Mazatecos -- Workers from the Hills

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                       28 Jan 2008


The Mazateco People, about 350,000 in all, call themselves ha shuta enima, which in their language means "we workers from the hills, humble, people of custom".  A rugged and independent people who were never conquered by the Spanish colonists, the Mazatecos never accepted the Spanish language or the God of the Spaniards   In reality, they kept their pagan gods and renamed them to appease the Catholic priests.  The Mazatecos still farm the steep mountain slopes much as they did 500 years ago. 


They live on the ridges and slopes of the Sierra Madre Mountains of southern Mexico.  Their homeland extends from the rain forests of western Veracruz to the high deserts of eastern Oaxaca.  It requires about 5 hours to drive from Puebla to the major Mazateco city of Huautla (whoa-tla) de Jimenez (Hee-men-ez).

The trip to the mountains passes through large fields of corn and sugarcane still cultivated with ox drawn ploughs.  Sugarcane is the main cash crop and, … during harvest time, … large trucks wait in line to be unloaded at the sugar refinery in the city of Calipam (Kah-lee-pan). Villages and towns along the way provide quick snapshots of life in rural Mexico.  Living here in the mountain foothills are both Mazateco and Nahuatl (Nah-wah) people

 In Zinacatepec (See-nah-kaw-te-peck) the town square, … the zocalo (so-kah-low), … common to all Mexican cities and towns, … features the Catholic church, government buildings, and a central park. The zocalo is a place for visiting with friends, selling items and a place for festivals.  The roads are usually wide around this gathering place, but on the way out of town the road narrows providing little room for two-way traffic.

 For the most part, the paved road up into the mountains is well maintained; however, overloaded trucks slow traffic. These trucks haul supplies and other goods for sale to those living in the mountain towns and villages. The western slopes of the mountains, … despite their spectacular scenery, …  receive only sparse rainfall making it difficult to raise good crops without irrigation.

 The crest of the mountain pass is at an elevation of about 8,000 feet.  The increased rainfall on the eastern slopes is evident from the lush green vegetation.  A checkpoint brings traffic to a halt as soldiers check for illegal drugs, guns, and explosives.  The pig head hanging from the rafters at a nearby store indicates that freshly butchered pork can be purchased along with a few other goods and supplies.

 The cities, towns, villages, and homes are, … for the most part, … built along the steep slopes.  The mountain ridges are so narrow that few buildings can be accommodated and there are very few valleys that are suitable for a town.  Huautla  is the largest city in the area with a population of approximately 20,000 and the zocalo or town square is at an elevation of 6500 feet.  Sunday is market day in this city.  Most of the people, … buyers and sellers, … are Mazatecos.  Some of the older Mazateco women are easily identified by their colorful native dress.  The older men still wear white shirts and trousers. Other distinguishing features of these people are small stature and bare feet with wide splayed toes from climbing over the rocks and up the mountains.

 Items for sale in the market area take up both sides of the main street.  Fresh fruit and vegetables are in abundance as is fresh chicken.  Dried fish, as well as fresh fish, are available in some of the stands.  Cheese can be purchased in other stands.  Looking around, hot peppers of all varieties … both red and green … are readily available.   For the visitor, a surprise awaits … ice cream!  Hardware stores offer shovels, buckets, and molinos, … hand carved stone grinders, … used to grind corn into the meal known as masa.

 The very few tourists who visit this area are well rewarded by hand made items and, … at a bargain price. 

 Pickup trucks are used as taxis and the meaning of “always room for one more” is quickly learned. Occasionally, a funeral procession winds through town, but this is not a funeral.  Instead, it is honoring a deceased relative on the anniversary of her death. The sign says Maria Apolonia Gonzalez on the 4th anniversary of her death---rest in peace.

 About a 30 minute drive down the hill and in a valley is the town of San Antonio at an elevation of 4,300 feet.  The zocalo follows the common theme with a church, the government building and people congregating in and around the park.

 The public school is located about a half mile down the road. This school is for first through sixth grade.  It is also a boarding school for children who live too far from town to commute each day.  The high school students must travel to Huautla, but parents who want their children to have a better education send them to Oaxaca or Puebla to boarding school.   Today is the last day and, before they can be dismissed for the season, the children are working to clean up in and around their school.

 In this town, the residents, … like the students,  … are required to spend part of the day each week on cleaning and repairs of the city streets and sidewalks.

 Most of the people are farmers.  Some of the farms are located near the school, while others are on small patches of ground along the creek that runs through town.  Still others are high up on the steep slopes.  Beans, sugarcane, and corn are the main crops. A few years ago, when the price was high, coffee beans were an important cash crop, but now they are harvested only for personal use.

 Jobs are difficult to find and some spend many hours breaking rock into gravel in order to earn a few pesos.  The more ingenious workers have mechanized the gravel making equipment.  This contraption is noisy but it gets the job done.

 Sugarcane, while grown in abundance, is not for sugar.  Instead, the juice extracted from the stalks is used to make the alcoholic beverage known as tepache (te-päch-e).  The stills for brewing the tepache are illegal, but are very common.  All the equipment is here … including the distillery with its condensing tanks.  Just outside of the building that houses the distillery is a small bench made from a pole that provides a place for the local residents to sit and drink the freshly brewed spirits.  This operation provides a good income for the owner.

 Up until a few years ago the town of San Pedro was accessible only by foot or horseback.  Now one can reach the town by its narrow dirt road. Like most of the towns in the Sierra Mazateca, it is built on the steep slopes of the mountains, but the common features of the zocalo are here also. Advice from the residents is essential for selecting the correct road that leads out of the town.

 Basketball is the main sport played in school.  Some of the towns like Huautla and San Antonio have well constructed outdoor basketball courts.  Other areas, however, have just a backboard and a hoop along the side of the road or leaning against a building.

 The homes of the residents living in town are mostly masonry construction with concrete or tin roofs. At the edges of the towns many of the homes have tin roofs with walls of large cane plastered with mud and straw. Most of the rural homes have a packed dirt floor. Further out in the rural areas thatched roofs are common much as they were when the Spaniards first arrived here. Electricity has only just arrived in some areas and is primarily used for lights.  Many villages still don’t have electric power. There is no television access, however, a radio station out of Huautla operates for a few hours each day.

 While a few now cook with propane, most still use the Mazateco stove.  This is a large platform made of wood.  The tabletop that serves as the cooking area is covered with 4 to 6 inches of dirt.  The wood fire is placed in the middle of the stove where the meal is cooked in large clay or aluminum pots.  This stove is usually located in the same room of the house as the eating area.  Smoke from the fire eventually makes its way out an open window or through a crack between the roof and wall.

 The homeland of the Mazateco people is a beautiful but a difficult place to live … and difficult to visit.  Yet, it is a place that you will enjoy while walking among these people that know little of the outside world.  Improved roads, schools, and communication are changing the way of life for the Mazatecos.  Internet access is opening the world to them.  Will these “workers from the hills” remain a humble people of custom?  Won’t you plan to visit the Mazatecos soon?  There is always room for one more!


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