Although Oaxaca’s approximately 100,000 Chinantec-speaking people live on some of Mexico’s best-watered land, the majority are poor. Inaccessibility, tropical forests that were not easily tillable, and lack of gold or silver relegated the Chinantecs to the margin during colonial times. The Chinantecs’ homeland, the Chinantla, is a 70-by-40-mile (112-by-64-km) region around the important market town of Valle Nacional, in northeast Oaxaca. The Chinantla’s natural division into eastern lowland (Chinantla Grande) and western upland (Chinantla Pichinche) was apparent to the first Spanish arrivals in the 1520s. For the Spanish conquistadores, the Chinantecs weren’t pushovers. After years of seesaw skirmishes, the Spanish mounted their final push at Yetzelalag. Chinantec legend recounts that at the battle’s height the Chinantec warriors invoked their gods, who opened the mountain, allowing them to escape. Nevertheless, the Chinantecs submitted to three centuries of labor on Spanish tobacco and sugarcane plantations and cattle ranches.
Although the Spanish colonial policy of congregación led to the abandonment of many original town sites, the upland Chinantla retained a number of important market centers. Among the most important and colorful are Sochiapan, Tlacozintepec, Usila, Quiotepec, and San Pedro Yolox in the western uplands; Valle Nacional and San Lucas Ojitlán in the center; and Petlalpa, Lalana, and Jocotepec in the southwest lowlands.
During the 19th century, new colonists introduced coffee, pineapple, and rice agriculture, which, with the Papaloapan Project, continues in modern form today. Although the project forced painful relocations on thousands of lowland Mazatec and Chinantec peoples, it ended their isolation. Government jobs, schools, clinics, electricity, and sanitary and water systems changed life forever in the Chinantec lowlands. At the height of the disorder, swarms of protests erupted. Oaxacan bishops denounced government relocation efforts: “The indígenas continue to be the ones always exploited, those who must pay the price of any progress.”
For good or bad, the Papaloapan Project lifted the native residents’ health, literacy, and general standard of living at the expense of erasing many of their age-old ways of life. In contrast to the Chinantla highlands, few traditional markets function in the lower Chinantla. On the other hand, the government-planned communal and corporate plantations have greatly increased productivity. The Chinantla regularly produces the lion’s share of Oaxaca’s tobacco, rice, sugarcane, chilies, and pineapples. The workers, however, receive only a minimum of the benefits. Most profits flow to the government agencies, which control everything—seeds, planting, credit, harvesting, and marketing.
Nevertheless, tradition still rules in much of the upper Chinantla. In the minds of many Chinantec-speakers, the old fertility gods “Father and Mother Maize” still command the rain even though their prayers are Catholic. The cosmos is still a battleground between day, ruled by the young and vigorous sun, and night, ruled by the twinkling old stars. Some still believe that Creation’s original people, who refused to bow down before the god-sun, were changed to monkeys and banished to the forest forever for their error. In some villages, rayos, powerful members of lightning cults, can still hurl lightning bolts against neighboring villages and know how to defend the home village against reverse attacks.
© Bruce Whipperman from Moon Oaxaca, 5th edition