The geography of the Huichol Indians: economy, lifestyles and settlements

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Feb 072013
 

In this post we take a closer look at the traditional life and settlement patterns of the Huichol Indians.

The origins of the Huichol are unclear. The Wixárika themselves believe they arrived in the Jalisco-Nayarit area from the Valley of the Mexico, though most anthropologists believe it is more likely that they came originally either from the north or from the Nayarit coast.

Huichol economy and lifestyle

In the Huichol heartland area (shown on the map) the rainy season normally begins in June and lasts until October, a similar timing to most of central and western Mexico. While average temperatures in the area are usually between 15 and 20 degrees Centigrade, there can be sharp frosts in winter.

huichol-villages

The dispersed rural settlement pattern of the Huichol heartland. Credit: Tony Burton / Geo-Mexico; all rights reserved

Huichol family groups rely on the subsistence farming of corn, beans and squash, which are grown together in a small plot or garden (coamil). Tomatoes, chiles and gourds are also produced, Cultivation is often on steep slopes. Land is cleared by slash and burn. A few cattle may be kept, largely because of their value as trade items. Meat is rarely available except on ceremonial occasions. Some fishing is practiced, and wild plants also form part of the typical Huichol diet. Merchants supply other items such as salt, shells, feathers, canned drinks and sandals.

The typical Huichol home is a simple, one-room dwelling, usually rectangular in plan, with a thatched roof. Some homes have a second room for cooking.

The isolation of the Huichol has enabled them to retain almost all of their traditional customs. Anthropologists who have lived among the Huichol affirm that religion for the Huichol is not part of life, it is life.

Three of the most important symbols for the Huichol are deer, corn (maize) and peyote. In some ways, these three items underline the fact that the Huichol culture has undergone a transition from a lifestyle based on hunting and gathering towards one based on sedentary agriculture.

Settlements and districts

During colonial times, the area inhabited by the Huichol Indians was first divided into three and then, later, five administrative districts:

  • Santa Catarina (elevation about 1000 meters above sea level). Santa Catarina is a day’s walk from the nearest airstrip.
  • San Sebastián (elevation 1400 meters).
  • Tuxpan (aka Tuxpan de Bolaños; elevation 1060 meters).
  • San Andrés Cohamiata (elevation 1860 meters). This has the best airstrip and is the main Huichol ceremonial center. While many of the people did not adopt Catholicism, San Andrés has more services, including a medical clinic, and more working opportunities.
  • Guadalupe Ocotán (elevation 1050 meters). More of the Huichol living here accepted Catholicism and are more acculturated. Most children attend school; many people wear “mestizo” clothing.

Each of these districts has its own autonomous government, and there are relatively few formal links between the districts or “communities”. Each community is headed by a governor (Tatohuani), with the office transferred to a new leader every January following an elaborate ceremony. Each community also has a parallel religious government headed by its shamans (maraakames).

The transportation challenges in this region are evident from the number of small airstrips shown on the map and the paucity of road links. Villages only 5 or 10 kilometers away from each other “as the crow flies” may be almost impossible to travel between because of the river canyons and steep slopes. A relief map of this area shows that most settlements are perched on whatever flatter land is available, often on the plateau top.

Given the lack of formal links between districts, and the terrain, it is not surprising that the settlement pattern in the Huichol heartland area is highly dispersed, with a very large number of tiny settlements, mostly kinship settlements where all members belong to the same extended family. There are more than 400 distinct settlements (rancherías or ranchos) in the region and many of the settlements are a considerable distance from their nearest neighbors. This part of Mexico exhibits one of the clearest examples in the country of dispersed rural settlements.

Key questions raised by the dispersed settlement patterns of this area:

  • What does “development” mean in the context of the Huichol Indians?
  • Does this dispersed settlement pattern inhibit the future economic and social development of the Huichol people? If so, how does it do so, and what could be done to overcome the difficulties it causes?
  • Would development be easier if most or all of the small scattered communities were congregated into a smaller number of larger settlements?

Related posts:

Mexico’s Magic Town program loses its shine

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Jan 212013
 

Regular readers will be well aware of our concern about the number of towns in Mexico designated Magic Towns in the past few months. As we have written previously, some of the towns chosen are far from “Magic” and offer very little indeed of interest to any regular tourist.

Not content with devaluing the program by some dubious choices, at the end of November 2012, the outgoing administration of President Felipe Calderón rushed through the designation of no fewer than 17 more towns in its last few days in office, to bring the total number of Magic Towns to 83.

