The Indigenous Veracruz

By John P. Schmal

The state of Veracruz, located along the eastern Gulf Coast of the Mexican Republic, has a population of 7,643,194 people, representing 6.8% of Mexico's national population in 2012. Politically divided into 212 municipios, Veracruz is a very narrow state with an area of 27,730 square miles (71,820 square kilometers). The tropical plains and low hills of the coastal region quickly give rise to the slopes of the Sierra Madre Oriental Mountains, thus creating a very diverse and rapidly changing topography


Veracruz shares common borders with the states of Tamaulipas (to the north), Oaxaca and Chiapas (to the south), Tabasco (to the southeast), and Puebla, Hidalgo, and San Luis Potosí (on the west). Veracruz also shares 430 miles (690 kilometers) of its eastern boundary with the Gulf of Mexico. The capital of Veracruz is Jalapa Enríquez.


Because of its famous port of the same name, Veracruz very quickly developed into a melting pot of cultures. Immigrants from Spain and other parts of the Spanish Empire started arriving at the Port of Veracruz in 1520s and continue to arrive to this day. Immigrants from other European nations and the Middle East also arrived at this location. African slaves were also brought to Veracruz when the slave trade flourished in Mexico (from 1519 to 1827). This topic was discussed in more detail in an article at this link:




However, the Africans, Middle Easterners and the Europeans were all recent introductions to Veracruz (post 1519). On the other hand, some of the Native Americans groups now inhabiting Veracruz have been living in that region for thousands of years. The history of the native peoples of the State of Veracruz is a very complex and fascinating story and some elements of this story are discussed below.


The Ethnic and Linguistic Diversity of Veracruz

The State of Veracruz has been home to a wide range of indigenous cultures over the last three thousand years. But, even today, Veracruz continues to display a unique cross-section of both linguistic and ethnic cultures. Most of the State’s principal regions are home to multiple ethnic and linguistic groups, as detailed below:


·       The Huasteca (Northern Veracruz, adjacent to Tamaulipas, San Luis Potosí Hidalgo, and Puebla): Náhuatl, Otomí. Tepehua and Huasteco languages.

·       Sierra de Huayacocotla (Northwestern Veracruz adjacent to Hidalgo): Náhuatl, Otomí, Tepehua and Huasteco languages.

·       Totonacapan (North central Veracruz, adjacent to Puebla): Náhuatl and Totonaca languages.

·       Grandes Montañas (Central Veracruz adjacent to Puebla): Náhuatl, Totonaca, Popoluca and Mazateco languages.

·       Llanuras de Sotavento (Southwestern Veracruz adjacent to Oaxaca): Chinanteco, Zapoteco, Popoluca, Náhuatl, Mazateco and Mixteco languages.

·       Tuxtlas Popoluca (Southeastern Veracruz): Náhuatl language.

·       Istmo Veracruzano (Southeastern Veracruz, adjacent to Tabasco and Oaxaca): Náhuatl, Zapoteco, Popoluca, Chinanteco, Totonaca, Zoque and Tzotzil anguages.  

Because Veracruz is such a narrow state, many of its indigenous groups inhabit territories that reach into neighboring states. It is important to remember that, while the borders of the State of Veracruz were the creation of political administrators two hundred years ago, the territories of its many ethnic groups were subject to social, geographic and topographic influences that are much older.  

Native Veracruz

In the pre-Hispanic period, the modern-day state of Veracruz was inhabited primarily by four indigenous cultures. The Huastecos and Otomíes occupied the north, while the Totonacs resided in the north-center. The Olmecs, one of the oldest cultures in the Americas, became dominant in the southern part of Veracruz. For the researcher seeking to learn the detailed histories of the individual communities of Veracruz, the following works will be useful:  

  1. “Aztec Imperial Strategies” (by Frances F. Berdan, Professor Michael E. Smith, and others)
  2. “A Guide to the Historical Geography of New Spain” (by Peter Gerhard)
  3. “Native Peoples of the Gulf Coast of Mexico” (edited by Alan R. Sandstrom and E. Huge Garcia Valencia)  

The Olmecs

The Olmecs occupied the coastal plains in the present-day states of Veracruz and Tabasco (southeast of Veracruz) from about 1000 B.C. to 300 B.C. Several Olmec sites have been found in Veracruz, including San Lorenzo and Tres Zapotes. These settlements were probably the most complex “ceremonial sites” found in all of Mesoamerica at the time of their apogee. For this reason, many anthropologists consider the Olmec civilization to be the “cultura madre” (mother culture) of the many Mesoamerican cultures that followed it.  

Pyramidal mounds have been found in many of the Olmec settlements. It is believed that the Olmec economy centered around agricultural production on the fertile floodplains, and was supplemented by fishing and shell fishing. However, by 300 B.C., the Olmec culture was eclipsed by other emerging civilizations in Mesoamerica.

The Tepehua

Carlos Guadalupe Heéras Rodriguez, in his chapter “The Tepehua” (in Alan R. Sandstrom & E. Hugo Garcia Valencia (editors), “Native Peoples of the Gulf Coast of Mexico”) notes that “The Tepehua are an ethnolinguistic group… that, in comparison to other groups… has received relatively little attention of researchers.” The Tepehua inhabited the northern section of the state of Veracruz and the northeast part of the State of Hidalgo, as well as some localities in the municipio of Pantepec in the State of Puebla.

In Veracruz, the Tepehua call themselves “Kenanka masipithni” (We are Tepehua), which, according to Roberto Williams Garcia, is derived from “hamasipini” (“owners of hills” or “one who lives on the hill”)” The word Tepehua was given to them by the Nahua and carries the same meaning. The Tepehua religion retains beliefs and practices that are rooted in their pre-Hispanic past. It is believed that the remoteness of Tepehua territory played some role in the failure of evangelists to convert the Tepehua during the colonial era. The Tepehua of the present day era are primarily engaged in agriculture.  They cultivate maize, frijol, mountain Chile, tomato, lentil, onion garlic and sesame.  

There are three variants of the Tepehua language, which belongs to the Mayan-Totonaco language group. Forty centuries ago, according to Anzaldo Figueroa (2000), the ancient Maya language was spoken throughout the Gulf Coast region. Tepehua is one of the languages that derived from the ancient Maya, separating from the Totonac language at least 26 centuries ago.  

The Mazatec Indians

The Mazatec call themselves “ha shuta enima,” which in their language means “we workers from the hills, humble, people of custom.” Around the year 890 A.D., the Nonoalcas arrived in the region; their capital city, called Matza-apatl or Mazatlán, gave them the name of “Mazatec,” which in Náhuatl means "people of the deer".


The Mazatec today inhabit the northern part of the state of Oaxaca, but some Mazatecos also live in the southern part of Veracruz. Their territory includes two well differentiated regions, both in terms of the environment and culture: the highlands, on the slopes of the Eastern Sierra Madre, at altitudes between 1,200 and 2,500 meters above sea level and the lowlands, located in what is known as the Papaloapan Basin. 

The Totonac (Totonaque) Indians

By the time, the Spaniards arrived on the Gulf Coast of Mexico in 1519, the Totonac Indians occupied a province known as Totonacapan, which stretched through the north central part of Veracruz and the Sierra Norte of Puebla. Occupying some fifty towns and boasting a population of a quarter million people, the Totonacs spoke four primary dialects. Their capital, Cempoala, located five miles inland from the present city of Vera Cruz, had a population of about 25,000.  

There is little agreement about the origin of the word Totonac, but Bernardino de Sahagún – a Franciscan friar and ethnographer – learned that the Mexica called the provinces where the Totonacs lived “totonacatlalli” – which means “land of heat.” And Totonac means “tierracalenteño,” or “inhabitant of the hot lands.” Other sources claim that the Mexica used the term “totonaco” in a derogatory context, referring to a people of “little ability or skill.”  

Both the Totonac and Tepehua languages form the Totonac linguistic family and are believed to be Macro-Mayan languages (i.e., showing similarity to the Mayan Linguistic Family). The Totonac language itself is divided into three primary dialects.  

Popoluca (Homshuk)

The Popoluca Indians inhabit the southeastern part of the state of Veracruz, not far from the border with Tabasco State. The Popoluca call themselves “Homshuk,” which means “God of Corn.” However, the word Popoluca originated in the Náhuatl language and was used to refer to foreign peoples (i.e., people who do not speak their language). Traditionally, the Popoluca have been engaged in agriculture and cultivate a wide variety of foods, including maíz, frijol and rice.  

The Popoluca language corresponds to the Zoque-Mixe branch of the Macro-Maya Linguistic Family (distantly related to the Mayan language). Today, the Popoluca language is divided into four dialects. Linguistic analysis has determined that the Popoluca probably settled in southern Veracruz approximately fourteen centuries ago.  

