The land-locked state of San Luis Potosí (SLP) is located in center-north Mexico. With a surface area of 61,138 square kilometers (representing 3.1% of the total area of the Mexican Republic), San Luis Potosí is politically divided into 58 municipios and touches nine other Mexican states. The state is adjacent to Coahuila on the north, Nuevo León on the northeast, and Tamaulipas on the northeast. Additionally, San Luis Potosí has a common border with Veracruz Llave (on the east), Guanajuato, Querétaro and Hidalgo on the south, Jalisco on the southwest, and Zacatecas to the west.
San Luis Potosí had a 2010 population of 2,585,518 which represented 2.3% the Mexican Republic’s entire population, and is distributed into 64% urban and 36% rural (in contrast to the national figures of 77% versus 22%, respectively). The capital of San Luis Potosí is the city of the same name. The state name was originally granted in honor of the city’s founder, Luis de Leija, but also to honor Viceroy Luis of Velasco. Potosí was added to the name because the mines of this region had a richness similar to the famous mining settlement of that name high in the Bolivian Andes, the source of so much silver.
The early settlers of this area felt sure that this region also had immense silver deposits. Their hopes were certainly fulfilled, though not only in the way they had originally envisioned. Besides silver, which was mined in vast quantities, major deposits of gold, fluorite and mercury were also discovered.
The state of San Luis Potosí is a very angular state with three physiographic provinces, which are described below and illustrated in the Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía (INEGI) map on the following page.
- Altiplano (the Highland Plateau or Mesa del Centro) occupies most of western SLP and 35.27% of the state’s total area. Most of this high plateau is broken by spurs of the Eastern Sierra Madre Oriental Mountain Range. It is largely desert in the north.
- The Sierra Madre Oriental Mountain Range takes up 56.92% of SLP, running from north to south through the central region.
- Llanura Costera del Golfo Norte (Coastal Plain of the North Gulf Coast) dominates the southeast of SLP and occupies 7.81% of the state.
Indigenous Groups at Contact
In pre-Hispanic times, two primary indigenous groups dominated what we now know as the present state of San Luis Potosí: The Chichimecas (in the west) and the Huastecas (in the east).
The Chichimecas occupied the entire western region at the time of Spanish contact.
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 on the following pages 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 Chichimecas of SLP actually consisted of several groups, including the Guachichiles (the most numerous group), Guaxabanes, Copuces, Guamares, Guascamás, Mascorros, Coyotes and Macolias. The map on the following page illustrates the indigenous groups of pre-Hispanic San Luis Potosí in the Sixteenth Century [Francisco Peña de Paz et al., San Luis Potosí: La Entidad Donde Vivo: Tercer Grado. Distrito Federal, Mexico: Secretaría de Educación Pűblica, 2011, page 41. Online: ttps://issuu.com/cicloescolar/docs/primaria_tercer_grado_san_luis_poto].
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. 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.
Although the main body of the Guachichile territory lay in Zacatecas, they also inhabited or travelled through large sections of western San Luis Potosí, northwestern Guanajuato, eastern Aguascalientes and the Los Altos area of Jalisco. The Guachichil group that primarily inhabited SLP was known as the Guaxabanes (or Guajabanas), who settled in a region that is immediately north of the current state of Guanajuato. The Macolias were another Guachichil tribe that inhabited the eastern fringe of the Guachichil border, perhaps reaching the Panuco River.
The Guamares Confederation
At the time of the Spanish arrival in the region, the Guamares inhabited much of western and central Guanajuato (including Ciudad de Guanajuato, Pénjamo, León, San Felipe and San Miguel el Grande), as well as northeastern Jalisco, eastern Aguascalientes and the southwestern corner of SLP.
The Guamares tribe that inhabited a small part of San Luis Potosí were known as the Copuces and they were centered in the area of the present-day municipio, San Felipe (Guanajuato), which lies along the border with SLP. The author Gonzalo de las Casas called the Guamares “the bravest, most warlike, treacherous and destructive of all the Chichimecas, and the most astute (dispuesta).”