Added to the list at the end of November 2012 were:

  • 67   Tacámbaro, Michoacán
  • 68    Calvillo  Aguascalientes
  • 69    Nochistlán, Zacatecas
  • 70    Jiquilpan, Michoacán
  • 71    Tlatlauquitepec, Puebla
  • 72    Tzintzuntzan, Michoacán
  • 73    Mapimí, Durango
  • 74    Papantla, Veracruz
  • 75    Tecate, Baja California
  • 76    Arteaga, Coahuila
  • 77    Viesca, Coahuila
  • 78    Jalpa de Cánovas, Guanajuato
  • 79    Salvatierra, Guanajuato
  • 80    Yuriria, Guanajuato
  • 81     Xicotepec, Puebla
  • 82     Jala, Nayarit
  • 83     El Rosario, Sinaloa

The considerable charms of Mapimí, Durango were described in a previous post. Several of the latest towns to be included are well worthy of Magic Town status, but others are not. In future posts, we will take a closer look at some of the other towns on this list, and their relative merits for inclusion as Magic Towns. For now, we content ourselves with presenting an updated map of the distribution of Mexico’s Magic Towns, as of 1 January 2013:

Mexico's Magic Towns, as of 1 December 2012. Credit: Tony Burton / Geo-Mexico

Mexico’s Magic Towns, as of 1 December 2012. Credit: Tony Burton / Geo-Mexico

The domination of central and western Mexico is clear. All states (excluding the D.F.) now have at least one Magic Town, but southern Mexico still appears to be somewhat undervalued in terms of its cultural tourism potential.

Note: Four towns in the latest list—Tacámbaro, Jiquilpan and Tzintzuntzan (all in Michoacán) and Jala (in Nayarit)—are described in the recently published 4th (Kindle/Kobo) edition of my “Western Mexico: A Traveler’s Treasury” (Sombrero Books, 2013). The book describes no fewer than 17 of Mexico’s Magic Towns as well as several more (such as Ajijic and Bolaños) that are reported to have begun their approval process.

Related posts:

The geography of cement production in Mexico

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Nov 102012
 

In a recent post we saw how Mexico is one of the world’s leading cement manufacturing countries:

The map shows the location of the 34 cement plants currently operating in Mexico. They include 15 belonging to Cemex, 7 to Holcim Apasco, 4 to Cruz Azul, 3 to Cementos Chihuahua, 3 to Cementos Moctezuma and 2 to Lafarge. A new company, Cementos Fortaleza (part-owned by Carlos Slim, the world’s richest man), is due to open in the state of Hidalgo early next year.

Cement plants in Mexico, 2011

Cement plants in Mexico, 2011. Credit: Tony Burton / Geo-Mexico; all rights reserved. Click to enlarge.

According to the Center for Clean Air Policy’s “Sector-based Approaches Case Study: Mexico”,

“The northern region of the country has traditionally been the largest consumer of cement, accounting for 48% of sales mainly for use in infrastructure construction projects, housing and office complexes, and other construction activities. Central Mexico is also a relatively strong market for domestic producers. However, the primary use differs somewhat in that the main source of demand is from construction of new buildings such as hotels and office complexes. The relatively slower pace of economic growth in southern Mexico accounts for the lower share (17%) of domestic cement sales in the south.”

The paucity of cement plants in southern Mexico is particularly well reflected by the map.

The main raw material for cement is limestone. The distribution of cement plants in Mexico tends to follow the distribution of “limestones and clastic rocks” (rocks made of particles of other rocks) on the map of Mexico’s surface geology.

Mexico's surface geology

Mexico’s surface geology. Click map to enlarge.

Related post:

Oct 012012
 

Mexico currently has 65 Magic Towns (Pueblos Mágicos), some of which we have described in previous posts. Regular readers will know we have some reservations about the program, especially about the inclusion on the list of some places that have relatively little to attract the average tourist.

Are Magic Towns distributed evenly across the country?

The map shows the distribution of the 57 Magic Towns, by state, as of 1 October 2012. Magic Towns are clearly not evenly distributed across Mexico. Two states – the State of México and Michoacán– each have five Magic Towns, while Jalisco has four. It is no surprise that the Federal District (México D.F.) is not designated a Magic Town, but it is a surprise that there are no Magic Towns in Baja California, Durango or Nayarit. Mexcaltitán, an island town in Nayarit, was one of the first towns in Mexico to be designated a Magic Town, but had this status revoked in 2009.

Mexico's Magic Towns, by state (September 2012)

Mexico’s Magic Towns, by state (September 2012)

Southern Mexican states appear to be drastically underrepresented, especially when area of state, population and indigenous groups are taken into account.