The Otomí (The Sierra Nahñu)

The Otomí (who call themselves Nahñu, or Hñahñu) belong to the seventh most common language group in Mexico and presently occupy portions of the states of Hidalgo, México, Puebla, Tlaxcala, Veracruz, Querétaro and Michoacán. Within the State of Veracruz, Otomí is also the seventh most commonly-spoken language.

Nahñu belongs to the Otopamean language family, a subfamily of the very large Otomanguean Linguistic Group. However, linguistic studies indicate that the Otomí split from the ancestral Otomanguean about 6,500 years ago.

 Conquest by the Aztecs

During the Fifteenth Century and the early years of the Sixteenth Century, the mighty Aztec Empire, ruled by the Mexica Indians from their capital city Tenochtitlán (now Mexico City), began a concerted effort to subdue and incorporate the rich eastern coastal areas into their domain. After their conquest by the Mexica ruler Axayácatl in 1480, the Totonacs were incorporated into the Aztec provinces of Cempoallan, Misantla and Xalapa. These areas, with an abundance of water and fertile land, were richly endowed with a wide array of vegetation and crops, including cedars, fruits, cotton, cacao, maize, beans, and squashes. In pre-Hispanic times, cotton was a very significant crop, which the Totonacs used to make cotton armor. As tribute to their Aztec masters, the Totonacs sent cloth, clothing, maize, foodstuffs, honey and wax to Tenochtitlán.

The province of Cempoallan, and its associated Totonac towns and fortifications, could mobilize up to 50,000 warriors at a time. The natives of Cempoallan, incited by the neighboring Tlaxcalans (who remained an independent enclave within the Aztec Empire), continuously rebelled against the Mexica. Even the last Mexica emperor Moctezuma II spent the early years of his reign leading campaigns against the Indians of Veracruz.

The Aztec Province of Xalapa (Jalapa), also inhabited by Totonac Indians, was only added to the Mexica domain by Moctezuma II in the years immediately preceding the Spanish contact. Jalapa stood along a major route between the coast and Tenochtitlán and was rich agricultural territory, with maize and chilies as its prominent crops.

Totonac was the prominent language in the northern half of Xalapa, while Náhuatl was spoken in the south. When Cortés arrived on the east coast in 1519, he used the inland route through Xalapa to move inland. The city of Jalapa has been the capital of Veracruz since 1824.

The Spaniards and the Totonacs

The Totonacs were the first natives whom Captain Hernán Cortés met upon his landing on the Gulf Coast near present-day Veracruz. Being compelled by the Mexica to the payment of a heavy tribute, including the frequent seizure of their people for slaves or for sacrifice in the bloody Aztec rites, the Totonac were ripe for revolt, and their king, Tlacochcalcatl, eagerly welcomed Cortés and promised the support of his fifty thousand warriors against Emperor Moctezuma and the Aztec Empire. The Spaniards helped the Totonacs to expel Moctezuma's tribute-collectors in Totonacapan who apparently fled to a Mexica garrison at Tizapancingo, about twenty miles to the southwest. With a full force of Spaniards, 16 horses, and Totonacs, Cortés seized control of Tizapancingo.

The Founding of La Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz (1519)

In June 1519, the Totonacs helped Cortés and the Spaniards in the founding of “La Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz” (The Rich Town of the True Cross) on the site of the present-day port of Veracruz. Veracruz thus became the first city founded by the Spaniards on the North American continent. Even today, Veracruz remains as one of the most important commercial and industrial centers of Mexico.

In the subsequent events, culminating in the taking of the city of Tenochtitlán and the downfall of the Aztec Empire in August 1521, the Totonac took an active part in the campaign as allies of the Spaniards and the Tlaxcalans. In addition to giving ready allegiance to Spaniards, they embraced the Roman Catholic faith of the Europeans. As early as 1523, the Franciscans first started working among the Totonac people of the highlands. The Augustinians arrived a decade later to proselytize the Totonacs along the border region of Hidalgo, Puebla, and Veracruz.

H.R. Harvey and Isabel Kelly, the authors of “The Totonac” in the “Handbook of Middle American Indians,” write that “In the large areas where Totonac speech has survived to the present, there was little to attract the Spaniard. Transportation and communication were difficult; Also, Totonacapan largely lacked the mineral resources so attractive to the Spaniards. Thus, until relatively recent years, much of Totonacapan has remained intact and isolated, and many forms of native Totonac culture have survived.”

Today, the Totonacs of Puebla and Veracruz, numbering about 100,000, are industrious farmers. Their chief crop is sugar cane, from which they manufacture sugar in their own mills. Dancing and festivals are important elements of their culture. Although some of their festivals retain elements of their ancient sacrificial rites, most of the Totonacs are Roman Catholic today.  

The Huastecos (Teenek)

The Huasteco Indians, who speak a form of the Mayan language, presently occupy 55 municipios in the modern-day states of Veracruz, San Luis Potosí and Hidalgo, as well as smaller sections of southern Tamaulipas and eastern Querétaro. It is believed that they were isolated from the rest of the Maya and evolved separately and may have arrived in the area as early as 200 A.D.

Under Aztec rule, the Huastecos inhabited two Aztec provinces, Atlan and Tochpan. Atlan Province, located in the area of the present-day towns of Metlaltoyuca and Pantepec, was occupied by Huastecos, Tepehuán, Otomíes and Totonacs. This region was an important cotton-growing region, and the Huastecos of this province were forced to pay tribute to the Mexica in the form of skins, paper, cotton and blankets. However, when the Spaniards arrived in their territory, the Huastecos did not cooperate with them as the neighboring Tlaxcalans and Totonacs did. In 1520, the Huastecos wiped out a small Spanish settlement that had been set up in their territory.

Once he had taken control of Tenochtitlán in August 1521, Cortés marched toward Huasteco territory with a large force of Spaniards and Mexica allies, intent on subduing them. After meeting with considerable resistance, Cortés defeated the Huastecos and founded the Villa de San Esteban in 1522. However, revolts by the Huastecos in October-December 1523 and 1525-26 were put down with great cruelty. In spite of their battles with both the Mexica and the Spaniards, the Huastecos continue to survive today, maintaining many aspects of their traditional culture and language. Huastecan music and dancing have influenced the musical folklore of Mexico.

The Huasteca region of northern Veracruz was originally named after the Huasteca people. This region is in the northern reaches of the Gulf of Mexico where the Sierra Madre mountain range meets the coastal plain of the Gulf. This is considered a rich agricultural region with an abundance of water from the riverine system flowing to the Gulf. The Huasteca consists of 55 municipios that are spread across Veracruz, Hidalgo and San Luis Potosí and boast a wide diversity of indigenous peoples (besides the Huastecos).

Tochtepec Province

Tochtepec was a large and sprawling Aztec province that extended from the Gulf Coast inland to the rugged eastern mountains. While the Náhuatl language of the Aztecs dominated Tochtepec, the Chinantec and Mazatec languages dominated the southwestern edge of the province. The Aztecs valued this province because it became a source of many highly valued resources, including cacao, cotton, precious feathers, gold, greenstones, and rubber, as well as several staple foodstuffs, fruits, and fish.

Cuetlaxtlan Province

The Aztec province of Cuetlaxtlan lay along Veracruz's broad coastal plain north of Tochtepec. Michael E. Smith and Frances F. Berdan, in their descriptions of the Aztec provinces, write that “Cuetlaxtlan was very frequently caught in the political machinations of the Mexica and Tlaxcalans. Upon abandonment by their Tlaxcalan allies, Cuetlaxtlan was conquered by Moctezuma Ilhuicamina.” However, the province was frequently in a state of rebellion against their Mexica overlords. Eventually, Emperor Axayácatl, who ruled from 1468 to 1481, reconquered the region and installed Aztec tribute collectors and garrisons.

The Nahuas of Veracruz

Náhuatl is the most spoken language in the Mexican Republic. More than 1.5 million people in Mexico speak Náhuatl, representing 23.1% of all indigenous speakers in the country. Náhuatl is also the most spoken language in Veracruz. As a matter of fact, Náhuatl speakers are scattered through several regions of Veracruz. The four primary regions in which Nahua speakers live are:


·       The Nahuas of Huasteca (the Huasteca region extends from northern Veracruz into eastern Hidalgo and southeastern San Luis Potosí). Today, an estimated 75% of the population of the Huasteca speaks Náhuatl, while the remainder speak Teenek or Huastec (22%), Otomí (2%) and Tepehua, Pame and Totonac.

