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Land, Livelihood, and Civility in Southern Mexico

Land, Livelihood, and Civility in Southern Mexico
Oaxaca Valley Communities in History

Based on thirty-five years of fieldwork, this is a masterful ethnographic historical account of the struggle to maintain landholding, livelihood, and civil-religious society in the peasant-artisan communities of Oaxaca from colonial times to the present.

Series: Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Endowment in Latin American and Latino Art and Culture

May 2014
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403 pages | 6 x 9 |

In the Valley of Oaxaca in Mexico’s Southern Highland region, three facets of sociocultural life have been interconnected and interactive from colonial times to the present: first, community land as a space to live and work; second, a civil-religious system managed by reciprocity and market activity wherein obligations of citizenship, office, and festive sponsorships are met by expenditures of labor-time and money; and third, livelihood. In this book, noted Oaxacan scholar Scott Cook draws on thirty-five years of fieldwork (1965–1990) in the region to present a masterful ethnographic historical account of how nine communities in the Oaxaca Valley have striven to maintain land, livelihood, and civility in the face of transformational and cumulative change across five centuries.

Drawing on an extensive database that he accumulated through participant observation, household surveys, interviews, case studies, and archival work in more than twenty Oaxacan communities, Cook documents and explains how peasant-artisan villagers in the Oaxaca Valley have endeavored over centuries to secure and/or defend land, worked and negotiated to subsist and earn a living, and striven to meet expectations and obligations of local citizenship. His findings identify elements and processes that operate across communities or distinguish some from others. They also underscore the fact that landholding is crucial for the sociocultural life of the valley. Without land for agriculture and resource extraction, occupational options are restricted, livelihood is precarious and contingent, and civility is jeopardized.


List of Maps and Tables




1. The Teitipac Communities: Peasant-Artisans on the Hacienda’s Periphery

2. Hacienda San Antonio Buenavista from Two Perspectives: Hacendado and Terrazguero

3. San Juan Teitipac: Metateros Here and There

4. San Sebastián Teitipac: Metateros and Civility

5. San Lorenzo Albarradas, Xaagá, and the Hacienda Regime

6. "Castellanos" as Plaiters and Weavers: San Lorenzo Albarradas and Xaagá

7. The Jalieza Communities: Peasant-Artisans with Mixed Crafts

8. Santa Cecilia Jalieza: Defending Homeland in Hostile Surroundings

9. Magdalena Ocotlán: From Terrazgueros to Artisanal Ejidatarios

10. Magdalena’s Metateros: Servants of the Saints and the Market

11. Conclusion

Photo Essay






Scott Cook is Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the University of Connecticut, where he also directed the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies and the Puerto Rican/Latino Studies Institute. His seven previous books include Markets in Oaxaca, Obliging Need: Rural Petty Industry in Mexican Capitalism, and Understanding Commodity Cultures: Explorations in Economic Anthropology with Case Studies from Mexico. He lives in San Marcos, Texas.



The modern nation-state of Mexico geographically encompasses roughly three-quarters of the territory of the ancient New World civilization of Mesoamerica. Together with Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, China, and Peru, Mesoamerica was one of the independent centers of civilizational development in world history, and it was the homeland of two great pre-Hispanic empires, the Maya and the Tenochca (Aztec or Mexica), which were still in existence at the time of the Spanish Conquest (Kirchhoff 1968; Sanders and Price 1968, 6–7; Ribeiro 1968, 55).

Within Mesoamerica, the Valley of Oaxaca was a “key area” in the Southern Highland region (between the Sierra Madre de Oaxaca and the Sierra Madre del Sur) that in each period of history exhibited “the highest degree of urban development, together with the largest and densest population” (Palerm and Wolf 1957, 29). It was precisely here that the “Zapotecs achieved their highest level of cultural development” thanks to its 700 square kilometers of flat land and high level of agricultural potential and productivity (Whitecotton 1977, 18). Many archaeologists, sociocultural anthropologists, and ethnohistorians have specialized in studying Zapotec civilization, as well as the Tenochca and Mixtec intrusions into the Oaxaca Valley.

Archaeologists have collected abundant data from multiple sites that lend themselves to evolutionary interpretation as a sequence of transformations in Oaxaca Valley life dating from the Late Ice Age to the Spanish Conquest (Marcus and Flannery 1996, 25). This process was characterized by uneven spatial development and shifting centers and peripheries.

The central Oaxaca landscape, shaped by a mountain chain known as the Mesa del Sur, is dominated by a large system of contiguous valleys or basins, drained by the Río Atoyac and its tributaries, like the Río Salado, which is located roughly 5,000 feet above sea level. Given the region’s arid environment, moderated by seasonal rainfall and a temperate climate, the river and its tributaries typically have significant flows of water only during the rainy season. This has been sufficient to foster human settlement and the practice of agriculture in the region for thousands of years. Agriculture has provided, even to this day, a basis for the region’s status of having some of the most densely settled rural areas of Mexico.

The Central Valleys region is the most extensive valley area in the entire state of Oaxaca (Map 1). The Valley of Oaxaca is the largest of these valleys and is the most densely populated of the contiguous basins composing the central Oaxaca system. It encompasses some 3,600 square kilometers and includes four branches: Tlacolula-Mitla to the east, Etla to the north, Ocotlán-Ejutla-Miahuatlán to the south, and Zaachila-Zimatlán-Ayoquesco to the southwest. The southern branch of the valley, its largest, is known as Valle Grande, which, due to its relatively high rainfall, also has an extensive zone of very productive irrigable land (Blanton et al. 1999, 34).

The Oaxaca Valley is interconnected with a series of smaller basins like those of Río Mijangos–Totolapan to the southeast, of Ejutla-Miahuatlán (Río Miahuatlán) to the south, and of Sola de Vega to the southwest. The entire landscape of interconnected valleys and basins is enclosed by ranges of the Sierra Madre whose highest peaks rise to altitudes of 7,000 to 13,000 feet (West 1964, 63; Welte 1976, 283–284; Whitecotton 1977, 18).

