Tracing Your Indigenous Roots in México

By John P. Schmal

Because I volunteer as a Mexican genealogical consultant at the Los Angeles Family History Center a few days out of each month, many people have asked me for assistance in tracing their indigenous roots in México. For three hundred years, México was blessed with an exceptional record-keeping system. For the most part, Spanish padres in the small Mexican parishes were very diligent in recording the lives of their parishioners.  In many parts of México, expedientes de bautismos, matrimonios y defunciones provide family history researchers with interesting details about the lives and origins of their ancestors that cannot be found in most other countries.

It is possible for people to trace their indigenous roots in México, but it may involve a little bit of work and creative thinking.  Depending upon which state your family came from, you may have great success or you may have very limited success.  Your success depends upon several inter-related factors.

Racial classifications

Up until 1821, most Spanish priests recorded the racial classifications of the persons they baptized and married.  The Spanish racial order included a large variety of categories that included español (White), mestiso, mulato, indio, coyote and lobo.  Although this method of categorization was, in our present-day eyes, a very racist and degrading system, it does offer the researcher and family historian some insight into their own ethnic makeup. After 1821, the racial classifications were made illegal.

Assimilation and Mestizaje

If a person is trying to determine the name of the Indian tribe from which they descend, they may be disappointed.  The assimilation and mestizaje of the Mexican people started early in the Sixteenth Century and continued at various levels for the next three hundred years of colonial México.  In many parts of México, Indians lost their tribal identity early on. And intermarriage among various indigenous groups was common, thus obscuring one’s descent from a particular ethnic group.

When the Spaniards arrived in some areas, a social transformation took place. The Spaniards, with their superior military tactics, easily overwhelmed the tribes that resisted them. The loss of life from disease or war caused a social chaos among some indigenous groups. But in some areas, the indigenous peoples accepted the suzerainty of the Spaniards and a peaceful process of assimilation resulted.

The processes that took place differed from one region to another, but the effect was the same for the majority of México’s native peoples.  The existing social structures disintegrated and blended into more dominant Indian groups or assimilated into the central Hispanic culture. The pre-Hispanic cultural link that had been handed down from parents to their children was severed. A new religion, Christianity, replaced the old religions. And two languages - Spanish and Náhuatl - became the primary languages of the subdued tribes, who essentially evolved into what we now know as the Mexican people.

Because converted Indians were now God-fearing Christians, they no longer felt pride in or reverence for their old cultures. So, after being Christianized and Hispanicized, many indigenous people assumed Christian given names and Spanish surnames.

To help with the social and religious transformation, the Spanish authorities brought peaceful sedentary Christianized Indians from other parts of México into the region. These so-called "civilized" Indians were given the task of helping their Indian brethren to adapt to the new Christian way of life under Spanish tutelage. These Indian groups - the Tlaxcalans, the Mexica, Otomí, and the Purépecha, among others - had all undergone the same experience several decades earlier.

The result of this social and cultural transformation is that many people probably are descended from many kinds of Indian tribal groups.  A person from Sain Alto in Zacatecas, for example, may be descended from the Zacatecos Indians who were indigenous to the area, but may also be descended from Otomí, Tlaxcalan and Mexica Indians who settled in the area during the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries.

The Generic Classification "Indio / India"

Because of the "lost identity" of so many indigenous people, most parish priests employed the generic terms "indio" or "india" to describe the persons being baptized or getting married in their parish books.  The following excerpt from a 1773 document in Lagos de Moreno, Jalisco – translated into English – describes the marriage of two Indians:

"In the Parish of Lagos on the 10th of July 1773, having read the marriage banns in solemn Mass on three holy days, on the 13th, 20th, and 24th of June, as required by the Holy Council of Trent, I, Father Miguel Días asked for the consent of JOSE DIONICIO DELGADO, Indian, originally from and a resident of this parish in the post of Quarenta, legitimate son of Leon Delgado and Josefa Ramires, and RITA QUITERIA DE LARA, Indian, originally from and a resident of this parish in Sabinda, legitimate daughter of Carlos Antonio de Lara, and of Maria Valades, and having expressed mutual consent, I married them..."

Note that the José Dionicio Delgado and his bride Rita Quiteria de Lara are both called Indians, without reference to a specific tribe. This was a widespread practice through many parts of México, where the Indians simply assumed or were given surnames.  It is worth noting that surnames such as de la Cruz and de los Reyes were frequently given to Indian peasants by their parish priests. 

There is no better example of the generic use of "indio" than the baptism of the famous son of Oaxaca: Benito Juárez:

"In the Parish Church of Santo Tomas Ixtlan, on the 22nd of March of the year of 1806, I, Father Mariano Cortabarria, assisted by Vicar Antonio Puche, baptized solemnly BENITO PABLO, son of Marcelino Juárez and Brigida Garcia, Indians of the village of San Pablo Guelatao, belonging to this main district; his paternal grandparents are Pedro Juárez and Justa Lopez; the maternal grandparents: Pablo Garcia and Maria Garcia; the godmother was Apolonia Garcia, an Indian and the wife of Francisco Garcia, and whom I advised of her obligation and spiritual parentage, and in witness thereof we signed the present act." [Source: Pere Foix, Juárez (México, D.F.: Editorial Trillas, 1949), p. 23.]

We know that Benito Juárez was a Zapotec Indian, but because he was born into a Christian Mexican family, his parents were simply given the generic classification of "indios" in the church recording of his baptism.

Ethnic Classifications

In some states, such as Sonora, Chihuahua, or Coahuila, church records occasionally reference a specific kind of Indian tribe.  In Ciudad de Chihuahua, marriages between "indios de Tarahumara" and "indios de Yaqui" are commonly found in Eighteenth Century records. Such marriages took place because Yaqui laborers from Sonora and Tarahumaras from southern Chihuahua came in significant numbers to the ciudad looking for employment. As an example, the following marriage took place in 1751:

"On the 12st of May of 1751, Father José Ruis de Mexa, having resided over everything that is right, and finding no impediments to marriage resulting, married in the face of the church, BALTHASAR, a Yaqui Indian from the Pueblo of Saguaripa, with MARIA ROSALIA of the Pueblo of Torimp…"

As you can see by this document, the two people being married do not have surnames.  Eventually, all Mexicans would adopt surnames, but in the 1600s and 1700s, some native inhabitants lacked surnames.  This poses a major stumbling block to researching indigenous roots.

