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Basic guide to know the indigenous peoples of Oaxaca

Oaxaca is one of the most culturally diverse states in Mexico. Around 15 different indigenous peoples live in its territory, although Mexico’s Cultural Information System recognizes 13. Quickly learn some of the most relevant data from each of these villages here.

Oaxaca is a state of the Mexican Republic that has more than 93,000 km2 and 570 municipalities. This territory is highly recognized for its natural wealth, but its cultural wealth is not far behind. In this territory, there are 15 different indigenous peoples, each with their own language, typical dress, and customs. It is impossible to encompass them all in a single category and limit them to being “the indigenous peoples of Oaxaca” when each is a culture in itself.

Why is there so much diversity of indigenous peoples in Oaxaca?

Diverse textiles to show the diversity of indigenous people of Oaxaca.

Image by Iordi Requena

It is important to remember that before Mexico was established as a country, in the territory there were different indigenous kingdoms. It was the Aztecs who sought to extend their empire, so they were constantly at war. Although this was not exclusive to their culture, in what is now Oaxaca, the Mixtecs, Zapotecs, and Huaves also used to be at war over the territory. Eventually, the Aztecs would arrive and seize a part of Oaxaca. Of course, the Spaniards would have the last word.

What is important to note is that the division of territories, the borders as we know them today have little to do with the organization of indigenous peoples in pre-Hispanic times. That is why so many indigenous peoples were included within the state of Oaxaca, although they are different cultures and, in many cases, different languages.

The indigenous peoples of Oaxaca

Mexico’s Cultural Information System (SIC) recognizes 13 indigenous peoples. However, other sources list up to 16 different indigenous peoples. The discrepancy happens because many times there are towns that are considered as a “subcategory” of someone else with more members. The same is often true of indigenous languages.

It should also be noted that many of the names of the indigenous peoples below are not in their indigenous language. Many are names given to them by the Aztecs or other peoples to refer to them, although in their language they are called differently. For example, “Huave” is a Zapotec name that means “person rotting in moisture”. The Huaves in their own language are called: mero ikoot, which means “true us”.

Below you will find a practical guide of 13 indigenous peoples of Oaxaca recognized by the SIC.


In their own language, they are called: Rain Village

Population: 621

Language: Mixtec

Area where they are located: Silacayoapan, Huajuapan, Juxtlahuaca, Coixtlahuaca, Nochixtlán, Teposcolula, Tlaxiaco, Putla and Jamiltepec

Customs: Like almost all indigenous peoples, their religious customs have been adapted to those of the Catholic religion. In turn, they have civil life celebrations (such as weddings and births). Their craftsmanship ranges from the weaving of natural fibers (in baskets and textiles) to ceramics and mud.


In their own language, they are called: Those who work the humble mountain, people of customs

Population: 271, 432

Language: mazateco

Area where they are located: the Cañada and the Valley of Papaloapan Tuxtepec

Customs: Mazatecos have many festivities around Catholic customs as well as the growing calendar. That is, there are festivities to the saints, for the Holy Week, as well as for Christmas. Although on the other hand there are ritual activities when preparing the land, sowing, and harvesting.


In Zapotec they are called: people who come from clouds

Population: 474,298

Language: Zapotec

Area where they are located: Isthmus of Tehuantepec

Customs: For the Zapotecs, candles are more than a craft, around their elaboration they are built very old customs. Candles are offered to the saints and are paramount in many celebrations.


Triqui is a deformation of driqui, where dri means father and qui great or superior

Population: 20,444

Language: Triqui

Area where they are located: west of Oaxaca

Customs: The Triqui celebrate their patron saints, San Juan, San Andrés, and San Marcos. They also continue to celebrate the Rain while maintaining Catholic customs


In their language: true us

Population: 17,824

Language: huave

Area where they are located: San Mateo del Mar, San Dionisio del Mar and San Francisco del Mar

Customs: The huaves usually celebrate their patron saint San Mateo, while they have established festivals according to the seasons.

Chontales of Oaxaca

In their language they call themselves “mountain dwellers”.

Population: 3,633

Language: chontal

Area where they are located: Santiago Astata and San Pedro Huamelula

Customs: During Holy Week, the Chontales take the opportunity to bless the seeds of their annual harvest. In addition, they are dedicated to pottery and the creation of handmade kitchen utensils.


It comes from the word Ixcatlán: the place of cotton

Population: 3,633

Language: Ixcateco

Area where they are located: Santa María Ixcatlán

Customs: The main festival of the Ixcatecos is celebrated on the third Friday of Easter. The Ixcateco people are distinguished by their handcrafts of palm weaving.


In their language, they are called “those who speak the language”.

Population: 900

Language: chocholteco

Area where they are located: Santa María Nativitas

Customs: Each Chocholteco village has its own patron saint, so there are many festive dates belonging to this indigenous people. This town is an expert at working wool in blankets and gabans.


It probably means “snake lord”.

Population: 3,208

Area where they are located: Santa María Zacatepec

Language: Mixtec

Customs: Like the other indigenous peoples of Oaxaca, the Tacuates celebrate their patron saints. They do it especially with dances, sharing tamales, cockfights, and jaripeos.

Rooster fight illustration


In their own language, he means words in a low voice.

Population: 47, 247

Language: Chatino

Area where they are located: Santiago Yaitepec

Customs: The Chatinos celebrate the Virgin of Juquila, which, due to pre-Hispanic customs, is strongly linked to the moon and fertility. Its most important crafts are textiles and pottery.


Known as “people of singing”.

Population: 15,528

Language: cuicateco

Area where they are located: Santos Reyes Pápalo

Customs: Cuicatecos still preserve customs such as giving copal offerings for curative purposes or to benefit the growing cycle. Of course, the patron saint festivities are not far behind.


In their language they are called: people of the flowery language.

Population: 117,959

Language: mixe

Area where they are located: Union Hidalgo

Customs: The mixe party system is one of those that conserve more pre-Hispanic elements. Although they go around the liturgical calendar and celebrate patron saints, in their rites there is still much of their original traditions.


In their language they are called “people of the ancient word”

Population: 145, 984

Language: chinanteco

Area where they are located: San Juan Bautista Valle Nacional

Customs: The festivities go around the Catholic santoral and help to strengthen ties between the Chinantec communities. Its main craft activity is the production of huipiles.

Visiting Oaxaca is an excellent opportunity to get to know some of the wonderful villages that inhabit this state. Being part of some of their festivities is one of the best ways to understand the cultural richness of each one and the diversity they bring.

If you’re thinking about visiting Oaxaca you might be interested in reading more about everything there is for you here:

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