An educational project of the
Houston Institute for Culture

By John P. Schmal

Across the 756,066 square miles that comprise Mexico you can find a great variety of landscapes and climate. While mountains and plateaus cover more than two-thirds of her landmass, the rest of Mexico's environment is made up of deserts, tropical forests, and fertile valleys. Mexico's many mountain ranges tend to split the country into countless smaller valleys, each forming a world of its own.

Uto-Aztecan Language
Map of Mexico
History of Mexico
Mexican Traditions
Mexico's "fragmentation into countless mountain valleys, each with its own mini-ecology," according to the historian Nigel Davies, led the Indians within each geographical unit to develop their own language and culture. This is a key to understanding Mexico's unique and fascinating diversity. Although Spanish is the official language of Mexico today, the indigenous people of this nation - almost five centuries after The Conquest - still speak approximately 288 Amerindian languages.

There is a very wide divergence among language experts on the actual number of linguistic families and dialects among the Mexican Indians, primarily because the definitions of dialect, language group, and language vary from one linguistic specialist to another. What one specialist may deem to be a language, another linguist may describe as a dialect. But dialects themselves are sometimes mutually unintelligible among people of similar ethnic groups. I believe that the best source of information can be obtained from the Instituto Lingüístico de Verano (the Summer Institute of Linguistics), which acquires its statistical information from several sources, including the official Mexican Census.

During the two hundred years following the first European contact (1519-1719), the Spaniards, moving from one part of Mexico to another, were quick to seek alliances with one indigenous group against another. They came to realize that their best hope for successful incorporation of isolated and defiant Indian groups was to enlist the help of other Indians, especially those who had converted to Christianity. As a result, the numerous coalitions the Spaniards forged became invaluable tools for the conquest and consolidation of Spanish power in the large region we now call Mexico.

Although a large part of Mexico's indigenous people came under Spanish control by the end of the Sixteenth Century, the Indian cultures and languages have been remarkably resilient in some parts of the country. Even today, fifty-six ethnic groups - making up at least 10% of Mexico's 95 million inhabitants - speak some 288 indigenous languages.

At the time of independence - 1821 to 1825 - the total population of Mexico is believed to have been 6,800,000. Estimates by Rosenblat tell us that 54.4% of this population was classified as indigenous. By 1877, an estimated 39% of Mexico's population spoke indigenous languages. When the first national census was taken in 1885, the indigenous population was classified by linguistic criterion. This indicator was somewhat misleading because many of the indigenous people were afraid to acknowledge their use of indigenous languages for fear of some sort of discrimination or retaliation.

The 1921 census, however, asked more direct questions relating to racial origin. As such, 59% percent of the population (8,504,561 people) classified themselves as mestizo, while another 29% (4,179,449) of the national population described themselves as being of indigenous origin. Another 10% referred to themselves as "white," while 2% were classified as foreigners. By 1950, the indigenous-speaking population of Mexico (individuals five years of age and more) was tallied at 2,447,609, representing 11.2% of all persons five years of age and older (21,821,026).

According to the National Institute of Statistics in Mexico, the 1990 census tallied a total population of 81,249,645. Of this total, 8,701,688 Mexicans (or 10.7%) were classified as indigenous. However, only 5,181,038 (or 6.3%) were actually speakers of an indigenous language 5 years of age or older. Of this total, approximately 79 percent also knew or spoke the Spanish language. Ninety-three percent of indigenous speakers lived primarily in the 13 states located in south and central Mexico, primarily Oaxaca, Quintana Roo, Chiapas, Hidalgo, Campeche, Guerrero, San Luis Potosí, Veracruz and Yucatan.

Recent census statistics indicate very few native speakers live in the eight contiguous states stretching from Coahuila in the northeast to Jalisco and Colima along the north central Pacific coastal area. In the northwest from Sonora and Sinaloa to Michoacán and Tlaxcala, speakers of indigenous languages make up less than 5% of the population.

