Oaxaca Vernacular Settlements: Families-based Regional BioCultural Identity and the Shared Spaces

Title: Oaxaca Vernacular Settlements: Families-based Regional BioCultural Identity and the Shared Spaces

Theme: Architectural Heritage and Interpretation of Cultural Practices

Ms. Nohema-Cassandra Ruíz Gómez (Mexico City, Mexico)

M.Sc Student in Structural Analysis of Monuments and Historical Constructions (SAHC) at Minho University, Portugal

HeritageForAll International Internship Program 2021 “Musealization of Cultural Identity”


An article aims to expose the importance of investigating the traditional settlements not only as a material object with tangible significance, but also as an information bank of the intangible expressions ​​and the cultural identity value; as well as, the importance of carrying out an appropriate conservation intervention, action realizing professionally the object in the context. Consequently, it might facilitate the statement identifying the contemporary communities’ cultural practices. The vernacular dwellings of Tehuantepec, affected by the 2017 earthquake, are used as a case study (CS) of exemplifying, discussing, and identifying the possible threats with this kind of built vernacular architectural heritage.


The settlement responds to the environmental and cultural determinations. Thus, it has initially to pay much attention to the the environmental impacts-based protection and safeguarding procedures. Once the aforementioned condition is recognized, the settlements will be appropriated and might be a suitable space for the inhabitants’ cultural life (Juárez Pichardo, 2016). The industrialization of the materials and the construction styles, that a design is massively reproduced, is considered a great challenge conserving the traditional dwellings.

Ettinger (2010) indicates that the study of the traditional settlements is complicated not only because of its functional aspect but also because of its symbolic role. In addition, it is an essential source of information and study since it reflects a human group’s values ​​and social and cultural practices. Therefore, the settlements should not be reduced to materials and construction processes, instead, they must also be understood as an information bank of the social phenomena and a community’s cultural identity.

The traditional and natural way by which communities house themselves. It is a continuing process including necessary changes and continuous adaptation as a response to social and environmental constraints

Built Vernacular Heritage Definition (ICOMOS, 1999)

The practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills –as well as the instruments, objects, artefacts, and cultural spaces associated therewith – that communities, groups, and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage

Intangible Cultural Heritage Definition – UNESCO ICH, 2003

Applying these concepts on the vernacular Tehuana settlements in Tehuantepec, it responds to the interaction of the communities with their surrounding nature and history as a sustainable cultural landscape.


The Isthmus of Tehuantepec (fig. 1)is the narrowest part of the Mexican territory. The region’s importance is due to its geographical characteristics and the cultural and historical wealth it possesses. The location is privileged because it facilitates the communication between the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. Also, it was an obligatory passage for the groups that moved between Central Mexico, the Mayan zone, and Central America. Geographically, the Isthmus can differentiate into two regions: the north corresponding to the southern part of the state of Veracruz; and the south, which is a part of the state of Oaxaca (Reina, 2013). In addition, Oaxaca is subdivided into eight regions.

Figure 1. Oaxaca is shown in blue and the Isthmus region in orange. Note: Modified from (CONAGUA, 2021) and (Mena Gallegos R. A., 2017)

The climate in the entire region is warm tropical with an average temperature of 35 °C. The annual rainfall is over 3,9 mm. The region comprises five ethnic groups: the Mixes, Zoques, Chontales, Zapotecs, and Ikoots (Mena Gallegos R. , 2020). The importance of the Tehuantepec region from the pre-hispanic times to the present day “that it has impressed travelers, scientists, and tourists” due to the transmitted cultural identity manifestations and natural context (Reina, 2013).

The Tehuana Settlements

The regional archeology is so distinguished including the built vernacular architectural heritage pattern of the village. Pre-hispanic groups were distributed in the alluvial plains of the rivers, the foothills with caves, near the lagoons and the coast as well, developing a sacred strong rapport with the landscape. Towards 1522 – 1524 A.C., after the arrival of the Spanish forces, the Villa de Tehuantepec was discovered. It was formed by the dwellings, the streets, and the church. The urban layout still retains the reminiscence of the first orthogonal scheme (Mena Gallegos R. A., 2017).

