Sunday earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.
What Kind of Mexican do you Imagine?
Many people, when they think of people from Mexico, tend to imagine only one of the many ethnic groups living in that country. They often think of famous people of Mexican heritage, like Salma Hayek, Gabriel Iglesias, Selena Gomez, and George Lopez. If those are the images that come to mind, it's probably because those are the most visible ethnic presentations, leaving most of us with limited exposure to the many other peoples of Mexico. Shall we change that and learn more about the other ethnic groups in Mexico? Let's start with the indigenous people for now!
When we talk about indigenous people, we are referring to ethnic groups native to a particular area, living there far before colonial contact with Europeans. This definition raises additional questions, such as how we define an ethnic group. While membership in an ethnicity is a complex issue, the most simple way to define an ethnic group is a people with a shared language, culture, and heritage. In Mexico, there are currently 62 indigenous ethnic groups. Since we don't have enough space in this lesson to explore each one, let's take a brief look at the largest groups who are predominantly, or exclusively living in Mexico.
The Nahua people are the largest indigenous group in Mexico today. They live in villages and towns throughout Central Mexico and speak at least one variant of language in the Nahua language family, the most common of which are Nahuat and Nahuatl. These languages come from the original Aztec language, and the Nahua are the direct descendants of the Aztecs first encountered by the Spanish. Thus, the Aztecs are not a lost people at all. In fact, over a million Nahua people live in Mexico today.
Estimates of the Mixtec population indicate there are at least 500,000 Mixtec in Mexico today. The name they give themselves is Ñuu Savi, meaning ''People of the Rain.'' Traditionally, they practice subsistence farming of corn, beans and wheat, as well as other types of fruits and vegetables. Unfortunately, poor soil often leaves families without enough to survive, requiring many men to work elsewhere for part of the year. However, even Mixtec raised outside their home villages return for the annual celebration to honor their patron saints and to fulfill their duty of service to the community, a practice called Tequio. Finally, the Mixtec people are best known for their textile arts, including the huipiles, intricately embroidered blouses.
Known as the Tarascan to the Spanish, approximately 175,000 Purepecha live in and near the Sierra Madre mountains. They share a strong pride in their culture and encourage children to speak the P'urhépecha language as well as Spanish; an endeavor made easier by Mexico's indigenous language law in 2000 which gave indigenous languages equal status to Spanish. The Purepecha, however, are best known for their colorful clay sculpture made from locally gathered clay.
Not far from Mexico's capital, nearly 90,000 Totonaca, plural for Totonac, live today while keeping alive their unique language, which has no commonality with any known language family. Traditionally, the Totonac people ate diets of fruit, fish, and wild game. Although most have converted to Catholicism, they still practice pre-Columbian traditions of mixing seeds and dirt to sacrifice while they also sprinkle the blood of birds on fields to encourage crop growth by pleasing gods and spirits with the offering.
The Otomí, who call themselves the Nah-ñu, live in the Sierra Madre mountains in the Mexican state of Hidalgo with an estimated population of 42,000. Families primarily work as subsistence farmers growing corn, beans, and chilies while those with larger plots of land also grow commercial crops like coffee and sugar cane. Unfortunately, many Otomí men are forced to leave the village and earn wages in large cities to supplement the insufficient crop yields. Artistically, they are best known for making paper from tree bark, a practice dating back centuries. The paper is cut and arranged into unique figures called dahi, which represent natural spirits and traditional deities.
When the Spanish first encountered these people in the 1500s, they called them the Tarahumara. The people call themselves the Rarámuri, which means ''runners'' in their language. As this is their only means of transportation, even today, it is a fitting name. In fact, they are such excellent runners that the few Rarámuri talked into joining competitive racing outside their villages have stunned the world.
While they once occupied villages throughout the Mexican state of Chihuahua, they responded to the Spanish conquest by retreating to the remote canyons in the Sierra Tarahumara, also known as Copper Canyon. Between 50,000 and 70,000 Rarámuri still live there in cliff apartments and cabins, growing corn, beans, potatoes, and apples while also raising goats and cattle.
While many people may envision only one ethnicity when they think of people in Mexico, the country actually has many different ethnic groups, groups of people sharing a common language, culture, and history. Of these ethnic groups, 62 of them are considered indigenous people, ethnic groups native to a place, living there before colonial contact with Europeans. The three largest among these are the Nahua who descend from the Aztecs, the Mixtec who are famous for their embroidered blouses called huipiles and their community service tradition of Tequio, and the Purepecha who are known for colorful and elaborate clay sculptures. Other large groups of indigenous people in Mexico are the Totonac, the Otomí, and the Rarámuri.
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