Population density map

Mexico’s population density in 2010

Larger states (in area and/or population) would surely  be more likely to have more Magic Town candidates. However, it is clear from comparing the maps of Magic Towns and population density (above) that the number of Magic Towns does not appear to be related to either the area of states, or to their population density.

The major indigenous groups in Mexico

The major indigenous groups in Mexico

Indigenous groups are relevant because they tend to live in relatively remote areas of great natural beauty, such as the Copper Canyon region or the Huasteca, and they also exhibit many distinctive cultural traits, giving them a head-start in the race to demonstrate their attractiveness for tourism. Again, though, there is little common ground between the map of indigenous groups and the map of Magic Towns. In particular, the states of Guerrero, Oaxaca and Campeche all seem to have fewer Magic Towns than might be expected.

Voting patterns in presidential elections, 2006 and 2012

Voting patterns in presidential elections, 2006 and 2012. All rights reserved.

Even politics does not appear to help explain the distribution of Magic Towns, though it must be pointed out that the pattern of voting for presidential elections (maps) may not match the pattern of municipal voting which would be more relevant to applications for Magic Town status.

If and when more towns are added to the Magic Towns list, perhaps the reasons for their distribution will become more obvious.

This post examined the distribution of Mexico’s Magic Towns, as of 1 October 2012, at which point there were only 57 in total. Since this post was written, additional Magic Towns include:

There is no doubt that Mexico has many other places that would be very worthy additions to the list. Which places would you add?

Related posts:

Map of Oaxaca state, with an introduction to its geography

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Mar 122012
 

The state of Oaxaca is Mexico’s fifth largest state, with an area of  93,793 square kilometers (4.8% of the national total) and Mexico’s tenth most populous state, with 3.8 million inhabitants in 2010.

The state has considerable variety in terms of relief, climate and natural vegetation, and has about 570 km of shoreline bordering the Pacific Ocean. Oaxaca City, the centrally located state capital, is an important city for tourism as are three towns on the coast—Puerto Angel, Puerto Escondido and Huatulco.

The eastern part of Oaxaca state is part of the low-lying Isthmus of Tehuantepec, once considered as an alternative location to Panama for a trans-continental canal. In recent years, the Tehuantepec area has received massive investments in wind power, with several major wind farms already operational and more on the drawing board.

Map of Oaxaca state, Mexico. Copyright Tony Burton;

Map of Oaxaca state, Mexico. Copyright Tony Burton; all rights reserved. Click map to enlarge

Oaxaca state state has greater linguistic and cultural diversity than any other state in Mexico. According to the National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples, more than 1.5 million people in Oaxaca 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).

About one million inhabitants of Oaxaca, 35% of the state’s total population, speak one or more indigenous language. 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.

Related posts:

Mapping remittance flows to Mexico, a practical exercise

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Jan 262012
 

Looking for a practical exercise about migration and remittance flows to challenge your students?

Remittances (the funds sent by migrant workers back to their families) are a major international financial flow into Mexico. Remittances bring more than 20 billion dollars a year into the economy, an amount equivalent to 2.5% of Mexico’s GDP. On a per person basis, Mexico receives more worker remittances than any other major country in the world. An estimated 20% of Mexican residents regularly receive some financial support from relatives working abroad. Such remittances are the mainstay of the economies of many Mexican families, especially in rural areas of Durango, Zacatecas, Guanajuato, Jalisco and Michoacán.

Two data tables [see link]  included in the World Bank Working Paper by Raúl Hernández-Coss, referred to in several previous posts, offer an ideal starting-point for practical mapping and analysis exercises for students. (The data is from 2004 but we are more interested in general patterns than precise values). The data tables are here:

A ready-made printable base map, showing the state boundaries of Mexico and USA, can be found here:

Suggested mapping exercises:

1. Which US areas have most Mexican migrants?

Use Column 2 (Mexican nationals living in this jurisdiction) of Table VI.A.1 and draw proportional circles on a base map to show which areas have most migrants. [To draw circles where the area of each circle is in direct proportion to the number of Mexican nationals, the first step is to calculate the square root of each number. These square roots are then used as the basis for working out the diameter (or radius) of the circle you draw for each location. The area of each circle is then proportional to the number of migrants. Remember to choose the most appropriate scale for the circles, so that it is easy to compare places. (If you draw very small circles, or super-large circles, they will be difficult to compare!)

2. Which US areas send the highest value of remittances back to Mexico?

Use column 4 of Table VI.A.1 to show the value of total “annual remittance flows” on a base map. You may be able to superimpose this information on the same base map you drew for Q1 which would make it very easy to see if the areas with most Mexican nationals send the most remittances back to Mexico each year. Can you see any anomalies on your map, either where an area sends far more remittances back than might be expected from the number of migrants, or where an area sends only a small value of remittances back despite having a very large number of Mexican nationals?

