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The Zapotecs are an indigenous people of Mexicomarker. The population is concentrated in the southern state of Oaxacamarker, but Zapotec communities exist in neighboring states as well. The present-day population is estimated at approximately 300,000 to 400,000 persons, many of whom are monolingual in one of the native Zapotec languages and dialects. In pre-Columbian times the Zapotec civilization was one of the highly developed cultures of Mesoamerica, which among other things included a system of writing. Many people of Zapotec ancestry have emigrated to the United States over several decades, and they maintain their own social organizations in the Los Angelesmarker and Central Valleymarker areas of Californiamarker.

There are four basic groups of Zapotecs: the , who live in the southern Isthmus of Tehuantepecmarker the , who live in the northern mountains of the Sierra Madre de Oaxacamarker, the southern Zapotecs, who live in the southern mountains of the Sierra Sur and the Central Valley Zapotecs, who live in and around the Valley of Oaxaca.


The name Zapotec is an exonym coming from Nahuatl (singular ), which means "inhabitants of the place of sapote." The Zapotecs call themselves , which means "The People."

The first Zapotecs came to Oaxaca from the north, probably in about 1000 BCE. While never displacing other peoples entirely, they became the predominant ethnic group. They built many important cities, the most renowned of which are Monte Albánmarker and Mitlamarker.



The Zapotecan language group is composed of over sixty variants of Zapotecan, as well as the closely-related Chatino language. The major variant is Isthmus Zapotec, which is spoken on the Pacific coastal plain of Southern Oaxaca's isthmus of Tehuantepecmarker.


Though the Zapotecs are now largely Catholics, some of their ancient beliefs and practices, such as the burial of the dead with valuables, still survive. The first missionaries among the Zapotecs were Bartolomé de Olmeda, a Mercedarian, and Juan Díaz, a secular priest, who was killed by the natives in Quechula near Tepeaca for having "overthrown their idols".

Zapotec Women

Zapotec women in the Mexican state of Oaxacamarker play a variety of social roles in their families and communities. As is true for many other cultures Zapotec women have historically had a different place in society than men. These roles are in the context of marriage, childbearing, and work. Within them they make up a vital part of the fabric that is Zapotec Oaxaca.

Gender ideals

Before the Spanishmarker arrived in Latin America gender ideas were not what they are today in Mesoamerica. "Spanish Moors focused on ascetic self-control and the limitation of sexual outlets as a point of honor as well as emphasizing a strongly dichotomous and hierarchical gender system that valued males and masculinity far more than females and femininity. Many of the indigenous peoples of the Americas were quite different in their gender system constructs and their ideas about what constituted appropriate sexual behavior." As opposed to a system which favored men over women, “complementarity shaped Mixtec & Zapotec gender roles." A cultural ideal was created where the biological sexes and gender roles complemented each other in indigenous custom as opposed to one dominating the other. Women even had the ability to participate in the courts system. “Masculine roles that put men in positions of dominance in relation to women suggest the influence of Spanish colonial two-gender system, which resulted in gender hierarchy and often subordinated women’s sexuality to that of men."

Women’s autonomy

Much of Zapotec social life is strongly segregated by gender. Men and women often work separately coming together to eat in the morning and evening and during ritual occasions they remain separate except when dancing." The purity of women is highly valued and their sexual and social autonomy can be hindered as a result. "Most women in the community, whether old or young are concerned with protecting their sexual reputations. Many girls are still strictly watched and not allowed to walk the streets alone after the age of ten or eleven." Though this is seen as a way to protect the women it ultimately restricts their behavior.In dating and marriage women are generally free to choose romantic partners; monogamy is valued but, having multiple sexual partners is not. However, for men and women this differs slightly, again for women virginity is regarded as important, even to the extent of publicly displaying the bloody sheet from to wedding night for some; while unmarried men are encouraged to experiment before they take a wife. Within marriage the degree to which women are able to exercise agency depends on the husband. Some women are very free and have the ability to do as they wish while others may have very controlling husbands. “While some men jealously guarded their wives (even insisting on driving them to the marketplace), others [allow] their wives and daughters considerable independence.” The issue of domestic violence is not necessarily commonplace however it is frequently the men who are the aggressive offenders against women. "Women do not often attack men physically, while men do occasionally beat their wives."