·       The Nahuas of Totonacapan. Totonacapan extends through both Veracruz and the Sierra Norte de Puebla region of Puebla State. This interethnic area includes Náhuatl speakers, as well as Totonac, Tepehua and Otomí speakers.

·       The Nahuas of the Sierra de Zongolica. Situated in the Grandes Montañas of the west central region of Veracruz, this area is comprised of 12 municipios. The Náhuatl speakers in this area speak the Orizaba dialect. In 1991, speakers of the Orizaba dialect through all states numbered 120,000.

·       The Nahuas of Southern Veracruz: Náhuatl speakers inhabit some portions of the southern region of Veracruz, which is composed of lowland plains and volcanic hills and borders the western part of the State of Tabasco.


According to the studies of Guy Stresser-Péan, Jesus Vargas Ramírez and María del Refugio Cabrera, the Náhuatl speakers of the Huasteca did not arrive in the area at the time of the Aztec expansion and conquest. Instead, the Náhuatl movement into the area took place earlier in the Twelfth Century following the fall of Tula (as described by María Teresa Rodríguez López and Pablo Valderrama Rouy in “the Gulf Coast Nahua” in “Native Peoples of the Gulf Coast of Mexico.”


The 1921 Mexican Census

In the unusual 1921 Mexican census, residents of each state were asked to classify themselves in several categories. With a total state population of 1,159,935, the inhabitants of Veracruz were categorized according to the following racial classifications:

  • 406,638 persons (or 35.06%) claimed to be “indígena pura” (of pure indigenous background)
  • 556,472 persons (or 47.97%) classified themselves as being “indígena mezclada con blanca” (indigenous mixed with white)
  • 114,150 persons (or 9.84%) classified themselves as “blanca” (white).

It is worth noting that the classifications for the entire Mexican Republic were quite similar to the figures for Veracruz. Out of a total population of 14,334,780 in the Mexican Republic, 4,179,449 – or 29.2% – claimed to be of pure indigenous background, while 8,504,561 – or 59.3% – were of mixed origins.  The total number of people who classified themselves as blanca was only 1,404,718 – or 9.8% of the population – almost identical with the corresponding figure for Veracruz.

Indigenous Groups in the 2000 Census

According to the 2000 census, the population of persons five years and more who spoke indigenous languages in Veracruz amounted to 633,372 individuals, who represented 9.2% of the total state population.  These individuals spoke a wide range of languages, many of which are transplants from other parts of the Mexican Republic.  The largest indigenous groups represented in the state were:


·       Náhuatl (338,324 speakers)

·       Totonaco (119,957)

·       Huasteco (51,625)

·       Popoluca (36,999)

·       Zapoteco (20,678)

·       Chinanteco (19,285)

·       Otomí (17,584)

·       Mazateco (8,784).


Nahuas of Huasteca Veracruzana (Machehuale)

According to the 2000 census, Náhuatl was the most widely spoken language in Veracruz, accounting for 53.42% of all indigenous speakers in the state.  Almost one-third of these people lived in the Huasteca Meridional, an area in which a large number of Náhuatl speakers lived.  


In the 2000 census, the Totonaco Indians of Veracruz numbered 119,957 persons five years of age and older, representing 49.98% of all the Totonaco speakers in the Mexican Republic (240,034). Today, the Totonacos continue to live throughout the coastal plain of the state of Veracruz and in the adjacent mountain ranges of Puebla.

Haustecos (Teenek)

In the 2000 census, the speakers of the Huasteco language of Veracruz numbered 51,625 and represented the third largest language group in Veracruz. The Huastecos living in Veracruz represented 34.36% of the total Huasteco population of the Mexican Republic (150,257) in that year.  The Huastecas are also called Teenek, which means “Those who live in the fields.” The area occupied by the Huastecos today lies mainly in Eastern San Luis Potosí, Northern Veracruz and Northeastern Hidalgo. There are some smaller populations of Teenek in the states of Tamaulipas and Puebla.

The 2010 Census

At the time of the 2010 census, Náhuatl remained the most widely spoken language in Mexico with 1,544,968 persons five years of age and older speaking that tongue. Náhuatl speakers, in fact, represented 23.08% of the indigenous speakers 5 and older in the Mexican Republic. The 12 most spoken languages in Veracruz in the 2010 census are shown (as well as their percentage ranking within the Republic):  

  1. Náhuatl: 355,785 speakers (No. 1 language in Mexico)
  2. Totonaca: 120,810 speakers (No. 8 language in Mexico)
  3. Huasteco: 52,660 speakers (No. 10 language in Mexico)
  4. Popoluca: 40,796 speakers (No. 23 language in Mexico)
  5. Zapoteco: 20,678 speakers (No. 5 language group in Mexico)
  6. Chinanteca: 19,285 speakers (No. 12 language group in Mexico)
  7. Otomí: 17,584 speakers (No. 7 language group in Mexico)
  8. Mazateca: 8,784 speakers (No. 9 language in Mexico)
  9. Tepehua: 6,103 speakers (No. 36 language in Mexico)
  10. Mixteca: 3,535 speakers (No. 3 language group in Mexico)
  11. Zoque: 2,818 speakers (No. 18 language group in Mexico)
  12. Mixe: 2,358 speakers (No. 14 language group in Mexico)  

The Leading Indigenous States in 2010

In the 2010 census, the four Mexican states with the largest populations of indigenous speakers (by number) in the 2010 census were:

  1. Oaxaca – 1,165,186 indigenous speakers
  2. Chiapas – 1,141,499 indigenous speakers
  3. Veracruz – 644,559 indigenous speakers
  4. Puebla – 601,680 indigenous speakers

However, although Veracruz had the third largest population of indigenous speakers, it was ranked tenth among the Mexican states for the percentage of indigenous speakers (9.4%). This is easily explained by the fact that Veracruz has the third largest population in Mexico (after Distrito Federal and Estado de Mexico) and thus has a much larger population of both indigenous and non-indigenous people than most other states.

The 2010 census also included a question that asked people if they considered themselves indigenous, whether or not an indigenous language was spoken. Nearly one-fourth of the residents of Veracruz 3 years of age and older (19.9%) were classified as indigenous, ranking Veracruz ninth among the Mexican states.

Many languages in Mexico are in danger of gradual extinction as the children of indigenous speakers move to new locations in Mexico and fail to learn the languages of their parents. For the State of Veracruz, this may also be a factor, but the State and its people also feel great pride in their connection to their indigenous past. It is likely that some of the more concentrated indigenous-speaking communities of Veracruz will continue to carry on the legacy of their native ancestors and pass their languages down to future generations.  

Copyright © 2014 by John P. Schmal. All Rights Reserved.

Primary Sources:  

Alan R. Sandstrom and E. Hugo García Valencia (editors), “Native Peoples of the Gulf Coast of Mexcico” (Tucson: Arizona University Press, 2005).

Instituto Nacional de Estadística Geografía e Informática (INEGI). Censos de Población y Vivienda, 2000 y 2010.

INEGI, Censo de Población y Vivienda (2010): “Panorama Sociodemográfico de México” (March 2011).

H. R. Harvey and Isabel Kelly, "The Totonac" in Evon Z. Vogt, “Handbook of Middle American Indians, Part Two, Vol. 8” (Austin: University of Texas, 1969), pp. 638-681.

Michael E. Smith and Frances F. Berdan, “Province Descriptions” in Frances F. Berdan et al., “Aztec Imperial Strategies” (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1996), pp. 265-349.

Peter Gerhard, “A Guide to the Historical Geography of New Spain” (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1972).  

Scheffler, Lilián, “Grupos Indígenas de México” (México, 1985).  

Veracruz, “Análisis Social. Plan de Desarrollo para Pueblos Indígenas.” Online:







Indigenous Tamaulipas

By John P. Schmal


The state of Tamaulipas is located in the northeastern portion of the Mexican Republic.  It shares common borders with the Mexican States of Nuevo León (to the west), San Luis Potosí (to the southwest) and Veracruz (to the south). It also shares its northern boundary with the American state of Texas.  On the east, Tamaulipas also has a 458-kilometer long coastline along the Gulf of Mexico.  

With a total of 80,249 square kilometers, Tamaulipas is divided into 43 municipios and occupies 4.1% of the national territory.  However, Tamaulipas’ 3,268,554 inhabitants make up only 2.9% of the national population of the Mexican Republic. The capital of Tamaulipas is Ciudad Victoria. The northern, central, eastern and southeastern regions of Tamaulipas mainly consist of hills and coastal plains that expand westward into the Sierra Madre Oriental. Only the western and southwestern regions of the State include the high mountains of the Sierra Madre Oriental.  