Contours of the Pre-Hispanic and Colonial Social Formations

The Spaniards first settled at a central place where three arms of the Oaxaca Valley converged. This place, named Huaxyacac by the Tenochca, was fortified and had a garrison of over one hundred troops in 1521. By 1526, the settlement had grown to fifty Spanish families and was named the Villa de Antequera. By the end of 1529, Antequera came to look very much like other Spanish towns founded in the densely inhabited Mexican highlands: a small core of Spaniards occupying a carefully planned grid of streets surrounded by a number of Indian settlements (Chance 1978, 36).

In the arms of the valley to the west, east, and south of Antequera, Spaniards encountered a population of at least 160,000 people (Marcus and Flannery 1996, 13) composed ethnically of a Zapotec majority and a minority of Nahuatl and Mixtec speakers. The region was divided socially into hierarchical divisions or groupings based on status, descent, and differential access to economic resources best understood as estates rather than classes. There were three primary estates: the nobility, the commoners, and the priests. The nobility was divided into higher (caciques) and lower (principales) ranks. Each estate had land, and commoners cultivated their own land as well as land belonging to the nobility and the priests (Whitecotton 1977, 142). All of these social groupings had separate names in Zapotec (Whitecotton 1977, 142–143; Marcus and Flannery 1996, 13–14).

Caciques and principales were entitled to exact tribute, in kind and in labor, from their subject populations. Many caciques also held land grants that were worked by tenant farmers (Whitecotton 1977, 186). Nobles and priests lived in sumptuous masonry palaces, and commoners lived in wattle-and.daub or adobe houses with thatched roofs. Most caciques resided within the local community, in which case cacicazgo lands and the community were an integral unit. Others resided on cacicazgo lands outside the bounds of their tributary communities. Family-owned plots of commoners were dispersed around the settlement but not far from lands of the nobility (Taylor 1972, 40–41; Whitecotton 1977, 149). Spatial separation of commoners, living in dispersed hamlets, was compatible with membership in the same larger social unit. Indigenous settlements were less nucleated and more dispersed than they would become under Spanish control; they often were hamlets in or near the fields. In the Teitipac and Jalieza areas, hilltop settlements were predominant (Taylor 1972, 76; Gerhard 1993, 26, 191).

Commoners working for caciques, principales, or priests were not sharecroppers or renters like most of the serfs (terrazgueros) on colonial haciendas would be. They were obliged to cultivate plots of land for their superiors and perform additional services (Taylor 1972, 41). No clear social distinction between serf and commoner was present in Zapotec culture. Traders, artisans, and other occupational specialists were essentially commoners. There is little evidence to suggest upward mobility for them, as was possible among the Tenochca (Katz 1958, 22–23; Whitecotton 1977, 149–151; Berdan 2005, 51– 52, 69–72).

Archaeological research in central Oaxaca in recent decades has produced impressive new findings on craft production and exchange, especially about how these articulated with social and political organization, as well as with different consumption destinations (e.g., commoner vs. elite, utilitarian vs. luxury). The vast majority of these studies has ignored the commodity status of pre-Hispanic artifacts. This is strange, considering that Mesoamerica, including Oaxaca, was one of the independent centers of commodity cultural development in the world civilizational process. Developments like specialized markets or markets subdivided according to specialties, merchants who were also spies, and the tianguis (local markets) were elements of a commodity economy. Typical Mesoamerican products like maguey paper, the metate and mano, pyrite mirrors, mantas (cotton cloth) and other woven goods, cut and polished obsidian, and pottery, all made for use and exchange, represented commodity cultures well established in Mexico long before the arrival of the Spaniards (Kirchhoff 1968, 24–25; Cook 2004, especially 165–174; Cook 2006, 184–185, 188–190). Very special commodities—mantas (quachtli in Nahuatl), woven lengths of white cotton cloth suitable for cloaks and other garments-.served as money or “generalized means of payment” in the Tenochca economy (Berdan 1989, 91; 2000, 192; Warman 2003, 197– 198; Cook 2006, 195).

Perhaps the most successful effort to synthesize scholarship about the Mesoamerican way of life, in its pre-Hispanic prime, is Frances F. Berdan’s (2005) work on the Aztec (Tenochca). In addition to providing an updated compilation and interpretation of scholarly knowledge about Tenochca economy, society, and culture, Berdan explains in a perceptive and balanced way three complementary methods available to anthropologists to undertake such a reconstruction: archaeology, ethnohistory, and ethnographic analogy (2005, 15–19). In traditional anthropological parlance, the term "ethnographic present" referred to a sort of timeless, essentialist past understood as the pre-European contact period of any non-European culture (Hannerz 1992, 228; cf. Rosaldo 1993, 42). In this sense, Berdan succeeded in synthesizing knowledge about the "Aztec" segment of the Mesoamerican ethnographic present.

Joseph Whitecotton (1977) also employed these complementary methods in his comprehensive interpretation of pre-Hispanic Zapotec society and culture, drawing heavily on archaeology and ethnohistory. He broadened the scope of his study to cover postconquest Zapotec history from colonial times into the twentieth century, employing conventional historical and ethnographic methods. Since its publication, Whitecotton’s book The Zapotecs has been an indispensable resource by combining historical and ethnographic approaches to expand and deepen our understanding of the struggle for land, subsistence, and civility in Oaxaca Valley communities. I consulted Whitecotton’s work as a guide, a source of understanding, and an interpretative springboard to clarify and strengthen my own arguments.

In the sixteenth century, the indigenous Mesoamerican social formation was invaded, penetrated, and transformed by Spaniards bent on pursuing their separate, but intertwined and sometimes conflicting, interests. Confronted with varying degrees of native resistance, the Spaniards succeeded in eliminating indigenous military, political, and religious organization. Indigenous nobility were co-opted and slowly reenculturated. Spaniards did what they could to appropriate and develop land not directly controlled by established indigenous communities or cacicazgos.

Ancient pre-Hispanic organization was replaced by a new system through which the inclusion and dependency of the indigenous population on the Spanish regime was guaranteed. This system was controlled from Europe for the benefit of the new ruling class. Indigenous political structures were reduced to the level of small communities. Local governments remained in the hands of caciques in many cases. In other cases, they were controlled by new indigenous authorities who were stripped of authority outside of their small localities and had very limited power within them. They essentially functioned as instruments of Spanish power for the exploitation of the rest of the indigenous population. Supported by a policy of nurturing community life, this system of dominance fragmented indigenous society and isolated its settlements (Olivera and Romero 1973, 279).