Useful Tools

However, some tools are available to assist researchers in analyzing ancestral records. The International Genealogical Index (IGI) for México contains almost 30 million extracts for México.  The IGI and other associate databases can be accessed at the following website:

Indigenous Identity

Regardless of the amount of mestizaje and cultural assimilation that may have taken place since the Sixteenth Century, the indigenous identity of the Mexican people was preserved well into the Twentieth Century.  In the 1921 census, 4,179,449 persons claimed to be "indígena pura."  These pure indigenous individuals represented 29.16% of the Mexican Republic’s total population.  Even more people, however, recognized the duality of their ethnic identity. In the same census, 8,504,561 Mexican citizens classified themselves as "indígena mezclada con blanca," representing 59.33% of the nation’s population.  The population who acknowledged that they were "blanca," amounted to only 9.8% of the population.

Expectations in Research

Tracing indigenous roots in México can be a rewarding and exciting experience, but the most important factor in tracing your family tree is to accept whatever results you find.  When a person has fixed expectations, they are likely to be disappointed.  In my own research over the last 16 years, I have found that every Mexican family has a blend of both Spanish and Indian roots.

Copyright © 2008 by John P. Schmal. All rights under applicable law are hereby reserved.

Primary Sources: John P. Schmal and Donna S. Morales, "Mexican-American Genealogical Research: Following the Paper Trail to Mexico" (Heritage Books: 2003).

Various films of the Family History Library. Catalog Website:






By John P. Schmal

In recent years, many Americans have taken an interest in their indigenous roots from northern Mexico. From the Late Eighteenth Century to the present, significant numbers of people from the State of Sonora migrated to Los Angeles and other areas of California. From the 1880s to the 1920s, Los Angeles Times newspapers were filled with stories about the battles fought between the Yaquis and the Mexican Government forces. Many Yaquis and other indigenous peoples in the State fled north to escape persecution from government forces. Some people simply needed to get away from the constant turmoil to find stable employment in California or Arizona. And today, many Californians claim descent from these refugees.

Located in northwestern Mexico, Sonora occupies 180,833 square kilometers, which amounts to 9.2% of the national territory of Mexico. Sonora shares 588 kilometers of borders with the United States, specifically with the States of Arizona and New Mexico. This state also shares a common border with the Mexican states of Chihuahua (on the east), Sinaloa (on the southeast), and Baja California (northwest). Sonora also has a long shoreline along the Gulf of California.

In 2000, Sonora had a total population of 2,183,108, making up 2.2% of the national population of the Mexican Republic. Sonora, with Hermosillo with its capital, is a mostly mountainous state, with vast desert stretches located along its western coastal region. Politically, Sonora is divided into seventy-two municipios.

The Ethnic Makeup of Sonora

Many people identify Sonora with the Yaqui, Pima and Pápago Indians. However, Sonora actually has a very diverse mix of origins. Among the many Spaniards who came to the area were significant numbers of Basques from northern Spain. Equally important to Sonora’s economy was the large number of African slaves who were brought into the region to work for the mining industry. A 1783 census indicated that there were 13 gold mines and 100 silver mines in twenty mining districts throughout Sonora (from Pfefferkorn, "Description of Sonora," published in 1989 by the University of Arizona Press in Tucson).

The ethnic diversity of Sonora was illustrated by the 1921 Mexican census, which asked the residents 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 275,127 residents, 37,914 persons (or 13.8%) claimed to be of pure indigenous background. A much larger number - 111,089, or 40.4% - classified themselves as being mixed, while a slightly larger number – 115,151 (41.9%) – claimed to be white.

Although 37,914 persons were classified as being of pure indigenous background, only 6,765 residents of the State in 1921 actually admitted to speaking an indigenous language. The most commonly spoken indigenous language was the Mayo language, which 5,941 individuals used. The Yaqui language was spoken by only 562 persons. This meager showing may have been the result of the deportations taking place in the previous three decades, but may also indicate that many Yaqui speakers were fearful of admitting their linguistic and cultural identity, for fear of government reprisal.

Tracing Your Indigenous Roots in Sonora

Many people have expressed an interest in finding a connection to their Yaqui ancestors. Others indicate some indigenous background, but are not clear if it is Pima, Mayo, Opata or Yaqui. In recent years, I have worked with several individuals in tracing their lineages, utilizing the resources of the Family History Library (FHL) in Salt Lake City. Through this library and its associated Family History Centers scattered around the United States, you can access many church and civil records for most of the cities and towns of Sonora. Anyone can access this online catalog to see the availability of records for his or her specific region:

Once you have determined what records you need, you can order each roll of microfilm for $6.05. Once this arrives, you will have one month to utilize it at your local Family History Center. If you see long-term value in the film, you can renew it permanently and the library will make it part of its permanent collection.

The Problems

There are a number of issues that can complicate researching indigenous roots in Sonora. These problems are discussed below:

Racial Classifications

Up until 1822, most Sonoran priests recorded the racial classifications of the persons they baptized and married. The Spanish racial order included a large variety of categories that included español (White), mestiso, mulato, indio, coyote and lobo, which covered the spectrum of skin color. Although this method of categorization was, in our present-day eyes, a very racist and degrading system, it does offer the researcher and family historian some insight into their own ethnic makeup.