Origin of the Name

There are several theories about the origins of the name Tamaulipas, the most accepted of which states that Tamaulipas means “high mountain.” The name is believed to derive from the Huasteca word, “Tamaholipa.” Tam means “in” or “the place of.”  While some say that Tamaulipas means “the place of high mountains,” others historians believe it means “the place where people pray a lot.”  

The investigator Gabriel Saldívar y Silva theorized in his “Los Indios de Tamaulipas” (Institute de Instituto Panamericano de Geografia e Historia Publication No. 70: Distrito Federal, 1943) that the indigenous peoples of Tamaulipas represented an Eastern branch of Paleo-Americans that had probably arrived in the region from New Mexico, Coahuila and Texas.  

Conquest of the Huastecas

The first Spanish expedition to reach Tamaulipas was led by Hernández de Córdoba and Juan Grijalva (1518).  A few years later, after taking control of Tenochtitlán (Mexico City) and the Aztec Empire in August 1521, the Conquistador Hernán Cortés marched toward Huasteco territory on the Gulf Coast with a large force of Spaniards and Mexica auxiliaries. The Huasteco Indians, who speak a form of the Mayan language, today occupy 55 municipios in the modern-day states of Veracruz, San Luis Potosí and Hidalgo, as well as smaller regions of southern Tamaulipas and Querétaro. It is believed that they were isolated from the rest of the Maya and evolved separately and may have arrived in the area as early as 200 A.D. Under Aztec rule, the Huastecos occupied two Aztec provinces, Atlan and Tochpan.

After meeting with considerable resistance, Cortés defeated the Huastecos and founded the Villa de San Esteban in 1522. However, subsequent revolts by the Huastecos in October-December 1523 and 1525-26 were put down with great cruelty. In spite of their battles with both the Mexica and the Spaniards, the Huastecos continue to survive today, maintaining many aspects of their traditional culture and language. In fact, Huastecan music and dancing have influenced the musical folklore of Mexico.

After the conquest of the Huastecas, the Spaniards explored the Tamaulipas coastline up to the Rio Grande during the late 1520s. Then, in 1530, Franciscan missionaries began their work in the southern area of Tamaulipas, creating the first mission for the Huastecan and Pame Indians. In the decades that followed, Spanish slaving parties ranged northward into what they called “Chichimec” territory in an attempt to find natives for the profitable trade in Indian slaves. The slaving activity reached a crescendo in the 1580s and was continued later in a disguised form under the system of “congregas” by which entire rancherías were rounded up and transported to Nuevo Leon.  

However, native attacks eventually pushed the Spaniards back to the Tamesí River in southern Tamaulipas. For the next century-and-a-half, the Spanish authorities became more focused on subduing other areas of Mexico and paid little attention to most of this area. Not until 1747 did extensive European colonization begin with the founding of the “Nuevo Santander” colony.  

The Seno Mexicano

By the end of the Sixteenth Century, Spanish settlement was moving northward along the western slope of the Sierra Madre Oriental toward the Rio Grande River that today represents the border between Texas and Tamaulipas. The Spanish movement became even more targeted in the early Seventeenth Century when Spain recognized that the French advance down the Mississippi River represented a threat to its colonial empire. This prompted the Spaniards to establish missions and presidios in east Texas in 1716. Two years later, the mission of San Antonio de Valero (later known as “The Alamo”), was established.  

However, according to Hubert J. Miller, in “Jose de Escandon: Colonizer of Nuevo Santander” (1980), the Spanish advance into Texas bypassed the area called the “Seno Mexicano,” which extended from the Pánuco River at Tampico to the Nueces River in Texas. Inland, it stretched to the Sierra Madre Oriental, a distance that ranged between 100 and 150 miles. This region encompassed nearly all of present-day Tamaulipas and the southern triangle of Texas below the Nueces River.  

Indigenous Groups in the Seno Mexicano

According to Miller, there were an estimated 80 Indian tribes that occupied the Seno Mexicano prior to the arrival of the Spanish colonists in the mid-Eighteenth Century (the Nuevo Santander settlement). Studies indicate that some thirty dialects were spoken, many of them closely related to one another and probably originating from a trunk language. The more advanced tribes tended to live in communities consisting of four to five hundred persons.  

Early observers noted that these small tribal groups appeared to be at war with each other a great deal and had minimal contact with native groups outside of their immediate areas. Most of their languages have been lost to history. The primary sources of information available about these Tamaulipas indigenous groups are:  

·       Gabriel Saldivar, “Los Indios de Tamaulipas” (Mexico City: Pan American Institute of Geography and History, 1943).

·       J. R. Swanton, “Linguistic Material from the Tribes of Southern Texas and Northeastern Mexico” (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1940).

·       Rudolph C. Troike, "Notes on Coahuiltecan Ethnography," Bulletin of the Texas Archeological Society 32 (1962).

·       Campbell, Thomas N. “Coahuiltecans and Their Neighbors,” in Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 10 (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1983).  

According to Saldivar, when the Spaniards arrived, they found four cultures in the area of present-day Tamaulipas. Each of the four groups are discussed below.  

Grupos del Norte (the Coahuiltecans)

The Groups of the North were primitive, nomadic groups that lived mainly in the area between the Purificación and Bravo Rivers (The Río Bravo is known as the Rio Grande to Americans today). These numerous small northern Tamaulipas tribes appeared to speak closely-related languages and shared the same basic culture. Because the Spaniards did not initially take an interest in describing individual native groups or classifying them into ethnic and linguistic groups, major dialectic and cultural contrasts went unclassified for a long time.  

The first attempt at classification was based on language, and came after most of the Indian groups had already gone extinct (or assimilated). Eventually, scholars constructed the so-called "Coahuiltecan culture" by assembling bits of specific and generalized information recorded by Spaniards from widely scattered parts of the region.  

Today, we recognize that the Coahuiltecans were made up of hundreds of small, autonomous, distinctively named Indian groups that lived by hunting, gathering and fishing. It was their practice to move from one traditional campsite to another, following herds of migrating animals and tracking seasonal changes. The Coahuiltecans were tattooed and wore a breechcloth or hide skirt, fiber sandals, and, in bad weather, they covered themselves with animal hides. Animal teeth, bones, feathers, stones, and seeds were worn as jewelry and sometimes woven into their intricately braided hair. Shelter consisted of small temporary huts of brush or grass, sensible structures given their way of life and the climate of the area over which they ranged.  

The Coahuiltecans ranged through a large area that included most of present-day Coahuila, Nuevo León, northern Tamaulipas and southern Texas (north to San Antonio River). A large number of the small tribal groups or bands belonging to the Coahuiltecan stock remain unknown to this day and even their locations – in many cases – is not clear.  

A more detailed discussion of the Coahuiltecan Indians can be accessed at the following link:  


Grupos de la Sierra Madre (i.e., Janambres, Pizones, Pames, Anacah)

The Groups of the Sierra Madre – such as the Pizones and Janambres – were semi-sedentary groups who occupied caves and projections within the mountains. They lived by hunting and practiced a very rudimentary form of agriculture. The groups of the Sierra Madre were very belligerent and initially opposed the Spanish incursions, but eventually were assimilated.  

Grupos de Tamaulipas (i.e., Contetunas, Tagualilos, Maguagues, Caramiguay)

The Tamaulipas groups included some sedentary peoples who were dedicated to agriculture, with well-structured religious practices. The Tamaulipec groups were mainly small tribes that occupied the central and southeastern parts of the present-day state. Today, it is believed that the so-called Tamaulipecan family was related the Coahulitecans. Through their Coahuiltecan ties, it is believed that the Tamaulipecs were part of the Hokan language group, but very few fragments of their languages survive today. However, Miller notes that “there is evidence that some of their words may still be present in the language of the Mexican American people in the south Texas area.” It is likely that the Tamaulipecs also have some connection to the Karankawan and Tonkawan groups to the north of them (in Texas).  

Grupo de Hauxteco (Huastecos)

The fourth Tamaulipas group, the Huastecas – discussed in more detail earlier – were a more advanced group that extended through much of Veracruz and merely occupied the southern portion of the present-day State of Tamaulipas. Miller referred to the Huastecas as “the cultural heirs of the Olmec civilization.” The Huasteca cultivated cotton (which they supplied to the Aztec Empire), maintained trade with other indigenous groups to the west, built artificial terraces and raised domesticated animals.  

