Be’ena’a ... “The People

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                       28 Jan 2008


Be’ena’a … “the People” …  have lived in these mountains for more than three thousand years.  The trees that cloak the steep mountain slopes are their sanctuary.  The trails that wind their way from one village to the next maintain a sense of community.  The green valleys and free-flowing rivers are the sustainer of life.  The beauty of an occasional Agave plant is nature’s grandest artistry.

 Be’ena’a, … in the language of those living here, … not only means “the People” but also means “those who have always been here.”  Be’ena’a, … now known as Zapotecs, … were here long before the Aztecs, the Mayans, and the Olmecs.  Some 2,500 years ago they began construction of the pyramid of Mount Alban.  Here they worshipped their gods as they offered human sacrifices, made images of their spiritual leaders, and told stories about the origin of mankind.  The Zapotecs developed an advanced culture with a calendar and a base 20 numbering system.  They used pictographs to record significant events of their past.

 Many years before the Spanish arrived in the new world, the Aztec subdued Be’ena’a.  The world of “the People” crumbled.  Soon the Spanish arrived and became rulers of all the lands and peoples.  The once great civilization was now reduced to servitude.  A new God, the God of the Spanish, was forced upon them.  “The People” were compelled to build large temples throughout the land.  Be’ena’a … now Zapoteco  … must also bow down to the new rulers and a new God.

 The Spanish world became that of the Zapotecs.  Large cities were built, the Spanish language became the standard, and “the People” became Mexican. 

 In the city of Oaxaca, with a population of four million people, over 60%  are Zapotecs but few can be distinguished from the other residents.  At the zocalo, … the town square, … they all enjoy the cool shade and time of visiting.  Many worship and pray at the immense cathedral located on one side of the zocalo.  Tourists from the north seem to focus on the buildings and seldom bother to discover who built the structures or why.

 The market in Tlacolula, is a place where peoples of many ethnic origins are buying and selling goods.  Many of those at this outdoor shopping mall are Zapoteco.  They are the ones with dark skin and small stature.  The women usually wear traditional clothing. Some speak Spanish but most prefer to speak their own language … the language of their forefathers.

 Carefully processed and displayed Fruits and vegetables from the nearby fields are appetizing to all.  A variety of manufactured goods is available in this market as well. Tourists enjoy shopping here also.  They come from North America and from within Mexico. 

 Tourism is an important source of income for some of the Zapotecs.  Part of the tradition in the village of Teotitlán is the weaving of intricately crafted rugs.  These wool rugs are made in the traditional manner using natural dyes derived from plants and insects.  The method of spinning wool by hand has changed little over the centuries. The major addition by the Spanish Colonists was the incorporation of the wheel into the process.

 In other places, ornamental pottery is available.  Some of these items have special meaning to the Zapotecs such as this skull covered with worms.  This is part of their belief system of ancestor worship and their obsession with the dead.   The black pottery called Dońa Rosa is especially well known. These items are carefully hand made from clay obtained nearby. The techniques for making this pottery have been handed down through the generations.

 For the most part, the Zapotecs living in and around Oaxaca have become a part of the Mexican culture but there are many who never venture far from their homes in the mountains.  This is where the Be’ena’a still live.  Their life style has changed little over the centuries.  Many speak only Zapotec.  In the State of Oaxaca, there are approximately 150,000 cultural Zapotecos speaking many different Zapotec dialects.

 Their homes, … mostly located along steep slopes and mountain ridges, … are where they have been for generations.  Some work gardens in the river bottom where corn, beans and squash are primary crops.  Few of those who farm the garden plots on the steep slopes have access to water for irrigation and must wait for the spring rains to plant the crops.  They also raise goats, sheep, and cattle.  The burros, … small animals capable of carrying huge loads, are common.  The burros carry people, wood or brick and seem to just keep on going in humble obedience to their master.

 The small communities are organized much the way they were during the Spanish colonial rule. The village chief maintains strict control including drafting the residents to perform unpaid public work projects.  The chief also controls much of the religious life of the residents.

 These policies often result in economic and personal stagnation of the villagers.  Thus, many of the men leave their villages to find employment elsewhere.  Often they travel to the United States to obtain work.  While these men send money home to their families, the absence of a male role model is a serious problem for the community.

 The oppression brought about by village leaders, distrust of outsiders, resistance to change, drug trafficking and violence make it difficult to share the Good News of Jesus with the Be’ena’a.  These challenges along with their traditional belief in witchcraft, idolatry, and over 500 years of saturation and conquest by the Catholic Church has produced a fear, … even a hatred, toward evangelical believers.

Changes are under way.  New roads are under construction, some of the old dirt roads are now paved, and bridges and culverts are providing a means of crossing streams and ravines. These improvements make it easier to travel to the remote parts of the Be’ena’a homeland. Hopefully, it will also make it easier to tell these people about the Good News of Jesus Christ.

 There are a few evangelical churches among the Zapoteco.  Some are located in the large cities. Others, … like this small structure behind the home of the pastor, … can be found in a few of the villages.

 Pastor Alvaro Bautista and his wife Ofelia started this church in their home in the year 2000. They now have the worship service in the nearly completed building located adjacent to their home.

 The membership in churches like these is small but their joy as they sing about the Savior is great. 

(on camera singing)

 “The People” … Be’ena’a … the Zapoteco … all need to know Jesus.

 Listen to Pastor Alvaro as he sings about God’s love for the entire world.

(on camera song – John 3:16 – with subtitles in English)

  Pronunciation Guide:































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