In contrast to the Zapotecs and Mixtecs, the Mazatec territory, the Mazateca, is relatively concentrated into a roughly 35-by-50-mile (56-by-80-km) corner at Oaxaca’s very northern tip. Mazatec villages and farms spread across two very fertile climatic zones: lush semitropical forested uplands and tropical rainforest river bottomland of the Río Papaloapan basin. Major market centers are Jalapa de Díaz and Huautla de Jiménez, both in the western highlands. Important subsidiary centers, many in the highlands around Huautla, are Cosolapa, Santa María Chilchotla, Huehuetlán, Eloxotitlán, San José Tenango, Mazatlán, Chiquihuitlán, and Ayautla. The eastern lowland has no dominant Mazatec center, partly because of the displacement of thousands of families during construction of the Miguel Alemán Dam. Although the Mazatecs’ homeland spills over into neighboring Puebla and Veracruz states, around 170,000, or about 90 percent, live in Oaxaca.
The Mazatecs’ own name for their homeland, Ampaad, which translates as the “Place Where the People Are Born,” reflects their own creation myth. Legends say that the great tropical trees of Ampaad gave birth to three types of people: giants; ordinary-size humans, who became the present Mazatecs; and smaller people, who became the monkeys. The label “Mazatec” derives from the Aztec Nahuatl language and translates as “People of the Deer.”
Left largely to themselves, the Mazatecs have retained many of their own traditions. Many of these they hold in common with their Chocho-, Popoloca-, and Ixcatec-speaking neighbors, whose tongues linguists sometimes lump into a Mazatec-language subfamily. Their isolation has left Mazatec speakers among the least hispanicized of Oaxacans; as a group, as many as 40 percent speak little or no Spanish.
In 1944, government planners initiated the Papaloapan Project, which called for a huge hydroelectric works in the Mazatec heartland. The project’s centerpiece, christened as the Miguel Alemán Dam and Reservoir in 1955, created a mammoth lake in the Mazatec lowland, drowning hundreds of thousands of acres of fertile Papaloapan basin forest and farmland. Although water and electric power were the projected benefits, the human cost turned out to be enormous. Mazatec society was torn by the forced removal of 22,000 poor Mazatec people to unfamiliar, often undesirable territory. Fortunately, the rest of the Mazatec population, largely in the western highlands around Huautla de Jiménez, remained undisrupted. Mexican authorities have since generally avoided such socially disruptive mega-projects.
Although most Mazatec families are subsistence corn, bean, and squash farmers, many cultivate fruits (mango, mamey, zapote, papaya, banana, and avocado) and coffee as cash crops on their fertile acreage. Although some farmer cooperatives have found national and international markets for their fruit and coffee, many individuals seem content to sell their produce for low local prices at Huatla de Jiménez and other Mazateca markets.
Mazatec women are renowned for their costumes and adornments. At markets and festivals especially, watch for them in their famously bright huipiles, horizontally striped in the middle, vertically on the sides. Beneath the huipil they often wear a loom-woven blue and white horizontally striped skirt. Their hair is also part of their decoration. They keep it soft and dark with a preparation called pistle, made from the core of the mamey fruit, and typically braid it with bright ribbons. Many women take pride in their home embroidery and hand- woven cotton, silk, and wool, which they sometimes sell at markets.
As in the past, scarcity of priests weakens Catholic influence in the Mazateca. Priestly visits are so rare that many Mazatec campesino couples have two or three children by the time they enjoy a Catholic church wedding ceremony. When a priest does arrive, rustic churches are customarily thronged with husbands and wives bringing children for baptism. For the ceremony, they buy a small lead cross, which they hang with a bright ribbon around their child’s neck. In addition to Catholic baptism, Mazatec parents sometimes ask a diviner to read the ancient tonalpohualli 260-day ritual calendar to discover their newborn’s tona or tono (guardian spirit).
Mazatec people often gather for non- Catholic religious rites in fields and at sacred springs, caves, or mountains. Mazatec people especially venerate El Rabón peak, which towers over Jalapa de Díaz, and whose 0.6-mile-high (one-km) vertical rock wall is said never to have been scaled. There on that lofty summit live the dueñes (earth spirits), who must be appeased with prayers and copal incense for the return of lost souls. In the Mazateca lowland, brujos (witch doctors) carry out similar ceremonies at Cabeza de Tilpan cave near San José Tenango.
Traditional curandero or curandera healers are very busy in the Mazateca. Among their weapons against illness, many include natural forest-gathered hallucinogens. Common are hongos alucinantes (hallucinogenic mushrooms), semillas de la Virgen (seeds of the Virgin) or ololiuhqui, and hojas de la pastora (leaves of the shepherdess). These, used by either the patient or the healer, will induce enlightening visions that may lead to a cure.
© Bruce Whipperman from Moon Oaxaca, 5th edition