According to Totonac oral tradition, their ancestors helped build the ancient city of Teotihuacán, located 42 kilometers northeast of Mexico City; however, there is no archaeological evidence to support this claim. After the decline of the city, Totonac legend maintains, they migrated to the area that became known as Totonacapan. They established important centers of population at Cempoala and Taj in, in coastal Veracruz. Traditional deities are still worshiped at the temple complex at Tajin. Aztec warfare and domination weakened the Totonac rulers. Archaeologists have developed a different, more objective view of the early history of the people of this area, but this is the history the Totonac accept.
Eager to defeat the Aztec, the Totonac helped the Spanish invaders, as was noted by the chronicler Bernal Díaz del Castillo. Nevertheless, they fared no better than any other Indian group under Spanish colonial rule. In areas where the Spanish colonists resided, newly introduced diseases ravaged the Amerindian population, and forced labor occasioned a soaring mortality rate. The Franciscan clergy evangelized Totonacapan, building churches with Indian labor and converting the communities to a somewhat superficial Catholicism.
Fortunately for the Totonac, the region's hot, wet climate and uneven terrain made it unattractive to most of the Spanish colonizers, thus affording a certain amount of political and cultural autonomy for the indigenous people during the colonial period. Essentially self-governing, Totonac communities experienced limited external influence.
Following Mexican independence in 1821, the Totonac of Veracruz became enmeshed in conflict with mestizos over land and over interference with Totonac ritual life. In 1836 the bishop of Puebla, Francisco Pablo Vazquez, prohibited the Indians from celebrating their Holy Week rituals. The ensuing rebellion (1836-1838), led by Mariano Olarte, began at Papantla. Eventually, the establishment of conduenazgos (the legal term for the recognition of communal lands by the state) permitted the Indian communities of Veracruz to defend their lands for the remainder of the nineteenth century.
The Totonac of the northern Sierra de Puebla were able to maintain a greater autonomy. They proved to be valuable allies to the regional leaders, usually mestizos. The Totonac supported these strongmen as long as Totonac villages were left alone. They also contributed to the triumph of liberal forces at Puebla in the Batalla del Cinco de Mayo in 1863.
During the Mexican Revolution, Totonac villages were attacked and burned by different factions. People from remote areas entered Totonacapan, and growing numbers of mestizos entered Totonac villages. The situation of social unrest allowed mestizos to establish themselves and find economic opportunities in villages in which mestizos had been previously unwelcome, and conflict over landownership became acute.
A few Indian strongmen ( caudillos ) arose after the Revolution, but mestizos obtained political control with the help of regional leaders who were able to obtain power on a national level. The most notable case is that of Manuel Avila Camacho, who was president of Mexico in the 1930s and was from the northern Sierra de Puebla, where his wealthy family was prominent in mestizo society.