The Guamares took an active part in the Chichimeca War — which is discussed in greater detail below — but, according to anthropologist David Frye, they fell into decline and the last reference to them dates back to 1572 when the war was still being waged by other Chichimecas. It is believed that many of the Guamares assimilated alongside the “civilized” Indians that moved into their region during the following decades.
The Pames were a semi-nomadic tribe, constituting a very divergent branch of the Otomanguean linguistic family. They were located mainly in the southeastern part of San Luis Potosi south and east of the Río Verde and also in adjoining areas of Tamaulipas, Querétaro and Guanajuato. 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 Huastecos (Teenek)
The Huasteco Indians, who speak a form of the Mayan language, presently occupy 55 municipios in the modern-day states of Veracruz, San Luis Potosí and Hidalgo, as well as smaller sections of southern Tamaulipas and eastern Querétaro. The Huastecas – who refer to themselves as Teenek — are what remains of an early Mayan expansion northward up the Veracruz coast from the more traditional Mayan regions of the Yucatan Peninsula. However, the Huastecas were “left behind” after other Mayan groups retreated south and east. Linguists have estimated that the Hausteca precursor language diverged from the early Mayan language between 2200 and 1200 B.C.
The Huastecs became culturally dominant in the region between 750 and 800 AD. Over the next few centuries, the Huastecas managed to spread their influence over a large territory from the Tuxpan River to the Pánuco with most settlements along the banks of the Huayalejo-Tamesí River, along the northern Veracruz and southern Tamaulipas coast and west into the Sierra Madre Oriental. However, they never built cities and ceremonial centers as large as in other parts of Mesoamerica. One reason for this was that the Chichimeca were a constant threat from the West.
In the Post Classic period, Huastec territory shrank due to incursions by Nahuas and Otomí in the south and west, culminating into Aztec conquest of much of their territory by 1450 A.D. The Aztecs had become jealous of the Huastecas because of the abundance and diversity of fruits in their territory; so they declared war on the Huastecs. After hard-fought battles, the Huastecs were defeated and forced to pay taxes of skins, paper, feathers, cotton and blankets.
Some of the Huasteco Indians lived in the eastern part of SLP. The geographic entity named for them – the Huasteca – comprises a vast region of Mexico, covering parts of the states of Veracruz, San Luis Potosí, Tamaulipas and Hidalgo. When the Spaniards arrived in 1519, the Huastecos put up a fierce resistance in the area known as Pánuco (now in northern Veracruz).
After the fall of Tenochtitlán (August 1521), Hernan Cortes sought to extend Spanish domination to the areas between Tenochtitlán and the Gulf Coast to secure his supply lines with the mother country by way of the road to Veracruz. Cortes came to regard the Huastecas as a threat and in October 1522 led an army toward Pánuco. After meeting with considerable resistance, Cortés defeated the Huastecos and founded the Villa de San Esteban (in Veracruz) in 1522, where he stationed 130 forces. However, revolts by the Huastecos in October-December 1523 and 1525-26 were put down with great cruelty.
The Chichimeca War (1550-1590)
The Spaniards began arriving in the Gran Chichimeca following the discovery of silver in Zacatecas in 1546 and Guanajuato in 1552. (Gold and silver were not found in SLP until 1592 when the mine of “San Luis de Mezquitique,” was opened at the present-day location of SLP). 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 strategic location of the Zacatecas silver mines made confrontation with both the Zacatecos and Guachichiles inevitable. According to Professor Powell, “the rush of treasure-seekers and the opening of cart-roads from central Mexico to these mines” led to a “displacement of desert tribes” that brought on “a fierce struggle (the Chichimec war) that kept the northern frontier aflame from sea to sea for four decades (1550-1590).”
Starting in 1550, the Zacatecos of Zacatecas and the Guachichiles of Zacatecas and San Luis Potosí began attacking, robbing and killing travelers on the road from Mexico City to the Zacatecas mines, thus beginning the four-decade La Guerra de los Chichimecas (The War of the Chichimecas). The attacks along this road disrupted the mining operations and delayed the transport of the silver bullion southward to help sustain the finances of the Spanish Empire. The war, which resulted in a high cost in both lives and material resources, prevented the Spaniards from expanding their earlier conquests in the northern region.