After 1822, the racial classifications were made illegal in Mexico, although some parishes in Sonora continued to designate people as Yaqui, Opata, Pima, Pápago and Seri. Other Parishes –like Hermosillo and Guaymas – almost completely abandoned the labeling. By the 1850s, most of these tribal designations disappear from the church registers and you can usually not tell what kind of an Indian your ancestor was. At best, they occasionally referred to an indigenous person as "indígena."

The Generic Classification "Indio / India"

Because of the "lost identity" of so many indigenous people who had become assimilated into Mexico’s colonial life, parish priests employed the generic terms "indio" or "india" to describe many of the persons being baptized or getting married in their parish books. Once the ancestors of these people had been baptized as Christians, they had become subjects of the Spanish empire and, in essence, the children of the local mission or parish. Their tribal identity had become unimportant because they were living, working and worshipping in the Spanish-speaking Christian community.

More than most Mexican states, however, Sonoran priests did frequently describe their parishioners as Pima, Yaqui and Pápago. But in a large parish like Alamos in the south, researchers are more likely to see lobo, coyote, mestizo and indio applied to their ancestors during the colonial period.

Jurisdictional Issues and Missing Church Records

Another problem with parish records in Sonora is the placement of church records. Sometimes several towns or cities may be attached to one parish. For example, in the Family History Library Catalog, you will notice that there are no church records available for Pitiquito or Caborca. However, both towns are close to Altar, where the parish records date back to 1771.

The Presidio de Santa Gertrudis de Altar was established in the 1775 within the territory of the Pimas. However, the nearby town of Caborca was established earlier (in 1688) by the Jesuit missionary, Eusebio Francisco Kino. Originally called "Caborca Viejo," the modern mission was established in 1790. The Altar jurisdiction was very large and for a long time was the central administrative point for the present-day municipios of Caborca, Oquitoa, Tubutama, Saric, Pitiquito, Puerto Penasco and San Luis Rio Colorado.

Because of these jurisdictional issues, many baptisms and marriages of people from Pitiquito and Caborca can be seen in the Altar records. For example, the following 1806 marriage of two Yaqui Indians from the "Mision de Caborca" can be seen in the Altar records:

En el año del Señor de mil ochocientos y seis, dia veinte, y ocho de Julio, haviendo precedido las tres amonestaciones, que dispose el Santo Concilio Tridenino, y no resultando impedimento alguno, Yo, Fr. Santiago Visategui, Pon. App. y Ministro de esta Mision de Caborca, pregunte a DOMINGO YGNACIO BUITEMEA, soltero, hijo de PEDRO DOMINGO BUITEMEA, y de JUANA MARIA BAISEA, difuntos, y a JUANA MARIA CECILIA, doncella, hija de FRANCISCO BUITEMEA, y de MARIA DOMINGA LILIJAN tambien difuntos, todos Yndios Yaquis de los Pueblos de Vica y Buimiris, y haviendo dado su mutual consentimiento por palabras de presente, que hacen verdadero matrimonios…

During the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, many Indians in Sonora frequently moved from their traditional areas to towns and missions in the territories of other tribes. Although Pimas inhabited the area around Altar and Caborca, researchers will frequently find baptisms of Opatas, Seris, Yaquis, Pápagos and Yumas, all of whom came to or were brought to the presidio and the mission. I have transcribed the following baptism of a Pima Indian child from Caborca’s Mission records in 1799:

En el año del Señor a mil setecientos noventa y nueve dia dos de Diciembre, Yo Fr. Ramon Lopez, Misionero Ap. De esta mission de Caborca, bautice solemnemente a un parbulo, que nacio el dia veinte y nueve del mes proximo pasado de Noviembre, hijo de MANUEL GALINDO, y de CALENDARIA SERRANO, conyuges, Yndios de esta mision. Se le puso por nombre JUAN MARIA CALIPTO….

The family history researcher exploring Sonora roots should be prepared to see Spanish words and names spelled differently from the way they are spelled today. Except for the Yaquis, most indigenous people will also carry Spanish surnames.

Although Altar’s records go back to 1771, the marriage records are largely incomplete and mixed with the baptisms. Altar’s records are contained on 49 rolls of film. It is most unfortunate that there appear to be no baptism or marriages available for Altar from 1836 to 1850. For anyone whose ancestors came from Altar, this is a potential stumbling block, although it can be worked out.

Another problem with searching for your indigenous roots in Sonora is that the parents of newly converted Indians may not be recognized in the church records. Essentially, if the baptized person was now a Christian his non-Christian parents were not considered important to the church record. As an example, I have transcribed the baptism of a Yuma Indian girl in Altar’s church in November 1853:

En la Parroquia de Guadalupe de Altar en trienta dias del mes de Noviembre de mil ochocientos cincuenta y tres, bautisé solmnemete á una niña de edad siete años á quien pusé por nombre MARIA SELAYA, hija de PADRES NO CONOCIDOS, Indígena Yuma. Fueron Padrinos: CLAUDIO SELAYA y JOSEFA SELAYA, á quienes adverti el parentesco y de mas obligaciones de que doy fé.

With this baptism, a young indigenous girl without parents was given the Spanish surname of her godparents.

Rayon and San Miguel de Horcasitas

In both Altar and in Rayón, near the center of Sonora, I have found various baptisms and marriages of some Yaquis and Pimas as late as the 1830s. Like Altar, Rayón was a center of attraction in terms of employment, and I have seen Pimas, Pápagos and Yaquis equally represented in the City during certain periods.

The parish registers of Nuestra Señora del Rosario in Rayón commence in 1813 and the registers for nearby San Miguel Arcángel in San Miguel de Horcasitas begin in 1750.


Although Santa María Magdalena Church in Magdalena has some records as far back as 1698, its marriage records only reach back to 1850. In genealogical research, working with both marriage and baptism records from one location is important and when one or the other is missing it can make an already difficult search more complicated.

