A Cultural Sketch of the Copala Trique
Barbara E. Hollenbach
Summer Institute of Linguistics, Mexico

Abstract:  This sketch provides an overview of the traditional culture of the Copala Trique people of Oaxaca, Mexico, based on fieldwork by the author during the 1960s and 1970s.  The outline includes seven main topics: orientation, settlements, economy, kinship, marriage and family, sociopolitical organization, and religion and expressive culture.  Selected bibliographical references are also included. 

Resumen:  Este bosquejo presenta un panorama de la cultura tradicional de los triquis de Copala, Oaxaca, México; está basado en trabajos de campo llevados a cabo por la autora durante las décadas de los sesenta y los setenta.  El resumen se organiza en siete temas principales: orientación, establecimientos, economía, parentesco, casamiento y familia, organización sociopolítica, y religión y cultura expresiva.  También se incluye una pequeña bibliografía. 

  1. Orientation
  2. Settlements
  3. Economy
  4. Kinship
  5. Marriage and Family
  6. Sociopolitical Organization
  7. Religion and Expressive Culture
  8. Selected References

1.  Orientation

The Copala Trique people are located in the western part of the state of Oaxaca, Mexico.  The majority live in and around the village of San Juan Copala, in the ex-district of Juxtlahuaca, but some of the southernmost settlements are in the ex-district of Putla.  According to a recent informal census taken by local Trique officials, the number of people in this ethnic group is about 15,000.  The territory they occupy extends from nearly 2,500 meters above sea level down to about 1,000 meters, and includes pine-oak woodland and tropical deciduous vegetation zones. 

There are two other Trique dialects in addition to Copala Trique.  The Chicahuaxtla dialect is spoken in San Andrés Chicahuaxtla, San Jose Xochixtlán, Santo Domingo del Estado, and a number of smaller communities, all in the ex-district of Putla.  The San Martín dialect is spoken in San Martín Itunyoso and a few smaller settlements, all in the ex-district of Tlaxiaco.  The Trique form a linguistic island completely surrounded by speakers of various Mixtec languages--and also, of course, by speakers of Spanish.  The Trique are also referred to as Triqui and Driqui.  In their own language the Copala Trique call themselves "the people of the town;" in Spanish they prefer the spelling triqui.

The Trique language forms part of the Mixtecan language family, along with Cuicatec and the many distinct varieties of Mixtec.  The Mixtecan family is one of eight that make up the Otomanguean stock.  All Otomanguean languages are tonal, and both Copala Trique and Chicahuaxtla Trique have five tone levels.  The Trique are located in the heart of the culture area called Mesoamerica, which extends from central Mexico through Guatemala and includes portions of Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. 

Little is known about the history of the Trique, but they have probably lived in their present location for several centuries.  Before the Spanish conquest in the early sixteenth century, they were forced to relate to the politically dominant Mixtecs and Aztecs, and later to the Spaniards and to Spanish-speaking Mexican people. 

Local speakers of Spanish tend to look down on all speakers of Indian languages, but especially on the Trique, and the local Mixtec also look down on them, leaving them at the very bottom of the social pecking order.  Because of their subordinate status, the Copala Trique have traditionally had a deep sense of inferiority about their language and culture.  (I have often heard Triques say that their language is no good because it can't be written.  Even though it was not written in the past and is difficult to write because of the tone and other non-Spanish sounds, Trique can, of course, be written.)

In response to their low status, the Copala Trique traditionally tended to keep to themselves as much as possible.  Like all peasant societies, however, they are economically and politically dependent on the larger society, and considerable interaction is necessary.  In their contacts with speakers of Spanish and Mixtec they usually show deference. 