Given the need of Spanish colonizers for indigenous labor, initially for construction and subsequently for agricultural and mining enterprises, the Zapotec nobility (caciques and principales) were forced to compete. In most areas of the valley, they lost economic power, social status, and political clout after 1650 (Whitecotton 1977, 186–187). Rapid population decline in the second half of the sixteenth century exacerbated the competitive scramble for indigenous labor in the Oaxaca Valley. Combined with the Spanish policy of congregating dispersed indigenous populations, this resulted in settlement reconfiguration in which some settlements disappeared and new ones emerged (Taylor 1972, 26–27; Gerhard 1993, 27).

By the early 1600s, the Oaxaca Valley population bottomed out and began a slow process of recovery. Every undertaking in the colonial economy from that point on was negatively impacted by huge attrition in the ranks of tribute payers (Taylor 1972, 29–34; cf. Gerhard 1993, 24–26). Zapotec-speaking communities in the Oaxaca Valley during the colonial period lost considerable population, but most of them lost very little land (Taylor 1972, 77). They were by then communities of peasant-artisans with language being the most distinctively Zapotec element remaining of their culture and society (Whitecotton 1977, 219).

The development of civil-religious organization during the colonial period in the Oaxaca Valley is not well documented. It most likely occurred through the intertwining of local government (cabildo) and religious brotherhoods (cofradías) introduced by the Spaniards. Service in civil posts typically followed menial assignments for the church or the cult of a particular saint, and then alternated with increasingly prestigious cofradía service. Less plausible is the view that this evolving civil-religious system functioned to level out wealth differences to the point of destratifying peasant Indian communities (Whitecotton 1977, 217–218). Dating at least from the eighteenth century, empirical evidence exists to support the supposition of class differentiation in local Oaxaca Valley populations, especially with specific regard to access to land and agricultural means of production (i.e., ox teams, plows, carts). The historical struggle for land, subsistence, and civility in the Oaxaca Valley took place within socially differentiated communities with hierarchical civil-religious systems, in which household economic fortunes fluctuated without changing an underlying structure of inequality.

Communities and households were not alone as organizational actors in the development of the Oaxaca Valley economy. From the seventeenth century into the early twentieth century in several areas of the valley and its mountain hinterland, haciendas (and mines) operated as enterprises occupying land and labor to produce wealth for the benefit of the elites that owned, rented, and managed them. This was uniformly to the detriment of workers and their communities, as illustrated by the cases of Xaagá, San Antonio Buenavista, and San José la Garzona.

Oaxaca Valley haciendas were as much about social status and lifestyle as they were about significant capital accumulation. Being an hacendado meant possessing a title of high social position, belonging to an elite intimately linked to power, and having membership in a privileged class approximating a criollo aristocracy (aristocracia criolla). The political and economic presence of hacendados reflected the extent and number of landed properties under their ownership and these properties' market potentials. Hacendados lived according to their pretensions and relationships, which encouraged luxury consumption and the use of large retinues of personal servants. Excess constituted a way of life that could not be paid for with the income derived from the hacienda and its workers, especially in periods of agricultural crisis. Hacendados’ deficits were covered by mortgaging their properties with the clergy, their principal source of financial aid (refaccionador de dinero; Arellanes Meixueiro 1999, 29; Taylor 1972, 141–142, 154–158).

The haciendas of Xaagá, San Antonio Buenavista, and San José were among the Oaxaca Valley’s largest and were dominant players in the histories of communities examined in this book. The fact that three communities—San Lorenzo Albarradas, Xaagá, and Magdalena Ocotlán—benefited from substantial ejido grants in the 1920s and 1930s demonstrated how persistent struggle against despoliation by haciendas resulted in the recovery (reivindicación) of ancestral lands to reinvigorate community life in the region.

Time Perspective and Understanding Change

Mexican history can be viewed as a series of transformations from the sixteenth century to the present conceived as phases in the uneven development of capitalism (Semo 1973; Cook and Diskin 1976a, 266–275; Cook and Binford 1990, 35–39). These can be sequentially periodized in conventional terms as colonial, independence, revolution, and postrevolution. The latest period encompasses processes like continentalization (the emergence of NAFTAmerica) and globalization (Cook 2004, Ch. 10), which were well under way in the 1990s. Each of these periods and their transformations enveloped processes and relations that have differentially influenced daily life in local communities in ways selectively explained in a wide range of studies.

Fundamental discontinuity occurred between 1500 and, say, 1600 in the transformative change of constitutive institutional elements of Oaxaca Valley civilization. The existential transformations wrought by the Spanish Conquest and colonization upon the inhabitants of the Oaxaca Valley were at least as significant as sedentarization, the rise of agriculture, and state formation in the preconquest period. Sociocultural carryovers from the preconquest period appeared in the civilizational repertory forged during the colonial period. Nevertheless, a new sociocultural order was created by a decimated indigenous population and Spanish/criollo elements after 1700.

Transformative change accelerated through the nineteenth-century independence movement, the Juárez reforms, and the early twentieth-century agrarian revolution. At the end of this series of existential transformations, the “Indian peasant” as a social category of commoners in the Oaxaca Valley was replaced by a class of relatively acculturated campesinos whose status as national citizens was played out by and large in their communities of residence and, to a lesser extent, regionally (cf. Whitecotton 1977, 272–273).

From the perspective of the ethnographic phase of my research from 1965 to 1990, a temporal baseline was delimited by the oral record of testimonial accounts, supplemented by direct examination of archival documents. This baseline did not extend much beyond the last quarter of the nineteenth century; its extension necessarily entailed full reliance on knowledge of the past as reconstructed by archaeologists, historians, and chroniclers and from supplementary documents. In this process, historical material provided background, context, and meaning to ethnographic data. It also exposed important threads of continuity or discontinuity between past and present and, in some cases, yielded insights about patterns and processes not discernible from ethnographic data alone. An obvious example is provided by haciendas examined in this book: inoperative ruins that could be brought to life only through oral history and consultation of primary and secondary documentary sources.

