Smoke from a Thousand Villages (Part 1)

Note: The following is an article I wrote last year for To Every Tribe’s EKBALLO magazine.

“I have seen, at different times, the smoke of a thousand villages—

villages whose people are without Christ, without God, and without hope in this world.”

So wrote Robert Moffat, the 19th century Scottish pioneer missionary to Africa.  It was this reflection by Moffat that inspired David Livingston, who married Moffat’s oldest daughter, to give his life to missions.

I often think of Moffat’s words when I travel through the mountains of the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca.  Oaxaca, Mexico’s most indigenous state, is home to more than one million Indian language speakers, and the majority of these people live in isolated mountain villages with fewer than 500 inhabitants.  These thousands of villages, hundreds of which are still, to borrow from Moffat’s words, “without Christ, without God, and without hope in this world,” represent a ripe harvest for To Every Tribe’s church planting missionaries.

Fragmentation and Isolation

How is it that Oaxaca, roughly the size of Indiana or Maine, is home to so many villages? And how is it that so many of those villages are still without the gospel?

There are several answers to these questions. The first and most obvious answer is Oaxaca’s geography.  As a mountainous coastal state, elevations range from zero to over 12,000 feet above sea level, with an average altitude of about 5,000 feet. Oaxaca’s extensive mountain ranges create a highly fragmented topography. Because of this extreme topography, closely neighboring villages are often separated from each other by plummeting valleys and imposing mountains, resulting in almost complete isolation.

But beyond the geographical fragmentation is Oaxaca’s extreme linguistic and ethnic diversity.  Although Spanish is the official language of Mexico, there are 16 indigenous Indian language families in Oaxaca, most of which consist of multiple languages. For example, within Mixtec, one of the largest of these language families, there are over 60 different languages. Some of these are similar to one another to varying degrees, but many of them are mutually unintelligible.  Similarly, the Zapotec language family is estimated to have over 60 languages, most of which are mutually unintelligible. In all, there are over indigenous 170 languages in Oaxaca alone.

But the situation is even more complicated than these numbers might initially indicate.  Many of these languages have developed distinct local dialects and variations. Often these differences are significant enough to create strong barriers and prejudices between neighboring villages of the same ethnic group.  Furthermore, because of the isolation and cultural distinctiveness of individual villages and groups, a person’s social identity—his sense of belonging—is not usually based on language, geography, or ethnicity, but on his own community—his own village.  This means that while researchers may categorize a group of villages as one “people group”, the reality is that the villages themselves may share no sense of identity with each other. These dynamics have resulted in an indigenous population that is highly fragment and isolated.

The fragmentation and diversity of the Oaxacan indigenous population is reflected in the state’s political organization.  The country of Mexico is divided into roughly 2,400 municipalities, but 570 of those municipalities are in Oaxaca. This means that although Oaxaca only represents a little over 3% of Mexico’s total population, it is home to nearly one quarter of Mexico’s municipalities. This seemingly unbalanced concentration of municipalities in Oaxaca is understandable in light of its staggering ethnic and linguistic diversity.

See Part 2 here.

Photos by Jonathan Herrin

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