This deep sense of cultural inferiority is reflected in their myths, many of which include explanations for their poverty and low social status.  In one story about the thunder god and his wife, the thunder goddess, she told him not to watch while he harvested the corn, but he looked, and the corn plants became weak.  They had an argument, and she sprinkled dust from her metate (grindstone) on the stored ears of corn, and then fled to the coastal lowlands.  The presence of the thunder goddess there resulted in greater productivity of the land at lower elevations.  At higher elevations, however, the dust produced weevils and moths that ate the stored corn. 

In another story, the ancestor of the Trique was going to found Mexico City right in Copala territory, which would have made it politically important.  But his wife said she was going to found Oaxaca City, the state capital, farther away, even though she was "only a woman." In response to this taunt, he took two giant steps and founded Mexico City in the valley of Mexico, far away from Copala, leaving Copala as a political backwater.  This man also sent his brother, who was a cannibal, across the ocean by asking the ocean to come between them, and his brother cursed him, leaving the Copala Trique poor to this day. 

These traditional patterns of interaction with Mexican society have been altered during the past four decades by the presence of roads into the Copala Trique area, and also by the introduction of schools.  These factors have allowed more outsiders to come into the Trique area, thus opening them to considerable outside influence.  Even more important, however, has been the number of Triques who have left the area for months at a time to work. 

2.  Settlements

The traditional settlement pattern is dispersed, with only families currently holding a political or religious office living in the town center and the rest scattered in the barrios (hamlets), coming to the center for political, religious, and commercial activities.  There has recently been more centralization, partly because of families who have moved to the village center to take refuge from feuding, and partly because of government programs based there. 

Houses are traditionally constructed of a variety of materials.  One of the most common types has walls constructed of a double pole framework, with the space between filled with rocks and mud.  The roof is usually either grass thatch or rough pine shingles.  Sometimes walls are made of logs, or occasionally adobes.  At lower elevations pole walls are used.  For temporary buildings, the sheets of fiber from the stalk of banana plants is often used, and outside agencies have constructed some buildings of brick or block. 

Traditional houses may be rectangular, or the two shorter sides may be rounded.  Houses have only a single room with a dirt floor, and few, if any, furnishings.  Women build cooking fires on the floor and kneel to grind corn and pat out tortillas.  Men often hunker, or sit on low benches.  Family members sleep on palm mats, which are rolled up during the day. 

The Trique also construct vapor baths out of mud and stone; they consist of a low chamber with a firebox at one end.  Even though bathing in the vapor bath is said to be a cure for itching, these structures are used mostly for ceremonial purposes.  For example, women must take a series of vapor baths following childbirth. 

3.  Economy

The traditional economy is based on subsistence farming, with corn as the most important crop.  Beans and squash are planted together with the corn in the fields so that the cornstalks can serve as poles for the bean vines.  Irrigated fields are planted in late winter, and fields with no irrigation are planted when the summer rains begin.  Some fields are planted about a month before the rains begin, with each hole hand-watered at that time.  Level fields are usually plowed using a wooden plow pulled by a yoke of oxen, but some fields are prepared using slash-and-burn techniques.  For sowing, holes are made with a pointed dibble stick.  Lettuce, radishes, and coriander are sometimes planted for personal consumption in small fenced gardens. 

There are two important cash crops at the lower elevations, coffee and several varieties of bananas.  The bananas are packed into crates and marketed in nearby towns, and the coffee is sold to middlemen in the market towns.  Because of many abuses in the system, the government has introduced a coffee cooperative to help the Trique receive a more fair price for their coffee, and also machinery to reduce the labor involved in preparing the beans for market. 

Partly because of population pressure due to improved medical care, forests have been cut extensively for agriculture, and the water table is dropping, reducing the fertility of the land.  Not enough corn is produced to feed the population, and corn is brought in to sell each market day.  The economic pressure has induced many Triques to leave the area and to seek wage work in large agricultural operations.  Many have gone to harvest sugarcane in northern Oaxaca and Veracruz, but now more go to northern Mexico to work in tomato and strawberry fields, and in vineyards.  Mixtec and Trique laborers are actively recruited by large-scale growers, who send buses to Oaxaca to get them and provide camps for them to live in.  Many also go to the U.S. and Canada, often without legal documentation. 