A list of some of the Coahuiltecan and Tamaulipecan groups and their locations is shown below:  

  • The Anachiguaies were located around Escandón.
  • The Apostatas were in the vicinity of Burgos.
  • The Aracanaes were found near Altamira.
  • The Atanaguaypacam were a Coahuiltecan group that lived on the Gulf Coast near the mouth of the Rio Grande. In the middle Eighteenth Century their settlements were reported to be along the shores of the numerous small bays and islands near the mouth of the Rio Grande.
  • The Borrados occupied the area near Dolores.
  • The Cacalotes inhabited the area around Mier.
  • The Cadimas occupied the area about Guemes.
  • The Camaleones lived near Santillán.
  • The Carrizos lived around Camargo.
  • The Comecamotes lived near Soto la Marina.
  • The Comecrudo – known to the Spaniards as “raw meat eaters,” were a Coahuiltecan people who lived along the south bank of the Rio Grande near Reynosa and hunted and gathered wild plant foods on both sides of the river. At times the Comecrudo Indians were also referred to as Carrizo, a Spanish name applied to many Coahuiltecan groups along the Rio Grande below Laredo. In 1886 the ethnologist A. S. Gatschet found a few elderly Comecrudo near Reynosa who could still speak their native language. Gatschet's Comecrudo vocabulary and texts helped to establish the linguistic affiliations of many Indian groups of southern Texas and northeastern Mexico.
  • The Inocoplo – also known as Barroso, Mesquite, Mulato, Serrano and Sincoalne, originally lived in along the Purificacion River near Hoyos in Central Tamaulipas. However, when their area was brought under Spanish control during the second half of the Eighteenth Century, the Inocoplos moved northward. Some of them entered the San Antonio de Valero Mission of San Antonio in 1784-85 under the names Gincape (Inocoplo) and Mulato.
  • Cuero Quemado (Spanish for “burnt skin”) was applied to a Coahuiltecan-speaking band that ranged both sides of the lower Rio Grande during the second half of the Eighteenth century. Cuero Quemado may have been a local Spanish name for a downstream group of Tepemaca Indians, who occupied the Rio Grande valley in the area between Laredo and Rio Grande City.
  • The Cotoname (also known as Catanamepaque, Cotomane, Cotonan) lived on both sides of the Rio Grande below the sites of Camargo and future Rio Grande City, where they were sometimes called Carrizo, a Spanish name applied to many Coahuiltecan groups along the Rio Grande below Laredo. In 1886 a few Cotoname Indians were still living at La Noria Ranch in southern Hidalgo County and at Las Prietas in northern Tamaulipas.
  • The Cootajanam (Cootajan), apparently a Coahuiltecan group, reportedly had settlements on the north bank of the Lower Rio Grande in the area of present-day Cameron and Hidalgo counties.
  • The Concuguyapem (Couguyapem), apparently a Coahuiltecan group, lived on the north bank of the Rio Grande between present Zapata and Rio Grande City.
  • The Lugplapiagulam (Hueplapiagulam) lived along the lower Rio Grande in the area between present Rio Grande City and the mouth of the river. Their name is said to mean “ground chili pepper.” The maps of Jiménez Moreno and G. Saldivar place this group in the area of present Zapata County.
  • The Mariguanes lived near Horcasitas in Southern Tamaulipas.
  • The Masacuajulam (Imasacuajulam) lived along the lower Rio Grande somewhere between present-day Zapata and the mouth of the river in the middle Eighteenth Century. Their name is said to mean “those who travel alone.”
  • The Mayapem (Mallopeme) – a Coahuiltecan tribe – ranged on both sides of the Rio Grande in southern Texas and northern Tamaulipas during the Eighteenth Century. In the latter half of that century they entered missions on the south bank of the River: San Agustín de Laredo at Camargo and San Joaquín del Monte near Reynosa.
  • The Parampamatuju (Parammatugu) lived along the Rio Grande between Camargo, Tamaulipas and the mouth of the River. The maps of Jiménez Moreno and Saldivar place the Parampamatujus on the north bank of the Rio Grande in modern Hidalgo County. The name is said to mean “men who are painted bright red.”
  • The Perpepug lived below the present Rio Grande City along the Lower Rio Grande. The maps of Jiménez Moreno and Saldivar show them on the north bank of the river in what is now Zapata County. The name is said to mean "white heads," which suggests some distinctive form of head decoration, perhaps painting or a special kind of head dress.
  • The Perpacug (Pexpacux) may havge lived on the north bank of the Rio Grande near the Gulf Coast, probably in what is now Starr County.
  • The Peupuetem (Peupuepuem) probably lived on the north bank of the Lower Rio Grande in the middle Eighteenth Century, somewhere in the area present-day Cameron and Hidalgo counties. The name is said to mean "those who speak differently."
  • The Pinto Indians lived on both sides of the Rio Grande at locations that included San Fernando, Tamaulipas and the area of present-day Reynosa-McAllen. In 1757 there was a Pinto settlement in what is now southern Hidalgo County. Some Pinto families entered the missions of San Fernando and Nuevo Santander in northern Tamaulipas. A few descendants of the Pinto Indians were still living near Reynosa as late as 1900.
  • The Sainoscos lived near Padilla.
  • The Salapaque (Alapagueme, Saulapaguet, Talapagueme, Zalapagueme) were a Coahuiltecan band that lived on both sides of the lower Rio Grande but mainly on the south side at various points between Matamoros and Reynosa in northern Tamaulipas. Some entered missions at Reynosa and Camargo, where they remained until well after 1800.
  • The Segujulapem – who spoke a Coahuiltecan language – had settlements on the north bank, had settlements on the north bank of the Rio Grande in what is now Cameron and Hidalgo counties. The name is said to mean "those who live in the huisaches" (shrubs).
  • The Sepinpacam lived on the north bank of the Rio Grande in what is now Cameron and Hidalgo counties. The name, which is said to mean “salt makers,” suggests that this was one of the Coahuiltecan bands that produced salt at La Sal Vieja, a salt lake at a nearby site, later in Willacy County.
  • The Serranos lived along the Rio Purificacion near Santa Barbara.
  • The Sibayones lived near Aguayo and Río de los Infantes in southern Tamaulipas. They were also identified with the Pizones.
  • The Sumi are probably the same as the Samacoalapem, who lived on the south bank of the Rio Grande between Camargo and Mier, Tamaulipas.
  • The Tejón (Texón) Indians is a Coahuiltecan band whose name is Spanish for “badger.” They lived along the south bank of the Rio Grande in the vicinity of Reynosa, Tamaulipas, when it was founded in the middle of the Eighteenth Century. After Reynosa was settled, some Tejóns moved to the Río San Juan about twenty-five miles from Camargo, where they remained until after 1800. Along with other Coahuiltecan bands on the lower Rio Grande, the Tejóns were sometimes referred to as Carrizos. In 1886 a group of Carrizos, apparently including a few Tejóns, was living near Charco Escondido about twenty miles south of Reynosa, and as late as 1907 some Tejóns still lived near Reynosa at a community known as Las Prietas.
  • The Tepemacas – a Coahuiltecan-speaking group – ranged along both sides of the Rio Grande in the area between Laredo and Rio Grande City and also along the Río Alamo upstream from Mier. The Tepemacas appear to be closely related to the Cuero Quemados, who lived farther down the Rio Grande, and it has been suggested that both names refer to the same people.
  • Clancluiguyguen: this Coahuiltecan band – also known as Tlanchuguin – lived on the north bank of the Rio Grande between present-day Zapata and Rio Grande City.
  • The Uscapem (Iscapan) Indians, who were probably Coahuiltecans, lived on the lower Rio Grande. In the middle eighteenth century their main settlements were east of Reynosa, Tamaulipas. They also foraged and camped on the Texas side of the river, particularly in the area of Cameron and Hidalgo counties.
  • Unpuncliegut (Hunzpunzliegut) Indians, who probably spoke Coahuiltecan, lived on the southern part of the Texas coast. In the middle eighteenth century their settlements were along the mainland shore of the Laguna Madre in the area of present Cameron and Willacy counties.
  • The Tortuga Indians, who were probably Coahuiltecan in speech, are believed to have lived near the Tamaulipas-Nuevo León boundary about halfway between Mier and Cerralvo. One source (Uhde) also links the Tortugas with the Texas coast, particularly the section between the Nueces and the Rio Grande.
  • Tugumlepem Indians were probably Coahuiltecan-speaking Indians who lived on the extreme southern part of the Texas coast. In the middle eighteenth century their settlements were between the sites of present Port Isabel and Brownsville in eastern Cameron County.


Nuevo Santander

In 1742, José de Escandón, Lieutenant General Captain of the Cerro Gordo District, carried out three expeditions through the mountains of southern Tamaulipas and helped friars to establish 11 missions there. Then, in September 1746, Escandón received word that he had been appointed to head the colonization project known as “Nuevo Santander” – the establishment of small settlements along the Rio Grande that would commence in the next year.  

