Mexico: Indigenous Languages and Culture by Region

Oaxaca is located in Southwestern Mexico. It is bordered by the states of Guerrero to the west, Puebla to the northwest, Veracruz to the north, and Chiapas to the east. To the south, Oaxaca has a significant coastline on the Pacific Ocean. The state has a total population of about 3.5 million, with women outnumbering men by 150,000 and about 60% of the population under the age of 30. Fifty three percent of the population lives in rural areas. It is estimated that at least a third are speakers of indigenous languages (with 50% not able to speak Spanish), accounting for 53% of Mexico's total indigenous language speaking population. Approximately 85% profess the Catholic faith.

Oaxaca is considered a cultural mosaic due to its high concentration of indigenous people. Different ethno-linguistic groups have established themselves in rugged areas, which has contributed to the isolation of entire communities and consequently facilitated the maintenance of their language and traditions. Oaxaca has 8 geo-economics regions: Istmo, Mixteca, Sierra Sur, Costa, Sierra Norte, Valles Centrales, Tuxtepec or Papaloapam y Cañada. Within these regions there are 16 different ethno-linguistic groups. Most of these groups speak Oto-Manguean languages.

Ethno-Linguistic Groups of Oaxaca


The Amuzgo inhabit the border region of southeastern Guerrero and southwestern Oaxaca. The Amuzgos call themselves Tzjon non, which means "People of the Textiles". In Amuzgoan language, vowels can be nasalized, and there may be a contrast between syllables with a ballistic (quick forceful release with a rapid uncontrolled fading of voicing) and controlled (smooth with more sustained release). Depending on the language, vowels can appear in four different shapes: plain, creakybreathy, or checked.


The Chatinos belong to the Oto-Manguean language group and speak seven main dialects. One of the core values of the Chantinos is the Family. The Chatinos call themselves Kitse cha'tnio, which means "Work of the Words".


As a division of the Oto-Manguean linguistic group, the Chinantecos speak as many as 14 different dialects. The Chinantecos of San Juan Lealao in northeast Oaxaca, who speak a divergent variety of the language, call themselves Dsa jmii (Plains people) and refer to their language as Fah jmii (Plains language).


Living in the northern zone of "Mixteca Alta" (Upper Mixteca), near Oaxaca's border with Puebla, the Chocho people (also known as Chochones and Chocholtecas) call themselves Runixa ngiigua, which means "Those Who Speak The Language".


The Chontales of Oaxaca refer to themselves Slijuala xanuc, which means "Inhabitants of the Mountains". In the 2000 census, 4,610 Chontal de Oaxaca were tallied at 4,610, representing 0.41% of the state¹s total indigenous speaking population. Today, the Chontal inhabit the southernmost region of Oaxaca and speak two major dialectal variations.


Cuicateco territory is located in northwestern Oaxaca. In Náhuatl language “Cuica” means “singing”, which is a special ability of this group. Cultural knowledge was often transmited through songs.


Call themselves Mero ikooc, which means “The True Us”. Although the origins of the Huave nation have not been indisputably determined, some historians believe that this group came from a distant land, possibly from Nicaragua or even as far away as Peru.


Living in one of the most arid, eroded and poorest regions of the country, the Ixcatecos are the only remnants of the pre-Hispanic Ixcateco nation once occupied another seven communities.


In recent decades, the Mazatecos Indians have represented one of the largest linguistic groups in Oaxaca. In the 2000 census reported that 15.6% of the total indigenous speaking population of Oaxaca were mazatecs. The Mazatecos call themselves "Ha shuta enima", which in Nahuatl means “ People of the Deer”.


The mixe call themselves "Ayuukjú’úy" which means “people of the florid language” or “cultured language".


The Mixtecs call themselves Ñuu Savi or  "People of the rain". The Mixtecan language family, as one of the largest and most diverse families in the Oto-Manguean group, includes three groups of languages: Mixtec, Cuicatec, and Trique. The 2000 census tallied 241,383 Mixtec speakers, representing 21.6% of the states' indigenous-speaking population.


The largest ethnic group of Oaxaca with The Zapotec Indians, a sedentary, agricultural city-dwelling people, are believed to be among the earliest ethnic groups to gain prominence in the region. The Zapotecs call themselves Be'ena'a, which means The People. Upon death, they believe, they would return to their former status.


The Zoque tribe, also called Aiyuuk, is closely related to the Mayan-Chique family. The Zoque call themselves O'deput, which means "People of the Language".


The Popoluca call themselves Homshuk, which means "God of Corn". Today, the Popolca population is divided in three fractions speaking six primary dialects, with no geographical continuity evident indigenous to Mexico, but the Manguean branch of the family, which is now extinct, was spoken as far south as Nicaragua and Costa Rica.

These descriptions are just a brief introduction to the wealth of cultural richness of each group and are a reflection of the strong sense of pride for their language and identity. 

Languages spoken in Oaxaca

Oto-Manguean languages

This is a large family of languages comprising several families of Native American languages. All of the Oto-Manguean languages that are now spoken are indigenous to Mexico, but the Manguean branch of the family, which is now extinct, was spoken as far south as Nicaragua and Costa Rica.

Common phonological traits

All Oto-Manguean languages have tone: some have only two level tones while others have up to five level tones. Many languages have a number of contour tones (pitch change within a syllable). Many Oto-Manguean languages have phonemic vowel nasalization. Many Oto-Manguean languages lack labial consonants, particularly stops and those that do have labial stops normally have these as a reflex of Proto-Oto-Manguean */kʷ/. Proto-Oto-Manguean allow only open syllables of the structure CV (or CVʔ). Syllable initial consonant clusters are very limited.

