The history and culture of the Otomí peoples are often overlooked and confused, but this First Nation was a pervasive presence in pre-Colombian, central Mexico and is one of the largest and oldest Indigenous groups in Mexico. The different Otomí groups in the Otomí family, including Otomí, Mazahua, Matlaltzinca, Ocuiltec, Southern and Northern Pame and Chichimec Jonaz (Manrique), have been molded by their various relationships with other central Mexican nations and by their own dispersal and migration to settlements. Signs of their presence can be seen from the Gulf coast with Olmecs to Teotihucan to present day Northern Sierra, Querétaro and Ixmiquilpan. Galinier suggests that, by twists of historical fate and shifting populations, the sedentary Otomí-Pame family, (Otomí, Mazahuas, Matlatzincas and Ocuiltecs) have been tied to the Chichimec hunter-gatherers. The Otomí occupied regions such as the Mezquital area, the northern-most border of civilized central Mexico/Meso-America, and the Pame formed a sort of transitional buffer between this area and the nomads. Yet, while many elements of their culture have adapted to their "recent" surroundings, and in spite of tremendous exposure to other nations, other elements of their culture still reflect their common heritage.
Even the origins of the name Otomí is not perfectly clear: Soustelle believes it may be from the Nahua Otomitl, from otocac, one who walks and mitl, arrow. He mentions that it may be from the Ñañhu word othomí , from otho, not having and mi, to seat or install oneself. However, he discards this idea, saying that the Otomí have mainly been sedentary. Their lifestyle may have been agricultural, but it hardly seems to have been permanently situated in one place, as we shall see. Another theory is that it comes from Totomitl, referring to archers of birds, but this talent is thought to have been taught to them by the Chichimecs very late in their history. One unexplored possibility is that this term might refer to a lack of a central seat of government. The name they use for themselves, Ñañhu, means those who speak Ñuju and reflects many Indigenous names that simply call a group "the people".
Soustelle refers to Sahagún to place Otomí speakers along with the speakers of Nahuatl, Popoloca, Huastec and Olmec at Nonoalca on the Gulf coast of what is now Puebla, as well as in the high plateau area of Tlaxcala where they dominated the Pinome-Chocho-Popoloca population, and although probably fairly rustic, advanced through contact with the Popolocas. They probably migrated and settled into the colder lands after these nations in the 7th century and began to establish villages in the Tula River valley. Xilotepec was the first great political center of the Otomí in this area, near the mythical grotto, Chicomoztoc from which the first ancestors, "Viejo Padre" and "Vieja Madre" arose. (Manrique)
Although considered to be at the height of its influence between 200-700 A.D., archeologists indicate that an earlier, archaic people lived their earlier. Soustelle refutes the argument that the Otomí were the "archaic" race upon which Toltec and later Aztec cultures were super-imposed, but the presence of Otomí, Olmecs and Chocho-Popolocas in the area create a hazy picture of the origins of Teotihucán.
After the end of Teotihuacan , around 800 A.D., Nahuas began to change socioeconomic relationships in the Central Mexican plateau through intense trading with the Olmecs, and the Otomí were pushed out of the Toluca area. When Tula was founded in 873 the Toltec domination is strengthened by Mixcoatl and his son Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl who attack Otomí territory. From then until the fall of Tula, Otomí destiny is tied to Toltecs. When the Toltecs arrived in the area, they found the Otomí living there and built their city by forcing out the Otomí town of Mamemhi or Mameni. The city of Tula was founded around 764 by Toltecs after a long migration from the North and dominated the region until finally breaking down perhaps as late as 1220. (Soustelle) The Toltecs, with their Nahua sub-society and Olmec domination/influence, also incorporated those Otomí into their society, and the Otomí played a major role in the area through the 8th century and the beginning of Chichimec occupation.
