Traditional Zapotec Homes to Rise and Resist

Foto: Juquila A. Ramos Muñoz

SOURCE: This essay has been translated in collaboration with the Tzam: Trece Semillas Zapatistas project, with permission from the author. Tzam is a long-term project that seeks to feature the work of 130 collaborators during 13 months between May 2021 to May 2022, based on 13 Zapatista demands for justice (13 is a sacred number for the Mayans).

Foto: Juquila A. Ramos Muñoz
Photo: Juquila A. Ramos Muñoz. Source: Tzam, Trece Semillas

Ancient houses preserve stories, traditions, and memories. As a child, I lived at my paternal grandparents’ house, which was both a hardware store and a warehouse. Macario Matus immortalized La Casa del Pintor’s name in his stunning “Tale of the Doves” [“Historia de las Palomas”]. Other people were lucky to live among the framework of hammocks and huipiles. Others lived among clay spread out on the courtyard and half-baked pots. 

Zapotec houses give us some clues about the lifestyle in our communities. In their courtyards, we usually find trees that grow tamarinds, guie’xhubas, mangos, bioongos, plums, guie’chaachis, and sapodillas; trees where hammocks dangle, ready to lull us into a peaceful midday nap. I remember two songs that allude to these trees. One of them is “Canto Zapoteca” by maestro Saúl Martínez, and the other is “Da guuya xpinnu” by maestro Ángel Toledo. Due to their isothermal and logistical advantages, local source building materials are used to make adobe, brick, or mud houses, with roofs made of clay roof tiles, palm leaf, or straw. Living fences (shrubs) are often used to set their boundaries as well. 

House spaces are versatile: the kitchen converts into the dining room, the courtyard can become a work or rest area, and the living room turns into a sleeping room at night. The houses, mainly, fulfill the duty of being workshops for family labor. The bathrooms tend to be located outside the house, as a matter of hygiene. Many kitchens contain a comixcal oven (a clay oven used to prepare totopos and other food). Homes often have a trunk to store clothes, especially regional costumes, butaques (comfortable wooden chairs) to “get some fresh air” in the afternoons, and a mexabidó, a piece of furniture that works as an altar with images of saints, virgins, or pre-hispanic figures. 

In Sierra Zapoteca Istmeña (subregion of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec), life continues in the open air. Bixhoze Gubidxa (the “Father Sun”) touches people’s faces, and so does Gusiubí, the air that announces the rain. The sierra Zapotecs are more used to taking daily walks. They have good quality nutrition and stricter care about their health. Highland communities preserve pre-hispanic reminiscences that conceive their home in two spaces: one in the village and another in the mountain. Both are habitable houses and also useful for activities in distinct moments, as we can observe in the archaeological site of Guiengola, an old Zapotec town of the 15th century, with settlements located in the mountain and by the Tehuantepec river shores. 

The inner spaces may look small, but the courtyards are big. In them, it is possible to raise chickens and have a family orchard. We enter with no shoes into the Yoo bidó (“House of God,” “Room of the Saints” or the main nave). We greet each other by raising a hand, keeping a greater distance than recommended for “safe distance,” and, when people fall ill, they rest at home, take natural medicines and bathe in the river to “free themselves from the illness.” I find much goodness in the houses of Sierra Zapoteca Istmeña, where I also have my home. 

For the Zapotecs, the concept of house/roof/habitation goes beyond four walls. A house is family, a hammock, the river, the sea, the trees, the mountain, the roads, the village, and the homes of our dear townspeople and family members. For many binnizá from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, all of this collapsed in the year 2017. The earthquakes on September 7 and 19 caused irreparable losses. Only in Juchitán, fifteen thousand houses were lost. The work of the bilopayoo wouldn’t be enough this time (alluding to Gubidxa Guerrero’s “Las casas y el bilopayoo”). 

I am part of the Che Gorio Melendre Autonomous Zapotec Committee (Melendre Committee), a civil association with 17 years of activism. After the earthquakes, it provided humanitarian aid in 41 municipalities in the region, delivering first-need items to the survivors and supporting initiatives of economic reactivation. For the reconstruction step, we launched a project called #ViviendaComunitaria. Various people participated in writing the project’s guidelines, all of them belonging to indigenous peoples of Mexico, whose focus was to create a suitable project for our people, economically and logistically feasible, eco-friendly, and spatially functional. 

Casa Cero was the first result of these ideas. A home designed by Gregorio Guerrero (a Nahua visual arts expert from the Upper Balsas), located in a Zapotec locality in the coastal lowlands of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. The local source materials (stones, adobe, bricks, floor tiles, and slabs) were combined with cement and steel, to a lower extent, to forge a prototype of an earthquake-resistant house, suitable for the climatological conditions (hot and tropical) and in harmony with the local architecture. 

Unfortunately, according to federal reconstruction financial support programs, the monetary resources for acquiring traditional materials cannot be released without a bill. Because of such restrictions, the support received for these kinds of projects was low. There was reconstruction but with concrete blocks and rebar structure construction! Four years later, it seems that they haven’t learned the lesson since they’re still doing the same thing. 

Another example of the “official miscomprehension” that we refer to happened in September 2019. The National Fund for the Promotion of Arts and Crafts (FONART) carried out a tour to implement a Tourist Corridor in Juchitán. Their direct recommendation to federal employees was that they should respect the traditional concept of house/workshop. However, a few months later, federal authorities threatened the artists saying that if they did not remove their “personal objects” from workshop areas, all financial support would be canceled. A hammock craftsman had to remove his wardrobes, move his family altar, and build divisions in his space to separate both areas. 

I believe the Mexican government lacks a lot of understanding about the reality of housing issues by many different ethnicities that dwell in this vast territory. The programs should be more flexible, the laws fairer, and people should be more human. In the meantime, it is our role, as dwellers of these territories, to defend our material culture, reaffirming the conception of the physical space we live in, which is suited to our lifestyle, and that has been useful in facing challenges such as the pandemic and the earthquakes that are so frequent in the region.

Aurora Guadalupe Catalán Reyes

Aurora Guadalupe Catalán Reyes

Integrante del Comité Melendre, originaria de Juchitán en la patria zapoteca. Es Licenciada en Ingeniería Química y Maestra en Logística y Dirección de la Cadena de Suministro por la UPAEP. Es directora del Centro Cultural Herón Ríos, docente del Colegio Andrés Henestrosa (COAH) y también colabora en el proyecto de comercio justo, denominado Tianguis Virtual Zapoteca.

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