Tehuana settlement has a pre-Hispanic reminiscence of the Zapoteca house. At that time the settlements’ material is reflected the socio-cultural statement, so the dwellers used perishable materials in the modest homes. The initial typology of a vernacular house in Tehuantepec was integrated a thatched or grass roof to protect the place. Because of burning the palm and grass roofs, they started to cover their roofs using the tiles. Moreover, the walls were made on bahareque. (Taller de Restauración FAHHO, 2020)

The geometry of the spaces is generally rectangular or square while the settlements were usually only one story. Therefore, the dimensions of the doors and windows had been significantly enhanced the ventilation openings. The two types of spaces were identified at Tehuana settlement as opened and closed space. For instance, the courtyard has an essential role because families spend externally most of their time due to the climate’s comfort. Moreover, the kitchen and dining room are located outdoor in the shade of trees lessening the internal temperature. The closed spaces include the bedrooms and the bathrooms (Taller de Restauración FAHHO, 2020). In addition, the majority of these dwellings have the hammocks and the rocking chairs as well that are placed in the corridors where the family members used to relax (García Salas, 2019).

The corridor is a transition area between open and closed spaces. It, as an extension, was recorded around 1150 and 850 B.C. due to the development of specific craftsmanship at the villages. Currently, women still use the corridor to carry out the embroidery craft, while men can develop the clay, woodwork, and leather crafts. Yoo Bidó, “the house of the saint” in the Zapotec language, is considered another important characteristic of these traditional dwellings where an altar with images of saints is placed and also, are reminiscent of pre-Hispanic times and  (Taller de Restauración FAHHO, 2020).

FAHHO (2020) indicated that the local materials were used in the Tehuana constructions:

  • Walls are built in adobe settle with a lime-sand mortar. The exterior is covered by lime-sand plaster.
  • Andirons – the deck consists of andirons, distributed to each 60 cm. The andirons are plump (about 10 cm to 12 cm in diameter) with the local trees such as Guirisiña, the white oak, and the Chico Zapote.
  • Biliguana also made with the local wood, their profile is flattened to seat them in rows on the andirons.
  • Regarding the climatic conditions, Tiles (Tejavana) at the inclined roof are made of clay.
  • Fences and windows are protected from the outside by the wooden bars or the blacksmith friezes that prevent the a water enters during the rainy season.
  • Square brick floor is made of a red clay.
Figure 2. Local materials in roofs and windows protections ©Ruiz Gómez, 2019

According to UNESCO ICH definition, the Tehuana settlements or dwellings, based on its spaces and functions, are already responded to the transmitted social practices, traditions, and knowledge from generation to another. Within the settlement, the activities give the main manifestations of the cultural identity of the community such as the embroidery craft.

The Earthquake’s Consequences

With the earthquake of September 7, 2017, there are many damage and collapse that were registered in the vernacular settlements. Using the traditional techniques and respecting the ICOMOS Charter on Built Vernacular Heritage-recommended intervention criteria, there are many recovered structures (ICOMOS, 1999). On the other hand, several houses were demolished and reconstructed completely regarding different typologies, materials, the e.g. the concrete and cement blocks.

Figure 3. External view of the corridor (left) and interior view of the corridor (right) after restoration works using traditional material. (Santamaría, 2020)

During visits made to Tehuantepec in 2019, some residents mentioned that many inhabitants, who opted for the reconstruction with new materials, regretted because of tiny spaces as well as the interior temperature was unbearable. Aside from the comfort aspect, the loss of the cultural identity is monitored individually, groups and regional level as well. According to this, some questions arise:

  • What will happen to the identity of the families?
  • What is the impact of living in a house that does not respond to family identity and necessities?

Probably, they will adaptively reuse the spaces recreating an environment that responds to the sense of belonging / place attachment (Ettinger, 2010).