3. How does the “average remittance” (column 5 of Table VI.A.1 vary?

Use the available figures to see if you can identify any pattern to which areas send relatively large remittance payments, and which send much smaller average payments.

4. Where do all the remittance payments go?

Level One: Use the information from Table VI.A.2 to draw a map with arrows showing the largest single flows from each area in the USA to their corresponding state in Mexico.

Level Two: Work out the dollar value of the main remittance flows, by using the % figures given for some areas in Table VI.A.2 and their corresponding total annual remittance values from Table VI.A.1. (eg the value of the Los Angeles to Jalisco flow is 26% of $7,886.3 million). Then map the ten largest flows using flowlines (arrows where the width of each arrow is proportional to the value of remittances).

Look at the map or maps created and see if you can identify any patterns. If you can describe a pattern, then also look to see if you can find any anomalies, and try to explain your findings.

Related posts:

Four new municipalities change the map of Chiapas

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Jan 142012
 

The Chiapas state government has redrawn the map of its municipal boundaries to create four new municipalities (municipios), bringing the number in the state to 122. The four new municipalities are:

1. Belisario Domínguez (formerly part of the municipality of Cintalapa de Figueroa). The new municipio aims to resolve a long-standing agrarian conflict over land and forest rights with San Miguel Chimalapa and Santa María Chimalapa, both in neighboring Oaxaca. The municipal seat of the new municipality is Rodulfo Figueroa. The municipality also includes the settlements of Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, La Hondonada, San Marcos, Montebello and Flor de Chiapas.

2. Emiliano Zapata is the new municipality responsible for the 20 de Noviembre ejido, formerly part of the Villa de Acala municipality.

3. El Parral, previously the largest settlement in Chiapas that was not a municipal seat, now becomes the municipal seat for the El Parral ejido, formerly part of the Villacorzo municipality.

4. Mezcalapa is a new municipality which serves the settlement of Raudales Malpaso, cut off decades ago from its former municipal seat of Tecpatán by the construction of a reservoir.

The total number of municipalities (municipios) in Mexico is currently 2,458. Note that this figure includes the 16 delegaciones (boroughs) of Mexico City which, while technically not municipalities, do have significant autonomy.

Where are Mexico’s vehicle assembly plants located?

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Aug 272011
 

Mexico is one of the world’s “Top Ten” countries for vehicle production and for vehicle exports. 75% of Mexico’s annual production of around 2 million vehicles are made for export. The industry attracts large amounts of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). Vehicle assembly plants provide around 60,000 jobs, with a further 80,000 employed in distributorships nationwide and a whopping 420,000 employed in the autoparts sector. The combined exports of vehicles and autoparts bring 85 billion dollars a year into the Mexican economy.

There are more than 25 vehicle assembly plants in Mexico, manufacturing many brands of cars and trucks (see map). In addition, there are 1100 firms specializing in making parts for vehicles. In this post, we consider the location of vehicle assembly plants; in a later post we will look more closely at the characteristics of the vehicle assembly and autoparts industry in Mexico.

Vehicle assembly plants in Mexico, 2011

Vehicle assembly plants in Mexico, 2011. Credit: Tony Burton/Geo-Mexico; all rights reserved.

As the map shows, certain areas of Mexico have attracted more investment in vehicle assembly plants than other areas. The two largest existing concentrations are focused on Toluca in the State of México, and on Saltillo in northern Mexico. However, the fastest growing cluster is in the central state of Guanajuato, where two major plants are currently in the planning stages.

  • 1. What are the advantages and disadvantages of having several vehicle assembly plants in the same area?
  • 2. What the advantages and disadvantages of locating vehicle assembly plants far apart?
  • 3. Vertical linkages occur when one company controls many or all stages in the production of a product. For instance, an auto company may make its own engines and accessories to attach to the vehicles it makes. Horizontal linkages exist where one company is supplied with the components (engines, gearboxes) it needs by another company. What part do you think vertical and horizontal linkages might play when a major automaker decides where to locate a new vehicle assembly plant?
  • 4. Why are there no vehicle assembly plants in southern or eastern Mexico?
  • 5. What are the main reasons for the cluster of vehicle assembly plants near Mexico City and Toluca?
  • 6. Why has Ford chosen to locate its two plants in northern Mexico in different states?

