Oaxaca’s present 570 municipios (townships), each with its main town and market, reflect community boundaries often dating back more than a thousand years. Although the Spanish imposed their civic pattern of church, presidencia (city hall), and major stores and prominent residences all clustered around a central plaza, the native people still hold to their tradition of concentrating their homes in a number of barrios (neighborhoods) on the outskirts. Native peoples have sometimes stretched the Spanish pattern, reverting to their ancient “empty town” custom. Here, only the mestizo and criollo elite permanently live in town, while natives maintain empty in-town houses, which they occupy only during market and ceremonial occasions. Most of their days they spend by their country milpas.
Christian baptism is everyone’s first major life event; it’s so important that a number of communities believe that a baby is not fully human until baptized. 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 (nah-WAHL), a malevolent animal that will harm people who cross its path.
Baptism is also the time when the web of compadrazgo relationships starts to influence a person’s life. This begins when parents designate their compadres (best friends) as padrinos (godparents) to their newly born. As children mature, with parental consent they designate their own compadres. Formal ceremonies often solemnize padrino and compadrazgo bonds, which might continue through generations of loyal padrino and compadre relationships.
With babies, nursing often lasts two or three years, or at least until the next child comes along. Preschool children experience little imposed discipline except the responsibility of watching after younger siblings. Loud or disruptive children might get spanked or shunned, however. Formal schooling is usually considered so important that families often sacrifice so that children, especially boys, may attend at least six grades of school. Although children of poorer parents experience few, if any, puberty rites, richer parents often honor their children, especially girls, with a number of Catholic ceremonies, such as first communion, confirmation, blessing of their pet animals, and quinceana (coming out) at age 15. Among poorer populations, a girl becomes an adult with marriage, often by age 14 or 15. A boy enters manhood through either marriage or entering servicio (community service). He’s expected to pay community assessments and perform tequio (communal work) service. As a young man matures, he is expected to fulfill the duties of a series of increasingly important cargos (offices). If successful, at middle age he is rewarded with the rank of principal (elder) and admitted to the village council of elders.
Death is usually marked by 24 hours of mourning while the body lies in state at home, usually with candles, incense, and flowers. Wrapped in a petate (reed mat) or a coffin, the body is buried, along with the deceased’s favored trinkets, and perhaps favorite food. Rituals continue periodically thereafter, especially at nine days as well as one year after burial.
Traditional marriage is an alliance between families, initiated by the groom’s parents, often through a go-between. Girls marry as early as 14, boys at 16 or 17. The more well-to-do marry later. Often prospective grooms and brides perform services for the other’s family, sometimes even taking up temporary residence (but not sleeping with their intended) while everyone gets acquainted. The contents of the couple’s dreams often carry weight in the decision to marry. Polyandry, marriage of a woman to two brothers, although sanctioned in some communities, is not common. On the other hand, well-to-do husbands, while remaining married, sometimes support additional women in separate households.
Although extended families generally encompass two, three, or four generations, couples often establish their own households after the birth of their first child. Even though both the wife’s and the husband’s relatives enjoy equal kinship status, couples are more likely to live near the husband’s relatives. Other practices are male-weighted. Boys usually inherit more land than their sisters, and family names, nearly always Spanish, are inherited from the father. Among some Mixtecs and Mazatecs, the father’s first name, interestingly, becomes his children’s surname. (This is not unlike the practice among some northern Europeans—“Johnson,” “Svensen,” and “Mendelsohn,” for example.)
The basic house has a single room, a dirt floor, stick-and-adobe walls, and a thatched roof. Better houses have more rooms, adobe or concrete walls, a concrete floor, and perhaps a flush toilet. Household goods hang on pegs and nails all around the walls. Overhead, rafters support grain and other heavy storage. Beds are either on floor mats or hammocks. A small altar with saint and candle occupies one corner, with the kitchen in the other. Cooking is either over open fire or on an adobe stove. Tortillas are heated on a flat adobe comal (griddle); beans, chilies, and stews are cooked in pottery jars (ollas) or metal pots over the open fire. Women grind corn by rolling with their stone mano on the metate basin. They grind chilies in their molcajete (mortar).
Men do the heavier outside work: clearing, burning, farming, building, repairing, plus fishing, hunting, and tending cattle and horses. If fields are far from the homestead, men sometimes take up temporary residence there during planting and harvest. Women cook, sew, wash clothes, gather fruit, flowers, and wild herbs, and tend household animals, such as pigs, goats, chickens, and turkeys. Women do most, if not all, of the marketing. Both men and women carry heavy loads.
Verbal descriptions pale in comparison to the color and excitement of a Oaxaca town fiesta or big market day. Country people, especially in remote areas, still wear the traditional cottons that blend the Spanish and native styles. Men usually wear the Spanish-origin fiber sombrero (literally, shade-maker) on their heads, loose white cotton shirt and pants, and leather huaraches on their feet. Women’s dress is often more colorful. It can include a huipil (long, sleeveless dress), often embroidered in bright floral and animal motifs, or a handwoven enredo (wraparound skirt that identifies the wearer with a particular locality). A very common addition is the Spanish-tradition all-purpose woven shawl (rebozo), which can carry a baby, a bag of corn, or maybe even a chicken or two, as well as protect from the rain or sun. A faja (waist sash) and, in the winter, a quechquémitl (shoulder cape) complete the costume.
The great majority of Oaxacan indigenous people cultivate native corn, along with a number of other secondary crops, such as beans, squash, pumpkins, potatoes, chili peppers, and tomatoes. Depending upon soil and climate, they may also harvest potatoes, maguey (for alcoholic drinks), and fruits, such as mangos, papaya, chirimoya, zapote, and avocado. Other native crops might be cotton or maguey for ixtle fiber, and perhaps cocoa beans, hule (rubber), and chicle (chewing gum) for cash. Locally cultivated introduced cash crops include wheat, bananas, coffee, sugarcane, sesame seeds, and peanuts.
Many families or sometimes entire villages specialize in crafts, such as pottery, cloth weaving, or basketry. Although the appearance of cheap, machine-made cloth has weakened the tradition, many Oaxacan women still weave family garments with the ancestral backstrap loom. Treadle looms, introduced by the Spanish and operated by either men or women, are common around Oaxaca City . Potters, both women and men, practice their craft all over Oaxaca. Methods vary; they might confine themselves to the native hand-coiling or the Spanish-introduced potter’s wheel, or use a combination of both. (See Arts and Crafts .)
Although women exercise considerable behind-the-scenes influence, men customarily occupy the formal community leadership positions. Minor presidencia (city hall) positions are usually appointive; senior positions, such as regidor (administrator), alcalde (judge), and presidente (mayor) are often elective. In-town native homes cluster in one or more barrios on the outskirts. A town regidor acts as a representative agent for one or more barrios.
Paralleling such formal civil institutions are the religious, which center on the mayordomía, the office responsible for the oft-elaborate ceremonial trappings and yearly fiesta of the barrio’s patron saint. The barrio’s regidor or one of its cofradias (religious fraternities) designates the mayordomo for a one-year mayordomía responsibility. If donations for the patronal fiesta are inadequate, the mayordomo, often a wealthy individual, is expected to add a generous contribution of his or her own. Although this may spell temporary poverty for the mayordomo, the reward is great community prestige. A lifetime of such service will often assure election to the status of elder (principal or anciano) and exalted (so exalted that elders are rarely prosecuted for wrongdoing) membership in the council of elders, upon whose resources and sage advice the community relies.