Existential circumstances of Oaxaca Valley communities have been progressively more entangled in world history since the sixteenth century. Their lives increasingly became part of a “Global Ecumene” (Hannerz 1992) that immerses the study of culture in the study of history. Nevertheless, this book rests upon the thesis that “in the peripheries of the world system, the present, the real present, has its own characteristics” (Hannerz 1992, 228). This approach implies an appreciation of idiosyncratic or particular cultural forms without losing sight of universal processes in world history.

Ethnographic research in the Oaxaca Valley yielded enough evidence of change in the struggle for land, subsistence, and civility to evoke an expectation of finding similar evidence in the historical record, and to posit change in that struggle as a constant. Change is not uniform and does not occur at the same pace in different time periods, institutions, or cultural dimensions. On a decade-by-decade basis, demographic profiles of communities, reflecting the natural life cycle, always changed. Variables like languages spoken, agricultural technology, and social and political organization were less susceptible to change. They did so gradually or, more unpredictably, as a consequence of social upheaval, as occurred in the early decades of the nineteenth century in the struggle for Mexican independence from Spain, and in the Mexican Revolution during the early decades of the twentieth century.4

In some general sense, the nine communities examined in this book have collectively experienced unilineal change roughly measured in terms of polarized continua like folk-to-urban or closed-to-open. Nevertheless, deviations, detours, or regressions from idealized linear trajectories were common. Shifts in relationships between center and periphery in Oaxaca Valley history were less common; most communities examined in this study remained (and remain) peripheral subjects over the centuries. The exceptions were San Juan Teitipac, which enjoyed high regional politico-religious status during the preconquest and early colonial periods but lost it during the postcolonial period, and Santo Tomás Jalieza, which in the late preconquest/early colonial period as Mecatepeque had a greater sphere of political influence than it did in the twentieth century as a municipality with only two dependent agencies, Santa Cecilia and Santo Domingo.

Oaxaca Valley Communities in the Twentieth Century

The twenty-first-century urban viewer of twentieth-century photos from rural Oaxaca will find the people, objects, and activities represented to be quaint and rustic. One of the features that originally attracted me to rural life in Oaxaca in the second half of the twentieth century was its low-tech lifestyle in which manual labor exerted at the household level, accompanied by animal power (and mostly without the aid of machines), was the main source of productive energy and livelihood. In the process of making and earning a living, rural Oaxacans participated in regional marketplaces to exchange the products of their household labor for goods and services produced or offered by other households and enterprises in the wider economy. In many ways, this appeared to resemble a world that had long been lost in mid-twentieth-century United States (and Europe) and, consequently, exemplified economic otherness south of the border. Upon closer scrutiny, this characterization’s accuracy diminished somewhat in the face of an ancient, pervasive, and persisting commodity cultural disposition (Cook 2004).

By the end of the colonial period, Oaxaca Valley settlements conformed to a grid pattern combining streets and residential blocks organized symmetrically around a central plaza where a church and government buildings (including schools) were situated. Each block contained several residence lots (solares) of varying sizes with houses and outbuildings constructed of adobe, thatch, brick, tile, or some combination of these materials. Most public events took place in the area of the central plaza; residence lots were usually fenced and were open to nonfamily members by permission only. This pattern for the most part persisted into the twenty-first century.

With the exception of small herb gardens in residence lots, the typical mid-to late twentieth-century Oaxaca Valley rural settlement was surrounded on all sides by agricultural fields, as well as by other land unsuited to agriculture because of hostile topography or poor soil quality but used to hunt and gather, graze animals, cut wood, or to exploit other resources like stone. The settlement area (pueblo) was divided into named neighborhoods or barrios. The campo, land surrounding the pueblo, was also separated into named localities known as parajes.

The topography of the Oaxaca Valley landscape is striking and unique in its balanced mix of mountains, hills, and flat lands. The most distinctive features of the built environment in the twentieth century derived from the imaginative use of locally available materials. Three basic building types prevailed: the casa de adobe (adobe house); the tejabana (house with low-pitched tile roof laid over a tied-reed platform and adobe, reed, or wattle-and-daub walls and open front); and the jacal (wooden frame, high and steep roof, covered with thatched cornstalks, palm fronds, and reeds). In communities that had resident specialists who made and fired clay tiles and brick, some residences were made of these materials, which, in the later decades of the twentieth century, were also available for purchase through the regional market system. The typical residence lot had more than one type of building: adobe buildings (either single-or multiroomed) were primary residences, with adjacent or attached tejabanas used as secondary residences or kitchens.

Public activities usually occurred in conjunction with the annual ceremonial/festive cycle but also on weekends or secular holidays. Many communities had basketball courts, usually in the area of the village plaza, where men and boys played regularly, usually in the late afternoons. Games of chance involving dice or cards were also played by men on street corners or in public spaces. San Sebastián Teitipac in the 1960s and 1970s was one of a handful of villages in the Oaxaca Valley where a traditional ball game known as pelota mixteca was played in a special area resembling a soccer field on the periphery of the village.

The annual life cycle for most twentieth-century Oaxaca Valley communities was driven by the festive calendar and, particularly, by saints’ days and the Day of the Dead (Todos Santos/Día de los Muertos). Like secular holidays, these occurred on the same dates year after year and were markers around which households and communities planned and organized expenditures of time, money, and energy. In addition, there were weddings (bodas or fandangos), baptisms (bautizos), and other events that occurred regularly, if on different dates, that rounded out the annual festive calendar. The manner in which these festive occasions were celebrated and the scale of the celebrations varied from community to community, even with regard to the traditionally important saints’ celebrations (mayordomías) that potentially involved sizable expenditures.

In twentieth-century Zapotec-speaking communities, the most important and prestigious mayordomía sponsorships involved a year-long series of expenditures culminating in the week of the actual saint’s day. These typically entailed several thousand pesos in sponsorship expenditures in addition to a substantial time commitment for preparations. The reciprocity (guelaguetza) system was pressed to its limits to help provision the festive needs of the sponsoring household. In San Sebastián Teitipac in the 1960s, there were specialized occupations (oficios), like candle maker (velero) and fireworks maker (cohetero), geared to supplying the ceremonial-festive cycle when large numbers of fireworks and wax candles were used.

Mestizo communities like Xaagá, San Lorenzo Albarradas, and Santa Lucía del Camino traditionally had much-reduced and more secularized festive calendars than Zapotec communities. By 1980, conspicuous consumption of saints' cult sponsorship was mostly absent, but there were still cases of individual voluntary or official celebrations of the patron saint or other religious or secular dates.