Household Function

In addition to playing an important role in the family as wives and daughters, another important role for the Zapotec women is that of mother. Childbearing and rearing are female duties. It is the women’s job to take on the responsibility of the children while she is also expected to be the one to take care of the household in terms of the cooking, cleaning, etcetera. In addition to all of this, many poor women are also expected to work in order to help support the family. “Women therefore must work to contribute to their family income, in addition to attending to their traditional household tasks of child care and food.”

Labor Function

In Zapotec Oaxaca the gendered implications of labor give different tasks to men and women. Because women are also responsible for caring for the children and the home, the outside work they do must revolve around those duties.

“While most agricultural activities associated with planting and harvesting are carried out directly by men, women also participate in agricultural production. In particular, female house hold workers help with weeding and harvesting. Seldom is a female seen planting or plowing. When no male labor is available, however, women also work in planting. The majority of female labor is directed toward supplying male workers with food during agricultural activities and providing supplemental labor during weeding and harvesting.”

However, with the onset of the globalized textile industry the ideas about women and work have been shifting dramatically. Women now see a way that they can participate in the market economy to make extra money for their families, and still are able to maintain the additional work they do at home which has no monetary value. As men are migrating for other work opportunities and agrarian work is decreasing, women have come to dominate the textile industry which caters mainly to tourists. Weaving has become a way of life for many Zapotec women in Oaxaca.

“Shirtmaking is a relatively new industry which began about 1960 when it was introduced by a trader. Sewing on treadle-type sewing machines has been practiced in [areas of Oaxaca] since about 1940 when they were brought into the area by the Singer Company. Shortly after that, women who since pre-Columbian times had contributed to the subsistence of their families by weaving, began to make men’s ready-made shirts and trousers for local sale and also for sale in Oaxaca and regional markets.”

The textile industry has had a significant impact on the wage earning opportunity of Zapotec women.

“Workers in Teotitlan’s textile industry employ a variety of strategies and systems of production [from] piecework production…increased direct control over production and distribution…weaving cooperatives…establishment of households and small businesses in Oaxaca… [to] subcontracting of weaving in Teotitlan and surrounding communities.”

As women are increasingly working and involved in the market because of their contribution to the textile industry the role they have in society is changing in relation to other aspects of their lives.

“While women in the community have common social roles based on their gendered positions as wives, mothers, and daughters, these roles are modified by the position of their household as weavers or merchants. In their discussions of differences among themselves, women particularly emphasized merchant or weaving status, specifically in the role of each in local labor relations.”

The merchant has come to symbolize a higher class status than the weaver because they are the individuals who essentially control the market.For Zapotec communities occupations are divided by gender. While men have a place in the textile industry as tailors it is still primarily considered to be ‘women’s work’. Furthermore, even though the textile industry has been thriving on a global scale, because of the gendered separation of labor there is a lower value placed on the work. The textile business is not considered to be a viable industry in the Zapotec community because it is essentially controlled by women.

“In general, the women [in Zapotec communities] are considered inferior to men. Their ability to contribute to the economy and family are respected but, they are believed to be less capable than men as managers and their work is looked upon as insignificant. In consequence Yaletecos do not see the shirt industry as an industry. Although shirt making like other women’s work is visible in itself, it is not an industry, but is perceived as part of the category of women’s work comprised of weaving, sewing, and embroiders. In contrast, men’s occupations are identifiable, and a man is known by the type of work he performs.”

Teotiteco textiles are being absorbed into the U.S. consumer market and shifting the local economy of Oaxaca from a small community of weavers and merchants and blending them into the global marketplace. The women are producing goods which are being bought and sold not only in Mexico, but in the United States as well.


  1. e.g. see the documentary film Blossoms of Fire

In the central valleys of Oaxaca, the Zapotec villages often have a specific craft associated with them. If you go to any one of these villages virtually all of the people living in that village will be a maker of that particular craft. In San Bartolo Coyotepec, they are known for their black pottery. San Martin Tilcajete is known for their carved and brightly painted wooden figures.

Although there are very specifically defined gender roles regarding weaving and textile production, it varies by village and by technique. In villages such as San Bartolo Yautepec where back-strap weaving is done, the weaving is done by women. These are usually lightweight fabrics used for table runners, purses and smaller items. In Teotitlán, Santa Ana del Valle and Villa Diaz Ordaz for example, rug weaving on floor looms is done primarily by men, though women also weave rugs. Women's contributions are becoming greater and many women have a certain degree of independence and autonomy through their income from weaving. But feeding, clothing and taking care of the family is usually their primary responsibility. In Mitla, fly shuttle weaving, of light-weight, but large scale fabrics is also more often done by men than by women, probably because of the physical effort required.

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