Resilient indigenous

History of Zacatecas, Mexico

The peoples that inhabited the land of Zacatecas at the time of the first European contact did not go quietly into the night. The indigenous natives fought a fierce guerilla war against the Spanish colonizers for the better part of the Sixteenth Century.

At the time of first contact, the western area of present-day Zacatecas was occupied by Chichimecas (Zacatecos Indians), according to Mr. Gerhard.


The state of Zacatecas (Spanish: Estado Libre y Soberano de Zacatecas) is one of 31 Mexican states and has 58 municipalities. Its economy depends on cattle raising, agriculture, mining, communications, food processing and transportation. Its mines produce silver, lead, zinc, gold, phosphorite and wollastonite, making Mexico the world’s biggest producer of these metals.

When the Spaniards invaded La Gran Chichimeca (the Great Plateau of the Northern tribes) in the Sixteenth Century, they found a number of nomadic Indian groups inhabiting the region. These natives were collectively referred to by the Aztecs as Chichimecs. They fought a fierce guerrilla war against the Spaniards and their Indian allies for the better part of the century.

In 1528, Hernan Cortes sent Juan Alvarez Chico and Alonso de Avalos on expeditions to explore the land that would be called Zacatecas. The Spaniards were interested in developing trade relations with the native people and to find mineral wealth. They discovered abundant deposits of silver in the region, which gave the area its name and caused it to become a province within the Spanish territory of New Galicia.


The Zacatecos Indians occupied much of what is now northern Zacatecas and northeastern Durango. Their lands bordered those of the Tepehuanes and the Guachichiles on the west and east. They were described by Mr. Powell as “brave and bellicose warriors and excellent marksmen” who were greatly feared by the neighboring tribes.

According to the Jesuit historian Peter Masten Dunne, they were a tall and well-proportioned people with oval faces. They married young and practiced monogamy. Both men and women wore breechcloths and turbans made from skins or woven maguey. They smeared themselves with clay of various colors, which not only protected them from the sun’s rays but also kept vermin off their skin.

Today, millions of Mexicans and Americans look to the state of Zacatecas as their ancestral homeland. However, there is almost nothing left of the old cultures. The languages they spoke, the religions they adhered to and the cultures they practiced are virtually unknown.


When Spanish colonists arrived in Zacatecas, they encountered nomadic tribes whose lands stretched across the western Sierra Madre Occidental. These Indian groups, collectively referred to by the Aztecs as the Chichimecas, were known for their warlike nature.

These Indians waged a fifty-year war against the invaders. They were a brave and bellicose people who excelled in marksmanship. Their lands bordered those of the Tepehuanes and the Guachichiles.

The surviving Zacatecos have vanished as a distinct cultural entity, but the blood of their descendants has been carried forward in Mexican society. Their descendants are today’s millions of Mexican Americans. The social history of the state turns inward and downward away from a genre that looked outward at imperial horizons and structural problems (such as long-term boom/bust cycles in silver mining; capital, technology, and labor-supply issues; coercive labor regimes). Instead, it examines the lives of individual Indians and the small-scale communities they founded in Zacatecas. This is a study of the lives of men and women who turned this frontier mining town into a vibrant multiracial city.


The state of Zacatecas, officially known as the Free and Sovereign State of Zacatecas, is a treasure trove of stunning historical structures that are enlisted in UNESCO’s Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Rolling high-desert hills are painted with sprawls of colorful Colonial Baroque architecture and adorned with plazas and cathedral spires.

During its silver boom, the city became one of Mexico’s most important regions. The wealth it generated allowed people to build beautiful religious and secular buildings.

One is the Mausoleum of Illustrious People on the clifftop of Cerro de la Bufa. Its orange-pink facade and sober Baroque interior seem to be carved from the rock itself. It is a reminder of mining prosperity and the importance of Indian women to the social fabric. Their role was not limited to the domestic sphere as they also participated in markets and other economic activities at haciendas. They also provided primary care for children and helped to manage family affairs during periods of high male absenteeism in the mines.

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