The Mixtecs of Oaxaca: Ancient Times to the Present

Feb 19th, 2015 | By | Category: 26-3: Global Indigenous Higher Education, Media Reviews

mixtecs-oaxacaBy Ronald Spores and Andrew K. Balkansky
University of Oklahoma Press (2013)
311 pages

Review by Kathleen M. McIntyre

With 16 distinct ethnic groupings, the southern state of Oaxaca is home to one-quarter of Mexico’s total Indigenous population. In this engaging book, archaeologists Ronald Spores and Andrew K. Balkansky focus on the history of the Mixtec people, one of the largest Native groups in the state. The authors cover over 3,500 years of Mixtec culture, archaeology, and ethnohistory, utilizing personal excavation photographs, ancient pictorial codices, and Spanish and religious colonial records, mainly from the Mixteca Alta region. Spores has long published on Mixtec pre-conquest sites and both authors see the work as a synthesis of past research, as well as a bridge to future scholarship. They combine archival, ethnohistoric, and archaeological sources, arguing that the key to Mixtec advancement and cultural resilience has been adaptation over three millennia.

Mixtecs utilized multiple strategies that led to their long-term cultural survival, dealing with pre-colonial era attacks by the Aztec Empire, negotiating Spanish colonial tribute demands, and reeling from economic hardship in modern times that has led to widespread migration to other parts of Mexico and the United States. Despite concerted efforts, the Spanish failed to eliminate Mixtec culture after the conquest. Rather, Mixtecs successfully integrated elements of their own political institutions, traditions, and culture into colonial and modern Mexican organizations. Mixtec caciques (leaders) retained many important forms of rule, whereas the central western Purpechua and the Aztecs often lost such support and recognition. Spores and Balkansky delve heavily into local Native government records, an aspect often overlooked in contemporary historiography.

More questionable is the authors’ assessment that today “beyond the community the concept of a broader, regional ethnicity has little relevance or practical application for the Mixteca.” Given recent Indigenous rights movements in Oaxaca that successfully have pushed for customary law recognition, political autonomy, and bi-cultural education, it’s problematic that the authors of a 2013 volume rely so heavily on scholarship from the 1960s and 1970s, leaving out much from new anthropological works on migration, community identity, and social movements. Nonetheless, this work will clearly serve as an invaluable reference for students of Mexican history and anthropology. The authors provide a comprehensive methodological framework for exploring local histories and will no doubt serve to stimulate further interest in Mesoamerican cultures.

Kathleen M. McIntyre, Ph.D., researches and writes on Oaxacan history and is an assistant professor of Latin American history at Clarion University of Pennsylvania.

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