Peace by Purchase
In 1585, Alonso Manrique de Zuñiga, the Marqués de Villamanrique, was appointed the seventh viceroy of Mexico. He was convinced that he could end the bloodshed and bring peace to the frontier. Unable to decisively defeat the elusive native groups, Villamanrique launched a full-scale peace offensive by negotiating with the Chichimeca leaders. His approach was to initiate a “peace by purchase” policy, which bribed the Chichimecas to make peace by offering them a more luxurious existence with the trappings of the so-called “civilized world.”
At strategically located depots, the Spaniards offered the Chichimecas vast quantities of food (mostly maize and beef) and clothing (woolen cloth, coarse blankets, woven petticoats, shirts, hats and capes). They also received agricultural implements, including plows, hoes, axes, hatchets, leather saddles, and slaughtering knives.
Evangelizing the Chichimecas
The peace by purchase policy succeeded and by 1590, the Guachichiles — who occupied much of western SLP — had been pacified. With the ongoing pacification of the Chichimecs, Viceroy Luis de Velasco II initiated a movement to evangelize all of the Chichimecas. In 1590, the Franciscans established a convent, San Miguel de Mexquitic, and built a small adobe church (now the Cathedral of San Luis). Then, the Viceroy commanded that 400 families of loyal, Christian Tlaxcaltecans (from Tlaxcala to the southeast of Mexico City) be brought north to be settled alongside the Guachichiles and other Chichimecas. In June 1591, a caravan of 100 wagons and 932 colonists began their journey. These 932 colonists consisted of 690 married individuals, 187 children and 55 single or widowed individuals.
On August 5, 1591 the caravan arrived at Uccello, where the caravan split up to go to its various destinations. One of the four groups – 228 Tlaxcaltecans under Captains Francisco Vazquez and Juaquin Paredes –was sent from San Juan del Rio to the mines of San Miguel Mexquitic in SLP. Soon, other Christian Indians (Mexica, Otomíes and Tarascans) were also brought from the south and settled among the Chichimecas to help them adapt to their new existence. The peace offensive and missionary efforts of the Spaniards were so successful that within a few years, the Zacatecos and Guachichiles had settled down to peaceful living within the small settlements that now dotted the frontier landscape.
Assimilation and Pacification
The Guachichiles were among the first of the northeastern peoples to be “reduced” to settling down in Spanish towns that included the agricultural town of Saltillo and the mining towns of Mazapil in the far north, as well as seven agricultural and mining towns of central San Luis Potosí. A report of a distribution of clothes to the Guachichil settlements in November 1593 described several thousand Guachichiles as living in SLP pueblos immediately after the Chichimeca War, and an undeterminable number still living in rancherías outside of Spanish control around Matehuala and further east.
Working in the fields and mines alongside their Indian brethren, the Chichimeca Indians were very rapidly assimilated and, as historian Phillip Wayne Powell writes, “The Sixteenth-century land of war thus became fully Mexican in its mixture.”
Early Spanish Settlements
On June 10, 1550, Cateano Medellin led a group of Spaniards and Tlaxcaltecans in the settlement of Matehuala. The area around the present-day cities of Matehuala and Charcas was then inhabited by a Guachichil group, known as Bozalos or Negritos. It has been estimated that the Guachichil population of the area at this time was about 25,000.
In 1574, Charcas Viejas was founded as Santa María de las Charcas by Francisco Ruiz with the help of miners and missionaries from Zacatecas. However, they were twice driven out by the Chichimecas, returning to the mining camp around 1583-84. Tlaxcaltecans settled in Charcas in 1591-92, setting up their own gobierno (government). Soon after, other mining centers and cattle ranches spread across the surrounding area.
On November 3, 1592, Villa de San Luis Potosí was founded by Miguel Caldera. With the discovery of gold, Spanish and Christianized Indians from the south migrated to the area to work in the mines and on the haciendas. The Spaniards had gained control of the larger surrounding area by 1616-17 with the opening of Franciscan missions in the area.
La Huasteca Region
La Huasteca is a geographical and cultural region located along the Gulf of Mexico which includes parts of the states of Tamaulipas, Veracruz, Puebla, Hidalgo, San Luis Potosí, Querétaro, and Guanajuato. Historically and ethnically, the La Huasteca region is roughly defined by the area dominated by the Huastecas when their civilization was at its height in the Mesoamerican period.