Some Copala Triques keep small flocks of goats and barbecue the meat to sell on market day.  Many also have a yoke of oxen for plowing and a donkey or two to use as pack animals.  Each household has one or more dogs to serve as watchdogs, and women keep a few chickens and turkeys to sell the eggs for cash.  Each household often raises one pig to sell, though the Trique traditionally do not eat pork. 

The major craft is the weaving done by the women on backstrap looms, traditionally to produce their own clothing, but now increasingly for the tourist trade.  For themselves women weave huipiles (tunics) and skirts. 

Tunics are woven in three panels.  The background is white, and pairs of red stripes framing rows of small geometric designs cover each panel.  The middle panel has a more elaborate design a few inches below the neck on both front and back.  After the panels are joined together, ribbon is sewn over the seams and around the neck. 

The skirts are woven in two strips of dark blue cotton with red stripes running lengthwise.  The two strips are joined side-by-side with a decorative embroidery stitch, and the ends are joined in the same way to form a tube.  The skirt is worn by folding over the top edge, forming three pleats at each side, and wrapping a belt tightly around the waist to hold it up. 

For use within their own society women also weave bags to hold tortillas, and belts for men; both are striped, with the color red predominating.  No other clothing for men is woven by the Copala Trique. 

A generation ago men wore calzones, white muslin pants that come to just below the knee and cross over in front and tie, and brightly colored satin shirts cut like guayaberas. These garments were made by Spanish speakers in Juxtlahuaca to sell to the Trique.  At present, however, men wear ordinary Western pants and shirts. 

For the tourist trade Trique women weave wall hangings, ponchos, bags, belts, and blouses; many Triques now live in tourist centers in order to sell their weaving.  They also produce other small craft items, like woven bracelets, and pens wrapped with string that spell names.  In addition, they buy crafts from other groups to sell. 

Many items that the Trique traditionally use are made by indigenous peoples from surrounding groups and sold to them.  Woven palm petates (mats), women's belts, and baskets are made by the Juxtlahuaca Mixtec; unglazed clay comales (griddles), cooking pots, and water jugs by the Santa María Cuquila Mixtecs; black wool skirts by the San Miguel Progreso Mixtecs; and woven cloth belts for women by the Santo Tomás Jalieza Zapotecs.  There are, however, no items that the Trique produce to sell to other indigenous groups. 

The weekly market day in Copala falls on Monday, and people who live within about four hours' walk of Copala often buy and sell there, including Spanish and Mixtec speaking people from the settlements north of Trique territory.  Most of the exchange involves food.  The Trique sell bananas, and they buy dried red chile peppers grown in the town of Mesones, south of Putla, corn, and other items.  Unglazed pottery is usually available each week also, as well as thread for weaving.  Since the entrance of a road, more outside vendors sell in Copala, and a wider variety of commercial items is available. 

Many other items the Trique use are sold in Copala at the Third-Friday fiesta during Lent, such as metates and manos (the grindstones used in making tortillas), baskets, blankets, sandals, clothing, and tools such as machetes. 

There is also a small market in Agua Fría, just north of Copala territory, on Thursday, mainly for the exchange of food.  The weekly market day falls on Friday in Juxtlahuaca, and on Sunday in Putla.  In the past the Trique often walked to town to participate in market day.  Now that there are roads, and there is bus service, as well as truck runs, people tend to go more frequently, and a wider variety of items is available in both towns. 

There is a clear division between men's and women's work.  Women cook, carry water, and clean the house; making tortillas, the staple item of the Trique diet, involves considerable work.  Women also care for children, raise poultry, and weave.  Men farm, cut firewood, and care for domestic animals.  They also fill most political and religious offices.  Both men and women sell in the market, and both sexes may serve as shamans.  Each adult washes and cares for his own clothing. 

