Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The majority of Zapotec in all regions are peasant farmers, practicing a mixture of subsistence and cash agriculture with some animal husbandry. This is also the case in the isthmus urban centers. The primary subsistence crops are maize, beans, and squashes; various other crops are grown, depending on the climate, the availability of irrigation sources, and soil conditions. The household is the basic production unit but it is linked to the outside through an elaborate, cyclical marketplace system that has operated for centuries. At times, maize may be sold as a cash crop. In the valley region, a limited number of farmers plant garbanzo beans or wheat as off-season crops, whereas maguey, which is used to make the liquor mescal, is widely planted as a cash crop. In the mountain regions, coffee is a cash crop; in the isthmus, cash crops are bananas, mangoes, and coconuts. Crops are sometimes irrigated, although many villages remain totally dependent on rainfall. In all regions, farmers use teams of oxen to plow their fields; however, when mountain slopes are too steep for oxen, planting may be accomplished with a digging stick. Tractor use is gradually increasing.
Industrial Arts. Many Zapotee communities are specialized by craft and industry. In the valley, for instance, village specializations include the production of pottery, wool serapes, grinding stones (metates), woven belts, baskets, and other goods. In the northern sierra, crafts are less prevalent but include leatherworking and cotton weaving. Dress varies both among and within the Zapotee regions, with women's clothing showing greater variety than men's apparel. The Zapotee can often identify a woman's village of origin by her style of dress.
Trade. Oaxaca is known for its highly developed market system, and the Zapotee are renowned for their commercial activities. Since pre-Hispanic times, the Zapotee have maintained trade routes through much of Oaxaca. Products were carried by tumpline, a device that is still used by farmers to transport such loads as firewood. Certain localities, for example, the valley community of Mitla, specialized in trading activities. Presently, the Zapotee play a central role in the indigenous marketplace activities in both Oaxaca City and Tehuantepec.
Division of Labor. In each Zapotee region, men and women engage in different activities, but the specific nature of the division of labor is somewhat variable. Generally, men farm, and women prepare food, perform domestic chores, and perhaps participate in commercial activities. The isthmus Zapotee women are well known for their commercial activities and are almost exclusively the traders in marketplaces. Selling is an activity closed to isthmus men, whereas in other regions both men and women produce and sell various goods. In the valley town of Teotitlán del Valle, only men weave and generally sell serapes. Some men are so successful as weavers (they now sell to an international market) that they hire farmers from neighboring villages to work their fields.
Land Tenure. Prior to changes in the Mexican constitution in 1992, land tenure consisted of a mixture of private land, communal land, and ejidos. A farmer's private land usually consists of several small separate parcels, not one continuous holding. Local authorities grant permission to community members to farm or graze livestock on communal lands, which generally are of poor quality. Ejidos do not exist everywhere. They were established under the land reforms following the Mexican Revolution and are portions of communities (sometimes whole communities) that hold land in common under a special local authority structure. The large haciendas, common in other parts of Mexico, were relatively insignificant in Zapotee Oaxaca.