The Mixe of Oaxaca

[ Latin American Studies ]

The Mixe of Oaxaca

Religion, Ritual, and Healing

By Frank J. Lipp

The Mixe of Oaxaca was the first extensive ethnography of the Mixe, with a special focus on Mixe religious beliefs and rituals and the curing practices associated with them.


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6 x 9 | 275 pp.


The Mixe of Oaxaca was the first extensive ethnography of the Mixe, with a special focus on Mixe religious beliefs and rituals and the curing practices associated with them. It records the procedures, design-plan, corresponding prayers, and symbolic context of well over one hundred rituals. Frank Lipp has written a new preface for this edition, in which he comments on the relationship of Mixe religion to current theoretical understandings of present-day Middle American folk religions.

  • Foreword by Munro S. Edmonson
  • Preface to the Paperback Edition
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • 1. Social Organization and Kinship
  • 2. Subsistence Agriculture
  • 3. Religious Belief System
  • 4. Calendrical System
  • 5. Ritual Behavior
  • 6. Rites of Passage
  • 7. Village Festivals
  • 8. Medical Concepts and Behavior
  • 9. Postscript
  • Appendixes
    • A. Mixe Region
    • B. Mixe Phonemes
    • C. Mixe Texts
  • Notes
  • Glossary
  • Mixe
    • Spanish and Nahuatl
  • Literature Cited
  • Index

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This book represents the results of an ethnographic study of the Mixe of the Oaxacan highlands of southern Mexico. Although I have attempted to present a holistic study of the Mixe (MiH-hay [H as in Scotch loch]), the primary focus of the work is on Mixe religious beliefs and ritual behavior. A secondary focal point of the study is the medical system present in the Mixe region. The attention given to these cultural domains is not a consequence of my own interests but is rather a reflection of their importance to the Mixe themselves. As the strongest element in Mixe culture, religion exerts a pronounced influence upon the lives of the people and permeates all spheres of social existence. The interconnectedness of Mixe religion with other cultural domains is nowhere as prevalent as in matters pertaining to sickness and health.

In order to situate these cultural domains in their sociocultural context, the presentation of the medical and religious system is preceded by sections devoted to village economy, social organization, and subsistence agriculture. Although these standard topical headings were not achieved by inductive analysis and reflect a formalized dismemberment of their contextual conditions, I have not been able to circumvent this problem, unless the ethnography were to be depicted in a form such as Bandelier's The Delight Makers or Grinnell's "Where Buffalo Ran."

During the sixties I carried out five summers of ethnographic fieldwork in the Mazatec-, Chinantec-, Mixtec-, and Chatino-speaking areas of Oaxaca, with a primary focus on the interactive relationships among these populations and their floral environment (Lipp 1971). This experience led me to pursue long-term research in the Mixe region.

Fieldwork was carried out during an eighteen-month period from April 1978 to October 1979 and during briefer periods in 1980, 1984, 1987, and 1989. The initial research was concerned with the interrelations and relative weighting of bioevolutionary and cultural factors in the ongoing process of plant domestication. After several months in the field, I made a decision to incorporate broader aspects of Mixe culture into the research design. This judgement was made on the basis of the dearth of data on this culture and the marked divergence of Mixe culture from neighboring groups.

