At my language school, they hope to teach us about more than just Spanish grammar and vocabulary. When you learn a language, you need to learn about the culture and history, too. One way to better understand the people you are talking and listening to is to learn about their past. Because there are many indigenous people groups here in southern Oaxaca, there is a lot of different history to learn.
One of those indigenous people groups is the Mixtecs. From around 800 to 1522, the Mixtecs were an empire at the same time as the Aztecs and Mayans. Their empire was vast and their power was great, but for some reason this people group was always left out of the story when I learned about the Aztec and Mayan Empires and the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s.
The capital of the Mixtec Empire was Tututepec, which still exists as a sleepy little pueblo up in the mountains. No longer the capital city of a great empire, it is now the county seat, with a town square, a Catholic church built in the 1500s and a small museum about the history of the Mixtec people. I was able to take pictures of the town center and the Catholic church, but the museum prohibited pictures.
The museum in Tututepec is small, but it has significant artifacts, including a large stone idol depicting a fertility goddess from the religion of the Mixtec Empire. Few artifacts still exist from that time: almost anything relating to the Mixtec religion (and by extension anything relating to Mixtec Empire history) was destroyed by Spanish priests who came with the conquistadors. While I understand the impulse to get rid of false idols, the destruction of hundreds of years of history of a people is a loss for those of us learning today. There is so much we don’t know about this 700+ year empire, but the Tututepec museum displays the artifacts and facts that have been discovered about the Mixtec Empire.
One of the things that struck me about the art and artifacts of the Mixtec people was how similar it looked to Chinese art I have seen. I thought that I was just seeing things, but in the museum, they have statuettes uncovered in archaeological digs that appear to depict people with Chinese features, as well as people with African features. Perhaps people from China and Africa made their way to Mexico many hundreds of years ago?
The funny thing about history? As we learned about the beginning of the Mixtec Empire around 800, I thought of when I traveled to Iona, an island of the coast of Scotland. The saint Columba landed on Iona in the late 500s and started a monastery there. Monks were trained there and the famous Book of Kells was started there in the 700s, but by around 800, the Vikings came and destroyed the monastery. Iona and Mexico are thousands of miles apart, but it’s crazy to think about how such monumental historical events happened around the same time.
When the conquistadors came to Mexico in 1522, they didn’t exactly conquer the Mixtecs. As I was told the story, the way the Spanish took over land was by striking deals with smaller people groups already subjugated by the Mixtec Empire. That way, the Spanish had a built-in army of sorts when they approached the Mixtecs. Apparently, the king of the Mixtec Empire offered to make a deal with the Spaniards, but his overtures were rebuffed, and then, as this sort of thing almost always goes, battles broke out. Instead of being conquered, though, the Mixtecs fled high into the mountains where the Spaniards couldn’t reach them. With the people scattered, the Mixtec Empire as it was vanished and the Spaniards took over the area.
Those Mixtecs that fled to the mountains are the ancestors of the Mixtecos of today, of my friends here who have Mixtec heritage. In many of those high mountain villages, there are many people who still only speak Mixteco, not Spanish. In Tututepec we had the unique opportunity to attend a Mixtecan celebration honoring their Mixtec heritage, complete with their own style of music and dancing (and had we been able to stay longer, also food). At this little celebration, tiny Mixteco women taught some of us how to dance, sharing a part of their ancient culture with us.
Learning about the Mixtec Empire at the museum and being able to experience a taste of Mixteco culture at the fiesta were great additions to my Spanish School experience. I’m thankful to be studying Spanish at a school that values the history and culture of the local area. My studies of the Spanish are richer with this background knowledge of some of the people I meet and talk to every day.