Some of the earlier records of Magdalena include baptisms of both Pima and Pápago Indians. (In the United States, the Pápagos are known as Tohono O'odham). Below, I have transcribed the 1771 baptism of a Pápago Indian child from Magdalena’s parish records:

En quarto de Julio de mil setecientos setenta y uno, Yo el infra escrito Ministro por su Magestad de esta Mission de Santa María Magdalena bautice solemnemente d un parvulo, que nacio el dia dos por la mañana, hijo de JOACHIM ARELLANO, Pápago, y de su legitima mugger, MAGDALENA PARMA, Pápago, hijos de dicha Mission alque puse por nombre, FELIS MARIA. Fueron Padrinos FELIPSE GONZALEZ, Pima Govez., y su muger MARIA SUSANA, Pápago, hijos de la Mission….

Even in Magdalena, in the northern border area far from Yaqui territory, researchers can find some Yaqui records. As an example, I have transcribed this March 1841 baptism of a Yaqui child, whose parents have Yaqui surnames:

En dicha Yglesia e el mismo dia mes y año, yo el Br. Trinidad Garcia Rojas, cura encargado del Rio de San Ygnacio y puntos de la linea, bautizé y escrcizé y puso el Santo oleo y sagrado crisma an niño de seis meces de nacido aquien puse por nombre JOSE LUIS DE LA CONCEPCION (de la nacion Yaqui), hijo legitimo de JUAN AGUSTIN AGUIBUAMEA and JUANA MARIA GUAISATA. Fueron sus padrinos: JOSE LUIS HUYUAMEA y MARIA REFUGIA CONSEPCION….


The Mayo Indians inhabit southern Sonora and northern Sinaloa. In 1614, a Jesuit mission, Santa Cruz de Mayo, was established in what is now the municipio of Huatabampo to assist the Mayo Indians with their spiritual lives. However, the actual town of Huatabampo was not founded until 1898 and parish records of the town only begin in 1906.

Nearby Navojoa, also in the territory of the Mayo Indians, has parish records that only go back to 1891. Navojoa, Cohuirimpo, Masiaca, Navojoa and Tesi were, until 1917, part of the large Alamos district, and it is there that the researcher can hope to find records for their ancestors.

Quiriego and Sahuaripa

Quiriego, which lies on the border between the traditional Yaqui and Mayo homelands, was, for some time, attached to the Parish of Sahuaripa, for which church records are available. Sahuaripa, located in southeast Sonora, was originally a town of Opatas. A mission was founded there in 1641 and we currently have access to Sahuaripa’s baptisms as far back as 1781. However, marriage records only start around 1810 and are not complete until 1854. The registers include events from several parishes, including: Arivechi, Bacanora, Bacum, Carrizal, Cócorit, La Dura, Movas, Onavas, Nuri, Quiriego, Rebeico, Rio Chico, Rosario, San Antonio de la Huerta, San Nicolás, Santa Rosa, Santo Tomás, Soyopa, Tacupeto, Tepachi, Tepoca, Tezopan, Trinidad and Yécora.

The Parish of Alamos

Alamos is a colonial Mexican town established in the late Seventeenth Century in the territory of the Mayo Indians. The parish itself was founded in 1685 and the records we have access to begin in 1696. However, there are gaps of several years in both baptisms and marriages during the next hundred years, complicating intensive research. For example, the baptisms from late 1699 to early 1751 are missing, as are the marriages from between 1699 to 1758.

As an important part of the silver mining industry, Alamos attracted many kinds of people: Spaniards, African slaves, free mulatos, Indians from other parts of Mexico and Mayo and Yaqui Indians from the surrounding regions. And this diversity is represented in the colonial Alamos records. However, the generic term "indio" is applied more frequently than the Yaqui and Mayo classifications, and coyotes, lobos, mulatos and mestizos are fairly abundant in the Alamos colonial registers.


Hermosillo, the capital of Sonora is located in the west central portion of the State. The city was originally founded in an area that contained Seri, Tepoca and Pima Bajo Indians.

In 1741, the town was given the name Pitic. Much later in 1828, it was renamed Hermosillo in honor of the revolutionary general, José María González de Hermosillo, but it did not become the capital of Sonora until 1879.

Hermosillo’s Church, La Asunción, was not established until the 1780s and the parish registers – contained on 194 rolls of film by the Family History Library – begin in 1783. The early records of Hermosillo contain a fair amount of indigenous peoples and an equally large amount of Spaniards. Many of the early indigenous parishioners had not yet adopted the Spanish apellidos, which is illustrated by this 1783 baptism in Hermosillo:

En Veintiguatro de Septiembre de 1783 baptizé solemnemente aun parvulo Pima, que nacio el 22 del mismo mes, y se le puso por nombre FRANCISCO XAVIER, hijo de JUAN BAPTISTA, y de su muger TOMASA, Indios Pimas de esta Villa y Mission del Pitic: Padrinos: Francisco Duarte, Pima de Cumuripa, y Rosa Seamo, india del Pueblo de Santa del Mayo, aguienes adverti el parentesco spiritual the y para que conste lo firmé en dicho dia mes, y año ut supra

Although Hermosillo was not in the territory of the Yaquis, a fair amount of Yaquis moved to this population center to work and raise their families. With time, many of the Yaquis started to use surnames. One example of this is in the baptism record of a person whose parents had Yaqui surnames in 1784:

En seis de Junio del 1784, Yo el infrascrito --- asistemente de Santa Villa de San Pedro de la Conguista baptize solemnemnte el parvulo, el primero que nacio el 30 del mes anterior, y se le puse el nombre, FRANCISCO, hijo de MANUEL BUSAAEL y de MARIA CHANAYEI, conjuges Hiaguis de Huirivis, sirvientes de Duarzo…

In the colonial records, the Mexican priests had many different spellings for Yaqui. The above-reference record used the spelling, Hiaguis, but there were other kinds as well.

I am happy to report that the records for Hermosillo, for a period of many years before and after the end of the revolution (1823) are quite good and fairly easy to understand. However, designations of "Indio" and "Yaqui" become very scarce after 1810. It is quite likely that many Yaquis baptized or married in the church may not have been categorized as such. For the most part, the marriage records at Hermosillo began in 1814 and are quite detailed for most of the Nineteenth Century.


