Here is how the Huave people conducted business

The people of Huave ran their economy by fishing and trading shrimp for corn. This was how their society operated.

Here is how the Huave people conducted business
Trading shrimp for grain was a common practice among the Huave people. Credit: INPI

Because the mountains of Oaxaca cut the Isthmus of Tehuantepec off from the rest of the country, it became the southern trade route during the colonial era. As the place where many goods came together to be sent to places like Oaxaca and Guatemala, the town of Tehuantepec gained a level of importance that it would only share with the city of Juchitán after the railroad was built and the Isthmus became one of the areas with the most population growth in the 19th century.

Some historians think that the population policies of the second half of this century and the building of the transisthmian route caused the Isthmus region to grow faster than the state and national averages. As a result, the Isthmus went from having 52,000 people to having 109,000 people live there in just 30 years. The result was a region that was farther from the capital of the country than the main capitals of the world. At the time, international trade made it possible for the Zapotecs to make their huipiles out of cotton fabrics from Manchester.

Huave Trade with the Zapotecs

The Huaves did business with the Zapotecs of Juchitán and Tehuantepec. This helped the Zapotecs become the people who communicated with the outside world. Since the area didn't have the intense exploitation of human resources that other indigenous areas did, the Huave people were able to use the linguistic and geographic borders to keep outside influences to a minimum. They also turned to fish, which didn't have much competition in the area.

Since the Huaves were good at making things from the sea, they had to get agricultural products from the people who lived in the interior of the region. This was made easier by the Zapotecs of the Isthmus, who had turned corn and other agricultural products into exports. The Huaves saw the Zapotecs as a way to get what they didn't have, while the Zapotecs saw the Huaves as a way to meet the needs of the local market.

So, Zapotec corn and Huave shrimp ended up defining the terms of a relationship between two groups of people that, in general, didn't allow for other ways to trade. Except for San Francisco del Mar, which had Zapotec residents since the 1800s, population records from this time show that there weren't many marriages between different ethnic groups in Huave towns where people only spoke one language and had trouble communicating with people from other groups.

In its traditional form, shrimp and flake fishing was a way for people to work together for hundreds of years. In San Mateo del Mar, for example, fishing was split between older and younger people based on their age. This put fishermen at opposite ends of the village. Children and older people used to fish in the large estuary south of the municipality, which was formed by rainwater.

Spatial Distribution of Fishing in the Northern Lagoons

The northern lagoons, on the other hand, were for young and older men who knew how to get around in deeper and more turbulent water. The spatial distribution of fishing was shown not only by the different kinds of nets used to catch shrimp, like the atarraya and the chinchorro but also by the fact that the atarraya was used by one person and the chinchorro was used by a group.

Unlike the atarraya, which requires only the strength of the arms and is used in shallow waters, the chinchorro requires the participation of several fishermen, coordinated in two parallel groups, classified according to the length of the net: the mondoc wïs nine chinch, dedicated to the short chinchorro, and the mondoc wïs najal ndoc, grouped around the long chinchorro.

Both groups were kind of like corporations, with leaders who were chosen every year in a way that was similar to how positions in the civil community were filled. The fishermen had an organization that was a lot like a city government. Each year, four chiefs or principals were chosen to lead the group. Each part of the village had two headmen and two town heralds. After a year of service, these people could try to become natang ndoc, which means "principal fisherman".

Fishing Cooperatives in the Huave Region, Mexico

In the 1980s, shrimp came in third on the list of most-wanted products, after oil and coffee. From then on, modern fishing techniques gained a lot of ground and made the old ways of organizing the different fishing groups obsolete. The government helped the Huaves come up with new ways to make money, and by 1968, they had formed the first fishing cooperative in the area.

By 1990, seven productive organizations from San Mateo to San Francisco del Mar had come together to form the Regional Union of Fishing Cooperatives, also called "The Seven Huaves." This was the first time an organization of this kind had ever been made in the Huave region. With the help of new boats, outboard motors, and bigger, stronger nets, fishermen were able to catch enough fish to meet their needs.

So, in the last few decades, flake fishing has grown by 53%, while shrimp fishing has grown by 122% over the last few decades. This increase, however, had unequal consequences throughout the Huave municipalities. The fishing cooperatives of San Francisco and San Dionisio del Mar capture 90 percent of the total production, in an area of nearly 500 hectares, while the cooperative of San Mateo del Mar, the town that concentrates the largest number of Huave, contributes only the remaining 10 percent, in an area of 22 hectares.

Source: Huaves, by Saúl Millán, pages 9-12. Saúl Millán is Dr. in Anthropological Sciences. He is a professor-researcher at the National School of Anthropology and History of the National Institute of Anthropology and History. National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples (Comisión Nacional para el Desarrollo de los Pueblos Indígenas)