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Isthmus Zapotec
(ISO code zai)
80th birthday celebration

Isthmus Zapotec is spoken in a wide area of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico. The area comprises two “distritos” (Juchitán and Tehuantepec) and fifteen “municipios”. There are probably between 75,000 and 100,000 speakers of the language, according to the 2000 government census.

Where Isthmus Zapotec is spoken in Mexico

Most of the towns are large, rarely less than 3000 population, except for smaller “rancherías” formed by emigration from one of the larger towns. Some of these towns are quite bilingual and include a number of monolingual Spanish speakers. Others are still fairly monolingual in Zapotec or at least contain sections which are monolingual. Juchitán and its dependencies (La Ventosa and Xadani) include many monolingual speakers of Zapotec. The same is true in a few towns in the district of Tehuantepec, notably San Blas and “rancherias” of emigrants from San Blas. Speakers in all the towns communicate without difficulty although there are differences in the lexicon, the morphophonemics, and (especially) tone.


The terrain is mostly flat and desert-like but with many tropical plants: bananas, mangoes, oranges, lemons, coconuts, kapok, etc. One of the most loved trees is the flowering “Isthmus Jasmine”, known in Zapotec as guie' xhuuba'. They are gradually disappearing but remain an emotional symbol of the “home land”.

The cultural values of the Zapotecs remain intact, although innovations from the outside are easily incorporated (it is in fact a cultural value to do so). Important values include prestige, “belonging”, conformity to the group, festivals, education, latest styles and high-tech equipment. The traditional dress of the women is graceful and dignified; it can be seen in the pictures. It includes a full, long skirt and a blouse which is typically embroidered or appliquéd. As a result of the value placed on higher education, there are many kinds of professionals among the Zapotecs—doctors, lawyers, accountants, engineers, teachers, politicians—but the tendency is to maintain a home in Juchitán and to return for special fiesta times and to want to be buried there.

Picking coconuts
Harvesting coconuts

Selling coconuts
Selling coconuts

The people are very aware of their identity as Zapotecs, even those who no longer speak the language. Certain lexical forms identify the contrast between them and others: in referring to themselves, they frequently use the first person inclusive pronoun, usually with the word binni ‘people’ (binni laanu). Mexicans who do not “belong” are referred to as dxu or huada, masculine and feminine respectively. Other Indian groups are identified by special names (e.g. mixhi' for Mixes) or as “Vallistas” (people of the Oaxaca Valley, but including Zapotec groups from the mountain areas.)


Making mole
Making mole

Apart from the two cultural extremes of local farmers and fishermen and the professionals, the most common economic activity is commerce. Zapotecs travel all over the country to buy outside items and to sell their own wares (clothes, hammocks, pottery, dried fish etc.).


Another noteworthy feature of the Isthmus Zaptoec culture is their unique cuisine. They make special dishes which are different from other Mexican food and from that of other Indian groups. The stuffing of their enchiladas and stuffed chiles is different from that made elsewhere, as is their variety of black mole. For breakfast and dinner menus they make use of the locally available beef, pork, chicken, fish, shrimp (as well as iguana and armadillo), eggs, cheese, beans, corn tortillas, rice, and vegetables such as avocado, zucchini, squash and peppers (chilis).


Desserts include rice boiled in milk with cinnamon sticks and tropical fresh fruit as papayas, mangos, sapotes, passionfruit, guavas, bananas, and oranges. Some fruits and vegetables are cooked with sugar to make “dulces” (sweets). These include lemons, jicacos, squash, sweet potatoes, coconuts, and citron (chilacayote). Fresh fruit drinks are made from watermelon, cantaloupe, and pineapple.


Maria Villalobos Villalobos and Virginia Embrey have published a cookbook entitled “Maria’s Culinary Secrets.” It is available through SIL, Frances Austin, 16131 N. Vernon Dr., Tucson, AZ 85739-9395 for $7.00 plus postage.


Velma Pickett



The 80th birthday photo of Concepción Santiago Pineda and daughter is used with permission.

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