Zapotec - Sociopolitical Organization



Social Organization. From the Postclassic period onward, the local community has been the primary sociopolitical entity in Zapotee society. Post-Classic Zapotee society consisted of three groups: commoners, priests, and the nobility, with each community having a controlling lord. In modern Oaxaca, the community remains the essential unit of organization, bound together by an institutionalized form of exchange called the guela uetza, or gozana, which has several manifestations. It can involve the exchange of agricultural labor or the exchange of goods during celebrations such as weddings and saint's day fiestas. For example, when a son or daughter is going to marry, the father visits all the households that owe him some form of debt from past occasions (e.g., mescal or turkeys) and asks for repayment at the upcoming wedding.


Political Organization. In most Zapotee communities, citizens are elected to fill positions in a cargo system. Zapotee Cargos are hierarchically arranged, age-graded religious and political posts in which adult men in the community serve terms of office without pay. The cargo system itself is consistently present in Zapotee communities, although variation exists as to details such as how officials are nominated and elected, the number of posts, and the duties of particular positions. Common posts include mayor, judge, and other officials such as treasurer and police captain. It is also noteworthy that the isthmus Zapotee women in particular wield considerable political power.


Social Control. The Zapotee employ a variety of formal and informal social controls. Formally, disputes may be brought before the local or district authorities, who have the ability to fine and imprison wrongdoers. At the informal level, mechanisms such as the avoidance of conflict situations; the denial of hostility and anger; the internalization of ideals such as respect, cooperation, and responsibility; fear of witchcraft; gossip; envy; and the withdrawal of social support operate variably in different locations. One frequently noted Zapotee ideal involves respect for others. The renowned former Mexican president, Benito Juárez, a Zapotee, reflected the importance of respect in Zapotee thinking when he wrote, "respect for the rights of others is peace."

Conflict. Notwithstanding the Zapotee valuation of respect, they have been involved in conflict. For much of the Classic and Post-Classic periods, there is evidence that military conquest, coupled with the enslavement and at times sacrifice of captives, was a prevalent Zapotee institution. During the Mexican Revolution, some Zapotee communities, such as Ixtepeji in the northern sierra, became involved in the conflict, but others did not. Intervillage disputes over community boundaries, sometimes resulting in the loss of life, have periodically arisen in many areas for at least the last several hundred years. Interestingly, the level of intracommunity conflict is extremely variable; some Zapotee communities are very peaceful, whereas others are much more violent. Historical, social-structural, and psychocultural variables appear to be interrelated factors accounting for this pronounced variability.


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