Land is held communally, but parcels are bought, sold, and inherited within the Trique community.  Outsiders have for centuries encroached on the borders of Trique land, and this has been the cause of ongoing tension and conflict in the area, often erupting into open gunfights. 

4.  Kinship

The kinship system is bilateral, with the same terms used for relatives on both the mother's and the father's side.  The same terms are used for siblings and cousins (Hawaiian terminology).  Descent is patrilineal. 

Relative age is an important parameter of the kinship system, especially for affines (in-laws).  The terms for mother-in-law and father-in-law are extended to all of a spouse's older relatives, and all must be treated with respect.  In contrast, all of a spouse's younger relatives are called by a single term, and all must be treated in the nurturing way one would treat a younger sibling. 

There is also a well-developed system of ritual kinship.  The act of becoming godparents at a baptism or other ritual creates a web of obligations between the child and the godparents, but it creates an even more significant relationship between the parents of the child and the godparents, who refer to each other as compadres.

5.  Marriage and Family

The Trique usually marry during their teens.  The traditional ritual involves the extended families of the bride and groom.  The groom chooses a wife together with his family, and they make personal visits to the bride's home four Wednesday mornings in a row, bringing traditional gifts and negotiating a bride price, usually with the help of an older man who speaks on the groom's behalf.  On the fourth visit, the price is paid, and the couple is then considered married.  After a short period of living with the bride's family, the couple move in with the groom's family, where the bride is subject to the authority of her mother-in-law.  After several years the couple usually has a wedding in the Catholic church. 

The bride price contributes to the stability of marriage, but divorces and separations are not infrequent.  Some couples elope, but such marriages tend to be unstable because they lack the backing of the extended family. 

There are many polygynous marriages among the Copala Trique; relations between co-wives are often hostile.  For marriages after the first, the bride price is not always paid, especially if the second wife is a widow or is divorced. 

Children are desired, and families tend to be large, though perhaps a third of the children born die from malnutrition or intestinal parasites, usually before they are five years old.  Babies are breast-fed until the mother learns she is pregnant again, at which point the baby is abruptly weaned to a diet consisting largely of corn. 

Babies and young children are indulged considerably because it is considered bad to let them cry.  Once they reach school age, however, they are expected to obey and to help in household tasks.  Ridicule is an important technique used to enforce compliance with societal norms. 

In traditional Trique society there are no formal classes of any kind.  Children accompany the parent of the same sex and learn skills by observation and imitation.  During the last four decades, however, schools were introduced into the area, and at present most Trique children attend for at least a few years. 

6.  Sociopolitical Organization

Copala is an agencia municipal under the municipal center of Juxtlahuaca, and as such has certain town officials required by the Mexican political system.  While these officials have a degree of authority, the traditional power structure is based on caciques, individuals with charisma who wield a great degree of influence. 

Many decisions are made at town meetings.  Only men may speak at these meetings, but women sit around the edges and talk among themselves, thus making their opinions known and exerting a considerable degree of influence. 

Each year a number of people are appointed to fill a set of religious offices, the most important of which are the mayordomos, who carry out the annual cycle of town fiestas.  In the view of the Mexican government, these offices are totally separate from the civil government, but in Trique society, the distinction is blurred.  During the year preceding the fiesta they sponsor, mayordomos carry out commercial activities in town to earn enough money to cover the expenses involved. 

The Copala Trique are known throughout the area for drunkenness and violence.  Feuding and murder (usually with high-powered army rifles) are very common.  Murderers often escape punishment by hiding in the hills, but sometimes spend time in jail in the local market towns or in the state penitentiary in Oaxaca. 

Because ridicule, gossip, and envy are very common, they all serve as means of social control.  Fear of witchcraft is also a significant factor, though actual instances of witchcraft appear to be quite infrequent. 

