The Huasteca: Lands and Peoples

Nestled along the western edge of the Gulf of Mexico, the Huasteca is the arena for most of the tale of The Shaman's Cross. The Huasteca is a semi-tropical, hilly lowland region just south of the Tropic of Cancer line, and it is distinguished in Mexico for its unique cultural expressions, notably from the diverse native peoples across the land. These unique features, many of which are prominent in the book, will be my focus here.

(Satellite images adapted from Google Maps.)

As this map shows, the Huasteca is a broad, green crescent of lush lowlands along the Gulf Coast. Heavy rainfalls, prodigious rivers, and nourishing soils (enriched with volcanic ashes streamed from Mexico's central highlands) fostered an abundance of wealthy forests and grasslands, which attracted human settlers to the region over eight thousand years ago--and sparked many wars to control. Many of today's most lucrative industries in the Huasteca region remain tied to its natural resources, including livestock on the grasslands and fish from the Tamiahua lagoons. Maize and bean are essential foods for local farmers, and orange and banana are among the Huasteca's most important cash crops. Indeed, the banana has been dubbed Veracruz' "green gold," just as oil is its "black gold."


The Aztecs called the region Cuextlan, after the "guaje" pod fruits abounding there, and the Cuextecah or "Huaxtec" peoples inspired its current name. The Huaxtec were a Maya offshoot who forged a unique civilization, famed in antiquity for its rugged soldiers and fertility rites. The Aztecs had a two-sided attitude toward the Huaxtec: On the one hand, the Aztecs snubbed them as sexually rude barbarians. On the other hand, the Aztecs admired their religion enough to have borrowed ritual symbols and figures from the Huaxtec, including their Mother Goddess.

Centuries of cultural exchanges among indigenous, African, and Spanish peoples in the Huasteca have brought a flowering of combinations in the region, and these are found in especially witchcraft, spirituality, and music. Sharp turns in vocal pitch and lively strumming on string instruments drive the huapango sound, reverberating across the Huasteca's wooded hills.


But what is best known today of the Huasteca's distinct cultural flavor comes from its large indigenous contingent, and nowhere is this more visible than in their ritual traditions. Although some religious customs are particular to each of the six native ethnic groups,†† many have been shared across them. Rituals around cut paper figurines originated among the Otomí, but they have shared their designs and rites with the neighboring Aztec and Tepehua peoples of the south Huasteca.

Across the Huasteca the ritual year revolves around two maize cycles, with lavish ceremonies dedicated to the sowing of the kernels and the harvest of the crop. Maize spirits and the Mother Goddess, bringers of growth, are paramount in the indigenous pantheon, worshiped alongside angels, Virgins, and saints. (In the Huasteca healers and other ritual workers commonly pray in Spanish to Catholic saints and then switch to their indigenous language to address the native gods, even within the same ceremony!) Lastly, the two most celebrated ritual seasons in the region, Carnival and the Days of the Dead, are dedicated to the dark topics of devils and death--but through the native vision, moments for elaborate festivity and rampant decoration, including one of Mexico's most animate mask-making traditions.

In a nation already renowned for its cultural variety, the Huasteca region is one of Mexico's most vibrant jewels. Here is where I discovered the living Aztec religion I had been seeking, as I witnessed its practice among the guardians of the ancient rites. I reminisce fondly upon my village meals with hot, handmade tortillas and sweet mountain coffee as I listened to ripped albums of huapango strings and the outdoor crows of testy roosters. At night I could sleep under a netted canopy while tropical insects buzzed around the bedroom and barraging rains fell upon the roof. I climbed temples to savor the land's old power, and I summoned rains to partake of it. The lush wilderness, the rich earth, an ancient past, and an indigenous soul: all of Mexico's greatest qualities converge upon the green coastal country of the Huasteca.

†Covered states: the southern end of Tamaulipas, east corners of San Luis Potosí and Querétaro, north section of Veracruz, and northernmost tips of Hidalgo and Puebla
††Aztec, Otomí, Tepehua, Totonaco, Teenek, and Xi'wiy (Pame)