The Theoretical and Methodological Framework

Based on H. Steinthal's principle that an exotic language is to be analyzed on the basis of its own internal structure rather than with an Indo-European-type grammar, Franz Boas and his students regarded analysis of the categories of language as the chief means of penetrating and understanding the thought and actions of an unknown social group. This method entailed the recording of texts in the native language, oftentimes using native speakers trained in describing their culture "in their own hand." The final goal of grasping the "native's point of view," or vision of the world, was also Malinowski's approach, although his Trobriander emerged as something of a utilitarian and proper Benthamite (1922:24). In the sociological method of abstracting structural forms and arrangements from human behavior, the investigator stood separately from the reality described, and the actor's subjective orientation was largely excluded, since the individual was considered as a product of the totality of pertinent social relations. In the attempts to characterize whole cultural configurations and the fieldwork informed by behavioral and psychoanalytic psychology, research emphasis was placed on nonverbal, external behavior, essentially bypassing the methodological problems of penetration and of studying behavior from within a cultural system (Zil'berman 1972:392). Based on the argument that many aspects of sociocultural systems exist and are reproduced over time independently of the subjective apprehensions of human agents, ethnographic fieldwork has increasingly been couched in a theory-laden observational discourse or in a hypothetico-deductive framework in which a limited number of problem-oriented hypotheses are tested using statistical controls. Beginning with Lesser's seminal statement (1939), the increasing trend, in both positivist and interpretationist studies, has been to move away from holistic cultural analysis to narrowly defined, problem-oriented investigations, so that the comprehensive descriptions that give meaning to specific cultural domains are becoming increasingly unavailable (Johnson 1987:30). This trend is concurrent with the periodic discarding and taking up of a succession of anthropological theories. Given the transient nature of contemporary ethnological theory, the basic scientific aims and methods of investigation employed in this study have been those associated with such figures in ethnography as Elsie C. Parsons, Alexander Goldenweiser, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Bernhard J. Stern. These ethnographers were instrumental in the development of anthropology at the New School for Social Research, under whose auspices research was carried out, and, although dissimilar in theoretical orientation, they shared an unreserved adherence to the eschewal of facile explanations and to the accurate, detailed, and complete recording of cultural phenomena in a manner whereby the culture was allowed to reveal itself. Although the ultimate aim of anthropology is the scientific explanation of cultural phenomena, the first step in the study of a relatively unknown people, such as the Mixe, is the meaningful presentation of their culture in all its richness and complexity. Consequently, in this study, primary emphasis is placed on descriptive analysis and an economy of interpretation. However, theoretical interpretations of selected aspects of the culture, such as the domestication of cultigens (Chapter 2), fright illness (Chapter 8), and historical reconstructions (Chapter 5), have been incorporated.

Autonomous and prior theoretical orientations and their underlying epistemological bases have their source in the investigator's scientific subculture and its particular discourse. These theoretical commitments determine the investigator's choices of observation and interpretation and deflect from attention a whole range of cultural meanings and actions that the ethnographer may find boring, superstitious, or theoretically irrelevant. By positing a theoretical explanation of the meaning and actions of others, the ethnographer claims to understand their behaviors more deeply than they do themselves, without providing a true description of almost any of it. Consequently, the complexity and fullness of the alien culture is not disclosed but reduced to and embedded in the Procrustean theoretical matrix of the ethnographer, who returns from the long and arduous journey with the same preconceived and internally validated schema started out with. Although the nasty "operation called Verstehen" has been widely condemned and "disproven," the best ethnographic monographs of the last decades have always been not those in which the intentional content was presented in a "scientific" language but those in which ethnographic discourse transmitted, as much as possible, the lived-world of the respective peoples.

In-depth ethnographic research is basically a form of communication between representatives of two cultures. In order to understand the cultural Other, to perceive and objectify statically, whether by empirical or by phenomenological means, is not sufficient. Intercultural communication, as a microhistorical and intersubjective dialogue, entails, in order to be fruitful, a mutual cocreation and self-realization. Communication, in this sense, necessitates the ethnographer to lay down all ontological presuppositions and a priori interpretative framework, to in fact put everything aside but shared humanness and with it alone try to understand with the other person how that person thinks of and perceives his or her inner and outer world. The adequacy of comprehension is determined by how closely and actively the fieldworker is able to take on and thoroughly identify with the state of mind and experiences of the interlocutor. Although such a role transference and restoration of a preexisting identity is well-nigh unattainable, we found it beneficial to recognize, at least theoretically, the presential, nondual oneness of subject and object. This existential operation, although at times discordant and disassociating, places one at the boundary marker between two cultures, between common sense and supramundane being, between unconscious and conscious motives, and between indigenous categories and analytical constructs.