In different accounts of this period, authors confuse migrations and invasions, tribute and enslavement, alliances/trade relationships and domination, to the point where it is difficult to picture the relations between nations. Helms points out that, "In some cases the post-Tula Toltecs seem to be direct descendants of the original Toltec power elite, but in other cases the ties are more tenuous and probably often unreal. Much of the uncertainty rests on the fact that the term 'Toltec' came to signify 'settled, civilized, urban dweller'..." The term Chichimec was also applied casually to any less "civilized" group, with the Otomí-Pame family's own Chichimec-Jonaz group adding to the confusion. This uncertainty further obscures the reasons why one group of Otomí should stay in the central altiplano area, while another should move east across the Sierra Madre.
The Chichimec migration began to invade the central plateau in the late 12th century, with a chief named Xølotl leading the invasion in 1225. At first exceptionally rudimentary, their nomadic, hunter-gatherer society evolved toward a sedentary and agricultural lifestyle by the 14th century, influenced by surrounding peoples such as the Nahuas and especially the Tenochca/Aztecs. The Chichimecs of Xólotl probably mixed with Otomí in the Toltec lands and could appear to be equally ancient because of this. It appears that the Otomí did not strongly oppose the Chichimecs, and apparently the Otomí at Otumba, Tepotzotlán, Tulancingo, Pahuatlán and Papalocticpac paid tribute to Texcoco and were considered great warriors by the aristocratic Tlaxcalans; it was the Otomí, as allies of Tlaxcala, who rebuffed Moctezuma's army and faced Cortés on his arrival.
In 1168, the dispersion of the tribes controlled by the Toltec empire moved the Otomí to the dry area of the Mezquital Valley, where they probably established relations with neighboring Huastecs and Totonacs. Toltec migrations moved through the areas of Zacatlán, Tzicoac, Huejutla, and Tulancingo, occupied by Chichimecs and Tepehuas. Some say that Otomí-Tepehua meeting in Tutoptepec introduced hunting among the Otomí, while others say the Otomí influenced the Tepehua more, especially by reducing the size of their territory. Chichimecs formed Tulancingo and Tutotpec , and in this same era (1220-1279) the Otomí moved eastward, and Xilotepec became a secondary political center. (Galinier)
Invasions by Nahuatl-speaking "Teochichimecas" created a mixture of populations in the Sierra de Puebla. The arrival of Mexicas (of Nahua origins) and the formation of the triple alliance (Mexico- Texcoco- Tlacopan) led to the Aztec domination of the central plateaus, and Xilotepec became a tributary province of the empire. Only Meztitlan, Huayacocotla and Tutotepec remained independent. Moctezuma Xocoyotzin (1502-1519) carried out an attack on Tutotepec, perhaps with help from Huastecs, and the Otomí pushed further into the Huasteca area toward what is now the border between Veracruz and Hidalgo states. Toward the south of the Tutotepec realm was a Totonac area also claimed by Pahuatlán, which was under the jurisdiction (and still is) of Huachinango. Here between Huachinango and Tulancingo lived Otomí and "Teochichimecs" who spoke Otomí. The Otomí managed to push the Totonacs out of the area, and a group from Meztitlan reduced the Tepehua settlements and other migrations brought Nahuas to the Sierra. (Galinier)
While the triple alliance was subjugating the non-Nahua people of central Mexico, the Otomí at Tlaxcala, long-term allies of the Nahuas, escaped tribute, and the Pames managed to stay outside of the urbanized areas to escape domination. The Spanish would eventually take more than 200 years to break down Pame resistance.
The Otomí of Tlaxcala were the first to oppose the Spanish invasion in battle. (Soustelle)Legend has it that the Tlaxcalans sent the Otomí out to fight Cortés' company, counting on their reputation as warriors, and when these were killed decided to ally with the Spanish rather than try to fight them. In any case, the Tlaxcalans saw an opportunity in the newcomers to defeat the Aztecs of Tenochtitlán, and, as allies, the Otomí were incorporated into the joint army. Their loyalty to the Spanish provoked hostility from the Matlaltzincos in 1522, and the Otomí called upon the Spanish Sandoval to protect them (Torquemada cited in Soustelle).