The traditional world view of the Trique is essentially pessimistic.  They believe that good things are limited, and that one person's good fortune therefore means bad fortune for others.  For this reason they tend to be very suspicious and envious of each other, and no one wants to stand out from the rest as obviously successful.  They also believe that change is inherently for the worse. 

7.  Religion and Expressive Culture

Copala Trique traditional religion is a blend of pre-Columbian indigenous religion and late Medieval Spanish folk-Catholic beliefs and practices.  For example, Saint Mark has been equated with the traditional thunder (rain) god.  Every year on 25 April, which is the festival of Saint Mark, the Trique go to caves, the traditional home of the thunder god, to perform special ceremonies.  They offer food and sacrifice animals to him so that the rains will come at the proper time, and so that they will not be too heavy. 

Saint Mark and other deities are believed to be capricious, or even malevolent.  If the community fails to perform proper rituals in their honor, they will be angry and send calamities.  Ethical behavior on the part of individuals is not an important factor in traditional religion. 

There are a number of fiestas each year.  The Trique believe that it is necessary for the well-being of the town for each fiesta to be carried out properly.  One important element of town fiestas is music, which consists of certain European tunes played with violin and drum.  Another is fireworks, which involves shooting off cohetes (skyrockets) made by Mixtec Indians from a nearby town and sold to the Trique.  There is often a procession, and the services of a priest must be engaged to say mass at the proper time.  All of these things are the responsibility of the mayordomo (sponsor) and his assistants.  At the end of the fiesta the responsibility for next year's fiesta is transferred to the new mayordomo by means of ceremonial offerings of food. 

One fiesta held each year is carnaval, which takes place just before Lent.  Groups of young men dress up in masks and costumes and carry bamboo poles decorated with paper streamers.  Each group of dancers includes one dressed as a woman wearing a huipil and one dressed as a jaguar. 

The biggest fiesta of the year takes place on the third Friday of Lent, in honor of Tatachú (Father Jesus), the name given to an image of Christ bearing the cross on his shoulder on the way to Calvary.  During this fiesta many outsiders visit Copala, and it is as much a commercial occasion as a religious one. 

Holy week is also important.  On Good Friday and Easter Sunday they celebrate the fiesta of Cristo, the large crucifix in the church, who is believed to be distinct from Tatachú. On Easter there is a procession starting in the morning that lasts all day.  Everyone dresses in new clothes, and the crucifix is carried up along the river, and back again at dusk. 

Another important date is New Year's Day.  The Trique believe that at the end of every year, the slate is wiped clean.  As a result, the last few days in December are considered the best time to kill your enemy.  The Trique also believe that the end of the world will take place at the end of a year, a belief that is probably related to the Aztec belief in the renewal of the world at the end of each fifty-two year cycle in the pre-Columbian calendar. 

Much of the Copala Trique religious system can be carried out within their own society, but the services of a Catholic priest are required for baptisms, church weddings, and masses for the main fiestas. 

In addition to the pantheon of rather capricious deities identified with Catholic saints, the Trique also relate to a variety of malevolent spirits that inhabit water holes and other sacred places.  The places that are sacred to the Trique also include various wooden crosses located around the town.  On the day of the cross, these crosses are decorated with artificial flowers made from the spoon-shaped base of the leaves of the sotol (desert spoon) plant. 

A number of Triques serve as shamans; their roles include both divination and curing illness.  For divination they sometimes use hallucinogenic substances like Datura (jimson weed).  Curing ceremonies involve waving eggs over the affected area of the body and blowing aguardiente (rum) over the person.  Many of the sicknesses for which people seek the services of a shaman involve folk beliefs in susto (fear) and soul loss. 

When a Trique dies, he is buried in his best clothing, and food and palm sandals are buried with him.  It used to be customary to wrap a corpse in a petate, but now wooden caskets made by carpenters in the nearby towns are used.  Violin and drum music is played at the wake and on the way to the cemetery.  Some time after a person has died there is a ceremony called raising the cross that must be carried out to assist in the passage of the soul to heaven.  There is, however, a belief that murder victims cannot go to heaven. 

