Identification. "Cahita" refers to Cahitan speakers, members of the three modern ethnic or "tribal" groups in southern Sonora and northern Sinaloa, Mexico. The people themselves would not recognize this term but use "Yoreme" (Yaqui: Yoeme, indigenous peoples) to designate themselves and the term "Yori" to mark mestizos (non-Indian Mexicans). The terms "Yaqui" and "Mayo" appear to have been drawn from the river valleys of the same names. The Spanish mistakenly applied the native term kahita (nothing) to the indigenous language. Apparently, when the local people were asked the name of the language they spoke, they replied "kaita," meaning "nothing" or "it has no name."
Location. Located around 27° N and 109° W, the modern Cahitans include: the Yaqui, inhabiting the central coast of the state of Sonora in northwest Mexico; the Mayo, living south of the Yaqui along the southern coast of Sonora and the northern coast of Sinaloa; and other smaller dialect groups such as the Tehueco, who have been mainly absorbed by the Mayo. Many Yaqui inhabit a special reservation area, whereas Mayo live interspersed with mestizos. Lack of archaeological research in the area makes it difficult to delineate a precontact Cahitan territory, although since Spanish contact Mayo-Yaqui territory has remained stable, with the exception of the gradual reduction in control over the territory. Modern Cahitan territory reflects a dramatic contrast between the fertile Yaqui, Mayo, and Fuerte irrigation areas, with their fantastic agricultural production and high population density, and the sparcely settled thorn-forest desert areas, with abundant wild fruits, woods, and fauna. This hot coastal area is characterized by long periods of dry weather broken by heavy summer thundershowers and more sustained lighter winter rains producing between 40 to 80 centimeters of precipitation per year.
Demography. At the time of Spanish contact, there were over 100,000 Cahitans, with the Yaqui and the Mayo accounting for 60,000 of the total; the 1950 census lists slightly over 30,000 Mayo speakers, and the Yaqui numbered about 15,000 in the 1940s. The 1970 census lists almost 28,000 Mayo speakers. These figures could well be doubled, however, because of the present dispersal of these peoples throughout Sonora and southern Arizona and the difficulty in identifying them as separate populations.
Linguistic Affiliation. The Mayo, Tehueco, and Yaqui dialects constitute the Cahitan Subfamily of the UtoAztecan Stock. The Mayo and the Yaqui have no difficulty communicating with each other, as the dialects are similar, and Tehueco is even closer to Mayo than is Yaqui. Today the Mayo write in Mayo, although in the precontact period, Cahitan does not seem to have been a written language.