Guaymas is located along the Sea of Cortez, approximately 120 kilometers south of Hermosillo. This town was near the northern edge of the Yaqui territory. When the San José de Guaymas Mission was established by the Jesuits in 1701, the territory was within the domain of the Seri Indians. Guaymas was not promoted to the status of a town until 1859.

The parish registers of the San Fernando Church are contained on 63 rolls of film and begin in 1783. However, with the exception of several years in the 1780s, the marriage records for Guaymas do not start until 1846. Although large numbers of Yaquis moved to this town for employment, the Guaymas records, like the Hermosillo records, are not filled with many indigenous classifications after 1820. If you are looking for your Yaqui ancestors in Guaymas, you may find them, but they will probably not be called Yaquis.



The Mission 2000 Database

Mission 2000 is a database of Spanish mission records of southern Arizona and northern Sonora containing baptisms, marriages, and burials from Seventeenth Century to the mid-Nineteenth Century. Some of the mission records extracted for this database include Arizpe, Caborca, Magdalena, San Ignacio and Horcasitas. The ethnicity of the names in this database include Apache, Seri, Opata, Yuma, Yaqui, Spanish and Mexican. You can access this database at:

A Challenge

Tracing your indigenous roots in Sonora can be very challenging. The movement of people – both Spanish and indigenous – from one city to another can complicate your research. However, the International Genealogical Index and the FHL’s Pilot Database can be valuable tools in helping your research and help you detect the movements that may have taken place from generation to generation. These tools are available at:

For those who have an interest in understanding Sonora’s indigenous research, please read the following story written by this author:


I have traced indigenous roots in Sonora with several friends and acquaintances, but I dedicate this article to my friend, Teddy Whitefeather, a true daughter of Sonora.

Copyright © 2009 by John P. Schmal. All rights under applicable law are hereby reserved.

Primary Sources:

John P. Schmal and Donna S. Morales, "Mexican-American Genealogical Research: Following the Paper Trail to Mexico" (Heritage Books: 2003).

Various films of the Family History Library. Catalog Website:




Indigenous Coahuila de Zaragoza

By John P. Schmal   

The state of Coahuila is located in the northern reaches of the Mexican Republic. Bordered by the United States (Texas) on its northern border, Coahuila also touches the state of Chihuahua on its west, Durango on the southwest, Zacatecas and San Luis Potosí on the south, and Nuevo León on the east. As the third largest Mexican state, Coahuila is made up of 151,595 square kilometers, which is equal to 7.7% of the national territory.   

Politically, the State of Coahuila – with its capital in Saltillo -- is divided into thirty-eight municipios.  With a population of 2,748,391 people in 2010, Coahuila has the 17th largest population in the Mexican Republic, which is roughly 2.4% of the Mexican population.  

The distribution of Coahuila’s population is roughly 90% urban and 10% rural, compared to a 78% urban and 22% rural distribution, nationally.  Its largest cities are:  

  • Saltillo (648,929 inhabitants)
  • Torreon (577,477 inhabitants)
  • Monclova (200,110 inhabitants)
  • Piedras Negras (143,915 inhabitants)
  • Ciudad Acuna (126,238 inhabitants)

The state was named Coahuila de Zaragoza: after the ethnic tribal group Coahuiltec and General Ignacio Zaragoza (1829-1862), who was known for his defeat of the French invasion force at Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862.  

Political Chronology

From 1575, the present-day area of Coahuila was part of Spain’s Nueva Vizcaya province. On January 23, 1691, Coahuila became a part of the Province of Coahuila and Texas, and later became part of Nueva Vizcaya (until 1787). After that, Coahuila had become a separate province as part of the “Provincias Internas,” a colonial, administrative district of the northern Spanish Empire.  

In 1822, Mexico became an independent republic. The Constitution of 1824 created Nuevo León, Coahuila and Texas as a single state.  Nuevo León was detached on May 7, 1824, after Coahuila and Texas had adopted a new constitution on March 11, 1827.  Later, on November 14, 1835, Coahuila was separated from Texas and given statehood on its own.  

Coahuila was occupied by U.S. forces in 1847 and 1848, but stayed a part of Mexico after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848) detached a significant part of Northern Mexico and annexed it to the United States. However, from 1856 to 1868, Coahuila and Nuevo León were granted joint statehood. Finally, in 1868, Coahuila earned separate status as the sovereign state of Coahuila de Zaragoza. 

First Contacts with Spaniards

After the Spaniards had conquered Tenochtitlán (Mexico City), they began to gradually expand to the north in search of new territories. The silver rush emerging in Zacatecas (commencing in 1546) inspired an increasing number of Spanish entrepreneurs to move further north. The first Spanish explorers probably wandered into Coahuila sometime after 1535.  Initially, the arid conditions and fierce resistance of the indigenous groups in the region made it difficult for the Spaniards and their Indian allies to establish a permanent settlement.  The Spaniards’ initial interest in Coahuila was focused on the region’s mineral wealth. Various entrepreneurs and explorers entered the area in the hopes of beginning new settlements, where silver or gold could be mined.   

Nearly all of the indigenous people encountered by the Spanish explorers and settlers spoke dialects of Cotoname, a Coahuiltecan language in the Hokan group. But some of the people living in the sparsely inhabited area west of the Sierra were called Tobosos, who probably spoke an Uto-Aztecan language. In the South, the newcomers confronted Coahuiltecan-speaking Cabezas.  

Alberto del Canto, later the magistrate of Saltillo, is believed to have discovered silver at the future site of Monclova in 1577, but his settlement – Minas de la Trinidad – was subsequently abandoned because of Indian hostility.  

Irritilas and Laguneros

According to Peter Gerhard, “The North Frontier of New Spain” (1982), a missionary who knew the Parras region in 1595 wrote that the “original” inhabitants of the area were Yritilas (Irritilas) and Mayranos. Both groups are identified with the people who were later called Laguneros or Salineros, who extended westward to the vicinity of Cerro Gordo.  

