Skip Navigation
The Oaxaca Files

The Oaxaca Files

Kevin Terraciano, the new chair of the Latin American Studies Interdepartmental Program, works to uncover stories from central and southern Mexico.

By Kevin Matthews
Senior Writer

In some small way, I've contributed to an understanding of how incredibly rich [Mixtec] culture was, and what a great civilization it was.

Kevin Terraciano is another history professor loaded with stories, though with a difference: he had to find all the best ones himself. He found a Mixtec-language murder note from seventeenth-century Mexico in a colonial Spanish legal archive, a trove of hundreds of uncatalogued documents that became the basis of his prize-winning book on southern Mexico's Mixtec civilization.

In the murder note, left with the victim's body in 1684, a Mixtec man excuses himself at length for killing his wife, saying that she had had an affair. (Such claims didn't settle criminal cases; the killer fled.) For Terraciano, the note provided a window into Mixtec and Spanish attitudes about sex, gender roles, and domestic violence.

The colonial history of the Valley of Oaxaca, which the Mixtec shared with Zapotecs and others, has traditionally been told by historians relying on Spanish-language documents. Terraciano pores over the same documents, penned in crabbed or florid scripts that are equally impenetrable for the untrained. Out of necessity as well as long-time interest, he also studies the Spanish empire, the dominant power in Europe and the Americas during the early period of contact between the two continents. But Terraciano has made his mark through the close study of indigenous languages. He has mastered Nahuatl, the language of central Mexico's Aztecs; Mixtec; and, most recently, Zapotec.

'Cacicas'

By Terraciano's standards, the story behind the Mixtec murder note was easy to research and tell. Finding grander historical narratives in the archives involves far more labor. "In my book, there were very few narratives that I could count on," he says. "I had to piece together information from thousands of documents. I had to try to see patterns, and the only way to detect a pattern is to see it over and over again."

One narrative that Terraciano has pieced together is that of apparently equal power-sharing between Mixtec men and women designated as hereditary rulers. A man and a woman would form a hereditary ruling pair, or yuhuitayu. (This is expressed as a hieroglyph in precolonial Mixtec pictorial writing, which was later replaced with an alphabetic system.) The Spanish authorities gradually undermined Mixtec female hereditary rulers—the only Mesoamerican female rulers, it seems—by emphasizing the role of all-male local councils.

Students of Latin America are familiar with the Spanish term caciques, or indigenous chieftains. To the surprise of specialists and with ample support from Mixtec documents, Terraciano has reintroduced the feminine cacicas to the vocabulary.

Terraciano also surprised specialists in his own field with the claim that the Mixtec had a strong sense of themselves as an ethnic and linguistic group. True, they did not come up with the name "Mixtec." That was a Nahuatl word meaning "people of the cloud place." But almost everywhere in Mixtec writings, even in the murder note, Terraciano found people referring to themselves as Ñudzahui, or "people of the rain place." Later, he realized that modern speakers of Mixtec, who number about 250,000 and also speak Spanish, continue to identify themselves as Ñudzahui.

Latin USA

Of those 250,000 Mixtec speakers, roughly 50,000 live near Los Angeles, especially in the San Joaquin Valley. In the last half-century, between 40 and 50 percent of Oaxaca's inhabitants have migrated to the north. The largest group of agricultural workers around L.A. is Zapotec Mexican.

Terraciano views Los Angeles as a Latin American city, if a particularly cosmopolitan one. This, and top-flight faculty, make UCLA an ideal place to study the wider region, he says. The Latin American Studies Interdepartmental Program that Terraciano now chairs offers BA and MA degrees, as well as a minor concentration for undergraduates.

When he was an undergraduate and, after a pause, a graduate student at UCLA, where he received his PhD in 1994, Terraciano admired the breakthroughs made in studies of indigenous peoples through the use of Nahuatl texts. He wondered whether comparable discoveries and insights lurked in Mixtec records.

Over years of study, Terraciano has developed "a profound respect for these peoples, who have endured centuries of conquest and exploitation" and who still endure "profound racism" inside and beyond Mexico.

He expresses qualms about earning a living from his acquaintance with indigenous cultures. Those who live the cultures typically have earned little and suffered much, he says. In the first century of colonization, ninety percent of Oaxaca's people perished, mostly from diseases imported from Europe.

Giving Back

Terraciano makes frequent trips to Mexico to share his work. In July 2004, about 200 people attended a talk he gave in Oaxaca City. For native peoples, Terraciano says, questions about colonial history are closely tied to current political questions. They are also questions of pride. Often, for example, today's Mixtec speakers have never seen or even heard about a Mixtec writing system.

"In some small way, I've contributed to an understanding of how incredibly rich this culture was, and what a great civilization it was."

Terraciano is married to Lisa Sousa, a historian of Mesoamerica at Occidental College in Los Angeles. The couple has two children, ages one and three.

Latin American Institute