A Glimpse into the Mixtecs of Mexico

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Imagine, almost every town within your own home state speaks a completely different language. The country at large speaks a common national language, you’ve heard it but are suspicious of those who speak it. Few people in your own community really know it, or even care to. You speak the tongue of your ancestors, why give that up? Imagine…no two neighboring towns get along. Confrontations over municipal borders, religions, ethnic pride, even sporting rivalries, frequently result in deadly armed skirmishes, or ‘range wars’. Imagine, your town demands your complete unwavering loyalty. You have mandatory community workdays; if you ever leave the community for any period of time your loyalties are called into question, and you are required to remit payments back to your home town in exchange for the time you are in absentia. Everyone in your community knows you, and they know everything about you.

Imagine, the only acceptable ‘religion’ of your town requires you to pay homage to the spirits that dwell within a plethora of idols of wood and stone, often in the form of bloody animal sacrifices. In fact, everything you do has implications in the spirit world that determine whether you’ll even make it through this day; you either appease the spirits to gain from their powers, or else you suffer their curses. You’ve heard of a man named ‘Jesus’, the spirit of whom inhabits the wooden corpse nailed to a crucifix in the nearby ‘catedral’…just one of many sprit idols you pray to for money, health…or vengeance. In spite of hardly being able to provide food for your own family you are required to pay taxes to fund community-wide celebrations involving a steady flow of booze, orgies, and fist fights in honor of your town’s gods (which are, by the way, superior to the neighboring town’s gods). Deep fear, despair, hostility….this is all you know your entire life.

Now, imagine one day someone from outside suddenly shows up, he looks different and speaks a barely intelligible form of your language. It sounds similar to the language of the hated neighboring town and you almost turn away in disgust. But somehow you begin to perceive what he has to say, and it grips your attention…about a God who created you but from whom you are alienated. And yet, the God he speaks of loves you so much that He died a humiliating death, from which He was resurrected victoriously to release you from your fear, from your separation…from this thing called ‘sin’ that dominates every aspect of your life. You understand just enough…you receive the message with joy; this Jesus is more than a mute wooden figure nailed to a cross. He has given you new life, setting you free from your spirit idols…and your fear. But now what? Your family and friends want nothing to do with the foreign God you want so desperately to share…to give hope to their miserable lives. You are so burdened for them but realize that speaking of these things is treason…to your family, your town and its false religious system. This Jesus will certainly become your demise; you face being ostracized, and possibly a machete death in the middle of the night. You struggle with these thoughts…and you want so much to learn more about this true God and what it means to know and follow Him, but you have nothing but the hope within you. There is no Scripture, and the fact that you can’t even read means you would have to hear it spoken to you. Meanwhile, the strange foreigner with the message has been beaten and chased out of your community at gunpoint. What do you do?

This is reality in many parts of the world. How far would you have to travel from the States to encounter such a scenario as this? Not far. A 2.5-hour flight out of Houston will land you into the epicenter of just such a place.

Today in Mexico, this is the life of many indigenous ethnic groups, particularly in the southern states of Guerrero, Oaxaca, and Chiapas. Among other groups, our team has spent much time focusing on the Mixtec Indians, one of the largest clusters of unreached people groups in the Americas. There are currently 70 (identified) Mixtec groups with nearly as many languages and only a handful of Bible translations, scattered across three of Mexico’s poorest states. Interestingly enough, the first complete New Testament translation ever completed by the Wycliffe Bible Translators anywhere in the world was in the language of the Mixtecs of San Miguel El Grande, right here in Oaxaca, in 1951. I recently photographed an original copy of this text at the SIL base in nearby Mitla (see below). As of today, the New Testament has only been fully translated into 15 of the Mixtec languages, leaving at least 50 Mixtec languages and thousands of people with no access to the Scriptures.

New Testament : Mixtec of San Miguel el Grande, c. 1951

The Mixtecs as a whole are considered some of this hemisphere’s most difficult to reach with the gospel. Violent intertribal conflict, a high suspicion of outsiders, false religions, and daunting topography ensure a seemingly impenetrable Satanic grip on these ancient Mexican peoples, known as the “people of the clouds” due to the high elevations in which they reside. All of these factors are, in essence, spiritual barriers. Our job at Etnopedia is to assess situations such as these to provide the best information to field missionaries. As the team geographer, I use all available data about an ethnic group (such as the Mixtecs) to draw maps for missionaries to use and update from the field. Along with our editable website (Etnopedia.org), our maps are strategic tools into which years of field research can be compiled and further refined to provide the best overall picture of missionary sending needs at the field-level.

Megan and I were recently invited by a missionary couple to join them on a journey deep into Guerrero state to visit a Mixtec group for whom they poured 20 years of their lives to reach with the gospel. It was the week before Christmas, and a small group of believers were preparing to celebrate their own anniversary of salvation in our Lord Jesus. It was a wonderful time for us, especially being in the middle of researching the Mixtec groups. Not only was it an encouragement for us to celebrate our Lord’s birth among this tiny remnant of believers who have remained true to the gospel against all odds; it was a glimpse of hope knowing that God’s desire is that every nation will one day be reached.

“And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” Matthew 24:14
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