In most Zapotec-speaking communities, the long-term trend by the 1980s was toward weakening the civil-religious ladder or cargo system of festive sponsorships that had been practiced for nearly two hundred years. According to this system, individual households were assigned sponsorship by village authorities, or sponsorship was tied to a particular elective or appointed office. By the 1980s, voluntary (by individual households) and official (paid by community tax assessments) forms of sponsorship were becoming the rule (Chance and Taylor 1985; Chance 1990; Stephen 1991, Ch. 7).

Important political-administrative issues were discussed in open gatherings (juntas) of male heads of household (ciudadanos) held in front of the main community political office, the presidencia municipal (also municipio or ayuntamiento) or agencia. I witnessed many of these gatherings in the 1960s and 1970s, and though generally quite orderly, when controversial issues were being discussed, they could become raucous. When voting was involved, such assemblies had specific, definitive outcomes; decisions on many important matters were also made by elected officials behind closed doors.

To obtain a systematic, empirically grounded overview of community life, basic demographic, social, and economic data were collected through a survey of twenty Oaxaca Valley communities in the period from 1978 to 1980 (twelve in the Ocotlán district, seven in the Tlacolula district, and one in the Centro district). A random sample of households found that two-thirds were nuclear in organization (Hu + Wi with or without offspring) with exclusive occupancy of the residence lot; 10 percent of these were either childless or one-parent units. Fifteen percent of the sample households were virilocal-extended in organization; 11 percent had a compound form of organization, typically joining a nuclear household with some sort of appended member or unit. Both types shared a common residence lot, often with multiple residences. Approximately 10 percent of these households were female headed, mostly by widows. The average age of household heads was 50.5 years (only .5 percent were under the age of 20, and 15 percent were in the 20–30-year age range). Of the households surveyed, 35 percent had 7 or more members (mean of 5.3 members for 951 households sampled).

The dynamics and realities of domestic organization were not always evident from statistical analysis of survey data. In 1965–1966 in San Sebastián Teitipac, there was a high incidence of residence lots with multiple dwelling units whose residents, considered collectively, formed extended-family households. Closer scrutiny of the situation showed that residents in separate dwelling units on the same lot did not necessarily sleep in the same quarters, prepare food and eat together, store their fodder and crop harvest together, or operate from a common budget.

In San Sebastián, there was also a tendency for household heads in contiguous residence lots to be related consanguineously. The usual pattern was for a father and one of his sons to reside together with their respective families on one lot, with a second son (or other paternal relative) residing with his family on a contiguous lot (Cook 1969, 152–155).

In our 1978–1980 survey, the most important variables for understanding Oaxaca Valley rural households as economic enterprises were size, composition (which determines consumer/worker ratios), and stage in the developmental cycle. The relationships between these variables were rigorously examined as the basis for discerning patterns and trends in social organization (Cook 1984b, 21–22; Cook and Binford 1990, 47–56).

It is difficult to make region-wide generalizations about population pressure on carrying capacity due to intervening variables like land distribution, quality, access, use, tenure, and so on. Poverty in land and agricultural means of production led, by 1900 if not earlier, to seasonal migration and permanent emigration from regional communities. Recent studies point to an intensification of migration owing to shifts in national and global political economy starting in the 1990s (Cohen 2004, 148– 149).

The social reproduction of many rural communities in the Oaxaca Valley was far from self-sufficient for centuries and was dependent on interaction in a regional intercommunity division of labor and specialization (Cook and Diskin 1976a, 255–266). The diversity and fragmentation of the regional population complicates generalizing about how the institutional structure and process of social life related to the lived experiences of villagers. There was always a time lag for state-or national-level policies, programs, or events to trickle down to the local level. Sometimes these had no measurable effect, or only a minimal effect, on the daily routines of making and earning a living and other dimensions of community life. The nature and extent of nation-to-state-to-locality articulation was strictly a matter for empirical determination.

During my fieldwork periods, state and federal government policy and programmatic initiatives were viewed by villagers skeptically or cynically, if with seeming obeisance and gratitude. When taxation or police/military intervention was involved, attitudes changed to outright hostility, contempt, and dissemblance, if not organized resistance. Local officials of Teotitlán del Valle, for example, regularly dissembled in their communications with state or federal agencies regarding the nature and extent of weaving production to avoid bureaucratic entanglements (Stephen 1991, 100).

After 1924, when the Oaxaca state government was readmitted into the federal system following a period of secession in 1915 during the revolution, many rural Oaxacans began to benefit from central government actions, especially regarding land reform, education, and infrastructure. After 1940, each successive sexennial regime contributed incrementally to positive change in these three key areas. This was true despite the fact that until the 1970s, “Oaxaca failed to excite the concern of the centralizing federal authorities” (Clarke 2000, 31). In short, communities like San Sebastián Teitipac or Santa Cecilia Jalieza, which had ongoing conflicts over land, “never imagined resistance as entirely at variance with voting for the PRI candidate, marching in a mass meeting, or signing on to the local party organization,” since these activities “were perceived as being conterminous with the individual’s ultimate goal, whether it was individual survival, economic betterment, or community autonomy” (Smith 2009, 413).

Change in Occupational Cultures, Crafts, and the Plaza-Mercado System All of the craft occupations examined in this book, even those involving full-time artisans, were practiced in communities where agriculture was the predominant economic activity of a majority of households. Most artisans worked at their crafts on a part-time basis, often in those times of the year when the work demands of seasonal or rainfall-dependent agriculture were at a minimum. Peasant-artisan households shared a relative lack of access to land and basic agricultural means of production, and an annual deficit in staple foods like corn and beans from own-household output. This translated into a need for earning income to buy staples and other necessities in order to subsist (Cook and Binford 1990, Ch. 2).

In the 1960s and 1970s, oxen pulling locally made plows or carts were still more widely used than tractors, and communal tenure and labor existed in many communities on designated parcels of arable land, but private tenure predominated, except in ejido communities like San Lorenzo Albarradas, Xaagá, San Antonio Buenavista, and Magdalena Ocotlán. Agriculture was mostly rainfall-dependent, although there was some irrigation, which permitted more than one annual planting or corn, beans, and squash or other crops like chickpeas or alfalfa. Some villages with well irrigation specialized in intensive year-round production of flowers or vegetables, whereas mountain villages like San Lorenzo and Santo Domingo Albarradas grew drought-resistant crops like maguey that did not require irrigation.