Inhabiting the Laguna de Parras (San Pedro), the Laguneros – also known as the Irritilas – were described by the Spaniards as “Lake People,” because they occupied the lakes of the tablelands of Mapimí. They were believed to have been an Aztecoidan branch of the Uto-Aztecan stock, but this is not certain. The Indians lived primarily from fishing, hunting, and gathering, but they probably also sowed maize around the lakeshores as floodwaters receded. They are now extinct.  


The linguist John Reed Swanton regarded the Toboso Indians as a “predatory tribe living in the Seventeenth Century in the Bolsón de Mapimí and extending northward at least to the Río Grande.” From their positions in both Coahuila and Chihuahua, the Tobosos frequently raided Spanish settlements to the east in Coahuila and Nuevo León. Some evidence originally linked the Tobosos with the Athapaskans (Apaches), but more recent research has produced enough evidence to indicate that the Toboso language was probably Uto-Aztecan.  


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. The Guachichil group of tribes is regarded as connected with the present-day Huichol language group (of Jalisco and Nayarit) and has been classified as part of the Aztecoidan division of the Uto-Aztecan linguistic family.


The Guachichiles and their “Chichimeca” cousins, the Zacatecos, waged the 40-year war (1550-1590) known as the “Chichimeca War” against Spanish forces, primarily in the vast region south of Coahuila (Zacatecas, Northern Jalisco, Aguascalientes, Western San Luis Potosí and Guanajuato).  They were never decisively defeated in battle, but were pacified through gifts that included many of the materials used by Spaniards and “civilized” Indians to live and thrive in their Spanish settlements. A detailed discussion of the Chichimeca War is discussed in the article below:  


The Zacatecos were an indigenous tribe related to the Cazcan of the Aztecoidan family and Uto-Aztecan stock, occupying a large part of the State of Zacatecas and smaller portions of eastern Durango and southern Coahuila.  They were bordered by the Irritilas and Laguneros on the north, the Tepehuán on the west, and the Guachichile on the east. On the south, they were bordered by the Cora and Cazcan. According to David Frye, “Northeastern Mexico,” by 1620, some elements of the Zacatecos had moved farther north to live among indigenous groups in the mission town of Parras in the aftermath of the Chichimeca War.  

Conchos (Northwest Coahuila)

The Conchos have been described in great detail by several researchers.  They were named for the Spanish word for “shells,” a likely reference to the many shellfish found in the Conchos River.  The Concho Indians lived near the junction of the Rio Concho River and Rio Grande Rivers in northern Chihuahua.  However, the Conchos are also believed to have extended their reach into the modern-day state of Coahuila.  

The Conchos were placed by Mason and Johnson in the Taracahitian division of the Uto-Aztecan linguistic stock, with two major subdivisions: the Chinarra around the salt lakes and sand dunes of northern Chihuahua, and the Chizo, an eastern subdivision that inhabits the area east of the Concho and near the big bend of the Río Grande.   In 1934, Kroeber placed the Concho in the Cahita-Opata-Tarahumara group, most closely related to Opata and less so with the Tarahumara.  

The Apaches

In the north the Spanish frontier met the Apache southward expansion. In the first half of the seventeenth century, Apaches acquired horses from Spanish colonists of New Mexico and achieved dominance of the Southern Plains. The Apache expansion was intensified by the Pueblo Indian Revolt of 1680, when the Apaches lost their prime source of horses and shifted south to prey on Spanish settlements in Coahuila. Juan Domínguez de Mendoza recorded the names of numerous Indian groups east of the lower Pecos River that were displaced by Apaches.  

In 1780, the Comanches from the north began to harass the Apaches with raids that reached as far south as Monclova. As a result, the Apaches moved toward the coastal plain of Texas and became known as the Lipan Apaches. The Lipans in turn displaced the last Indian groups native to southern Texas, most of whom went to the Spanish missions in the San Antonio area. By 1790 the Spaniards had turned their attention from the aboriginal groups and focused on containing the Apache invaders in Coahuila, Chihuahua and Texas.  

The Coahuiltecan Tribes

The Coahuiltecan tribes were made up of hundreds of bands of hunter-gatherers who ranged over the eastern part of Coahuila, northern Tamaulipas, Nuevo León and southern Texas south and west of San Antonio River and Cibolo Creek. It is believed that the Coahuiltecans reached all the way to the Gulf coast at the mouth of the Nueces. Northeast of that point they were succeeded by Karankawan tribes. Toward the north, the Coahuiltecans were displaced by the Apache and Comanche. However, some tribes along the lower Rio Grande may have belonged to a distinct family, Tamaulipecan (described in 1864 by Orozco y Berra).  

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. It was the practice of the Coahuiltecans (or Coahuiltecos) to move from one traditional campsite to another, following the seasons and herds of migrating animals. During the Spanish colonial period a majority of the Coahuilatecan natives were displaced from their traditional territories by Spaniards advancing from the south and Apaches advancing from the north. 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 some cases – are not clear.  

Early Settlements

On July 25, 1577, the Portuguese explorer Captain Alberto del Canto founded San Estevan (later known as La Villa de Santiago del Saltillo) near a mission that had been established four years earlier. Saltillo became the oldest post-conquest settlement in Northern Mexico.  However, in 1581, the Saltillo inhabitants were forced to retreat to Durango and Mazapil by sustained Indian attacks. But after 14 years, the Spaniards were able to return and establish San Esteban de Tlaxcala in 1591.   

In 1578, Francisco de Urdinola established the town of Parras, which was actually abandoned for a few years, but settlers returned there in 1598. Between 1583 and 1585, an expedition led by Luis Carvajal y de la Cueva resulted in the foundation of Nuevo Almadén. Other settlements followed in the Seventeenth Century, but unfortunately, no major concentrations of gold or silver veins were found.  Coahuila's earth's richness is in metalloids such as iron, carbon, fluorite, and others, which would be discovered much later.   