One of the most important annual fiestas is All Saints' Day, which takes place at the beginning of November.  The deceased members of the family are believed to return at this time.  Children, who are considered innocent, return on 1 November (All Saints' Day), and adults on 2 November (All Souls' Day).  Each Trique household constructs a platform to use as an altar and places food on it for the spirits to eat.  The altars are decorated with marigolds, the flower of the dead, which grow wild at this time of year. 

8.  Selected References

In English:

  1. Hollenbach, Barbara E.  1969.  "A note on concepts of political geography," International Journal of American Linguistics 35:263-64.
  2. ------.  1977.  "Reversal of Copala Trique temporal metaphors through language contact," International Journal of American Linguistics 43:150-54.
  3. ------.  1981.  "Copala Trique kinship terms," pp. 217-18 in William R. Merrifield, ed., Proto Otomanguean Kinship (International Museum of Cultures, Publication 11).  Dallas: International Museum of Cultures.
  4. ------.  1982.  "A Copala Trique deluge story," Latin American Indian Literatures 6:114-25.
  5. ------.  1988.  Three Trique Myths of San Juan Copala (Textos Folclóricos en Lenguas Indígenas 1).  Mexico City: Instituto Lingüístico de Verano.
  6. Nader, Laura.  1969.  "The Trique of Oaxaca," pp. 400-416 in Evon Z. Vogt, ed., Handbook of Middle American Indians, Volume 7: Ethnology, Part I.  Austin: University of Texas Press.

In Spanish:

  1. García Alcaraz, Agustín.  1973.  Tinujei: Los Triquis de Copala.  Mexico City: Comisión del Río Balsas.
  2. Hollenbach, Elena E. de.  1973.  "La aculturación lingüística entre los triques de Copala, Oaxaca," América Indígena 33:167-86.
  3. ------.  1973.  "El parentesco entre los triques de Copala, Oaxaca," América Indígena 33:167-86.
  4. ------.  1975.  "La mayordomía comerciante de los triques," pp. 237-43 in Sociedad Mexicana de Antropología, XIII Mesa Redonda, Etnología y Antropología Social.  Mexico City: Sociedad Mexicana de Antropología.
  5. ------.  1977.  "El origen del sol y de la luna--cuatro versiones en el trique de Copala," Tlalocan 7:123-70.
  6. ------.  1980.  "Los nombres personales entre los triques de Copala," S.I.L.-Mexico Workpapers 4:9-14.
  7. ------.  1980.  "Topónimos triques: Huellas de la prehistoria," pp. 47-52 in Sociedad Mexicana de Antropología, XVI Reunión de Mesa Redonda, Vol. 1.  Mexico City: Sociedad Mexicana de Antropología.
  8. ------.  1980.  "El mundo animal en el folklore de los triques de Copala," Tlalocan 8:437-490.
  9. ------.  1995.  "Tres temas dominantes en la cultura triqui," pp. 129-34 in Humanismo siglo XX: estudios dedicados al Dr. Juan Adolfo Vázquez, ed. Juan Schobinger.  San Juan, Argentina: Editorial Fundación Universidad Nacional de San Juan.
  10. Hollenbach, Fernando, y Hollenbach, Elena E. de.  1975.  Trique: San Juan Copala, Oaxaca (Archivo de Lenguas Indígenas del Estado de Oaxaca 2).  Mexico City: El Colegio de México, Instituto de Investigación e Integración Social del Estado de Oaxaca, and Instituto Lingüístico de Verano.
  11. Martell Ramírez, Ricardo.  1967.  Los Indios Triques de Oaxaca.  Mexico City.

Hollenbach, Barbara E.
A cultural sketch of the Copala Trique (written 1992; revised 1998)
http://www.sil.org/mexico/mixteca/triqui-copala/A001-CulturalSketch-TRC.htm [Jan 1999]
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