The Zapotec of the Sierra Juarez refer to themselves as Bene Xon.

The Zapotec are the third largest indigenous group in Mexico after the Nahua and the Maya. They are located in three geographic areas primarily in the State of Oaxaca. The three regions are the central valleys, the Sierra Juarez and the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.

The Zapotec language has a large number of unintelligible dialects, which give each region a distinctive character, and differentiates them from one another. The cultural, language, traditions, agricultural rites are basic to being Zapotec.

The Sierra Juarez is extremely mountainous with deep valleys and large ranges of mountains. The Sierra also known as the Sierra Norte of Oaxaca extends from the volcano Pico de Orizaba in Vera Cruz westward to the coastal mountains of the Pacific Ocean. The districts are Ixtlan de Juareez, Valla Alta, Yautepec, Choapan and Mixe Tuxtpec, Cuicatlan, Mazatlan. The area described here covers 17,286 square kilometer or 6674.16 Square miles. The highest peaks in are Zempoaltepetl 3700 msnm (12139.1 feet), Cerro de Cuajimolollas 2814 msnm (9232.28 feet), Cerro Campanario 2600msnm 8530.18 Feet there are valleys which are only 500 msnm (1640.42 feet).

The main Zapotec districts are Villa Alta and Ixtlan de Juarez with a small presence in the district of Choapan. ( see village maps )

The origin of the Zapotecs is not known. There is evidence of settlements and trade through out the Valley of Oaxaca and some small sites in the Sierra Juarez. The Zapotecan family is one of the largest families in the Otomangueane stock in terms of the number of speakers. There are more distinct variations of Zapotec than any other family in the Otomanguean stock with the possible exception of the Mixtec. There are two subfamilies: Chatino and Zapotec. Chatinon is spoken in Oaxaca. Zapotec is a large subfamilies. There may be as many as forty different varieties that are not understood by other Zapotec speakers. My personal experience confirms this, even simple common words such as tortilla vary greatly. ( more on language from the Summer Institute)

The Sierra Zapotec do not have the richness of historical sites as are located in the central valley. It is known that the Zapotec kings in the region were at war with the Mixe and Chinantecos which facilitated the Spanish conquest. The colonial history is similar to other areas and which was the destruction of the cultural, belief systems and the exploitation of labor. In the Sierra, the Zapotec were forced to move to concentrated settlements from their traditional dispersed living situation. Many were used as forced labor in mines located in the area.

Traditional foods throughout Oaxaca are extremely varied and incredibly tasty, the Sierra Zapotec are certainly no exception. On a visit to the fiesta in Yalalag they served a variety of tamals wrapped in avocado leaves stuff with beans and another call Amarillo, all sorts of wonderful sweet breads with chocolate made with water. The basic food is corn, beans, squash, and farm animals. The many different types of foods and drinks that made from corn are all present in general and in their local variants. In particular there are two very large types of tortilla one called “clayudas, which is toasted and blandas which are soft, both types are a minimum of 12 inched in diameter. Apart from beer the local made drinks are mescal, made from maguey cactus and tepache a fermented pineapple beer.

The Zapotec have one of the most fully developed pantheons of indigenous spirits and gods. In order to understand the Zapotec way, try to understand that these forces control all aspects of life and that the Catholic concept of God is combined with a deep respect and veneration of nature and they are considered to be one thing. The social organization is based on the service to community and the planning and execution of festivals, which represent agricultural ceremony and religious obligations, is a major part in the responsibilities of the community members. In this regard, I would like to make a personal observation about American evangelical activities in Mexico’s indigenous areas. When “Christian missionaries” arrive with a new belief system and lots of money they disrupt forever the balance in these communities and create social divides and hatred similar to those that exist in the US. The indigenous cosmo-vision has incorporated the Catholic Church saints into the traditional beliefs; for this reason, I view the presence of the “evangelicals” as counter productive and destructive to native cultures.

Throughout the State of Oaxaca the market systems allows for trade and barter for many good not commonly available. The Sierra Zapotec participate in these commercial activities, Spanish is the language of commerce and allows exchange with the neighboring Mixe and Chinateco and other Zapotec towns from the valley where the same Zapotec is not spoken.

Bob Freund