During the smallpox epidemics, the Aztecs' calls for help went unanswered, with many peoples fleeing from the area entirely. The Otomí on the other hand, joined the Spanish in capturing other towns and leaders, becoming invaluable assistants. One small group did flee to Querétaro, where they maintained good relations with the Chichimecs until the arrival of the Spanish, when their chief was baptized, recognized the king of Spain and convinced others to do the same.
In the central plateau, especially the Pachuca area, mining became a major focus of the conquistadors, and, as the Otomí were not apt for this kind of work, many Nahua workers were brought to the area. As missionaries preferred to work in Nahuatl, completing the effects of the Nahua advances into the region, the language all but died out here, cutting off the central plateau Otomí from the eastern block.
Some Otomí groups continued conquering along side the Spanish, founding new towns, such as Tolimán in 1532 and San Luis de la Paz, where a treaty was signed between Chichimecs and Otomí to assure the distribution of corn and meat to the Chichimecs. However, by the 1580's the Chichimecs began to rebel, brutally killing Spanish, Otomí and missionaries alike and were never pacified through the end of the 16th century.
When precious metals were discovered near the mountains where the Chichimecs were living, the tone of colonization changed. The Otomí had been happy to farm the lowlands while the Chichimecs lived their own lifestyle in the hills, but when mining transportation had to cross the Sierra Gorda the Spanish decided to force the Chichimecs to join mission villages. Far from solving the problem, the Chichimecs eventually attracted Pames away from the missions. This failure led to militarization and the eventual defeat of the Chichimecs in 1748. The Pames were subjected, in spite of the objections of missionaries, to terrible abuses carried out in the interests of taking over grazing land for cattle. After this point, a rare few Chichimecs remained in the area, some Pames at the missions and many Otomí assimilated into the cities. The Otomí had been demoted from close collaborators to second class citizens. The national independence that followed in the next century only consolidated the hierarchy between Spanish, criollos, mestizos and inditos. The groups that manage to maintain their identity are those that fade into the hills.
(Soustelle) The Otomí have come to settle mainly in areas of high altitudes, and different authors dispute whether there is a significant difference in their red blood cell count that makes them particularly well adapted. The Otomí are dispersed throughout the tierras frías : the Sierra de las Cruces (2300-3500 meters high, plateaus, volcanic hills, evergreens, rivers and lakes), and the plateaus of the Querétaro, Hidalgo and Guanajuato states (without forests, but fertile and irrigated plains, with many species of cactus such as maguey and nopal.) The Sierra Madre divides the plateaus in Hidalgo between Pachuca and Tulancingo and to the East at the state border with Veracruz. Ixtenco is the only Otomí town in Tlaxcala, though the area mainly belonged to the Otomí before Cortes, and is located at an altitude of some 2250 meters where corn, wheat and maguey are cultivated. All of these areas can be considered subtropical highlands and have both a very dry and a long, light rain period, with the coldest region being Ixtlahuaca and the driest Ixmiquilpan (116.2 mm per year). Maguey is used for food and fiber, often mixed in the form of pulque (fermented honey-water) with corn. Only irrigated lands provide other crops, and most work in lumber, charcoal production, corn farming or weaving. In more temperate zones, the mountains that descend from Toluca to Michoacan or the branch of the Sierra Madre that runs into Veracruz or the Tamaulipas end of the Sierra Gorda, are at lower altitudes that result in a warmer climate and greater biodiversity. Maguey does not grow well, so cotton replaces ixtle and wool for weaving. The Eastern-most area descends form the Sierra Madre toward Veracruz and Puebla, has vibrant and diverse vegetation thanks to high precipitation, and is home to Nahua, Totonac, Tepehua and Otomí communities. While the Western Otomí of this area can communicate, the mountains have cut off the Eastern Otomí. The town of San Pablito in the Northern Sierra of Puebla exemplifies the high-altitude, subtropical climate and cold, dry Ixmiquilpan the opposite end of the range of Otomí dwelling areas.
