaca. The ruins of Monte Albán are located on the top of a mountain that is less than half an hour’s drive from the City of Oaxaca.

Mitla is probably the second most important archaeological site of Oaxaca. Mitla — which means “underworld” in Zapotec —was a major religious center. Another popular site is Zaachila, which are the only ruins left from the Zapotec capital before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores in the 1520’s.

Oaxaca’s Tourist Industry

Today, Oaxaca’s tourist industry accounts for about 30% of the commerce sector of Oaxaca’s economy and Oaxaca’s Commerce Sector contributes an incredible 19% to Oaxaca’s entire state GDP (as of 2017). It is this tourist industry that provides a window into Oaxaca’s fascinating past for all visitors.

Copyright © 2019, by John P. Schmal. All Rights Reserved.


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