A whole realm of work in Oaxaca Valley rural life occurred outside the structure of the intercommunity division of labor and specialization, and strictly within the community and household division of labor. Work was allocated primarily according to gender and age and was performed either daily, like most household chores, or seasonally, usually in the dry season (temporada seca) when agricultural work is at its low ebb for the year. During the rainy season (temporada de agua or de lluvia), work activity took a decided shift toward agriculture, which typically lasted through the main harvest.

Women worked at household chores like food preparation, washing clothes, tending gardens and small animals (e.g., chickens, pigs), and gathering firewood, whereas men did heavier household work like home construction and repair, or raising/tending large animals (e.g., oxen, horses, mules, burros). Young girls helped their mothers; young boys often tended grazing animals, especially goats, or helped their fathers. In the interhousehold division of labor, some men were butchers, bakers, barbers, large animal raisers and caretakers, and adobe makers, whereas some women were seamstresses, tortilla makers, and petty traders.

Gender crossover rarely happened in these divisions of labor, except with regard to agriculture, where both men and women planted. Men, however, managed the ox teams during plowing and hauling and did most of the field maintenance and crop harvesting, whereas women prepared food and beverages that they brought to men in the fields. In these divisions of labor, older people simply did less of what their younger gender counterparts did. Agroindustries like mezcal distilling and sugar-cane processing, and the agricultural activities involved with them-.planting, harvesting, and hauling maguey, in the first instance, and planting, harvesting, and hauling sugar cane, in the second.-tended to be, without exception, male activities.

Less universal than agriculture, but also an indispensable source of livelihood in many Oaxaca Valley households and villages of the region in the twentieth century, was craft commodity production. The most important industrial branches of craft commodity production developed historically as integral parts of an intercommunity division of labor and specialization linked to the periodic marketplace system. Examples were weaving, sewing and shawl knotting, wood carving (utensils, plows, ox yokes), pottery making, metate making, palm plaiting (mats, baskets, fans, brooms), and hard fiber work (rope from ixtle, baskets from bamboo-like reed known as carrizo).

These industries produced utilitarian commodities that through design and usage could be infused with particular cultural or symbolic significance, as was the case for metates and wedding chests (baúles) among others. Through the combined impact of ethnography, a gamut of public and private promotional activities, and tourism beginning in the early decades of the twentieth century, artisanal occupations in the Oaxaca Valley came to uniquely identify communities, significantly boost incomes, and stimulate local and regional economic development.

Many Oaxaca Valley craft villages in the 1970s and 1980s had artisans practicing ancestral crafts with roots in the pre-Hispanic regional division of labor and specialization. This included metateros of the Teitipac villages and Magdalena Ocotlán; wood-carvers of Santa Cecilia Jalieza who carved spoons (cucharas), beverage stirrers (acahuetes or agitadores), and beaters (molinillos); and several pottery-making communities, including Atzompa and San Marcos Tlapazola.

A host of other villages had traditions of intergenerational practice of particular indigenous crafts where ethnohistorical and oral traditions were ambiguous or silent, and where the organic ties between past and present had been disrupted, broken, or reinvented. The cases of weaving in Teotitlán del Valle, Mitla, and Santo Tomás Jalieza come to mind in this regard.

Mitla, where weaving was the dominant craft industry in the late decades of the twentieth century, had only a handful of female backstrap loom weavers in the 1930s producing woolen cloth for locally worn wraparound skirts, as their ancestors had done, and one treadle loom introduced from Teotitlán del Valle. In the 1950s, treadle looms built in Oaxaca City were introduced in Mitla to weave shawls and tablecloths (Beals 1975, 257–258).

Santo Tomás Jalieza, the Oaxaca Valley’s best-known and most prolific community of backstrap-loom weavers in the late twentieth century, had only a few such weavers at the beginning of the century. Evidence points, however, to an unbroken tradition in that activity dating from the colonial period and involving a trade in wraparound sashes with the Sierra de Villa Alta (Clements 1980; Aranda Bezaury 1989, 63–65).

Teotitlán del Valle, by contrast, was associated exclusively with treadle-loom weaving as a male occupation following its introduction by Spaniards during the colonial period (Stephen 1991, 20). At that time, Teotitlán was already practicing backstrap-loom weaving of cloth for own use (e.g., wraparound skirts and sashes) and for tribute, so there would have been an impact on the gender division of labor (with women becoming less involved in backstrap-loom weaving and more involved in tasks related to the new treadle-loom technology; Hernández-Díaz and Zafra 2005).

Several twentieth-century Oaxaca Valley craft commodity cultures had relatively short histories, spanning no more than two or three generations. This is the case of needlework in communities like San Antonino and San Isidro Zegache, wood carving in communities like San Martín Tilcajete and Arrazola (Chibnik 2003; Hernández-Díaz and Zafra 2005), and basketry in San Juan Guelavía that was introduced after World War II by a group of promoters who successfully established an export industry for the U.S. market there—even though the main raw material, carrizo, had to be purchased in neighboring communities (Martínez Ríos and Luna Méndez 1960, 280–285).

A short craft tradition had no necessary implications for the legitimacy, quality, or integrity of artisanal practice in specific communities. It simply underscored the adaptive and innovative nature of commodity cultures in an area of long settlement, like the Oaxaca Valley, with often conflictive or opportunistic relations and behaviors within and between communities and regions. Local and regional craft traditions were not immutable, uncontested, or immune to innovation, invention, or opportunism. Given the conflictive and sometimes tumultuous periods in the histories of communities in which their very existence has been threatened, it is amazing that so many of them survived over the centuries with their particular craft traditions intact, as in the case of Santa Cecilia Jalieza and its wood-carving tradition.

Observable differences could be discerned in the quality of products manufactured by different artisans in particular village industries, as well as between different village industries in the same branch. These differences were not necessarily apparent to the untrained eye but became more apparent through side-by-side comparisons.