In the central and eastern states, indigenous languages are spoken by more people and in the southern states, the percent of native speakers rises dramatically. At least 39% of the population of Oaxaca speak Amerindian languages, with corresponding numbers of 32, 39 and 44% in Quintana Roo Chiapas, Yucatán, respectively. In the strongly indigenous state of Chiapas, only 63 percent of users of indigenous languages in Chiapas also knew Spanish.

In 1995, Mexico had a total population of 91,158,290. Of this total, 10,040,290 people, or 11.0%, claimed to be of indigenous origin. However, only 6,755,585, or 7.4% of the total population, were tallied as speakers of an indigenous language five years of age or older.

It is important to note that some of the indigenous people of Mexico have migrated from their ancestral homelands in other parts of Mexico or Central American nations to their present homes. In 1980, there were 548,000 indigenous people (10.6 percent of the total indigenous population), settled in areas other than their place of origin within the country.

Chihuahua, the Federal District, Durango, Mexico, Michoacán, Morelos, Nayarit, Sonora, and Tabasco all boast small indigenous populations. Aguascalientes, Baja California South, Nuevo Leon, Tamaulipas, and Zacatecas have significant populations of indigenous migrants. The large cities, especially Mexico City, are the points of attraction of the indigenous migrants. Mexico City has the largest concentration of indigenous peoples in the entire country. In 1980 Mexico City registered 323,000 indigenous language speakers of 39 different languages.

The Uto-Aztecan Family. According to the Instituto Lingüístico de Verano, the Uto-Aztecan Family consists of 62 individual languages. Thirteen of these languages make up the Northern Uto-Aztecan sub-group, while 49 are spoken by the Southern Uto-Aztecan subgroup. The primary Uto-Aztecan language is Náhuatl, the language of the Aztec people. Náhuatl is the only indigenous language found in fifteen states. Today, almost 1,700,000 people speak the Náhuatl-group of languages, accounting for almost 23 percent of all native speakers.

The Uto-Aztecan linguistic group is divided into four main branches:

1) the Corachol family (consisting of the Cora and Huichol Indians of Nayarit and Zacatecas);

2) the Náhuatl family (of the Aztecs);

3) the Tepiman Family (spoken by the Papago, Pima Bajo, and Tepehuán of Sonora, Chihuahua and Durango); and

4) the Taracahitic family (spoken by the Mayo, Yaqui and Tarahumara of northwestern Mexico). As you might expect, a family is a group of languages that are genetically and culturally related to one another.

The Taracahitian languages continue to be used in some isolated areas of northwestern Mexico. The Tarahumara of southwestern Chihuahua number at least 50,000 and have been the subject of histories. Three of the many titles written about the Tarahumara include:

1. The Tarahumara: Where Night is the Day of the Moon, by Bernard L. Fontana (Tucson: University of Arizona, 1997).

2. William Dirk Raat and George R. Janecek, Mexico's Sierra Tarahumara: A Photohistory of the People of the Edge (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996).

3. Dick and Mary Lutz (ed.), The Running Indians: The Tarahumara of Mexico (Salem, Oregon: DIMI Press, 1989).

The Taracahitian tongue is also spoken by the Huarijo (Guarijo), a small indigenous group which numbers 5,000 and lives in the Western Sierra Madre Mountains of West Central Chihuahua. The Huarijo are very closely related to them.

Pre-Hispanic northwestern Mexico was the home to a large number of indigenous groups. Most of these Amerindian tribes of present-day Sinaloa and Sonora, however, were closely related, speaking eighteen closely related dialects of the Taracahitian tongue, and numbered about 115,000 at the time of contact with Spain and were the most numerous of any single language group in northern Mexico.