In "People of the Maguey" Granberg described one of the villages near Ixmiquilpan: "In our quiet stroll around the huts we saw no gardens of any kind, no fields of corn or beans &emdash; nothing green. It rains only once every eight years or so in the Valley of the Mezquital &emdash; not enough to make planting anything a good risk. This lack of rain also means there are no chickens, no cows, no sheep, no beef cattle...the earth is so hard and stony and water so far beyond reach that digging a well is not practical."
In contrast, the steep mountains of the San Pablito region bear pines, firs and blackberries, changing into a forest of ferns and bromeliads as well as oaks and cypresses, the kinds of trees that can shade coffee bushes, and fruit trees such as guava, papaya and, down closer to the river at the valley floor, even mango trees. Peanuts, sugar cane and corn are grown all over the hills.
The two towns have been mainly cut off from each other by the part of the Sierra Madre that cuts through Hidalgo, and, as noted above, there is a considerable gap in the dispersal of Otomí across central Mexico. However, there are many possible comparisons between the groups that illustrate how environment influences some elements of culture, while other elements may continue to be shared.
Food and Agriculture
Corn is grown in any area where soil and irrigation allow, often accompanied by beans, chiles and squash. As in many Mexican languages, corn is important enough to merit different words for each part from the silk to the "sacred root", and differentiating between the leaves on the stalk and those around the cob, the living stalk from the dry. (Manrique) Corn is eaten fresh (recently with mayonnaise, grated cheese and chile) or ground into nixtamal for tortillas, tamales and atoles, a corn-based drink that is combined with blackberries, peanuts or chocolate for added flavor. Many people still use the traditional coa, a planting stick with one flattened end and one pointed end. Galinier, working in the southern Huasteca, mentions a coa with a metal point as well as hoes, sickles and scythes, hatchet and shovels, but perhaps the most commonly seen is the ubiquitous machete. Both communities have important ceremonies to propitiate a good growth and harvest.
After fields are cleared, families sow seeds by making a hole with the coa and then dropping seeds into the hole. The flat end is later used to shore up small plants with soil around the base. The corn is looked after through the rainy season and harvested around October to be dried for use in nixtamal. The stalks are allowed to dry in the field, then are collected for animal feed and tinder for the fire. The corn is set aside to dry as are the husks to be used in tamales.
The maguey (century plant) is the mainstay of the desert plateau areas, such as Ixmiquilpan, providing both food and articles for the home. The maguey's fermented sap provides a beverage, pulque, which is extracted by making a hole at the heart of the plant and extracting the liquid into a long calabash. The aguamiel is then fermented with a starter of over-fermented pulque. The maguey plant also provides maguey worms. Toasted or fried, they are a good source of protein. Nopal cactus provides the meaty paddles as well as the red tuna fruit. Both groups of Otomí are known to eat quelites, both the leaves and tender seed spikes. Nopal and maguey are not grown much in San Pablito, but they are not unknown either, although sei , sugar cane alcohol, is more popular than pulque , also called sei, and is used in ceremony.
In the Sierra, there is naturally a greater variety of vegetables. Beans are also planted, sometimes separately from the corn, and other, often non-native, plants have been introduced. Some are cash crops, others for home use - such as coffee, sugar cane, peanuts. Some plants thrive there whether completely native or not: frijolones, avocado, garbanzo, citrus fruits, small orange tomatoes, chayote, zapote, and bananas. It is interesting that nearby Pahuatlán incorporates the word for avocado, into its name both in Nahuatl (pahua) and in Otomí as tsôni in Matsôni. The latin name for banana coincides with the Otomí muza , although this is not necessarily native to Otomí lands. A certain tree produces an odd-looking flower that resembles a pine cone with long red teeth growing out of it. This flor de quemite is cooked with egg and a tomato broth and tastes something like ham. Some city dwellers have tried the flower and found it inedibly bitter, possibly due to pollution.