In those branches of craft production where multiple communities participated in the manufacture of more or less the same product lines, comparative product evaluations invariably favored villages that had the longest history of participation in the craft, as was the case with Teotitlán del Valle in the woolen products branch of treadle-loom weaving, Santo Tomás Jalieza in backstrap-loom weaving, and San Antonino in embroidery. Exceptions could be found to this general rule, but it generally held.

Some product categories lent themselves more readily to differential quality evaluations or measures of artistry than others. Both backstrap-and treadle-loom weavings, for instance, could be readily judged according to a continuum of tightness and design complexity of the weave—looser and less complex design requiring less skill than tighter and more intricate design. The same could be said of embroidery. However, such evaluations became more challenging within similar groupings of woven products (e.g., tightly woven + complex design). Here, expertise was required, and the outsider often had to follow the artistry rankings obtained from the artisans themselves by inquiring who were the masters (maestros) of their craft and why.

The best representatives of a craft by local consensus were usually those artisans who had been practicing it the longest. This tended to be the case in occupations like backstrap-loom weaving and wood carving but less so in metate making. In the latter occupation, strength, eye-hand coordination, and dexterity were all required to exceed average levels of output with above-average product quality. It was in the realm of perceived differences in quality that craft production got personal and differences in skill and experience were on display.

Oaxaca Valley artisans of the second half of the twentieth century viewed their crafts in pragmatic market terms and proudly acknowledged that their trade or occupation (oficio) was ancestral. They recognized their role as stewards of ancestral traditions and, accordingly, took precautions to protect certain secrets of this heritage from being shared with others who might be or become competitors, thus, preserving natural monopolies.

A pragmatic market orientation did not imply a lack of appreciation of skilled traditions of work, or of artistry, but a desire and need to obtain proper compensation for these. If they were unable to sell a time-consuming, especially artistic version of a product for a fair price (e.g., a more tightly woven garment or finer, more elaborate needlework), they would cease to make it, or make less time-consuming or less costly (in terms of raw materials) versions. They also withdrew from the craft temporarily, either to work longer in agriculture or to seek wage labor. The commodity status of crafts and the businesslike attitudes of craftspeople were compatible with intergenerational transmission of craft traditions or the continuous practice of craft traditions by many artisans in defiance of market fluctuations and changes in consumer demand.

The rhythm and vibrancy of making and earning a living in the Oaxaca Valley at the end of the twentieth century continued to be attuned to the workings of a complex marketing organization with deep historical and cultural roots, linking village, town, and city. The entire gamut of agricultural and artisanal commodities destined for local and regional consumption and produced through the local and regional division of labor still found its way to consumers mainly through the periodic sectional marketplace or plaza-mercado system. Labeling this system “traditional” masks uncertainty regarding its origins and historical development. It had uncertain antecedents and assumed a form during the colonial period that has persisted into the twenty-first century (cf. Beals 1975, 38–39; Cook and Diskin 1976c, 11).

The system operated seven days each week, with market activities shifting location from Sunday in Tlacolula, to Monday in Miahuatlán, to Tuesday in Ayoquesco, to Wednesday in Etla and Zimatlán, to Thursday in Ejutla and Zaachila, to Friday in Ocotlán, and culminating in the large Saturday market in Oaxaca City. In this way, the entire regional village population was able to adapt trading activities to a schedule involving a major subregional town or the region’s largest city.

Every market was organized sectionally by commodity category, the section location remaining the same from week to week, and sellers paid a fee to occupy a particular space within each section. There were also permanent stalls, usually occupied by intermediaries, and permanent stores within the precinct of the market. This sectional organization facilitated buying and selling among villagers, between villagers and intermediaries/storekeepers, as well as between villagers and nonvillagers, including urbanites and tourists. Prices were determined through haggling between buyers and sellers of locally produced commodities but were fixed in permanent businesses that carried inventories of nonlocal commodities. Most transactions were on a cash basis, although permanent businesses did sell on credit or accept local commodities (such as corn or eggs) in cash-mediated barter for nonlocal commodities (e.g., canned goods, cooking oil, bottled beverages).

Daily, weekly, or periodically in conjunction with the festive cycle, seasonal crops and certain utilitarian craft commodities like clay pots (ollas) and griddles (comales) were bought, sold, or bartered in officially designated local marketplaces. Patron saints’ festivals and the Virgin of Juquila mayordomía in the Oaxaca Valley were typically occasions for special market days in villages, as were the days preceding the Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos) celebration in the regional head town (cabecera) and the Oaxaca City marketplaces attended by village-based buyers and sellers.

The complex division of labor and specialization of the Oaxaca Valley and its surrounding mountain hinterlands evolved over centuries under a variety of ecological, demographic, social, and economic conditions. Its constituent households and communities had sufficient space to adapt or change without damaging the surrounding integrative structure. Over the centuries, some specific content of that integrative structure changed, but even as it has been integrated into farther-reaching structures of national, continental, and international scope, the plaza-mercado system continues to play a role in the twenty-first-century regional economy.

The Case-Study Communities: Rationale for Selection and Order of Presentation

Table I.1 lists and compares the communities selected for case study according to criteria that influenced their selection and their order of presentation in the book. Two of these criteria are closely related and were instrumental in community selection: (1) inclusion in the OVSIP household survey listed in column 4, and (2) fieldwork intensity estimated in column 11. Together with the criterion presented in column 10, which estimates the amount and quality of accessible archival and other historical source materials, these criteria are accurate indicators of the quantity and quality of the data corpus by community. According to these criteria, San Sebastián Teitipac and Magdalena Ocotlán ranked high. I spent more research time in these two communities and, consequently, had more information about them than I did about others. Nevertheless, in only two of the nine selected communities, San Juan Teitipac and Santo Domingo Jalieza, was my experience limited to one research period; in all of the other communities, I had two or more separate research stints either in the same decade or spread over several decades.

Absent from the communities selected for case study is Santa Lucía del Camino, located in the Centro district, which was included in the OVSIP survey in 1980 and was the focus of additional fieldwork that year and in 1985 (Cook 1984a; 1985, 70–71). Given Santa Lucía’s periurban setting, its large and heterogeneous population, and the specialized focus of my research there on the handmade-brick industry, I decided not to include it in this book.

