Mixtecs in Ventura County
© David Bacon
Mixtecs are indigenous inhabitants of southern Mexico whose language and culture pre-date the Spanish conquest by hundreds of years. There are an estimated 500,000 Mixteco speakers today, almost one-fifth of whom live in the United States at least part of their lives. The Mixteca region includes much of the modern state of Oaxaca as well as parts of Guerrero and Puebla. Mixtecs (as well as other indigenous cultures such as the Zapotecs) ruled wide areas of highly developed societies in the pre-colonial period.
These native American people have a rich cultural and linguistic history. Much of this has been recorded in the pictographs of Monte Alban and other ancient city centers, and in extensive pictograph manuscripts such as Codex Nuttall, written on fig bark or deer hide. Mixtecs’ economy was based on farming the basic triad of corn, beans, and squash with carefully designed methods appropriate to the steep, mountainous terrain.
Europeans conquered and destoyed much of the indigenous Mexican empires through disease, superior weapons, and the introduction of hooved animals and the plow, which disrupted the delicate environmental balance of the area. Today, soil erosion has left the Mixteca region one of the most geographically devastated in the world. It is estimated that current Mixtec societies in Mexico are able to grow only 20% of the food they need to sustain their populations. The only option for thousands of Mixtecs is migration to other parts of Mexico and the United States. Money sent home from this out-migration sustains remaining Mixtec communities.
Mixtec language and culture are as different from Spanish/Mestizo Mexico as Navajo is from English. Beliefs about health, religion, and family include many traditional concepts, and are often at odds with “Western” concepts. Along with other indigenous cultures such as Trique, Amuzgo, Mixe, and P’urépecha, the Mixtec’s unique language, art, and culture are in danger of being lost forever. Yet there are fewer resources devoted to preserving these cultures than to protecting bald eagles and right whales.
At the same time that Mixtecs were being forced to leave their land, the agricultural industry in the United States was searching for new cheap labor sources. The Bracero Program (started in 1942 to cover World War II labor shortages) brought the first significant number of indigenous Mexicans to the U.S. Their numbers expanded greatly in the 70’s and 80’s, when many indigenous families were able to regularize their status through the 1986 Immigration and Reform Act. Mixtecs are concentrated in the most labor-intensive agricultural areas—row crops such as berries, tomatoes and grapes; stone fruit; citrus; and cut flowers.
Readers desiring to learn more about Mixtec history are referred to:
The Death of Ramón González by Angus Wright
Indigenous Mexican Migrants in the United States, edited by Jonathan Fox and Gaspar Rivera-Salgado