The Huasteca is considered a rich agricultural region with an abundance of water from the riverine system flowing to the Gulf. Geographically it has been defined as the area running from the Sierra Madre Oriental to the Gulf of Mexico with the Sierra de Tamaulipas as the northern border and the Cazones River as its southern border. It extends over the south of Tamaulipas, the southeast of San Luis Potosí, the northeast of Querétaro and Hidalgo and the extreme north of Veracruz and Puebla and a very small portion of Guanajuato.
The actual area of the region is somewhat disputed. Some Mexican government institutions have defined the Huasteca region as a region of about 22,193 kilometers consisting of about 55 municipios divided between San Luis Potosi (19), Veracruz (28) and Hidalgo (8). Different organizations have their own classifications for the size and shape of the Huasteca, including SEDESOL (39 municipios), and CONAPO (83 municipios).
Today, despite the fact that the large region is named after them, the
Huastecas occupy only a fraction of this region which is now home to six
indigenous ethnic groups with over 250,000 speakers of various languages. However,
those who live in the region share a number of cultural traits such as a style
of music and dance along with religious festivals such as Xantolo. Of the 55 municipios, the indigenous
population of the Huasteca region in 2000 was 1,575,078, of which 76.7% were
Nahuatl and 21.64% were Teenek, followed by the Otomíes (2.2%);
Tepehuas (0.64%); The Pames (0.35%); and the Totonacos and Chichimeca Jonáz,
which represented less than 0.4%.
San Luis Potosí in the 1895 Census
The 1895 Mexican census indicated that only 46,687 speakers of indigenous languages lived in the state of San Luis Potosí. This population group represented only 8.2% of the state population of 571,420. Four primary language groups still dominated SLP at this time:
- Náhuatl Speakers: 25,248 (54.1% of indigenous speakers)
- Huasteco Speakers: 16,738 (35.9% of indigenous speakers)
- Pame Speakers: 2,723 (5.8%)
- Chichimeca Speakers: 1,413 (3.0%)
The 1921 Mexican 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 445,681, nearly one-third (30.6%) of the inhabitants of SLP were classified as being of pure indigenous background as indicated in the following table:
Although nearly one-third of Potosinos were classified as of pure indigenous background, only 11.2% actually spoken an indigenous language, and the majority of them lived in the eastern municipios and spoke Náhuatl and Huasteca.
The 2000 Census
In the 2000 census, 235,253 inhabitants of San Luis Potosí spoke indigenous languages, representing 10.23% of the state population aged 5 or more. The most widely spoken languages were as follows:
· Náhuatl (138,523)
· Huasteco (87,327)
· Pame (7, 975)
· Otomí (314)
· Zapoteco (128)
· Chichimeca Jonaz (115).
· Mixteco (130)
The Zapoteco and Mixteco speakers were most likely migrants from Oaxaca or Guerrero.
The 2010 Census
In 2010, 2,417,759 persons 3 years of age and older lived in San Luis Potosí, of which 256,468 individuals — or 10.6% — spoke an indigenous language. Of those indigenous speakers, 94% spoke either the Náhuatl or Huasteco languages, as illustrated in the following table:
According to the 2010 census, more than 60% of the indigenous speakers in the state lived in seven municipios, as illustrated in the following table:
However, only three municipios in SLP had indigenous speaking populations that exceeded 80%: San Antonio (87.8%), Tanlajás (83.8%) and Coxcatlán (80.4%). In fact, only 10 municipios of the state had indigenous speaking populations that exceeded 50%, but most of them were rural municipios.
