The indigenous Zapotec is one of the 56 ethno-linguistic populations in Mexico, with a total population estimate ranging from 400,000 to over 650,000. According to the INEGI census of 2005, there are 410,900 Zapotec speakers in Mexico, making them the fourth largest indigenous population in Mexico, after the 1) Nahua, 2) Yucatec Maya, and 3) Mixtecos. However, this only includes people five years old, or older. The 2005 census also reports an overall population of 664,717 people in “Zapotec households” in Mexico, as defined by households where the head of the household or his or her spouse speaks one of the Zapotec languages.
The Zapotec is the largest and most important indigenous population in the State of Oaxaca, including 357,134 speakers, followed by Mixtecos (242,049 in Oaxaca), Mazatecos (206,559), Mixes (103,089), and Chinantecos (102,738). Together, these five groups – which are among the top 13 groups of Mexico – make up 89 percent of the indigenous population of the state.
In Oaxaca, Zapotec speakers includes about 12 percent of the total population of the state (3,5506,821 in 2005) and they include approximately 33 percent of the total 1,091,502 indigenous people in the state. Another 14,978 Zapotec speakers are found in Veracruz, mainly in areas adjacent to Oaxaca.
The Zapotec population is divided into four geographic areas, each with its own cultural differences: 1) Central Valleys; 2) Sierra Norte; 3) Sierra Sur; and the 4) Isthmus of Tehuantepec. The geographic isolation of these populations, caused by centuries of conquest and colonization, has resulted in very significant linguistic diversity within the population, so much that often one town adjacent to another says or writes the same words and expressions differently.
The Zapotec of the Sierra Juárez, as countrymen of Benito Juárez, were very much involved in the Reform Movement of 1860, some in defense of liberal ideas, while others interested in conserving church traditions. They were also involved in the Mexican Revolution, forming the first textile and mining labor unions (Kearney 1971).
Beginning in 1872, there was a revival in the exploitation of gold and silver in the region that attracted mestizos and accelerated the process of language replacement. Between 1900 and 1940, the mining frontier in the District of Ixtlán included Ixtlán, Guelatao, and many other communities (Siguenza 1996). Spanish became the language of instruction for the indigenous young receiving education.
Mining brought wealth to some of the native people, but caused the depletion of the mineral resources and the environmental destruction of the natural environment by the removal of forests for firewood and the contamination of rivers with toxic wastes.
Since the end of the 19th century the cultivation of coffee brought further capitalization to the Zapotec and mestizo communities.
Kearney, M. 1971. Los Vientos de Ixtepeji, Concepcion del mundo y estructura social de un pueblo zapoteco. Instituto Indigenista Interamericano.
Siguenza Orozco, S. 1996. Mineria y comunidad indigena: El mineral de Natividad, Ixtlan, Oaxaca (1900-1940). CIESAS.