May 042010

The inter-census population count in Mexico in 2005 found that more than one million people in Oaxaca spoke at least one indigenous Indian language. Close behind came the state of Chiapas with about 950,000 indigenous language speakers.

Indigenous Indian groups in the state of Oaxaca

In Oaxaca, according to the National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples, more than 1.5 million people live in a home where at least one of the residents either speaks an indigenous language or considers themselves indigenous (even if they do not speak an indigenous language). This is 50% more people than are found in the same category in Chiapas.

Not only does Oaxaca have more indigenous people, it also has a much greater linguistic and cultural diversity than Chiapas or any other state in Mexico.

Oaxaca’s one million indigenous speakers represent 35% of the state’s total population. The largest indigenous linguistic groups in the state include about 350,000 Zapotec, 230,000 Mixtec, 165,000 Mazatec, 100,000 Chinantec, 100,000 Mixe, and 40,000 Chatino.

Almost 90% of Zapotec speakers also speak Spanish, which considerably enhances their education and employment opportunities. On the other hand, 23% of Mixtecs do not speak Spanish, and hence face a tougher challenge in the workplace. Tens of thousands of Mixtecs have migrated away from Oaxaca looking for work. Mixtec speakers tend to migrate to Mixtec-speaking neighborhoods; there are about 16,000 Mixtecs in Mexico City, 14,000 in Baja California, 13,000 in Sinaloa, and perhaps 50,000 in the USA. A sizable number of these migrants are essentially monolingual, with very limited Spanish.

The map shows the regions where the main indigenous groups in Oaxaca reside. One of the reasons for Oaxaca having retained such an extraordinary diversity of Indian groups is the state’s very rugged terrain, which has isolated numerous indigenous groups, cutting them off from mainstream Mexican society. This diversity of cultures helps to make Oaxaca one of Mexico’s most interesting states. The cultures find expression today not only in language, but also in modes of dress, handicrafts, music and dance. The state of Oaxaca celebrates its ethnic diversity in its annual extravaganza, the Guelaguetza festival, normally held in July.

Mexico’s cultural diversity is discussed in chapters 10 and 13 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico.

This is an edited version of an article originally on MexConnect website.

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