Discuss your suggestions with your classmates and teacher. The answers to these questions should give you a useful list of the major factors that explain the distribution of vehicle assembly plants in any country, not just Mexico.

Related post:

A case study of clustering in a different industry

Map of population change in Mexico, 2000-2010

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Dec 072010
 

The publication of the preliminary results from this year’s population census has allowed us to update our map of Mexico’s recent population change (Figure 8.3 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico). We are delighted to bring you what may be the first map to be published anywhere in the world of Mexico’s population change over the past decade:

Annual % population change in Mexico, 2000-2010

Annual % population change in Mexico, 2000-2010. Cartography: Tony Burton, all rights reserved.

The pattern on this map for 2000-2010 shows that population change over this period has been broadly similar to that for the period 1970-2005 (Figure 8.3 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico). Mexico’s total population has grown by an average of 1.52%/yr over the past decade.

Things to note:

The fastest growth rates are in Baja California Sur and Quintana Roo, both states where tourism continues to develop rapidly and attract more migrants.

The slowest rates are in the Federal District (Mexico D.F.), Michoacán and Sinaloa, all of which have rates of less than 1%/yr. Michoacán’s low rate of increase is an anomaly, given the state’s high birth rate, and must be due to out-migration.

In central Mexico, the state of Querétaro stands out as being the most dynamic state in population terms, registering a growth of more than 3%/yr over the last decade.

Discussion Question: How does this map compare to the map of GDP/person?

Several chapters of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico discuss population issues, including population growth, distribution and density. Buy your copy today to have a handy reference guide to all major aspects of Mexico’s geography!

Oct 042010
 

The map shows the coasts of the states of Colima, Jalisco and Nayarit. These states all have some great beaches, and tourism is an important activity in many of the towns shown on the map. Some of the beaches are so exposed that the Pacific Ocean waves arriving to smash into the sand offer outstanding surfing opportunities. Other beaches are more sheltered, with calmer waters perfect for swimming.

Map of Pacific Coast beaches. Copyright 2010 Tony Burton. All rights reserved.

Besides being important for tourism, Manzanillo is one of Mexico’s largest ports. One of the major reasons why the port of Manzanillo has attracted so much investment in recent decades is that it is easy to access via the major divided highway to/from Guadalajara and the interior of Mexico (and indeed, the US border).

Further north, San Blas was once an important port, but declined as silting blocked the shallow access routes. We described the historical geography of San Blas in a previous post:

Barra de Navidad also had great historical importance, as one of the shipbuilding ports where the Spanish built the ships which traversed the Pacific Ocean to the islands of the Philippines.

The coast around the headland of Punta de Mita used to be the site of rustic fishing villages, from where fisherman also took occasional groups of tourists out to sea whale-watching. This headland, and these villages became one of the best recent examples in Mexico of a forced migration:

In recent years tourism developments have caused more forced relocations than dam construction. One example is the Punta de Mita peninsula, 50 km (30 mi) north of Puerto Vallarta, developed in the 1990s. The existing residents, mostly fishermen, were forced from their homes on the coast so that their ejido lands could be converted into a luxury tourist resort and Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course.

The fishermen were moved from their breezy and somewhat ramshackle palapa huts, interspersed with palm trees, into ugly, concrete block houses a short distance inland, in the purpose-built small town of Emiliano Zapata, which adjoins a redeveloped coastal commercial/ restaurant strip called Anclote. Attempts by the developers to build the fishermen a small boat-building workshop and breakwater to protect the beach caused sand to be eroded from one of the only two remaining beaches with public access. During the resort’s construction an influx of workers from other parts of Mexico pushed prices up and led to social problems. (Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico page 191)

More dramatic changes are now underway along part of this coastline. The area north of Sayulita (which has become a favored wintering location for Americans and Canadians) as far as the beach resort of Rincón de Guayabitos (favored by Mexican families) is slowly being transformed into Mexico’s latest purpose-built tourist resort, in the same way that other Mexican mega-resorts such as Cancún, Huatulco and Ixtapa were created.

Only time will tell what eventually happens to the areas that currently remain as genuine wilderness coast. One thing is sure – the more we develop this coastline, the more ecological damage will be done in the name of progress. Ecologically productive mangroves have been stripped out almost all along the coast, giving way to luxury hotels and marinas. Mangroves are now protected by federal law, but enforcement of this law may not be very effective.

Equally, fewer safe places now remain for the various endangered species of marine turtles who first visited these beaches a very long time before even the early Spanish mariners. One good sign is that active turtle protection programs exist at several of the beaches in this area. Ecological education is a good thing; ecological action is even better.

For more information about the geography of Mexico, buy your copy of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico today!