Tlaxcaltecan Settlements

In 1590, Viceroy Luis de Velasco II commanded that 400 families of loyal, converted Tlaxcaltecans Indians (from Tlaxcala in the south) be settled alongside the Chichimec and other nomadic tribes of the northern frontier area. 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 Cuicillo, where the caravan split up for different destinations. One of the four groups --

245 Tlaxcaltecans led by Capitan Buenaventura Paz -- was sent from San Juan del Rio to parts of Nuevo León, Durango and Coahuila.  

The purpose of the Tlaxcaltecan caravan was to offer the Tlaxcalans an opportunity to serve as examples of “civilized Indians” for the native Indians.  They would play a role in the Christianizing of the nomadic desert tribes. The town of San Estebán de la Nueva Tlaxcala in Coahuila was among the settlements founded for this purpose. In 1674, Fray Juan de Larios conquered a great deal of the territory of Coahuila and established the village of Guadalupe, another Tlaxcalan settlement. Nearby, the city of Monclova was also established in 1674 and soon after it was declared the capital of the area.


Missions as a Place of Refuge

In northeastern Coahuila and adjacent Texas, the displacement of Coahuiltecans and other nomadic groups by the Spaniards and Apaches created an unusual ethnic mix. Inevitably, the numerous Spanish missions in the region would provide a refuge for the displaced and declining Indian populations. In the mission system, local Indians mixed with displaced groups from Coahuila, Chihuahua and Texas.  

The number of Indian groups at the missions varied from fewer than twenty groups to as many as 100. Missions in existence the longest usually had more groups, particularly in the north. Mission Indian villages usually consisted of about 100 Indians of mixed groups who generally came from a wide area surrounding a mission. Although survivors of a group often entered a single mission, individuals and families of one ethnic group might scatter to five or six missions. Some Indians never entered a mission.  

The former hunter-gatherers were willing to become part of the mission system for a number of reasons. The irrigation system promised a more stable supply of food than they normally enjoyed. Diseases brought by Europeans had depleted their numbers, making the Coahuiltecans even more vulnerable to their now-mobile enemies. The presidio – frequently located close to a mission -- offered much greater protection from the Apaches.  

The missionaries, along with lay helpers and usually no more than two soldiers and their families, instructed the natives in the Catholic faith and in the elements of Spanish peasant society. The Indians learned various trades, including carpentry, masonry, blacksmithing, and weaving; they also did a great deal of agricultural work.  

Because the missions had an agricultural base, they declined when the Indian labor force dwindled. Missions were distributed unevenly. Some were in remote areas, while others were clustered, often two to five in number, in small areas. A large number of displaced Indians collected in the clustered missions, which generally had a military garrison (presidio) for protection. Eventually, all the Spanish missions were abandoned or transferred to diocesan jurisdictions.   

Classification of the Coahuiltecans

Initially, the Spaniards had little interest in describing the natives or classifying them into ethnic units. There was no obvious basis for classification, and major cultural contrasts and tribal organizations went unnoticed, as did similarities and differences in the native languages and dialects. The Spanish padres referred to each Indian group as a nación, and described them according to their association with major terrain features or with Spanish jurisdictional units. Only in Nuevo León did observers link Indian populations by cultural peculiarities, such as hairstyle and body decoration. Thus, modern scholars have found it difficult to identify these hunting and gathering groups by language and culture.


The first attempt at classification of the Coahuila Indians was based on language, but came after most of the Indian groups had become extinct. Over time, Indians from other linguistic groups entered the Texas, Tamaulipas and Coahuila missions.  Eventually, many of the ethnohistorians and anthropologists came to believe that the entire region was occupied by numerous small Indian groups who spoke related languages and shared the same basic culture, the Coahuiltecan culture. By the mid-nineteenth century, Mexican linguists had constructed what is now known as "Coahuiltecan culture" by assembling bits of specific and generalized information recorded by Spaniards for widely scattered and limited parts of the region.  

A majority of the Coahuiltecan Indians lost their identity during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Their names disappeared from the written record as epidemics, warfare, migration, dispersion by Spaniards to work at distant plantations and mines, high infant mortality, and general demoralization took their toll. Small remnants of tribes merged with larger remnants of other groups. By 1800 the names of few ethnic units appear in documents, and by 1900 the names of groups native to the region had disappeared.


Loss of Ethnic Identity

A majority of the Coahuiltecan Indians lost their identity during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Their names disappeared from the written record as epidemics, warfare, migration, dispersion by Spaniards to work at distant plantations and mines, high infant mortality, and general demoralization took their toll. Small remnants merged with larger remnants. By 1800 the names of few ethnic units appear in documents, and by 1900 the names of groups native to the region had disappeared. Missions and refugee communities near Spanish or Mexican towns were the last bastions of ethnic identity. The Indians caused little trouble and provided unskilled labor. Ethnic names vanished with intermarriages. By the end of the eighteenth century, missions closed and Indian families were given small parcels of mission land. Eventually, the survivors passed into the lower economic levels of Mexican society.


Population Figures

According to the “Handbook of Texas Online,” estimates of the total Coahuiltecan population in 1690 vary widely. One scholar estimates the total nonagricultural Indian population of northeastern Mexico, which included desert lands west to the Río Conchos in Chihuahua, at 100,000; another scholar (Ruecking, 1953) compiled a list of 614 group names (Coahuiltecan) for northeastern Mexico and southern Texas and estimated the average population per group as 140 and therefore reckoned the total population at 86,000.



Kikapú is the only current indigenous language that might be considered indigenous to Coahuila. The Kikapú of Coahuila are part of an Algonquin speaking tribe of northern origin that also lives in Oklahoma, Kansas, and Texas. The Mexican Kikapú live primarily around the town of El Nacimiento de los Kikapúes, located in the municipio of Melchor Múzquiz, Coahuila. According to the INI (2003) and the National Council on Population (Consejo Nacional de Población CONAPO), there were 339 Kikapú speakers in 1995 and only 138 in 2000, but it is likely that many tribal members do not speak the language (but may be considered part of the Kikapú ethnic group).   


