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Mixtec of Magdalena Peñasco
(ISO code xtm)
Figure of ram woven from palm filber

The Mixtec spoken in Magdalena Peñasco (mixteco de Magdalena Peñasco), Oaxaca, is one of the variants of the western Highland Mixtec region. All of the variants of Mixtec belong to the Mixtecan family of the Otomanguean stock. This language is also known as Sa'an Ñuu Savi, which means “Language of the Rain People”. The traditional territory in which this variant is spoken is the municipality of Magdalena Peñasco, which is located in the district of Tlaxiaco and to the east of the city, along the highway to Chalcatongo.

Map: location of Magdalena Penñasco in Mexico
Map: towns near Magdalena Peñasco

In the neighboring municipalities of San Cristóbal Amoltepec, San Agustín Tlacotepec, and San Mateo Peñasco, variants of Mixtec are spoken that are similar to the variant spoken in Magdalena, and which are grouped under the same ISO code [xtm], but which have important differences. According to the 2000 census figures, these four towns show the following numbers of speakers:

Speakers of the
indigenous language
  Magdalena Peñasco 3014 2791 631  
  San Cristóbal Amoltepec 1029 880 101  
  San Agustín Tlacotepec 664 563 69  
  San Mateo Peñasco 1605 1523 369  

At the present time the town of Magdalena Peñasco is located along the highway to Chalcatongo on a narrow point of land between two rivers, but it used to be located to the south, near to the present-day ranch of San Isidro. The original site was near the cliff that forms the northwest side of the mountain called Cerro El Gachupín, and the name Peñasco was probably taken from that. A local legend about this mountain says that a rich devil lives up on the top, and that any person who climbs up to steal his money has to undergo various trials in order to get to the money.

Mountain called Cerro El Gachupín

The church of Magdalena, which was constructed at the beginning of the 20th century, is located at the present site of the town. In front of the church stands the group of three church bells that belong to the town. Another traditional legend of the town says that the largest bell used to have a lovely strong sound that could be heard in Yucuañe and Tlaxiaco, but that a person with magical powers from the Pacific coast stole its sound, leaving it with a weaker and less sonorous tone. It is said that you can see the mark of his teeth on the edge of the bell.

Church bells of Magdalena

Magdalena has suffered considerably from erosion as a result of overgrazing, leaving it with fewer kinds of plants and animals than it originally had, and a reduced number of those that still inhabit the area. The severe erosion has also left the municipio with a limited amount of arable land. In order to increase their income, the people of Magdalena started to weave objects made out of palm, even though palm does not grow in Magdalena and must be purchased from people in towns farther to the east. At first they made hats out of this natural palm, but at the present time they also use artificial palm made out of plastic, and they make many small novelties for the tourist market, including small animal figures like the ram in the photograph at the top of this page.

In fact, however, the most common way of increasing income is to emigrate from the area to find work. A generation ago people went mainly to other parts of Mexico, like Oaxaca City and Mexico City, but now most people go to the United States and sometimes to Canada.

Linguistic features

A tonal language

Mixtec is a tonal language, which means that there are words that have the same consonants and vowels, but which have different tones and are therefore different words. The people of Magdalena speak a variant of Mixtec that has three levels of tone: high (á), mid (ā), and low (a). Listen to the way in which mid tone combines with low tone to differentiate among the following three words wav (414 KB) mp3 (80 KB) RealMedia (22 KB) :

  ndājāā to bloom (florear) mid mid mid
  ndājāa to arrive (llegar) mid mid low
  ndājaā to swell up (esponjar) mid low mid

To express present tense, the mid tone on the first syllable changes to high tone; listen to the following forms wav (381 KB) mp3 (70 KB) RealMedia (20 KB) :

  ndájāā blooms (florear) high mid mid
  ndájāa arrives (llegar) high mid low
  ndájaā swells up (esponjar) high low mid

Also, the tone of a word sometimes causes a change in the tone of the next word. Listen to what happens to the basic tones of the words for “hand” and “man” when they combine to form the phrase that means “man’s hand” wav (316 KB) mp3 (58 KB) RealMedia (16 KB) .

  BASIC TONES ndā'á hand (mano) mid high
    teē man (hombre) low mid
  COMBINED TONES ndā'ā téē man’s hand (mano de hombre) mid mid high mid

The high tone at the end of ndā'á moved from this word to the first vowel of teē, where it took the place of the original low tone.

Even though tone is very important in differentiating among words in this language, native speakers handle it unconsciously, and therefore it is not usually written in practical alphabets.


Another notable feature of this variant of Mixtec is the use of a wide range of doublets, which are pairs of synonyms that give emphasis to an idea. Some common doublets in this language are:

  ja vii ja va'a stuff pretty stuff good = that which is good
  tnu'u ndee tnu'u ndatnu quality strong quality healthy = strength
  chindee chituu help support = help very much

  Chindee chituu ña'a ya. God helps me very much.

Doublets were an important feature of Mixtec rhetoric in the pre-Hispanic and Colonial periods. A wide range of doublets is found in the catechism written by the Dominican friar Benito Hernández, published in 1567. The variant of Mixtec that is found in this catechism is similar to the variant presently spoken in Magdalena, and some of the doublets found in the catechism are still in use. One of them is ndo'o neni “suffer endure”, which means “suffer very much”; it is used with reference to the passion of Christ. A sample of this variant of Colonial Mixtec is found on the Christus Rex website, pages one, two, and three.

Barbara E. Hollenbach (text)

Bruce E. Hollenbach (photos)

Publications available on this site

Other pages about this variety of Mixtec

Links to other sites