Whistled speech

Several Oto-Manguean languages have systems of whistled speech, whereby whistling the tonal combinations of words and phrases, information can be transmitted over distances without using words. Whistled speech is particularly common in Chinantec, Mazatec and Zapotecan languages.



Michoacán is located in Western Mexico. It is bordered by the states of Colima and Jalisco to the west and the northwest, Guanajuato to the north, Querétaro to the northeast, the State of Mexico to the east and Guerrero to the southeast. To the southwest Michoacán has a stretch of coastline on the Pacific Ocean. The name Michoacán is from Nahuatl and it means "Place of the Fishermen". 

There are 10 social economic regions in the state of Michoacán: Lerma, Chapala, Bajío, Cuitzeo, Oriente, Tepalcatepec, Purepecha, Patzcuaro-Zirahuen, Tierra Caliente, Sierra Costa and Infiernillo. It is estimated that each year about 40,000 immigrate to the state while 78,000 leave, leading to population loss. Of those who leave, about one third go to other places in Mexico, and the rest to other countries, principally the United States. The cities with densest population are Morelia, Uruapan and Zamora. The indigenous population is estimated at just over 7% of the total, with most living in 29 municipalities. according to the 2000 census, the poplulation who spoke indigenous languages in Michoacán are: Purépecha ( 109,361), Náhuatl (4,706) and Mazahua (4,338). Following Mexico's 2000 indigenous language law, indigenous languages, including Purépecha were granted equal official status as Spanish in the areas where they are spoken. Recently, educational instruction in the language has been introduced the local school systems. 

Purépecha Language

Because the Purépecha culture lacks a written language, its origin and early history are shrouded in mystery. Its stories, legends and customs pass from one generation to the next through oral traditions. Purépecha has long been classified as a language isolate, unrelated to any other known language. Statistical studies, however, have suggested relationships to Zuñi, Quechua, Mayan and Aymara, but these conclusions remain unproven. Purépecha lacks lateral ('l'-sounds). There are distinct series of nonaspirated and aspirated plosives and affricates; aspiration is spelled with an apostrophe. Sequences of vowels do occur, but are very rare except for sequences generated by adding grammatical suffixes such as the pluralizers -echa or -icha, the copula -i, or the genitive -iri; and a sequence of vowels (sounds, not letters) virtually never occurs as the first two sounds of a word.

Mazahua Language

 Mazahua is a tonal language and distinguishes high, low, and falling tones on all syllables except the final syllable of a word, on which the word stress falls predictably. Mazahua's most distinctive feature is its abnormally large phoneme inventory, which totals around sixty phonemes, or twice the number in English. There are eight vowel phonemes, seven contrastive nasal vowels, and as many as forty-five consonants. Amongst these are ejectivesimplosives and contrastive voiceless sonorants. Mazahua is one of the rare cases of a language with true implosives. It is also one of the few languages with ejective fricatives.


It is located in Western Mexico and divided into 125 municipalities, and its capital city is Guadalajara. Jalisco is one of the more important states in Mexico because of its natural resources as well as its history. Many of the characteristic traits of Mexican culture, particularly outside Mexico, are originally from Jalisco, such as mariachitequila and jaripeo (a form of bull riding). Economically, it is ranked third in the country, with industries centered in the Guadalajara metropolitan area, the second largest metropolitan area in Mexico. The state is home to two significant indigenous populations, the Huichol and the Nahuas. The word Huicholes means “Sons of the sun”. Their culture and religion is based on the corn harvest cycle and their religion is centered in three elements (Corn, Deer and Peyote) and the natural relationship between them. The Huicholes have fought for their religious beliefs and cultural freedom since the arrival of the Spanish conquerors.The Nahuas traditional system is family and village-based. The spirituality and religion of the Nahuas are a blend of the Catholicism enforced by the Europeans and their own traditional worldview. In addition to the ceremonies of the Catholic Church, this group continues to practice many traditional rituals and ceremonies, sometimes involving elaborate preparations which often follow the agricultural cycles of planting and harvest. The Nahua believe the natural world is alive and sacred, particularly Corn, which is said to have originated in this area. 

Huichol Language 

Huichol is a Uto-Aztecan language of central Mexico, spoken by about 20,000 people in the states of Jalisco and Nayarit. Huichol is a musical language with complex morphology (particularly in its long, agglutinative verbs.) Syllables structures in Huichol are CV, CVV and CVV with long vowel on the second vowel). The language has a large number of diphtongs both ascending and descending diphtongs occur.

Náhuatl Language

Accross Mexico, Náhuatl is spoken by an estimated 1.4 million people, including 190,000 who are monolingual. As a result of internal migration, all Mexican states today have isolated pockets and groups of Náhuatl speakers. The modern influx of Mexican workers into the United States has resulted in establishment of a few small Náhuatl speaking communities, particularly in New York and California.

Náhuatl languages are defined as a subgroup of Uto-Aztecan. They are agglutinative languages, in which words are composed of many morphemes, such as plural, or past tense markers and have extensive use of compounding, incorporation and derivation. That is, they can add many different prefixes and suffixes to a root until very long words are formed – and a single word can constitute an entire sentence. Náhuatl has neither case nor gender. Classical Náhuatl and most of the modern varieties have fairly simple phonological systems. They allow only syllables with maximally one initial and one final consonant. Consonant clusters only occur word medially and over syllable boundaries. Some modern varieties however have formed complex clusters due to vowel loss. Others have contracted syllable sequences, causing accents to shift or vowels to become long.

If you wish to listen to these languages, visit Sistema de Radiodifusoras Culturales Indigenistas  ("Cultural Indigenist Broadcasting System", SRCI).


References and Resources

Contributor: María José González Arredondo, Spring 2014