A Trip to the Mixe Region of Oaxaca

Travel broadens the mind. I have embraced this saying as part of my personal philosophy.  However, some trips can do a lot more than that, no matter how short they are. Last week while I was in Oaxaca I had one of this life changing trips. Even though it only lasted a couple of days, it will stay in my memory for the rest of my life.

I had already visited the Mixe region in Oaxaca’s Sierra Norte last January. That time I went to Ayutla and Tlahuitoltepec and only stayed for a couple of days. I didn’t get to learn much about the local culture and food. But I remember vividly the Saturday market in Tlahui, one that has visually captivated me a great deal. In a future post I will write more about this community and market. Today, however, I want to focus on my last visit to the region and the community that enchanted me. But before that here is some general information about the Mixe region and culture.

The Mixe people call themselves Ayuukjä’äy. According to oral tradition this word means “people of the flowery language”. Their native language is Ayuuk, which is also how historically they’ve been known as. The word Mixe may be the result of the corrupted word mixy (man), to which the plural “es” was added. Or it might be just the result of the difficulty the Spanish conquistadores had with the original pronunciation.

The Mixe region is located to the northeast of the state of Oaxaca and it occupies part of the Sierra Norte (where altitudes can reach up to 1800 meters – 5900 feet – asl) and other parts of the state with lower elevation (as low as 30 meters – 100 feet – asl). For this reason the region has a variety of microclimates that make it very rich to cultivate a big array of produce.

Like any other culture, topography and climate affect the social, cultural, and religious life of the Mixe people directly. At the highest elevations of the region mountains play an important role in their daily life, customs, and celebrations. The Zempoaltepetl Mountain, also known as the 20 Peak Mountain, is their most sacred site. Processions are made to the top of the mountain all year round to celebrate baptisms, weddings, patronal festivities, etc.

Santa Maria Alotepec, the community I visited this time, is located in the middle part of the region and has a population of about 1500 inhabitants. To get there we took a colectivo from Oaxaca City to Ayutla. Colectivos are small sedan cars design to transport 5 people, but drivers always cramp 6 people because one more passenger means extra income for the driver and his family. This first part of the trip takes around one and a half hours. In Ayutla we had breakfast at the local market before taking another colectivo to our final destination, about two more hours on the road.

The road from Ayutla to Alotepec is in very bad shape. In some parts landslides have left enough room for a single car to go through while in others the potholes are so large that cars must crawl to avoid breakdowns. But despite of the road conditions, the views throughout the journey are spectacular. The ravines, cliffs and mountains covered in coniferous forests make you feel like you’re entering a fairy tale.

I had been warned that it was going to be warm this time of year in La Sierra. However, the whole time we were there the temperature didn’t go up 10º C (50º F) and when we arrived the fog was so thick that visibility was less than 20 meters (65 feet). One of the most memorable moments of the day was when the fog, like a curtain on a stage, raised enough to display one of the most dramatic scenes I’ve ever seen: the steep slope of La Malinche Mountain resembling a green velvet veil that protects the community and its inhabitants.

As beautiful as the natural setting was, what I enjoyed most about Alotepec was getting acquainted with its people. When we arrived we went directly to the Monterrubios’ house. They already knew of our visit so señora Juana and her daughter Himelda were preparing amarillo (one of Oaxaca’s seven most representative moles) tamales, Efrain’s favorites – my guide and partner.

After some small talk and a delicious meal we went to the Reyeses’ house where Felix and his wife Lis welcomed us as part of the family. Felix is a very interesting character that without any hesitation shares his people’s and community’s history. He guided us to the chapel located on the side of the mountain. From up there one can see the whole community and its surroundings. He told us stories (some historic, some legends, and some that fall in both categories) about the life of the Mixe people in the mountains. Our journey ended at the town church, probably the most beautiful church I’ve visited. Felix cheerfully told us more stories about the church, the political life of the Mixes, the sacrifices they make to their nahuales (wild side) on the side of the mountain, the medicinal plants and herbs of the region, among many other interesting topics.

Ricardo Monterrubio, our host for the night, was also a man with many stories to tell. From him I heard about the Mixe chile – an endemic chile from the region that I hope to learn more about in future visits – coffee cultivation, and the difficulties of farming. However, what I will remember most about these two families is that despite their humble living conditions, they don’t hesitate to welcome a stranger such as myself into their homes and share their food, knowledge and time.

In a world where technology, social networks, materialism, and the constant struggle to be the first and the best, I’m glad to know that places where time doesn’t mean money still exist. I’m nobody to say that people’s lives in Mixe communities are better or worse, or that their way of life is simpler or harder, or that their ways to confront daily challenges are wiser than those of city people. Watching their life in community, customs, believes, rituals, and their immense pride to be Ayuuk I can only compare my own life to theirs.

Recognition, money, material goods, and some other more banal things in which I sometimes spend to much time and effort, are really not that important to be happy. Being connected with mother Earth and thanking her for what she gives is one of the Mixe people’s most important believes. I believe we all can learn something from this. In future trips to the region I hope to learn a lot more about this wonderful region and its wonderful people.

¡Buen provecho!

2 Comments

  • Enjoyed reading this after remembering a few of the photos you shared elsewhere. What a beautiful place! I believe I understand what you mean about how special a place is where life is slower, and the outside world doesn’t matter. Lovely photos and great article, Ben.

  • […] tamales I’ve had in my life. I ate them in Oaxaca, way up in the mountains when I visited the Sierra Mixe. You can read more about that trip on the link. These tamales had just come out of the steamer and […]

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