Otomi Tribe: History & Religion

Instructor: Margaret Moran
Prior to the colonization of modern-day Mexico, many indigenous tribes flourished in the region. One of those tribes was the Otomi people. This lesson will look at the history and religion of this interesting group of people.


The Otomi people were native to the lands of Mexico, specifically the Toluca and Tula valleys, before the year 800. They lived a relatively peaceful existence until the first invaders, the Nahua tribe, arrived and captured their land. They built a small empire, with Tula as their major city. The Otomi, among other smaller tribes, were forced to serve the invaders. Around 1200, the city of Tula was eventually overrun by the more powerful Chichimec tribe, a more sophisticated hunting-gathering group, and the Otomi moved on to settle in an area all their own.

After a brief settlement in the Valley of Toluca, the Otomi people built the city of Xaltocan in the northern region. Unfortunately, their autonomy was short-lived and they were overrun by invaders by 1395. The resilient Otomi picked up the pieces and continued to the north and east, where they became subjects of the mighty Aztec empire. Fortunately for the Otomi, their settled land was not of much value to the mighty Aztecs, so they were mostly left alone and simply gave tribute to the ruling empire.

Life would change dramatically for the Otomi with the arrival of the first Spaniards. Sadly, the Otomi initially treated the Spaniards as their saviors, aligning themselves for the defeat of the Aztecs. The Otomi people even assisted the Spaniards in their conquest towards other indigenous tribes. The Spaniards, far from the benevolent force the Otomi people thought of them, by the beginning of the 18th century, began to subjugate and virtually enslave all indigenous people.

Silver was discovered in the area, and the Otomi began to slave away for the Spaniards in the mines. Can you imagine how difficult it would be to work in a deep underground mine for many hours a day with no wages? During this time period, the Spaniards had implemented the encomienda system, which granted most colonizing Spaniards with a set amount of native laborers. These workers, in return for an education in the Spanish language, protection from other tribes and a conversion to the Christian faith, gave these conquerors tributes of food or precious metals. This system was inherently flawed and in many cases the native workers, including the Otomi people, were treated as slaves and worked relentlessly.

Luckily, many Otomi people fled from this system of servitude, and relocated to more desolate, desert areas, which were not ideal for farming; detracting a great deal of white settlers. The regions controlled by the Otomi did not have many people, which caused them to individually have very large landholdings. Sadly, their idyllic existence was not meant to last, and they were thrust into the War of Independence between Spain and Mexico. During this time, they saw a great deal of their land taken and given to members of the ruling classes. The Otomi people were retained as laborers. It is difficult to imagine how hard it was for the Otomi people to suffer through so many trials. They were definitely resilient!

Eventually, during the 1940's, the Otomi people were given back their land, but it was returned in a very poor quality. Ultimately, their situation improved when their damaged lands began to receive runoff from nearby Mexico city, increasing the land's productivity. Now, the Otomi survive on farming and livestock. They remain a symbol of the past and a reminder of the rich history of Mexico.

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