The Background of the “Kickapoo Indians”

Before contact with Europeans, the Kickapoo lived in northwest Ohio and southern Michigan in the area between Lake Erie and Lake Michigan. Beginning in the 1640s, the Algonquin tribes in this region came under attack from the east, first by the Ottawa and Iroquian-speaking Neutrals, and then the Iroquois. By 1658 the Kickapoo had been forced west into southwest Wisconsin.  

About 1700 they began to move south into northern Illinois and by 1770 had established themselves in central Illinois (near Peoria) extending southeast into the Wabash Valley on the western border of Indiana. After wars with the Americans and settlement of the Ohio Valley, they signed treaties during 1819 ceding their remaining land east of the Mississippi River and relocated to southern Missouri (1819-24). Initially, most moved to the lands assigned them, but many remained in central Illinois and refused to leave until they were forcibly removed by the military in 1834.  

Several bands of Kickapoo did not want to stay in Missouri and began wandering south and west, spreading across Oklahoma and Texas all the way to the Mexican border (and beyond). In 1832 the Missouri Kickapoo exchanged their reserve for lands in northeast Kansas. After the move, factions developed, and in 1852, a large group left and moved to Chihuahua in northern Mexico, where some of the Kickapoo had already made their home. The Mexican Kickapoo (known as Kikapú in Mexico) were joined by other tribal members between 1857 and 1863, but  between 1873 and 1878, approximately half of the Mexican Kickapoo returned to Oklahoma in the United States.  

In 2000, the largest concentration of the Kikapú were found in the Coahuila’s north central municipio of Múzquiz, where 106 of the 125 Kikapú speakers lived at the time of the 2000 census.   

Indigenous Coahuila in the Twentieth Century

By the late Nineteenth Century, nearly all the indigenous groups of Coahuila had disappeared.  The 1895 census recorded only 19 indigenous speakers in the entire state.  This number increased slightly to 55 in 1900 and to 263 in 1910.  In 1910, Coahuila had 262 Kikapú speakers, which means that only one indigenous person in the state spoke a language other than Kikapú.  

In the unique 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 393,480,  

  • 44,779 persons (or 1.1%) claimed to be of pure indigenous background
  • 306,433 persons (or 77.9%) classified themselves as being mixed
  • 39,853 persons (or 10.1%) classified themselves as white.


The 2010 Census

According to the 2010 Mexican census, only 6,105 persons five years of age or more in the State of Coahuila actually spoke an indigenous language. The most represented languages in the State were:  

  • Náhuatl (931 speakers)
  • Kikapú (433 speakers)
  • Mazahua (336 speakers)
  • Zapotec (225 speakers)


With the exception of the Kikapú speakers, the majority of these indigenous speakers were either migrants from other parts of Mexico or the children of migrants who arrived in the State at a later date. In 2010, only 39 residents of Coahuila were monolingual speakers of their indigenous language. In the final analysis, Coahuila ranked at the bottom of all the Mexican states for the number of its indigenous speakers.  

Mexicans Considered Indigenous

The 2010 census 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 in Mexico 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 all, only 14,638 residents of Coahuila in 2010 were classified as indigenous, about 0.5% of the state’s population and more than double the number of indigenous speakers (6,105). The two municipios with the largest number of “indigenous” persons were Saltillo (3,992) and Torreón (3,219), but Múzquiz with 760 indigenous persons had one of the highest percentages of all Coahuila municipios.  

The Future

Most of Coahuila’s indigenous population disappeared, dispersed or assimilated in the Eighteenth Century. While the Kikapú speakers hang on in northern Coahuila, the only other source of indigenous speakers in the State will come from the migrant workers who travel from Oaxaca, Guerrero and other southern states.  

Coahuila is Mexico’s top mining state in large part because of its large coal reserves. Thanks to Coahuila’s coal industry, its export-oriented manufacturing industry (the maquiladora) and Saltillo’s prosperous automobile industry, it is likely that migrants will continue to enter Coahuila’s border, thus bringing an influx of new indigenous speakers from other states.  

Copyright © 2014, by John P. Schmal.   


Alessio Robles, Vito’ “Coahuila y Texas en la Epoca Colonial” (Mexico City: Editorial Cultura, 1938; 2d ed., Mexico City: Editorial Porrúa, 1978).  

Bolton, Herbert Eugene (ed.). “Spanish Exploration in the Southwest, 1542-1706” (New York: Scribner, 1908; rpt., New York: Barnes and Noble, 1959)  

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

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

Campillo Cuautli, Hector. “Diccionario Ilustrado y Enciclopedia Regional del Estado de Coahuila” (Mexico, D.F.: Fernández Editories, 1987).  

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)  

Forbes, Jack D. “Unknown Athapaskans: The Identification of the Jano, Jocome, Jumano, Manso, Suma, and Other Indian Tribes of the Southwest,” Ethnohistory 6 (Spring 1959).  

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

Gibson, Arrell Morgan, “The Kickapoos; Lords of the Middle Border” (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1963).

Griffen, William B. “Culture Change and Shifting Populations in Central Northern Mexico” (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1969).  

Hackett, Charles W. (ed.) “Historical Documents Relating to New Mexico, Nueva Vizcaya, and Approaches Thereto, to 1773” (Washington: Carnegie Institution, 1923-37).  

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

Nielsen, George R, “The Kickapoo People” (Phoenix Indian Tribal Series, 1975).  

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

Ruecking, Freidrich H., “The Economic Systems of the Coahuiltecan Indians of Southern Texas and Northeastern Mexico (1953).  

Sauer, Carl. “The Distribution of Aboriginal Tribes and Languages in Northwestern Mexico” (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1934).  

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



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