Although hunting is rare now, Soustelle maintains that the Otomí were once famous as bow-and-arrow hunters. In San Pablito, deer were once hunted, but have long since disappeared from the Sierra. Animals are rarely kept for meat except for a rare hog or a sheep or turkey (for a major celebration). Bodil Christensen is quoted in Manrique as saying that chickens are raised exclusively for ceremonial use, but more recently, chicken is eaten at gatherings of family and friends or for a special meal when economy allows. Though fishing would be impossible to conceive of in the Ixmiquilpan region, Christensen observed men fishing in groups by poisoning the water and, when the water was higher with hooks. Until more recently, crayfish were also caught in the river. Salinas Pedraza writes of "ants made of honey", the ants that carry food in a sac, and these are also eaten in San Pablito when they are available. While rabbit and ground squirrel may still be caught in the Ixmiquilpan area, only tlacuache (possum) is still found in San Pablito.
Ixmiquilpan area homes were generally made of grass thatch, walls as well as the roof, or stone walls and maguey leaf roofs. More houses are now using mestizo style, and elements such as the corrugated sheet roof have been added. Maguey is not especially good for protecting from the cold and rain, but Soustelle describes a technique particular to the Ixmiquilpan area that has the dried leaves, which are less rigid, woven into a sort of giant basket that is supported by a wooden frame. This use is considerably more serviceable. The temascal (steam bath) is a semi-subterranean and airtight structure. Adobe houses are better adapted to the cold climate and often have a tile roof . The tile-making technique may have been taught to some Otomí by other nations or colonists, as these do not have much pottery, or the tiles may be bought.
In San Pablito, homes have generally been made out of vertical planks or thick branches lashed to horizontal rods that are attached to posts. The roof has been traditionally made of grass thatch, although corrugated tin or tar-paper is substituted now. The kitchen area can be in one corner or end of the more modest home, either a small fire-pit or a sort of stone or adobe counter/hearth, either of these under a smoke-hole in the roof. In both adobe and wood houses, the space under the roof provides storage space for household items and sometimes for chickens.The kitchen is often separate, as may be a sort of granary or storehouse, and many homes have a tunnel-shaped temazcal (steam bath) and a pila for storing water to wash with. More and more homes have bathrooms/toilets adjacent to the patio as well.
Although more common in other areas, few adobe houses can be found in San Pablito and are prized for keeping a comfortable temperature year round. Soustelle notes that the difference in housing is often an adaptation to economics as much as environment: "The adobe house clearly marks the upper limit of well-being and adaptation to the climate for colder lands, while the maguey hut, in these same lands, is the most precarious and the most miserable refuge in which a human being can live." The same can be said of the lashed-stick constructions around the poorer sections of San Pablito. In both San Pablito and Ixmiquilpan, traditional houses are being replaced by cinder-block constructions of connected rooms, including the kitchen, but it is interesting to see that early housing shared characteristics and techniques such as the two-sloped, thatched roof technique.
Furniture in San Pablito is sparse, including mainly \petates to sleep on and some small chairs (kindergarden-size, even for adults), although small benches in animal shapes were used earlier and are still carved for sale. Babies sleep in hammocks, as in most of the Otomí communities.
A real curiosity in the comparison between Ixmiquilpan and San Pablito is their inverse relationships with their language. While Ixmiquilpan has been very advanced in documenting their language and working on a writing system, they do not all speak it as their first language. Much like many United States nations, they are in the process of conserving their language. The people in San Pablito, on the other hand, speak Otomí first and foremost, but few know how to read and write their language.
Many Otomí people are bilingual, whether they learned Spanish in school or by travelling and trading their cash products (produce or crafts). Many adult women do not speak Spanish, and in San Pablito, some ladies simply lose interest in Spanish after they are married, however Galinier states that the degree to which Spanish is adopted is not always due to the amount of contact the community has with outsiders.
At the inauguration of San Pablito's cultural center in 1996, a group of musicians from Ixmiquilpan was invited to play and join in the celebration. They naturally spoke to the audience in Otomí. As Galinier experienced elsewhere, the Otomí people focused more on the differences than the similarities, until eventually the band, fearing they weren't making a connection, gave up and spoke in Spanish. When asked if they understood the songs and whether they had enjoyed the concert, the San Pableños answered yes.
