Identification. The Wasteko are Mayan-language speakers who live in San Luis Potosí and Veracruz, Mexico, distant from other Mayan groups in Guatemala, Belize, and southern Mexico. They migrated north from the Mayan heartland in Guatemala around 2200 B . C ., but, despite 4,000 years of separation from other Maya, they have maintained their Mayan cultural patterns and beliefs. The Wasteko refer to themselves as "Teenek" ( te'en inik, "laughing people," or tehe' inik, "right-here people"). The name "Wasteko" (Spanish: Huasteco) derives from the Nahuatl cuextecatl, a name used by the Aztecs that may be derived from two Wasteko words, kweech (coil) and te' (tree), in reference to the crown of coiled vines that Wasteko women wore on their heads. Traditional women's garb remains distinctively Wasteko. The costume in San Luis Potosí is a mid-calf to knee-length black sarong skirt and a short, embroidered cape, worn over one or more ruffled blouses. A small embroidered bag is carried over the shoulder. Through the 1960s, embroidery patterns served to identify the home community of the wearer. Hair is tucked over a thick circle of bright yarn, a replacement for the traditional coil of vines. An embroidered cloth is folded and placed on top of the coronet on special occasions. In Veracruz and in a few San Luis Potosí communities, traditional women's clothing includes a long, flounced skirt instead of the shorter sarong, and the hair is worn in braids. Today men and most women wear factory-made apparel.
Location. According to Laughlin (1969), in the late 1400s the Wasteko occupied a large area of highland desert, mountain jungles, and coastal lowlands that encompassed much of the state of San Luis Potosí, southern Tamaulipas, northern Veracruz, and parts of Queretaro and Hidalgo. In the early 1500s the Spanish invaders forced the Wasteko out of their coastal towns, westward into the foothills and mountains of the Sierra Madre Oriental. Many Wasteko were sent as slaves to the Antilles, large numbers died as a result of the introduction of Old World diseases, and others succumbed to mistreatment by the Spanish conquerors. Today the Wasteko occupy a more limited area, living in small hamlets or isolated farmsteads at elevations from 60 to 500 meters above sea level on the Gulf Coastal slopes of the Sierra Madre Oriental in eastern San Luis Potosí and northern Veracruz. This region, known as the Huasteca, is populated by several other ethnolinguistic groups: Nahua, Totonac, Pame, Otomí, Tepehua, and mestizo. The Huasteca is a diverse area, with forested mountains to the west and drier plains to the east. Average rainfall ranges from 115 centimeters per year in the Gulf Coastal areas of Veracruz up to 315 centimeters per year in the moist tropical forests of San Luis Potosí. The area is drained by many small streams and several major rivers. Temperatures are generally very warm, averaging from 20° C to 24° C, but lows sometimes approach freezing during winter. The Huasteca remained an isolated backwater until the discovery of oil around 1910. The Pan-American Highway opened the area to international traffic in 1935, but even today secondary roads remain relatively few, and footpaths are common.
Demography. Since 1970, the Wasteko population has nearly doubled, but the absolute number of people reported as monolingual has remained stable. In 1970 the total number of Wasteko speakers in the states of San Luis Potosí and Veracruz was 64,888, of whom 18 percent were monolingual. Wasteko communities in San Luis Potosí are more isolated than those in Veracruz, and they report having almost twice as many monolinguals. In 1990 the total Wasteko population of the two states was 115,630, and 10 percent were monolingual: 14 percent of women and 6 percent of men. (There were only 5,109 Wasteko in the rest of Mexico.) In spite of the decrease in the percentage of monolinguals, Wasteko remains the primary language of most of the Huastec people. In San Luis Potosí in 1980, for example, half the children ages 5 to 9 spoke only Wasteko. Most adults over 40 are illiterate.
Linguistic Affiliation. Thirty mutually unintelligible living languages form the Mayan Language Family. Of these, nineteen are spoken primarily in Guatemala and Belize and eleven primarily in Mexico. The fifth-largest Mayan language of Mexico, but the most linguistically isolated, is Wasteko. Its two main dialects, Potosino and Veracruzano, are mutually intelligible but differ slightly in vocabulary and in details of pronunciation. A third dialect, Sierra Otontepec, has been reported from an isolated area in northern Veracruz. One colonial grammar and vocabulary of the language survives (Tapia Zenteno 1767). Modern studies of the language include Larsen's (1955) dictionary and Edmonson's (1988) grammar, which has an extensive bibliography of linguistic and other material pertaining to the Wasteko.
The Wasteko are great storytellers, and, in their tales and legends, they employ a parallel-couplet structure that is common to all of the Mayan languages. Successive lines in a story are linked in terms of either their grammatical structure or their content. In effect, the second line of a couplet repeats the information contained in the first line, altered slightly for variety. There are several different genres of Wasteko speech, from ritual incantations pronounced by a shamanic curer, to well-known stories told by an accomplished storyteller, to the conversations of everyday life. Even when explaining so mundane a topic as how to plant a maize field, native speakers slip almost unconsciously into couplets.