In 1747, Escandón engineered a seven-point penetration from southern Tamaulipas with a convergence of all the expeditions at the mouth of Rio Grande. On June 1, 1748, he was officially appointed the Governor of Nuevo Santander, named for his home province in Spain. In a period of seven years, Escandón would establish 23 settlements and 15 missions with 1,337 families (6,000 colonists) along the Rio Grande in Tamaulipas. The whole colony was settled with remarkable speed. For the first time, viceregal officials relied on colonists rather than missionaries and soldiers to settle a new territory. Many of the settlers of Nuevo Santander are, in fact, the ancestors of today’s Tejanos.  

Political Chronology

Tamaulipas represented a large portion of the Spanish province of Nuevo Santander, which was founded in 1748 as a part of the Nueva España Kingdom. It became part of the “Provincias Internas” in 1777 until Mexican independence in 1822. On October 3, 1824, Tamaulipas became an independent state.  

Twentieth Century

According to the 1895, 1900 and 1910 Mexican census schedules, no inhabitants of Tamaulipas spoke any indigenous languages.  At least no one admitted to speaking such languages, although it is likely that there may have been bilingual speakers.   

In the unusual 1921 Mexican census, residents of each state were asked to classify themselves in several categories, including “indígena pura” (pure indigenous), “indígena mezclada con blanca” (indigenous mixed with white) and “blanca” (white). Out of a total state population of 286,904, only 39,606 persons (or 13.8%) claimed to be of pure indigenous background.  A large portion of the population – 198,990, or 69.4% –classified themselves as being mixed, while 38,845 (13.5%) claimed to be white.  

Not until 1930 did any speakers of indigenous languages turn up in the census. In that year, 185 persons were classified as indigenous speakers who also spoke Spanish.  This figure reached 306 in the 1940 census. By the time of the 1950 census, Tamaulipas had one monolingual speaker of indigenous languages and 695 bilingual speakers.


The 2000 Census

According to the 2000 census, the population of persons five years and more who spoke indigenous languages amounted to 17,118 individuals. The primary groups were:  Náhuatl (8,407 speakers), Huasteco (4,083), Totonaca (1,321), Otomí (530), Mazahua (467), Zapoteco (432), Maya (226), and Mixteco (200).  

The 2005 Conteo

According to Mexico’s 2005 census count (conteo), 20,221 persons five years of age and older spoke indigenous languages in Tamaulipas.  The three languages most represented in the population were:  

  • Náhuatl (7,605 speakers – 37.6% of the indigenous speakers)
  • Hausteco (3,825 speakers – 18.9%)
  • Totonaca (1,735 speakers – 8.6%)  

Other languages represented in the population were the Mazahua, Otomí, Zapotec and Mixtec.  

2010 Census

In the 2010 census, Tamaulipas was ranked 27th among the Mexican states and the Federal District for the number of persons 5 years and older who speak indigenous languages. A total of 23,296 residents of the State represented 0.8% of Mexico’s indigenous speakers. Only Colima, Zacatecas, Guanajuato, Aguascalientes and Coahuila had smaller percentages of indigenous speakers.  In the 2010 census, the three most represented language-speakers in the Tamaulipas population were:  

  • Náhuatl (10,029 speakers)
  • Hausteco (4,707 speakers)
  • Totonaca (2,215 speakers)  

Huasteco is the eleventh most spoken language in Mexico – with 161,120 Huasteca speakers in all the states 2010, representing 2.41% of Mexico’s indigenous speakers five years of age or more.  

Ciudad Matamoros has been recognized by the National Population Council (CONAPO) as a major center of attraction for migrants from other Mexican states.  Tampico and Matamoros are both the destination for Nahuas from various states, especially Veracruz, Nuevo León and San Luis Potosí.  

Mexicans Considered Indigenous

The 2010 census also included a question that asked people if they considered themselves indigenous, whether or not an indigenous language was spoken. The results of this question indicated that 15.7 million persons 3 years of age and older identified themselves as “indigenous.”  By comparison, 6.9 million people in the same age bracket were tallied as indigenous speakers, meaning that approximately 8.8 million Mexicans aged 3 and older did not speak an indigenous language but considered themselves to be of indigenous origin.  

In this category, Tamaulipas – with 3.9% percent of its people 3 years of age an older considered indigenous – is ranked 30th among the Mexican states and Distrito Federal. At the present time, Tamaulipas continues to attract indigenous language speakers from other states, but its overall population of native speakers is relatively small compared to many of its sister states in the Mexican Republic.  

Copyright © 2014, by John P. Schmal.  


Campbell, Thomas N. “Coahuiltecans and Their Neighbors,” in Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 10 (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1983).


Campbell, Thomas N. Campbell, “The Indians of Southern Texas and Northeastern Mexico: Selected Writings of Thomas Nolan Campbell” (Austin: Texas Archeological Research Laboratory, 1988).  

"COAHUILTECAN INDIANS," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/bmcah), accessed February 04, 2014. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.  

Departamento de la Estadística Nacionalm. “Annuario de 1930” (Tacubaya, D.F., Mexico, 1932).  

Flores Montemayor, Eduardo. “Historia, Lenguas y Leyendas de Tamaulipas.” (I.T.C.A., Conaculta: Mexico, 2003).  

Gerhard, Peter. “The North Frontier of New Spain,” (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982).  

Hodge, Frederick Webb (ed). “Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico” (2 vols., Washington: GPO, 1907, 1910; rpt., New York: Pageant, 1959).  

Instituto Nacional de Estadística, Geografía e Informática (INEGI). Principales Resultados del Censos de Población y Vivienda, 2000 y 2010.  

INEGI. Conteos de Población y Vivienda, 2005.  

Miller, Hubert J. “Jose de Escandon: Colonizer of Nuevo Santander” (Edinburg, Texas: The New Santander Press, 1980).


Prieto, Alejandro. “Historia, Geografía y Estadística del Estado de Tamaulipas” (Mexico City: Tip. Escalerillas, 1873; rpt., Mexico City: M. Porrúa, 1975).


Saldivar, Gabriel. “Los Indios de Tamaulipas” (Mexico City: Pan American Institute of Geography and History Publication No. 70, 1943).  

Scheffler, Lilian. “Los Indígenas Mexicanos: Ubicación Geografica, Organización Social y Política, Economía, Religión y Costumbres,” (México, D.F.: Panorama Editorial, 1992).  

Swanton, J. R. “Linguistic Material from the Tribes of Southern Texas and Northeastern Mexico” (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1940).


Thomas, Cyrus and John R. Swanton, “Indian Languages of Mexico and Central America and Their Geographical Distribution” (Washington: GPO, 1911).


Troike, Rudolph C. “Notes on Coahuiltecan Ethnography,” Bulletin of the Texas Archeological Society 32 (1962).   








Indigenous San Luis Potosi


By John P. Schmal



The land-locked state of San Luis Potosí is located in center-north Mexico.  With a surface area of 61,138 square kilometers (representing 3.1% of the total area of the Mexican Republic), San Luis Potosí is politically divided into 58 municipios and touches nine other Mexican states. The state is adjacent to Coahuila on the north, Nuevo León on the northeast, and Tamaulipas on the northeast. Additionally, San Luis Potosí has a common border with Veracruz Llave (on the east), Guanajuato, Querétaro and Hidalgo on the south, Jalisco on the southwest, and Zacatecas to the west.    


San Luis Potosí had a 2010 population of 2,585,518 which represented 2.3% the Mexican Republic’s entire population, and is distributed into 64% urban and 36% rural (in contrast to the national figures of 77% versus 22%, respectively). The capital of San Luis Potosí is the city of the same name. The state name was originally granted in honor of the city’s founder, Luis de Leija, but also to honor Viceroy Luis of Velasco. Potosí was added to the name because the mines of this region had a richness similar to the famous mining settlement of that name high in the Bolivian Andes, the source of so much silver.


The early settlers of this area felt sure that this region also had immense silver deposits. Their hopes were certainly fulfilled, though not only in the way they had originally envisioned. Besides silver, which was mined in vast quantities, major deposits of gold, fluorite and mercury were also discovered.


The State of San Luis Potosí has a very angular look dominated by three natural regions:


1.     Altiplano (the Highland Plateau or Mesa del Centro) occupies most of western SLP or roughly two-thirds of the state’s total area. Most of this high plateau is broken by spurs of the Eastern Sierra Madre Oriental Mountain Range. It is largely desert in the north. 

