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hand-woven Zapotec wool rugs

The Zapotecs

History of the Zapotecs

The Zapotecs
Diego Rivera mural

ZAACHILA, Mexico (AP) At dusk, the people of the village gathered to fill the cemetery with tokens of life for their dead. They laid marigolds and purple flowers at the corners of graves made of cement, stone and tile. And then, in a scene repeated in cities and towns across Mexico, the Day of the Dead celebrations reached a crescendo Thursday night. Some set off fireworks, while others mediated in silence. Pedro Mases was one of the quiet ones. He laid a wreath of daisies on the grave of his 13-year-old son, Ivan, who died of an undiagnosed blood ailment a year ago.

"This helps us accept that our son's death was not a punishment from God,'' he said. His wife, Blanca, nursing the youngest of their four other children, said it helps her remember her boy. "To each his own day,'' she added. Then it was back to work until next year for the people of Zaachila, a village 21 miles south of Oaxaca City that is inhabited partly by Zapotec Indians. Mexico's 10-month-old economic crisis took its toll on commemorations this year. In some places, people did without not only fireworks and flowers, but also the candles they traditionally light at the four corners of graves. "The price has doubled from last year,'' explained Zaachila's candle seller, Sofia Balean.

"You used to get four candles for five pesos, now you get only two."

''Five pesos is equal to about 75 cents. Those who have the cents, buy them,'' Balean said.

Those who don't do without. Day of the Dead predates the All Saints' Day celebrations of the Roman Catholic tradition brought by Spanish colonizers in the 1500s. Zapotec Indians worshipped the goddess Huitzilopochotli with food, incense and flowers on a special holiday when the dead were believed to parade around their communities. Dominican friars who arrived in 1528 mixed indigenous traditions into the celebration of All Saints Day with Masses to alleviate tormented souls said to be in purgatory.

"Spending the night in the cemetery is a dramatic way of paying homage to the dead, but altars in the home are most typical,'' said Victor Alcazar of Miahuatlan, a village 30 miles south of Zaachila. Images of happy, living skeletons drinking, dancing and even marrying permeate Oaxacan art. Mexicans living in homes with dirt floors fill floor-to-ceiling altars with flowers, sugar cane stalks, corn and fruit. They also try to lure home the spirits of dead relatives by stocking up on the liquor, beer and cigarettes that they liked while alive. Balancing out the vices of the dead, pictures of the Virgin of Guadalupe,
Mexico's patron saint, also are placed on the altars.

Information About the Zapotec Indians

The Zapotec name comes from an Indian civilization that existed in Central America and Mexico from 500 BC until approximately 1500 AD. They were credited with having developed both highly advanced forms of communication and technological capabilities beyond the norm for that time. So the story goes, these advancements were bestowed upon the Zapotec Indians from a visitor from outer space. Depictions of "The Astronaut" can be seen today in the "Temple of the Inscriptions" near the ain forest of Sierra de Chiapas.

The woman who outshone the sun : the legend of Lucia Zenteno:

When Lucia Zenteno walks into a mountain village in central Mexico, some villagers whisper that her long black hair blocks out the sun, and they are afraid. Others say her brilliant hair outshines the sun. Frightened, they banish Lucia from the village and watch in amazement as their precious river follows her, for it loves her and will not leave her. Never had the villagers imagined that their beautiful river would leave them, no matter what they didˇand so the whole village sets out to find Lucia and beg for her forgiveness.

The legend of Lucia Zenteno is part of the oral history of the Zapotec Indians of Oaxaca, Mexicoˇa region of Mexico renowned for its rich cultural history with roots that go back many centuries before Columbus. Alejandro Cruz Martinez, the Zapotec poet who wrote down the original version of The Woman Who Outshone the Sun, later gave up his life in his struggle to help win back the water rights of the Zapotec people.

Mexico's Oaxaca Valley

The Mysterious Rise and Decline of Monte Alban

Here the Zapotecs created one of the world's autochthonous civilizations, to set beside that of the Aztecs and the Maya in its achievements. At its peak 1,500 years ago, the Zapotec capital of Monte Alban - with its magnificent temples, tombs, ball-courts, and hieroglyphic inscriptions - dominated a society of over 100,000 people, with farflung territorial outposts. Yet a millennium earlier Monte Alban had been uninhabited, and the valley's population less than one tenth its later size. What caused this cultural florescence? Marcus and Flannery go back to the very beginnings of settlement in Oaxaca, 10,000 years ago, to provide the answers. They explicity set out to discover whether the contesting claims of evolutionary anthropologists stand up to the hard evidence in the field. In particular they counterbalance the paradigms of ecological determinism with the new insights of action theory - how individual human actions can themselves drive change. Many fascinating comparisons, not just with neighbouring cultures such as the Olmecs in Mexico but with societies across the world, from New Guinea to ancient Greece, illuminate the argument.

ZAPOTEC Ancient City of MONTE ALBAN Photos

The Zapotec Weavers of Teotitlan

Our weavers live the village of Teotitlan, a village in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, where they have woven textiles for hundreds, probably thousands, of generations. The Zapotec, astute traders and wonderfully-talented craftsmen, provided nearly all the high-quality clothing in pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica and have continued that tradition to the present. Although the males purchase the wool, all labor is split among male and female. Even children work when they are not in school, although dyeing of wool is left to the adults because of the danger of scalding by hot water.

The process of making weavings starts with washing the wool in the river (no soap). Then it is dried and carded. After it is spun into yarn, it is dyed, then washed inh the river again and dried. The weaving is done on European horizontal looms, although a few weavers still use the pre-Hispanic backstrap loom.

The weavers use a combination of traditional Zapotec and Navajo designs: diamonds, triangles and rectangles; birds, butterflies, flowers;and pre-Columbian figures and motifs.

La Unica Cosa Presents the Zapotec: photographs of weavers and village life in Teotitlan. Clicking on any image will bring up a larger version of that image.

Zapotec & Mexican Dolls

Oaxaca - Land of the Zapotecs and Mixtecs


Oaxaca de Juarez, the capital of the state of Oaxaca, in southern Mexico, lies at an altitude of 1,534 m (5,034 ft) in an area of gold and silver mines. It has a predominantly Zapotec population of 212,943 (1990). Oaxaca's industries produce textiles--including handmade serapes--as well as pottery, gold and silver jewelry, and leather goods. An important source of income is tourism. Famous pre-Columbian ruins are located nearby: 42 km (26 mi) to the southeast are the Zapotec ruins at Mitla, and 5 km (3 mi) to the west is the complex of Monte Alban, a center of ancient Zapotec culture. Among the colonial buildings in the city proper, the most notable are a 17th-century cathedral and the church of Santo Domingo, begun about 1575. The birthplace of the Mexican presidents Porfirio Diaz and Benito Juarez, Oaxaca is the seat of the Benito Juarez University of Oaxaca (f. 1827; university status, 1955).

Founded in 1486 as an Aztec garrison, Oaxaca was taken by the Spanish in 1522. The city was captured by Mexican revolutionaries in 1812.

Oaxaca Language Project
Oaxaca - Pacific Coast
Oaxaca Facts and Trivia

Indigenous Peoples' Literature Return to Indigenous Peoples' Literature

Compiled by: Glenn Welker

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