Most of the Tarachitian peoples inhabited the coastal area of northwestern Mexico along the lower courses of the Sinaloa, Fuerte, Mayo, and Yaqui Rivers. The Yaqui Indians of Sonora are the most well known tribe of this family. Numbering 16,000 people living in scattered locations throughout Sonora, the Yaquis continued to resist the Spanish Empire and the Mexican Republic well into the Twentieth Century. Although the Yaquis have been subject of many works, one of the informative and well-written works is that of Professor Edward H. Spicer's The Yaquis: A Cultural History (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1980).

The Mayo Indians, closely related to the Yaquis, continued to resist central authority well into the Nineteenth Century and today number some 40,000 citizens, inhabiting the border regions of northern Sinaloa and southern Sonora. The Mayos have also been a subject of great interest to historians and linguists. One of the most poignant works was written by N. Ross Crumrine, The Mayo Indians of Sonora: A People Who Refuse to Die, (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1977).

Within the Tepiman Family, the Pima Bajo of the Sierra Madre border region of Sonora and Chihuahua probably do not number more than 2,000 individuals. The Tepehuán live in two small enclaves, one of which is located in southern Chihuahua and another in the mountains of southern Durango and Nayarit. In all, the Tepehuán may number as many as 25,000 in all their locations.

The modern-day states of Jalisco, Zacatecas, Nayarit and Aguascalientes made up a large part of the Spanish colony of Nueva Galicia. Most of this region was subdued by the Spaniards and their Indian allies in the Sixteenth Century. But the population of this colonial administration - made up of 180,000 square kilometers - was very diverse in both culture and language. Peter Gerhard, In The North Frontier of New Spain, writes that "the political geography [of this area] at contact was complex." Gerhard observes that "the people were divided into a great many small autonomous and independent communities each occupying a fixed territory."

Domingo Lázaro de Arregui, in his Descripción de la Nueva Galicia - published in 1621 - observed that 72 languages were spoken throughout Nueva Galicia. However, only the Cora, Huichol, and Tepecano languages survive in present-day Jalisco and Nayarit. While the Huichol inhabit the mountainous regions between Jalisco and Nayarit, the Cora live in north central Nayarit.

The Maya. Nearly 1,700,000 people - or approximately 14% of all Mexican Indians and 1.1% of the national population - speak the Mayan group of languages in Mexico. There are approximately 69 Mayan languages. Mayan is primarily spoken in the southeast section of the country from the Yucatan Peninsula to Chiapas. Almost 60% of Mayan speakers inhabit the state of Chiapas. If you include Guatemala and other Central American countries, Mayan is the largest native group in all of Mesoamerica.

The Maya can be divided into several sub-areas: the Yucatec Maya of the Yucatan Peninsula; the Mopán Maya of the Belize hills; the Tzeltal, Tzotzil, Chol, Lacandon, and Tojolabal of Chiapas; and the Quiché, Kakchikel, Mam, Ixil and other highland Maya in Guatemala. The Tzeltal languages is spoken by nearly 5% of all Mexican Indians and is the primarily language of Chiapas.

The Languages of Oaxaca. As the fifth largest state of Mexico, Oaxaca is characterized by extreme geographic fragmentation. With extensive mountain ranges throughout the state, Oaxaca has an average altitude of 1,500 meters (5,085 feet) above sea level. With such a large area and rough terrain, Oaxaca is divided into 571 municipios (almost one-quarter of the national total). Oaxaca's rugged topography has played a significant role in giving rise to its amazing cultural diversity.

The mountain ranges and valleys of this southern state have caused individual towns and tribal groups to live in isolation from each other for long periods of time. This segregation allowed sixteen ethnolinguistic groups to evolve and to maintain their individual languages, customs and ancestral traditions intact well into the colonial era and to the present day. However, the historian María de Los Angeles Romero Frizzi suggests that "the linguistic categorization is somewhat misleading" partly because "the majority of indigenous peoples in Oaxaca identify more closely with their village or their community than with their ethnolinguistic group." In addition, Ms. Romero writes, some of the language families - including Zapotec, Mixtec, and Mazatec - "encompass a variety of regional languages, making for a more diverse picture than the number sixteen would suggest."

