Otomi People of Mexico: Culture, Language & Art

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday recently earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

In this lesson, learn about the Otomi people of Mexico, one of the oldest known indigenous people of that country. Learn about their history, their language and dialects, their skill with embroidery and paper making, and how they live today.

Native Americans South of the Border

If you live in the United States of America, you are probably familiar with at least one Native American group, such as the Cherokee, Sioux, or Iroquois. However, you might not have thought that much about indigenous people in Mexico. Of course, it makes total sense that the indigenous people of North America wouldn't confine themselves to the borders of a country that didn't even exist until a short time ago. Sure, maybe you heard about the ancient Aztec and the Maya, but what about people alive today? In fact, there are dozens of different indigenous groups of people living in Mexico today. Let's take a closer look at one of them, the Otomi.

Life Among the Otomi

According to the best estimates of the Mexican government, there are about 42,000 Otomi people living around the Sierra Madre mountains, primarily in the Mexican state of Hidalgo, but also in smaller populations in the states of Queretaro, Guanajuato, Michoacán, Puebla, and Veracruz. Most communities survive through subsistence farming, or growing crops for a family's own consumption, but the rocky soil also requires many Otomi men to work in cities for part of the year in order to support their families. Their main crops are corn, beans, and chilies, while some families also grow coffee and sugar cane to sell at markets.

History of the Otomi

According to archaeologists, the Otomi were the original settlers of the Mexican highlands, arriving by 8,000 BCE. For the first 3,000 years of their settlement in the area, they were a single people believed to speak a single language. However, as they developed agriculture and improved their skills, they began to expand their territory. The more distant groups interacted less and less, creating a diversity of Otomi people, each with their own dialect version of the Otomi language they once shared. In fact, the diversity of these groups made it quite difficult, until recently, for archaeologists to piece together the fact that the Otomi were the creators of vast ancient cities like Teotihuacan.

Another great city built by the ancient Otomi is Toluca.

Otomi Language

The Otomi language has at least ten different dialects among its diverse speakers. The most common are the Texcatepec dialect, found in the mountains of Veracruz; the Huehuetle dialect, spoken in Hidalgo and Veracruz; and the Tenango dialect, spoken in parts of Hidalgo. Of the various dialects, some are so different from one another that the speakers can barely understand each other, sparking debate whether they have developed into two completely different languages. Where the dialects overlap the most is in agricultural terms, lending support to the idea that they developed farming prior to expanding their territory.

Otomi Textiles

One area of artistic mastery among the Otomi, particularly recognized among the Tenango speakers in Hidalgo, is their intricately embroidered clothing with unique shapes, subject matter, and bright colors. These styles are inspired by cave paintings found on the Mexican Plateau, and are believed to be related to ancient Otomi myths and rituals. Prior to the 1960s, however, the world barely knew of their embroidery arts. Then a severe drought threatened the many villages in Hidalgo, forcing the Otomi to try anything they could to earn money for food. While many men became wage laborers, the women began to sell some of their embroidered cloth, which became extremely popular, spreading far beyond Mexico.

Otomi are known for intricate embroidery, often more elaborate than even this example.

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