Guelavía Zapotec
(Western Tlacolula Zapotec)

(ISO code zab)



The language spoken in San Juan Guelavía (ISO code zab) is a member of the Zapotec language family. The language area is located east of Oaxaca City, in the state of Oaxaca in southern Mexico (see map). The speech varieties of the people in the towns of Santo Tomás Jalieza, Teotitlán del Valle, and San Martín Tilcajete are very similar.

Map: Where Guelavía is located


There are about 28,000 (1990 census) speakers in the language area, with approximately 1200 more speakers living in the United States, primarily in Los Angeles. Despite the fact that many have left the area, the population in the language area is stable because infant mortality has significantly decreased in recent decades. 


Zapotec woman grinding corn
Grinding corn


The name "Guelavía" is said to have its roots in the phrase, "He came in the night." The story was told by an old story-teller, Pedro Hernández, that the first people to move to Guelavía (to harvest the salt) were from Macuilxochitl, and when they left to start a new town, they took the statue of John the Baptist with them from the Macuilxochitl church. The people of Macuilxochitl then came and took their statue back the next day. But in the night, the statue came back on its own accord and appeared in the new church in Guelavía so they knew it wanted to be in Guelavía. Now John the Baptist is the town patron saint. One time in a storm, he could be seen on the roof of the church, hands outspread, calming the storm.

Basket-making was the main income-producing activity in Guelavía for many years. An exporter would buy the baskets and take them out by the truckload to sell in the United States. Almost every household made baskets up until about 1990. Now the exporter has gone out of business and only a few basketmakers remain to sell what they make in the local markets and in Oaxaca City.

As for other towns in the area, San Marcos Tlapazola is known for its red pottery. San Bartolo Quialana women wear distinctive colorful clothing and sell fruit and vegetables in the Tlacolula market. Of course the weaving villages, such as Teotitlán del Valle, are famous for their woven rugs. The village of Santo Tomás Jalieza is known for their embroidered clothing.


Rodeo rider
Rodeo rider in San Juan Guelavía


Most Zapotec languages distinguish between inclusive [me and you and perhaps others] and exclusive [me and other(s) not you] in first person plural, but Guelavía Zapotec has no such distinction.


--Ted and Kris Jones

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