2.     Sierra Madre Oriental Range takes up the northwest of SLP

3.     Planicie de Golfo dominates the southeast of SLP.


Indigenous Groups at Contact

In pre-Hispanic times, two primary indigenous groups dominated what we now know as the present state of San Luis Potosí: The Chichimecas (in the west) and the Huastecas (in the east).

The Chichimecas occupied the entire western region at the time of Spanish contact. The Chichimeca’s actually consisted of several groups, including:


  • Guachichiles (the most numerous group)
  • Guaxabanes
  • Copuces
  • Guamares
  • Sumuses
  • Guascamás
  • Caysanes
  • Mascorros
  • Coyotes
  • Macolias



The Otomí are one of the largest and oldest indigenous groups in Mexico. The different language 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.  The Otomí called themselves Ñañhu, which means those who speak Ñuju.



The Guachichiles, of all the Chichimeca Indians, occupied the most extensive territory, extending some 100,000 square kilometers from Lake Chapala (Jalisco) in the south to Saltillo (Coahuila) in the north.  Considered both warlike and brave, the Guachichiles roamed through a large section of the present-day state of Zacatecas. The Aztecs used the term “Guachichile” as a reference to “heads painted of red,” a reference to the red dye that they used to paint their bodies, faces and hair.  Although the main body of the Guachichile territory lay in Zacatecas, they also inhabited or travelled through large sections of western San Luis Potosí, northwestern Guanajuato, eastern Aguascalientes and the Los Altos area of Jalisco.   

The Guachichiles were among the first of the northeastern peoples to be “reduced” to settling down in Spanish towns that included the agricultural town of Saltillo and the mining towns of Mazapil in the far north, as well as seven agricultural and mining towns of central San Luis Potosí.  

The Guamares inhabited the Guanajuato Sierra but extended north into the southwestern portion of San Luis Potosí and parts of Querétaro in the east. The author Gonzalo de las Casas called the Guamares “the bravest, most warlike, treacherous and destructive of all the Chichimecas, and the most astute (dispuesta).”
Guamares, Purépechas and Otomíes cofounded the town of Pénjamo in southwestern Guanajuato in 1549. But eventually mention of the Guamares disappears and by 1572, they are no references of Guamares establishing Pueblos.  

The Pames of San Luis Potosí call themselves Xí úi, which means “native.” The Pames were a seminomadic tribe, constituting a very divergent branch of the Otomanguian linguistic family. They were located mainly in the southeastern part of San Luis Potosi south and east of the Río Verde and also in adjoining areas of Tamaulipas, Querétaro and Guanajuato.

The Huastecos (Teenek)
The Huasteco Indians, who speak a form of the Mayan language, presently occupy 55 municipios in the modern-day states of Veracruz, San Luis Potosí and Hidalgo, as well as smaller sections of southern Tamaulipas and eastern Querétaro. The Huastecas – who refer to themselves as Teenek -- are what remains of an early Mayan expansion northward up the Veracruz coast from the more traditional Mayan regions of the Yucatan Peninsula. However, the Huastecas were “left behind” after other Mayan groups retreated south and east. Linguists have estimated that the Hausteca precursor language diverged from the early Mayan language between 2200 and 1200 B.C.

The Huastecs became culturally dominant in the region between 750 and 800 AD. Over the next few centuries, the Huastecas managed to spread their influence over a large territory from the Tuxpan River to the Pánuco with most settlements along the banks of the Huayalejo-Tamesí River, along the northern Veracruz and southern Tamaulipas coast and west into the Sierra Madre Oriental. However, they never built cities and ceremonial centers as large as in other parts of Mesoamerica. One reason for this was that the Chichimeca were a constant threat from the West.  

In the Post Classic period, Huastec territory shrank due to incursions by Nahuas and Otomí in the south and west, culminating into Aztec conquest of much of their territory by 1450 A.D. The Aztecs had become jealous of the Huastecas because of the abundance and diversity of fruits in their territory; so they declared war on the Huastecs. After hard-fought battles, the Huastecs were defeated and forced to pay taxes of skins, paper, feathers, cotton and blankets.  

Some of the Huasteco Indians lived in the eastern part of SLP. The geographic entity named for them– the Hausteca – comprises a vast region of Mexico, covering parts of the states of Veracruz, San Luis Potosí, Tamaulipas and Hidalgo.  When the Spaniards arrived in 1519, the Huastecos put up a fierce resistance in the area known as Pánuco (now in northern Veracruz).  

After the fall of Tenochtitlán (August 1521), Hernan Cortes sought to extend Spanish domination to the areas between Tenochtitlán and the Gulf Coast to secure his supply lines with the mother country by way of the road to Veracruz.  Cortes came to regard the Huastecas as a threat and in October 1522 led an army toward Pánuco. After meeting with considerable resistance, Cortés defeated the Huastecos and founded the Villa de San Esteban (in Veracruz) in 1522, where he stationed 130 forces. However, revolts by the Huastecos in October-December 1523 and 1525-26 were put down with great cruelty.  

Chichimeca War (1550-1590)
The Spaniards began arriving in the Gran Chichimeca following the discovery of silver in Zacatecas in 1546 and Guanajuato in 1552. (Gold and silver were not found in SLP until 1592 when the mine of “San Luis de Mezquitique,” was opened at the present-day location of SLP). During the 1550s, when the silver discoveries began drawing more settlers towards the north, the so-called Chichimeca War started and lasted 40 years. That war, which resulted in a high cost in both lives and material resources, prevented the Spaniards from expanding their earlier conquests in the northern region.  

However, by 1590, the Guachichiles who occupied much of western SLP had been pacified. A report of a distribution of clothes to the Guachichil settlements in November 1593 described several thousand Guachichiles as living in SLP pueblos immediately after the Chichimeca War, and an undeterminable number still living in rancherías outside of Spanish control around Matehuala and further east.  

Evangelizing the Chichimecas
With the pacification of the Chichimecs and Guachichiles, Viceroy Luis de Velasco II initiated a movement to evangelize the Chichimecas. In 1590, the Franciscans established a convent, San Miguel de Mexquitic, and built a small adobe church (now the Cathedral of San Luis). Then, the Viceroy commanded that 400 families of loyal, converted Tlaxcaltecans be brought north to be settled alongside the Guachichiles and other Chichimecas. In June 1591, a caravan of 100 wagons and 932 colonists began their journey. These 932 colonists consisted of 690 married individuals, 187 children and 55 single or widowed individuals.

On August 5, 1591 the caravan arrived at Uccello, where the caravan split up to go to its various destinations. One of the four groups – 228 Tlaxcaltecans under Captains Francisco Vazquez and Juaquin Paredes --was sent from San Juan del Rio to the mines of San Miguel Mexquitic in SLP.

Early Spanish Settlements

On June 10, 1550, Cateano Medellin led a group of Spaniards and Tlaxcaltecans in the settlement of Matehuala. The area around the present-day cities of Matehuala and Charcas was then inhabited by a Guachichil group, known as Bozalos or Negritos. It has been estimated that the Guachichil population of the area at this time was about 25,000.  

In 1574, Charcas Viejas was founded as Santa María de las Charcas by Francisco Ruiz with the help of miners and missionaries from Zacatecas. However, they were twice driven out by the Chichimecas, returning to the mining camp around 1583-84. Tlaxcaltecans settled in Charcas in 1591-92, setting up their own gobierno (government). Soon after, other mining centers and cattle ranches spread across the surrounding area.  

When the Spaniards first arrived in the area that is now called San Luis Potosí – Guadalcázar – Río Verde and the surrounding region, there were three groups of hunters and gatherers living in the area:  

  • Guamares occupied the southwest section
  • Pames occupied the south and east of Rio Verde.
  • The Guachichiles occupied the northern section

On November 3, 1592, Villa de San Luis Potosí was founded by Miguel Caldera. With the discovery of gold, Spanish and Christianized Indians from the south migrated to the area to work in the mines and on the haciendas. The Spaniards had gained control of the larger surrounding area by 1616-17 with the opening of Franciscan missions in the area.


La Huasteca Region

La Huasteca is a geographical and cultural region located along the Gulf of Mexico which includes parts of the states of Tamaulipas, Veracruz, Puebla, Hidalgo, San Luis Potosí, Querétaro, and Guanajuato. Historically and ethnically, the La Huasteca region is roughly defined by the area dominated by the Huastecas when their civilization was at its height in the Mesoamerican period.  

The Huasteca is considered a rich agricultural region with an abundance of water from the riverine system flowing to the Gulf. Geographically it has been defined as the area running from the Sierra Madre Oriental to the Gulf of Mexico with the Sierra de Tamaulipas as the northern border and the Cazones River as its southern border. It extends over the south of Tamaulipas, the southeast of San Luis Potosí, the northeast of Querétaro and Hidalgo and the extreme north of Veracruz and Puebla and a very small portion of Guanajuato.  