Despite the many ways in which rural communities in a region like the Oaxaca Valley can be classified, a strong case can be made for emphasizing prevailing conditions of local citizenship, forged during the colonial period from either precolonial or colonial origins, rather than ethnicity, as the primary marker of fundamental division (Robichaux 2005; 2009, 24). Whether or not communities were settlements founded in pre-Hispanic or early postconquest times, they have been engaged for centuries in defending their settlement and communal land from outsiders through specific forms of governance based on exchange and obligatory community assessment (Robichaux 2009, 27). Consequently, such communities merit distinctive categorization and recognition that crosscuts identifiers like indigenous, mestizo, and transitional (Cook and Joo 1995, 40–41). From this perspective, the most critical division in Oaxaca Valley life is between city and countryside and their respective communities' contrasting systems of civility (Cook 1993, 316–323). It is not being Zapotec or mestizo that matters so much as being a citizen/taxpayer (ciudadano/contribuyente) of community X, Y, or Table I.1 shows variation among the nine communities regarding indigenous versus mestizo identity markers like language and preconquest origin. One notable correspondence, though limited to San Antonio Buenavista and Xaagá, is between land tenure and hacienda influence, which indicates their common background as totally encapsulated, subaltern hacienda communities. Historically, neither community had access to nonhacienda land; they were always renters or sharecroppers without access to communal land and without private landholdings. As will be shown below, landlessness had serious consequences for their struggle for livelihood and civility, and superseded any concern with their status as indígena or mestizo.

Chapters 1, 3, and 4 explore the depths of the livelihood/civility struggle in two ancient communities, San Juan Teitipac and San Sebastián Teitipac, with mixed communal and private tenure regimes and a neighboring adjunct hacienda community, San Antonio Buenavista, examined in Chapter 2, which twentieth-century agrarian reform transformed into an ejido. These three communities, especially the Teitipacs, had variants of the traditional civil-religious hierarchy and fiesta system, institutionalized reciprocity, and other institutions regulating the terms of local citizenship.

Chapters 5 and 6 return to the exploration of life in communities dominated by haciendas launched in Chapter 1 through case studies of San Lorenzo Albarradas and Xaagá. In contrast to the Teitipac communities and San Antonio Buenavista, which were of Zapotec identity, the castellano identity of San Lorenzo and Xaagá sets them apart and poses challenging historical questions.

Chapters 7 and 8 compare three mixed-craft communities in the Jalieza cluster and focus especially on the weaving community of Santo Tomás and the woodworking and embroidery community of Santa Cecilia. The case study of Santa Cecilia in Chapter 8 explores the vicissitudes of the struggle of a small settlement for survival in a hostile neighborhood.

Finally, Chapters 9 and 10 deal with the community of Magdalena Ocotlán, which, like San Lorenzo Albarradas, was submitted historically to despoliation by adjacent haciendas. Here the theme is once again how changes in land tenure had repercussions in Magdalenans' struggle for livelihood and civility, with a particular focus on metateros as members of a cofradía dedicated to Nuestro Señor de las Peñas and as market-oriented producers.

There is always some sense in which events or processes observed in one community in Oaxaca are unique, but the degree to which this is true can only be ascertained through comparative analysis with several other communities. Claims to single-community uniqueness usually have to be modified and relativized, if not abandoned altogether, the wider the net of comparative analysis is cast. Still, most anthropologists who have worked in several Oaxaca Valley communities would probably agree that even though there may be nothing new under the Oaxacan sun, there is always a particular local nuance that adds to understanding more general phenomena.



“Provides one of the most thorough accounts of Central Oaxaca’s modern political and economic system. Cook skillfully weaves together archaeological, historical, and his own ethnographic data. . . . Although it will be required reading for any scholar of Oaxaca, Cook’s comprehensive work is an invaluable contribution to the study of the social relations embedded in Mexican and Latin American rural economies.”
Journal of Anthropological Research

“This volume is a testimony to the lasting influences of social practices that anchor households to a territory that is historically and culturally constituted as a single entity, even when repeatedly crisscrossed by migration flows, contested national policies, and neoliberal reforms. . . . This book will be an illuminating experience for advanced undergraduate and professional readers interested in peasant survival strategies, agrarian struggles, and the social and economic anthropology of Meixco and Latin America.”
American Anthropologist

“In Scott Cook's examination of social relations, land ownership, and artisan trades in rural Oaxaca, the anthropologist reveals not only his profound knowledge of village life but also a clear understanding of the historical perspective in which it has existed over time. The present work bears the hallmark of long experience in the field and much thought concerning the lives of the people about whom he writes.”
Brian Hamnett, Research Professor in History, University of Essex

“A very good read. It transported me right back to Oaxaca. I think its greatest strength lies in the wealth of detail Cook provides on land struggles and commodity production and marketing—the two main topics. A third topic, the civil-religious hierarchy is also covered well and with fascinating detail. I didn’t look at the photos until finishing the chapters, and when I did, I found that they validated images in my mind’s eye that the text had already conjured up—a tribute to the vividness of Cook’s descriptions. I think he has handled the historical materials quite well. He approaches them carefully and thoughtfully, and his interpretations are appropriate and consistent with his data. . . . He deals effectively with both temporal continuity and change. . . . I felt as if I understood Oaxaca much better after reading the book. . . . It adds considerably to our ethnographic and historical knowledge of the Valley, and it does it in a very humane and interesting way.”
John Chance, Emeritus Professor of Cultural Anthropology and Ethnohistory, Arizona State University

“Scott Cook connects his anthropological research on peasant commodity production in Oaxaca, Mexico, back to the post-colonial historical record for the same communities. He is able to show that the apparent continuity of small-scale rural activities over time is, in reality, shot through with change brought about by peasant endeavor, in the context of population growth and shifting access to land and markets over the last century and a half. A key feature of the book is the use made of oral history, based on interviews held between 1965 and 1990, to link to the Oaxacan archival materials.”
Colin Clarke, Emeritus Professor of Geography, Oxford University

“This book is a masterpiece of storytelling and historical narrative. . . . It should be profoundly influential and will become a must [read] source for anyone interested in the Valley of Oaxaca, its history, and its peoples. It will also appeal to general readers of Latin American history and anyone interested in peasant land struggles regardless of where they are found.”
Joseph W. Whitecotton, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology, University of Oklahoma, and author of The Zapotecs: Princes, Priests, and Peasants


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