Some time later the doctor from San Pablito was talking to an activist from Ixmiquilpan by phone. She began to caution that they should be careful with what they said, since the line was surely wire-tapped, then realized that they could speak freely and frankly in Otomí without being understood. Some time after that, the same activist visited the doctor in San Pablito. Toward the end of a long day, she suggested they go somewhere to eat, but her phrasing caught the attention of the doctor's wife: in her usage, it sounded like the visitor had just said, "Let's go swallow something." This would be a very rough way to speak in Otomí and much too direct. However, another person from San Pablito pointed out that his grandfather would have used that same phrasing many years ago without it being considered rude.
One common aspect of Otomí language that both Galinier and Soustelle point out is the concern with being "well-spoken", not only in the sense of being polite and circumspect in conversation, but also the ability to tell a story artfully and to make clever albures (puns) that are often quite off-color. In fact, when asked if the Otomí reputation for being practical jokers is warranted, the answer from San Pableños and folks from Ixmiquilpan is a straight forward "yes".
While some authors note that there are as many Otomí dialects as there are villages, Soustelle says that " the inhabitants of a village declare that in a village not far off 'another language is spoken'; when this statement is checked out, one realizes that an insignificant difference has been enough for them to decide that these were two different languages. More recently, some young people have become aware of the relationship between their language and their identity and have been very careful to correct anyone who confused their language with a dialect.
Soustelle has made a deep analysis of the language and dialects, and two observations in particular relate to similarities and differences. First, he states, "In many cases, for one same meaning there are different words from one dialect to anotherŠthrough the intervention of different roots. These facts seem to be related to well marked types: a process of generalization and a process of specialization." These changes may just be an effect of time and lost knowledge, although, as mentioned above, sei, which means pulque in the central plateau where maguey grows, became cane alcohol in the Sierra where cane grows and eventually alcoholic drinks in general. The other observation is that, "...the Otomí offers a great uniformity in all of its dialects. Across the whole expanse of the Otomí territory, the same word means "stone" and "hail" (do, to), "cold" and "frost", arm, hand and rain (ye, dye), blue and green, bone and griddle...There are a series of unconscious associations established for these Indigenous people...that are recorded in the language and subsist through it."
In spite of geographical distance, gaps in the territorial and linguistic continuity, environmental differences and the influence of other Indigenous nations and Spanish colonists, there are still enough similarities between today's Otomí people for them to recognize their kinship when they meet face to face. Their history is maddeningly fluid and complex, a testimony to their adaptability, and it is rather amazing that they were never completely absorbed by Olmecs, Toltecs, Chichimecs, Aztecs or Spanish. To trace the evolution of the Otomí identity more fully presents a real challenge, which may explain why historians have passed the Otomí over in so many texts. There is only one known auto-ethnography on the Mezquital Otomí (by Salinas Pedraza), but a future comparison of even two Otomí communities should certainly require the participation of Otomí people themselves to detect the subtleties of their culture.
* Bernard, H. Russell and Pedraza, Jesús Salins, Inative Ethnography: A Mexican Indian Describes his Culture, Newbury Park, California, Sage Publications, 1989
* Galinier, Jacques, Pueblos de la Sierra Madre:Etnografía de la Comunidad Otomí, México City, Instituto Nacional Indigenista, 1987
* Granberg, Wilbur J., People of the Maguey:The Otomí Indians of Mexico, New York, Praeger Publishers, 1970
* Helms, Mary W., Middle America: A Culture History of heartland and Frontiers, New York, University press of America, 1982
* Manrique, Leonardo inHandbook of Middle American Indians: Ethnology Part II, General Editor Robert Wauchope, London, University of Texas Press, 1969
* Soustelle, Jacques, La Familia Otomí-Pame del México Central, México City, Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1937/1993
Kerin Gould, Graduate Student
UC Davis, Native American Studies