In the initial phase of the fieldwork, a hypothetico-causal method was employed. In the subsequent study of the overall content and structure of Mixe culture, a descriptive and analytic method was used. This was not so much due to the impossibility of testing hundreds of ethnographic statements but rather to the fact that nomological techniques are incapable of organizing inquiry of a whole culture. In describing an alien culture in holistic terms, methodological problems of creative communication, language translation, understanding of social meanings and values, and vicissitudes of everyday social interaction override any search for causal explanations. As my fieldwork experience indicates, the epistemic bifurcation and bipolar tension between the deductive-nomological and interpretative, meaning-oriented traditions in anthropology is the result of a vaunted pseudocontrast, since both approaches are mutually supporting and presuppose each other. The notion that only a quantitative methodological approach is scientific and the description of intended meanings and their structural contexts is superfluous is a deplorable fallacy flowing from the contemporary technological Zeitgeist. On the other hand, the interpretivist method of fusing the social actor's subjective meaning and the observer's intentions or of interpreting the actor's interpretations with no rules of procedure or any attempt at adequate verification is as problematic as the unreflective and pretentious methodologism of The Behavioral Scientist.

Fieldwork was carried out in two municipios, San Pablo Chiltepec and San Juan Ixcatlan, for a duration of approximately seven months in each village. A shorter period of four months was spent in another village, San Pedro Atlixco. Moreover, in order to achieve greater understanding of the Mixe region, several trips were undertaken through the area. Except for the villages situated along the Jaltepec and Tehuantepec Rivers, most communities from E'pckyisp in the west to Amahctu'am in the east were included in these circuit tours. Since the principal villages studied are some distance from each other, traveling time under optimum conditions took an average of four days. During the rainy cyclone season this often took longer due to swollen rivers, landslides, and fallen trees.

Clearly, an ethnographic account with different strengths could have been obtained using the single community as a method of investigation. However, studying more than one community enabled me to comprehend more clearly the nature and range of cultural variation in the region. Moreover, better understanding was achieved of the interrelations of the region as an economic system. This method also served as a control in the attempt to formulate general propositions for Mixe culture as a whole.

Residence in the field, except for Atlixco, was entirely with individual families. In Atlixco, I resided in the town hall, which permitted close observation of the day-to-day operations of the civil authorities. Formalizing ritual kin ties with some families permitted the villagers to incorporate me into accepted status and role relationships.

All linguistic interaction in the home and village is carried out in Mixe. According to censual figures, 59.4 percent of the Mixe population is monolingual (Nolasco 1972: 17). However, my experience has been that the degree of monolingualism is considerably higher than censual statistics appear to indicate. Aside from the complex nature of bilingualism, these linguistic indices are based simply on informant statements recorded by federal schoolteachers. Indicative of the validity of these censual figures was the rumor, which circulated during one census, that the government had resolved to kill all monolingual speakers (Miller 1956:8). Most of the formal interviewing, then, was carried out by using bilingual interpreters, with responses recorded on tape and then later translated into Spanish with the help of additional interpreters. This method was supplemented, whenever feasible, by nondirective, key-informant, and structured interviewing carried out in Spanish. As my knowledge of the language progressed, I was able to corroborate information with an increasing number of informants. As far as circumstances allowed, I also participated in and observed details of daily life and activity. This included living and working on the ranches during the agricultural season, helping in the construction of houses, joining individuals on commercial trips or in the pursuit of game, and participating in domestic and village rituals. In addition, with the help of the village authorities, two census surveys were taken. Upon return from the field, the collected material was organized and classified using the method outlined by Wolff (1952) and then submitted to comparative analysis and synthesis.


Frank J. Lipp is Research Director of the New York State Office of Children and Family Services. He has taught at Pace University and the Universidad de las Américas in Puebla, Mexico.

"This elegantly written and thoroughly researched ethnography substantially enhances our understanding of this ancient Mesoamerican culture and its present-day expression.... It is already rightly considered a classic and fills an immense void in the ethnographic literature for southern Mesoamerica. It is destined to be read and consulted continually and, as a definitive study, should serve as a model for future ethnographies."

"A solid ethnography of Mixe ritual life. . . . Taken as a whole, the book represents a major contribution to an understanding of the Mixes and provides much of the data required to situate their religious beliefs and practices within the framework of Mesoamerican religion in general."
—Journal of Ritual Studies