The Tenek | Mexico | Living in Mexico

The Tenek

Drive farther east from Xilitla on Mex 120—maybe thirty minutes—and you come down off the Sierra Gorda into a region called the Huasteca Potosí. Here is where live tribes of indigenous people: the Pames, the Nahua and the largest tribe, the Tenek. Each has its own language, although most speak Spanish as well as their tribal tongue. The people of the Huasteca Potosí are thought to be descended from Mayans, cut off from their Yucatecan brothers when the Aztecs expanded their conquest of Central Mexico.

Owing to sluggish exploitation and development of the region, these tribes have hung on to some of their ways. This woman, in traditional blouse and headdress, is selling snacks near the central plaza of Aquismón, a primarily Tenek community.


Tourists rarely visit the region, so she is not costumed for the trade. She is wearing real clothes ordinarily worn by real tribespeople, although in this case, she's clearly in her Sunday best. Gotta look sharp if you're gonna move the merchandise.

Her headdress is called a petop. It's woven with yarn and her hair. One person told me the colors designate her marital status and age—apparently the presence of green means she's a widow.

You see a fair amount of women still wearing traditional dress, but men's clothing has evolved to Mexican Standard. Traditional loincloths were outlawed by the colonial Spanish; I'm told you only see them worn during festivals—with underpants!


This man is selling fruits and vegetables on the main street of Tancanhuitz de Santos. He grew or gathered them himself: bananas, oranges, chayote and the red flowers of a native tree for making a medicinal tea. He says he only does this when he need a little cash. Otherwise, he's a subsistence farmer.

Some Tenek live in huts made of sticks with palm thatch roofs, much as you see in Yucatán or Chiapas.


They're quaint, but they indicate poverty. No Tenek lives in one of these in order to preserve the old ways. She'll trade up to a cinderblock house in a heartbeat if she can scrape up the money for it. In fact her husband and sons probably are up north, sending back money for just that purpose.

The house shown below must belong to a relatively well-off Tenek: It has a tin roof.


Moreover the owner could afford paint. When these people cook, wood smoke pours out from under the eaves. Their houses have no running water. They have backyard privies. Many have no electricity. I saw one place that had a small solar panel. Boom box music thundered from inside the house. First things first.

Near every home I saw, people were growing their own food...


... plus a little to sell. Here we have papayas and bananas.

Teneks travel from small settlements of maybe a hundred people to cities like Ciudad Santos via pickup trucks converted into people carriers. They're the cheapest public transportation around, and they go out into the country on narrow, winding dirt roads where normal commercial buses don't. These women are waiting in a depot for a ride home.


The older woman is traditionally dressed in blouse, petop, and huaraches. The white garment on her head is (I think) called a quechquémitl. It's a shoulder-length cape usually worn to keep off early-morning chill, and here tucked into the petop to cover the head, to keep off the noonday sun. The young mother, every bit as Tenek as her seatmate, wears the traditional Huastecan blue jeans and running shoes.

Women make their own traditional dress. These styles aren't carried by Land's End. But making them takes time, and many women don't have that luxury. What young suburban mother races home from a play date and sits down to embroider a blouse?


This young mother probably has to race home and plant some corn. I mean, it's March, already. Her life is hard. She's probably all of sixteen years old. So she got married and pregnant when she was fourteen, judging from the size of the child she's carrying in her rebozo.

What kind of future does she have? Odds are she'll wind up carrying firewood during her retirement years.


Traditional dress is for company and fiestas and visits to the city. Jeans and a man's shirt are more practical for hard manual labor.

This woman was selling Tenek cross-stitch embroidery on the Aquismón plaza. I bought some of her work, some of which you can see in the background. Her designs are traditional and full of meaning, but her Spanish—and mine, were so bad I wasn't able to learn much about them.


In this close-up, you can see how her hair has been woven with yarn into her petop. Her toothy grin owes its charm to the absence of refined sugar in her diet, I'll bet.

In many ways, the lives of the Tenek seem so contented. They live close to nature, in a gentle climate, eating stuff that is good for them, in close-knit families. Thatch huts in a pastoral setting. What could be more romantic?


But then again, the villages are run largely by women because most of the men are in the U. S. trying to earn enough money to live on in an increasingly modern, expensive world. So the families are broken up. Children wear uniforms to public school. How to pay for them? They rely on the village shaman for traditional medicine—unless the patient doesn't get well. Then they have to go to the clinic in Santos. How to pay for it?

It's a joy to visit these people and admire their fine lives and distinctive culture. But travelers shouldn't let too much more time go by. The modern world is closing in on the Tenek. The kids want IM and ice cream. In twenty years, you'll have to look in Burger King to see the Tenek.