With such a large collection of indigenous groups, Oaxaca has the nation's most diverse linguistic pattern. Even today, with a total population of 3.3 million people, Oaxaca's indigenous population numbers more than two million. According to the 1990 census, 19.3 percent of the national total of Indian-language speakers lived in Oaxaca. By 1993, 39.1% of the state's population over five years of age spoke at least one of Oaxaca's 200-plus indigenous dialects, making Oaxaca the most ethnically complex of Mexico's thirty-one states.

Oaxaca's two largest indigenous groups are the Zapotecs and the Mixtecs. The roots of these two indigenous groups stretch very deeply into the early Mesoamerican era of Oaxaca. The single largest language group of Oaxaca is the Otomanguean Family, which includes a total of 172 languages, ranging as far north as the states of Hidalgo and Querétaro (the Otomi) and as far south as Nicaragua. The Otomanguean group includes the Amuzgoan, the Chinantec, the Mixtec and Zapotec families.

There is a large body of literature that discusses the indigenous people of Oaxaca and their history both before and after the Spanish conquest. Of special interest to the reader may be John K. Chance's Conquest of the Sierra: Spaniards and Indians in Colonial Oaxaca (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989).

The Zapotecs, occupying 67 municipios of Oaxaca, are the largest ethnic group in the state. Of the 172 living Oto-Manguean tongues, sixty-four are Zapotecan. They have always lived in the central valleys of Oaxaca and are the most well-known of Oaxaca's indigenous groups. Zapotec is spoken by more than 420,000 people, or 7 percent of all Indians and largely used in the eastern part of Oaxaca.

The Zapotecs have been studied extensively by historians, archaeologists and linguists. The remnants of their ancient culture are regarded as some of the most fascinating and enduring cultural elements of all Mexico. The life, culture and language of the pre-Hispanic Zapotecs were discussed in Joseph W. Whitecotton's The Zapotecs: Princes, Priests, and Peasants (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1977). Joyce Marcus also studied the development of the Zapotecs through time in her work, Zapotec Civilization: How Urban Society Evolved in Mexico's Oaxaca Valley (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996).

The Mixtecs have the second largest ethnic population with approximately 300,000 descendents encompassing a geographic region of more than 40,000 square kilometers. Like the Zapotecs, they were conquered by the Aztecs in Fifteenth Century and submitted to Spanish rule early in the Sixteenth Century. Mixtec, consisting of as many as fifty-five dialects, is spoken by approximately 7 percent of all Indians and primarily found in Oaxaca, Puebla and Guerrero.

Literary interest in the Mixtec Indians almost parallels that of the Zapotec Indians. Ronald Spores, in The Mixtecs In Ancient and Colonial Times (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1984), describes the history, culture and language of the Mixtecs. Kevin Terraciano, in The Mixtecs of Colonial Oaxaca: Nudzahui History, Sixteenth Through Eighteenth Centuries (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2001), has produced a work with a detailed study of the Mixtec language.

The Chatino nation, boasting an area of 3,071 square miles (7,677 square kilometers) is located in southwestern Oaxaca. The Chatinos belong to the Oto-Manguean language group and speak seven main dialects. Today, Mazatecos is spoken by approximately 200,000 people in northern Oaxaca, Veracruz and Puebla. This population speaks some five major dialects of the Oto-Manguean language group.

Mixes. Although they represent the third-largest of Oaxaca's ethnic groups, the Mixes, numbering around 90,000, are an isolated ethnic group that inhabits the northeastern part of Oaxaca, close to the border with Veracruz. This region consists of 19 municipios and 108 communities. Some historians believe that the Mixes may have migrated from present-day Peru, which may explain their isolated language group.

The Purépecha Indians of Michoacan - also called Tarascans, Tarscos, and Porhé, boasted a flourishing empire from 1100 A.D. to 1530. In 1990, the Tarascans numbered 120,000 speakers. This language is classified as an isolated language. In fact, several varieties of this language have no functional intelligibility with each other.

