Aside from a few brief and superficial treatments, published ethnographic material on the Cuicatec is based on field studies made prior to 1970. Unless otherwise indicated, the information presented here is based on ethnographic work that was done in the 1950s and 1960s, during which period the most thorough research was conducted.
Identification and Location. The region occupied by the Cuicatec is located in the ex-distrito of Cuicatlán in northeastern Oaxaca, Mexico. It is bounded by the canyon of the Río Santo Domingo to the north, the Chinatec lowlands to the east, the Almoloyas Mountains to the south, and the canyon of the Río Grande (the Canada de Cuicatlán) to the west. From the Canada, at an elevation of 500 meters above sea level, the land to the east ascends to the uninhabited Llano Español plateau, at 3,200 meters, and then descends to the Chinatec lowlands. Rainfall varies from 50 centimeters in the Canada to 150 centimeters in the mountains, and reaches 300 centimeters at the Chinatec border. The Cuicatec region is approximately equidistant between the Tehuacán-Puebla Valley, 100 kilometers to the north, and the Valley of Oaxaca, 100 kilometers to the south.
Before the arrival of the Spanish, both the Canada and the highlands were occupied by speakers of Cuicateco. Today, however, settlements in the more accessible and agriculturally productive Canada are dominated by mestizos. Contemporary speakers of Cuicateco are confined largely to the more remote highlands. They retain many elements of Cuicatec culture, including language, cosmology, and decorative arts. They also retain a relative degree of political and economic equality and an economy that emphasizes production for subsistence. In contrast, mestizos are more fully integrated into the national economy, more highly motivated by profit, and more tolerant of inequality.
Much of the contact that occurs between the highland Indians and the Mexican nation state is through mestizo culture-brokers—for example, educators and political administrators—who represent the Indians to the larger society. These culture-brokers draw Indians into the Mexican political economy while, paradoxically, contributing to the maintenance of traditional Indian cultural forms. The boundary between the mestizo and Indian segments, however, is permeable. Mestizos move to the Cuicatec highlands to establish plantations or to assume administrative positions. Indians migrate to the Canada, the mestizo-dominated area, to engage in wage labor. This movement may or may not be accompanied by the adoption of some or all of the cultural markers of the mestizo segment.
Demography. According to census figures, the number of speakers of Cuicateco has increased over the past sixty years (9,218 in 1930; 8,771 in 1950; 10,192 in 1970; 13,338 in 1980; and 11,846 in 1990).
Linguistic Affiliation. Cuicateco and the languages spoken in the regions bordering that of the Cuicatec (Mazateco, Chinateco, Zapoteco, Mixteco, and Ixcateco) belong to the Otomanguean Language Family. It is proposed through glottochronology that diversification of Otomanguean began around 3,500 B . C . and that speakers of proto-Otomanguean occupied the Valley of Tehuacán, Puebla. Cuicateco diverged from its closest relative, Mixteco, around 500 B . C . Dialectal divergence of Cuicateco dates to the sixteenth century.