Nahua of the Huasteca - Orientation

Identification. The Nahua are the most populous Native American group living in Mexico. The name "Nahua" is used by scholars to designate people who speak the Nahuatl language. The appellation derives from Nahuatl and appears to mean "intelligible," "clear," or "audible." Nahuatl speakers recognize the name "Nahua," but rarely employ it themselves. More commonly, they use the word "Mexicano" to refer to the Nahuatl language and as a general name for their ethnic group. "Mexicano" also derives from Nahuatl but has been Hispanicized and is pronounced and pluralized as in Spanish. Some writers use "Nahuatl" to refer both to the people and the language. Older-generation Nahua in the Huasteca sometimes refer to a member of their ethnic group as a "Mexijcatl," recalling the term of self-reference used by the ancient Aztecs. The name "Aztec" is properly used to refer only to the short-lived Mexica Empire that was forged by certain highland groups of Nahua before the Spanish Conquest. Scholars commonly divide contemporary Nahua into subgroups based on the geographical area they inhabit. The Nahua described here live in the Huasteca east-central Mexico. William Madsen (1969) noted the relative lack of ethnographic studies of Huastecan Nahua culture at that time.

Location. The Huasteca is a cultural-geographic region composed of portions of six states on the Gulf Coast of Mexico—Veracruz, San Luis Potosí, Tamaulipas, Hidalgo, Querétaro, and Puebla. The precise boundaries of the Huasteca are disputed by local inhabitants and experts alike. The region is bordered on the east by the Gulf of Mexico and on the west by the great Sierra Madre Oriental range. Many authorities agree that the Río Cazones defines the southern limit, and the Sierra de Tamaulipas forms the northernmost boundary. The Nahua generally occupy the hilly southern and western portions of this vast region; they are concentrated in northern Veracruz and northern Puebla, northeastern portions of Hidalgo, and southeastern San Luis Potosí. At lower elevations the climate is tropical and the territory well watered, with numerous rivers and arroyos flowing from the mountains and emptying into the Gulf. At higher elevations the climate becomes dryer and colder, supporting pine forests. There are distinct wet and dry seasons corresponding to summer and winter, respectively.

Demography. It is impossible to determine the precise population of the Nahua of the Huasteca. Official counts are suspect because census takers usually do not have access to all members of the population. The Nahua live in communities scattered widely throughout hilly or mountainous terrain penetrated by few roads. Furthermore, when census takers determine linguistic affiliation, they count only people 5 years of age and older. Finally, there is the problem of deliminiting the boundaries of the Huasteca. Defining the Huasteca as consisting of ninetytwo municipios, the 1990 census recorded 431,805 speakers of Nahuatl 5 years of age or older who live in the region.

Linguistic Affiliation. Nahuatl belongs to the UtoAztecan Family and is related to several languages spoken in Mexico and North America. It was the language spoken by the Aztecs (Mexica-Tenochca), Toltecs, Tlaxcalans, and many other pre-Hispanic and contact-era peoples. Speakers are generally concentrated in the highland region of central Mexico. Linguists divide Nahuatl spoken in the Huasteca into eastern, western, and T dialects, although these are probably 95 percent mutually intelligible. The western dialect is spoken mainly in San Luis Potosí, Hidalgo, and a small area of Veracruz. Eastern Huastecan Nahuatl is spoken in extreme eastern Hidalgo, Veracruz, and the northern tip of Puebla. The T dialect (called Nahuat, as opposed to Nahuatl) is represented by an island of speakers located in and around the town of Huejutla de Reyes in Hidalgo.

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