Mixes and Zoques
Their cultural and common Mayan linguistic linkages have led most experts to believe that the original Mixe and Zoque (MEE-shay and SOH-kay) people, together with the Popoluca of present Veracruz state, occupied a single territory. Invasions, first by the Zapotecs and Aztecs and then the Spanish, forced the present territorial divisions. The Mixes (pop. 100,000) occupy the mountainous belt that stretches about 100 miles (160 km) from the central valley’s eastern edge to the most easterly Mixe center, San Juan Guichicovi, several miles short of the cross-isthmus highway-rail line. Thirty-five miles (55 km) farther east, Zoque territory (pop. 5,000), divided between two sprawling ejido grants, begins. From the Santa María Chimalapa–San Miguel Chimalapa line it spreads east, across the wild Chimalapa mountainous jungle to the Chiapas border. The few remaining Popoluca-speakers are limited to a few isolated villages in eastern Veracruz state.
Despite several costly campaigns, the Spanish force of arms never really conquered the Mixes. If they were conquered at all, it was by 16th-century Dominican missionaries who accomplished with kindness what Spanish guns and steel could not. By the end of the colonial era, they had established nine vicarages, among them Juquila Mixes, San Miguel Quetzaltepec, Asunción Puxmecatan, Ayutla, and San Juan Guichicovi, which all remain important Mixe market towns. Ayutla, closest to the central valley, is dominant.
Anthropologists generally describe Mixe traditions as “less developed” than other Oaxacan groups. They describe a “culture unsuited to the environment,” as if the Mixe ways of life first flowered in fairer, more fertile lands and never completely adjusted to the cold, marginal mountainous regions where the Mixes fled in the face of foreign invasions. Such a speculation also explains the Mixes’ well-known wariness and avoidance of outside contact. The Zoque, by contrast, adapted relatively easily to Spanish ways and share little of the Mixes’ shyness.
Spanish attempts to congregate the Mixes into towns were only minimally successful. Mixe people largely moved back into the countryside, leaving little-used empty houses in town. Today most live in country hamlets clinging to mountainsides, with individual houses built on level stilt platforms.
Turbulence has marred the Mixes’ recent history. In 1938, President Lázaro Cárdenas wanted to reward the Mixe people for their support of the Republic against the infamous 1865 French Intervention. He persuaded the Oaxaca legislature to award them semi-autonomous status in an all-Mixe district. However, a dispute broke out over the location of the district capital. The towns of Ayutla, Cacalotepec, and Zacatepec had their leading supporters, but Luis Rodríguez of Zacatepec was the most ruthless. While the others protested weakly, he led a four-year reign of terror—kidnapping, cattle rustling, torture, murder, and pillage—with the implicit support of Governor Vicente González. In 1943, Rodríguez cut off the feet and tongue of one prominent opponent and had another assassinated on the steps of the Government Palace in Oaxaca City. Enough was enough for Governor Sánchez Canom, who left Oaxaca City to intervene. But while he was gone, Rodríguez got him replaced. After that, Rodríguez was in complete control, murdering opponents with impunity, collecting tribute from towns and even 10 percent from religious fiestas and holding 500 prisoners in forced labor. Even after his death in 1952, his heirs tried to extend their reign until the 1970s. Despite Luis Rodríguez’s notorious legacy, Zacatepec remains the Mixe district capital to the present day.
In 1972, partly in response to the trouble, Mixe people organized themselves into the grassroots social-political Federación Mixe. They soon coalesced with the already-existing local Worker’s Federation of Chinantecs, Zapotecs, and Mixes and the national General Union of Workers and Farmers of Mexico (UGOCM).
Mixe and Zoque social traditions closely follow Mesoamerican patterns. Mixe religion has striking parallels to those described in the Maya sacred book, the Popol Vuh. Their legends say that the Mixe god Kondoy was hatched from an egg, grew rapidly, and traveled, battling Aztec armies. He returned and arranged the world in the Mixe image, then retired to the Mixe sacred mountain, Zempoaltepetl, where he still lives.
Belief in the nagual persists among the Mixes. If an unbaptized baby dies, the parents must make haste to bury the body immediately, with little ceremony. If not, the spirit of the unbaptized baby might escape and become a nagual, a malevolent animal that will harm people who cross its path. Sometimes the nagual takes human form as a witch that can transform itself into an animal or other scary form and cause general mischief and illness by infusing some type of object into the victim’s body. Traditional healers combine a number of remedies, such as temascal steam bathing, rubbing with herbs, prayers, sucking, and vision-inducing plants, to remove such infusions.
© Bruce Whipperman from Moon Oaxaca, 5th edition