The actual area of the region is somewhat disputed. Some Mexican government institutions have defined the Huasteca region as a region of about 22,193 kilometers consisting of about 55 municipios divided between San Luis Potosi (19), Veracruz (28) and Hidalgo (8). Different organizations have their own classifications for the size and shape of the Huasteca, including SEDESOL (39 municipios), and CONAPO (83 municipios).  

Today, despite the fact that the large region is named after them, the Huastecas occupy only a fraction of this region which is now home to six indigenous ethnic groups with over 250,000 speakers of various languages. However, those who live in the region share a number of cultural traits such as a style of music and dance along with religious festivals such as Xantolo. Of the 55 municipios, the indigenous population of the Huasteca region in 2000 was 1,575,078, of which 76.7% were Nahuatl and 21.64% were Teenek, followed by the Otomíes (2.2%); Tepehuas (0.64%); The Pames (0.35%); and the Totonacos and Chichimeca Jonáz, which represented less than 0.4%.


Indigenous San Luis Potosí (1895-1920)

The 1895 Mexican census indicated that only 47,046 speakers of indigenous languages five years of age or more lived in the state of San Luis Potosi. This population group represented only 8.3% of the state population of 568,449.  In the next census (1900), the indigenous speaking population dropped to 31,937, representing only 5.6% of the population. However, the 1910 census recorded a significant increase in the indigenous population to 63,448, bringing the percentage to 10.1%.  

The 1921 Mexican Census

In the unusual 1921 Mexican census, residents of each state were asked to classify themselves in several categories, including “indígena pura” (pure indigenous), “indígena mezclada con blanca” (indigenous mixed with white) and “blanca” (white). Out of a total state population of 445,681,  

  • 136,365 persons (or 30.6%) claimed to be of pure indigenous background
  • 275,812 persons (or 61.9%) classified themselves as being mixed
  • 24,103 (5.4%) claimed to be “blanca” or white.
The 2000 Census

In the 2000 census, 235,253 inhabitants of San Luis Potosí spoke indigenous languages, representing 10.23% of the state population aged 5 or more. The most widely spoken languages were as follows:

·       Náhuatl (138,523)

·       Huasteco (87,327)

·       Pame (7, 975)

·       Otomí (314)

·       Zapoteco (128)

·       Mixteco (130)

·       Chichimeca Jonaz (115).

 The Zapoteco and Mixteco speakers were most likely migrants from Oaxaca or Guerrero.  


Náhuatl speakers live in almost every municipio of San Luis Potosí, but have a heavy concentration in several municipios in the southeastern portion of the state that border the states of Veracruz and Hidalgo. These municipios include Tamazunchale, Axtla, San Martín Chalchicuautla, Xilitla, Coxcatlán and Matlapa. According to ethnologue.com, the two most widely spoken Náhuatl languages in SLP are:


·       Central Huasteca: spoken by an estimated 200,000 persons in the states of Hidalgo, Veracruz and SLP

·       Western (Oeste) Huasteca: spoken in 1,500 village by an estimated 400,000 persons (circa 1991) in both San Luis Potosí and Hidalgo. Centered in Tamazunchale, San Luis Potosí it is also called Náhuatl de Tamazunchale


Huastecos de San Luis Potosí (Teenek)

In the 2000 census, the Huasteco Indians numbered 87,327 in San Luis Potosí, most of them concentrated in 11 municipios. Another 51,625 lived across the border in Veracruz. The population of the Huastecas in these two states alone – 138,952 – represented 92.5% of the 150,257 Huastecas living within the Mexican Republic. The indigenous languages in the Huasteca have evolved in recent decades, with more speakers that are bilingual than monolingual. In the Hidalgo Huasteca monolingual speakers in 2000 were 25% of the indigenous population, while in San Luis Potosi and Veracruz the percentages were 10.7 and 12.2% monolingual population.


Panes (xi’úi de San Luis Potosi)

The Pames – who call themselves xi'úi – speak a language that belongs to the Otomanguean Linguistic group. They use the word “Pame” to refer to themselves only when they are speaking Spanish. But in their religion, this word has a contemptuous meaning and they try to avoid using it.  The xi'úi region, known as “The Pameria,” occupies five municipios of San Luis Potosí (Ciudad del Maíz, Alaquines, Tamasopo, Rayón and Santa Catarina) and three communities in the Queretaro municipio of Jalpan de Serra. The Pameria municipios in SLP run from the northern border with Tamaulipas to the southern border with Querétaro (in a narrow portion of the state).  

In the 2000 Mexican census, the Pame only numbered 8,312 in the entire Mexican Republic. The largest share of Pame speakers -- 7,975 individuals – lived in SLP, representing 95.9% of their total population. Their share of the total indigenous population within the Republic was less than four percent.  


The Chichimeca-Jonaz language is found only in the states of San Luis Potosí and Guanajuato. Chichimeca Jonaz is classified as a member of the Oto-Manguean language family and is divided into two major dialects: the Pame dialect, which is used in San Luis Potosí, and the Jonaz dialect used in Guanajuato. With a total of 1,433 Chichimeca-Jonaz speakers living in the state of Guanajuato in 2000, it is interesting to note that the great majority - 1,405 persons five years of age or more - actually lived in the municipio of San Luis de la Paz. In 2000, only 115 persons – living in the municipio of Alaquines and the village of La Palma – still spoken the language in SLP.  

The 2010 Census

In 2010, SLP had 361,653 persons who were identified as indigenous, and this represented 14% of the total population. As expected, however, not all of the people who were indigenous spoke an indigenous language. In 2010, SLP had 248,196 persons five years of age or more who spoke an indigenous language, representing 10.7% of the population. The four most spoken languages in this census were:  

  • Náhuatl (141,326 speakers)
  • Huasteco (99,464 speakers)
  • Pame (11,412 speakers)
  • Otomí (320 speakers)

 San Luis Potosí was ranked 9th among the 31 Mexican states and the Distrito Federal in terms of its percentage of indigenous speaking populations. Three municipios had populations that were classified as 90% or more indigenous, and in a total of 14 municipios more than 50% of the population was indigenous. However, in total, only three municipios had 80% or more indigenous speakers (5 years of age and older) within its boundaries, and a total of 10 municipios had 50% or more indigenous speakers.  

Tamazunchale -- the municipio on the southeastern tip of SLP on the border with Hidalgo – had the largest indigenous population (60,609  or 62.6% of the municipio’s population), in addition to having an indigenous speaking population of 38,226 (44.3% of the municipio’s population 5 years of age and older).  

Aquismón – also in southeast SLP - had the second largest indigenous population, 37,745 (or 79.6%), ranking a distant second place. Aquismón also had a considerable number of indigenous speakers, numbering 30,289 (or 72.4% of the municipio population 5 years of age and older).


Primary Sources


Chemin Bässler, Heidi. “Los Pames Septentrionales de San Luis Potosí” (México: INI, 1984)  

Departamento de la Estadística Nacional, “Annuario de 1930” (Tacubaya, D.F., Mexico, 1932).  

Departamento de la Estadistica Nacional, Estados Unidos Mexicanos, “Censos General de Habitantes: 30 de Noviembre de 1921, Estado de Jalisco,” (Mexico, Distrito Federal: Talleres Graficos de la Nación, 1926)  

Frye, David. “The Native Peoples of Northeastern Mexico” in “The Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas: Volume II: Mesoamerica: Part 2” (edited by Richard E.W. Adams and Murdo J. MacLeod (Cambridge University Press, 2000)).  

Gerhard, Peter, “A Guide to the Historical Geography of New Spain” (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1972).  

Gerhard, Peter. “The North Frontier of New Spain” (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1982).  

Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (ed.), 2005. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Fifteenth edition, “Languages of Mexico” (Dallas, Texas: SIL International). Online: http://archive.ethnologue.com/15/show_country.asp?name=Mexico  

Instituto Nacional de Estadística Geografía e Informática (INEGI). XII Censo General de Población y Vivienda 2000; Censo de Población y Vivienda 2010.

Nava, Fernando. “Chichimecas Jonaz” (México: INI - SEDESOL, 1994).  

Powell, Philip W., “La Guerra Chichimeca (1550-1600)” (México: FCE, 1992).

Powell, Philip Wayne, “Soldiers Indians and Silver: North America's First Frontier War.” Tempe, Arizona: Center for Latin American Studies, Arizona State University, 1975.

Wilkerson, J. “The Ethnogenesis of the Hausteca and Totonacs” (1972: PH Dissertation, Dept, of Archaeology and Anthropology, Tulane University).



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