Several isolated indigenous groups -most notably the Cocopa, Digueño, Kiliwa, and Pai Pai - continue to survive in parts of Baja California. Each of these groups consist of no more than a few hundred individuals, except the Kiliwa who number 24 to 32 people in a few households.

Nearly five hundred years after the conquest and destruction of the Aztec Empire, the culture, language and spirit of the Náhuatl, Otomí, Mazahua and other indigenous peoples remains intact within the central Hispanic culture to which most of them also belong. It is worth noting that, although the Mexica capital Tenochtitlán was occupied after an eight-day siege, many of the indigenous peoples of Central and Southern México quietly submitted to Spanish tutelage. In this way, they were given an opportunity to retain some elements of their original culture, while becoming an integral and important part of a new society.

The study of Mexico and its numerous languages is a continuing effort among scholars. Several of the sources below may help the reader to develop a better understanding of the diverse histories, languages and cultures of the Mexican Indians.

Copyright © 2004 by John P. Schmal. All Rights under applicable law are hereby reserved. Material from this article may be reproduced for educational purposes and personal, non- commercial home use only. Reproduction of this article for commercial purposes is strictly prohibited without the express permission of John P. Schmal. Read more articles by John Schmal.


Nigel Davies, The Ancient Kingdoms of Mexico (London: Penguin Books, 1990).

Lyle Campbell, American Indian languages: the Historical Linguistics of Native America (Oxford University Press: Nueva York, 1997).

Lyle Campbell and Marianne Mithun (eds.), The Languages of Native America: Historical and Comparative Assessment (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1979).

Barbara F. Grimes (ed.) Ethnologue: Languages of the World, 14th ed. Summer Institute of Linguistics: Dallas.

Barbara F. Grimes (ed.), "Languages of Mexico,"Online, December 2001. http://www.ethnologue.com/show_country.asp?name=Mexico Last modified: January 2002 (Dallas, Texas: Instituto Lingüístico de Verano, A.C.).

Manning Nash (ed.) "Social Anthropology," in the Handbook of Middle American Indians, Volume 6 (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1968).

"National Profile of the Indigenous Peoples of Mexico: Causes of Indigenous Migration: Chapter 6. Migration," Online: http://sedesol.gob.mx/perfiles/nacional/english/06_migration.html April 10, 2002.

"National Profile of the Indigenous Peoples of Mexico: Chapter 2. Location of Indigenous Peoples in Mexico," Online: http://sedesol.gob.mx/perfiles/nacional/english/02_location.html April 10, 2002.

"National Profile of the Indigenous Peoples of Mexico: Chapter 5: Demography" Online: http://sedesol.gob.mx/perfiles/nacional/english/05_demography.html April 10, 2002.

Summer Institute of Linguistics, "El Instituto Lingüístico de Verano: The Summer Institute of Linguistics in Mexico," Online: http://www.sil.org/americas/mexico/. 2002.

"Who are the Zapotecs?" Online: http://zapotec.agron.iastate.edu/zapotecos.html . March 20, 2002.

Juan Antonio Ruiz Zwollo. "Oaxaca"s Tourist Guide: Indigenous Villages," 1995-2002. Online: http://oaxaca-travel.com/guide/index.php?lang=us . March 20, 2002.

John Schmal is an historian, genealogist, and lecturer. With his friend Donna Morales, he coauthored "Mexican-American Genealogical Research: Following the Paper Trail to Mexico" (Heritage Books, 2002) and "The Dominguez Family: A Mexican-American Journey" (Heritage Books, 2004). He has degrees in History (Loyola-Marymount University) and Geography (St. Cloud State University) and is a board member of the Society of Hispanic Historical Ancestral Research (SHHAR). He is an associate editor of SHHAR's online monthly newsletter, www.somosprimos.com. John is presently collaborating with illustrator Eddie Martinez on a manuscript entitled "Indigenous Mexico: Past and Present."