Who are the Indigenous Peoples of Mexico?

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

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

Who are the people who lived in Mexico before Europeans came to the New World? In this lesson, we'll look at some of the most populated ethnic groups who called Mexico their home for thousands of years.

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!

Indigenous People

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.

Mixtec Huipil


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.

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