Náhuatl speakers live in almost every municipio of San Luis Potosí, but have a heavy concentration in several municipios in the southeastern portion of the state that border the states of Veracruz and Hidalgo. These municipios include Tamazunchale, Axtla, San Martín Chalchicuautla, Xilitla, Coxcatlán and Matlapa. According to ethnologue.com, the two most widely spoken Náhuatl languages in SLP are:
- Central Huasteca: spoken by an estimated 200,000 persons in the states of Hidalgo, Veracruz and SLP
- Western (Oeste) Huasteca: spoken in 1,500 village by an estimated 400,000 persons (circa 1991) in both San Luis Potosí and Hidalgo. Centered in Tamazunchale, San Luis Potosí it is also called Náhuatl de Tamazunchale
Huastecos de San Luis Potosí (Teenek)
In the 2000 census, the Huasteco Indians numbered 87,327 in San Luis Potosí, most of them concentrated in 11 municipios. Another 51,625 lived across the border in Veracruz. The population of the Huastecas in these two states alone – 138,952 – represented 92.5% of the 150,257 Huastecas living within the Mexican Republic. The indigenous languages in the Huasteca have evolved in recent decades, with more speakers that are bilingual than monolingual. In the Hidalgo Huasteca monolingual speakers in 2000 were 25% of the indigenous population, while in San Luis Potosi and Veracruz the percentages were 10.7 and 12.2% monolingual population.
By 2010, there were 99,464 Hausteco speakers in the state, representing 38.8% of the indigenous speaking population. Of this number, 11,471 were monolingual and did not speak Spanish (11.5% of the total Huasteco population).
Panes (Xi’úi de San Luis Potosi)
The Pames – who call themselves xi’úi – speak a language that belongs to the Otomanguean Linguistic group. The Xi’úi region, known as “The Pameria,” occupies five municipios of San Luis Potosí (Ciudad del Maíz, Alaquines, Tamasopo, Rayón and Santa Catarina) and three communities in the Queretaro municipio of Jalpan de Serra. The Pameria municipios in SLP run from the northern border with Tamaulipas to the southern border with Querétaro (in a narrow portion of the state).
In the 2010 Mexican census, the Pame in SLP numbered 11,412. The largest share of Pame speakers — 9,893 individuals — lived in two municipios of the state (Santa Catarina and Tamasopo), representing 86.7% of their total population. The Pames were unique in that they had a high level of monolingualism, and 2,592 of the Pame speakers living in SLP could not speak Spanish (a 22.7% monolingual rate).
The Chichimeca-Jonaz language is found only in the states of San Luis Potosí and Guanajuato. Chichimeca Jonaz 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 2000, only 115 persons – living in the municipio of Alaquines and the village of La Palma – still spoke the language in SLP.
Mexico’s 2015 Intercensal Survey
In 2016, the Mexican government agency, Instituto Nacional de Estadística Geografía e Informática (INEGI), published the 2015 Intercensal Survey, which upgraded Mexico’s socio-demographic information to the midpoint between the 2010 census and the census to be carried out in 2020. With a sample size of over 6 million homes, this survey provides information on the national, state and municipio level, as of March 15th, 2015.
Considered Indigenous Classification
One of the 2015 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. Survey respondents had four possible responses:
- Sí (Yes)
- Sí, en parte (Yes, in part)
- No sabe (Do not know)
Based on the responses to this question, 630,604 people in SLP recognized themselves as being of indigenous culture, representing 23.2% of the total population of the state. In contrast, only 257,482 persons 3 years of age and older actually spoke an indigenous language, representing only 40.8% of the population that identified as indigenous.
Indigenous San Luis Potosí Today
According to the Secretaría del Turismo of the state, many archaeological sites in San Luis Potosí have yet to be explored and studied in depth. Most of the sites are found in the Region Media and the Region Huasteca, but are largely inaccessible to the public because they are located on private property. Some artifacts from these sites have been put on exhibit in local museums.
Two of the most important archaeological sites are found in the municipio of Tamuin: Tamohi (El Consuelo) and Tamtoc. Tamohi was discovered in 1919 and is considered the “Capital of the Ancient Huastecan Empire.” More recent research at this location has suggested that there was also an ancient observatory, where the agricultural cycles of the year were calculated. The second site, Tamtoc, was discovered in the 1960s, but it was not opened to the public until 2005. Like the other archaeological sites in SLP, this locations is still being explored to understand the significance of its artificial hills and large sculptures.
With nearly one-quarter of San Luis Potosí’s population considering itself to be indigenous, an appreciation of the state’s indigenous past is becoming more evident as more archaeological digs come to light and are opened to the public.
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