Mena (2020) exposed that in the Isthmus communities, the cultural and natural heritage is currently at risk due to an ignorance and a lack of awareness. As a result of that, language, regional dress, and music have been lost and modified; likewise, the landscapes and other types of the traditional constructions. This problem can generate conflicts and ruptures of community network. Furthermore, if the sudden new material and layouts interventions to the vernacular houses are gradually upgraded (Mena, 2020), the loss of authenticity is also at a risk. Respectively, this loss will effect also gradually on some cultural practices mainly which are related to ICH. However, due to natural disasters like earthquakes and the non-accurate interventions in the settlements, the risk becomes sudden and not under-estimation.

Moreover, the missing pieces can create confusion and increases the difficulty of carrying out a correct interpretation of the cultural practices. The cultural identity and the building possess a direct relationship. Starting from the settlement, a family can express its particular identity to the surrounding society that belongs to (García García, 2005). Therefore, the alterations can lead to an imbalance in the family and also to the heritage community’s identity. In addition, the members, within a society, can fully understand the community’s cultural particularities, while, for a foreign, this task is more challenging.

For the local inhabitants and their activities, the interpretation and evaluation of daily life and traditions can be carried out; as well as the time that the family members can spend in a specific space and the importance of the functions. In the Tehuana settlements, the corridor and Yoo Bidó have a hierarchy over other spaces. Therefore, the importance of preserving, identifying, and understanding the meaning to those families and community is mandatory. The situation has been exposed where new typologies, which don’t consider this part of the history and cultural legacy, lead habitants to feel unsatisfied.


According to the direct observation, the problem statement is so complicated not only at a design or technical level but also at the socio-cultural and architectural interpretation level. In case of being foreign to the heritage community, the professionals should carry out a deep and detailed documentary and field investigation. The research should include the anthropological aspect. Through this, understanding the meanings and values ​​of a space to a family and the community can be obtained. Be aware of the evolutionary processes and the dynamics of change is also necessary. Concerning housing and interventions in spaces, providing adequate living conditions with tradition should be a priority. This with the aim of not generate identity losses associated with unsuitable interventions to housing.

A general problem related with vernacular housing is that the inhabitants of the communities associate traditional materials with low economic status, ignoring the cultural richness that it implies. This leads them to prefer new materials that, most time, are incompatible and do not help the thermal comfort.  The loss of traditional housing due to ignorance is severe and must be avoided. The population’s lack of information, appreciation, and significance must be solved to change the perception of the object and guarantee the preservation of the heritage involved.

Therefore, developing programs that disseminate the values that this type of housing implies is essential. The institutions and the professionals must carry it and share it among the inhabitants. Exposed the information outside the community is also recommended. The sectors involved will be various, including government, academic and professional.

Tehuana house is a reference to the cultural identity of the region. First, at the material level, due to the constructive technique and regional materials still used. Second, at the intangible level because the spaces and activities generated within it reveal the conformation of the collective identity of the family and the community. Likewise, it is an heir of the relation with the natural context, landscape, and worldview since pre-Hispanic times. The importance of the study is also found in this background that survived nowadays through evolution and syncretism.


Thanks to M.A. Claudia Santamaría García for the shared photos.


  • CONAGUA. (2021). Obtenido de https://sigagis.conagua.gob.mx/gas1/sections/Edos/oaxaca/oaxaca.html
  • Ettinger, C. (2010). La transformación de la vivienda vernácula en Michoacán. Materialidad, espacio y representación. Morelia: COLMICH/Universidad Michoacana de San Nicolas de Hidalgo/Gobierno del Estado de Michoacán/CONACyT.
  • FAHHO, T. d. (2020). Restauración y conservación de casas tradicionales de Tehuantepec dañadas por los sismos de 2017.
  • García García, A. (2005). Vivienda, familia e identidad. La casa como prolongación de las relaciones humanas. Trayectorias, VII(17), 43-56.
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  • Mena Gallegos, R. A. (2017). Arquitectura inicial para la evangelización de los Zapotecos enla Provincia de Tehuantepec.1522-1555. (Master thesis). México: UNAM.
  • Reina, L. (2013). Historia del Istmo de Tehuantepec. Dinámica del cambio sociocultural, siglo XIX. México: Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia.
  • Taller de Restauración FAHHO. (2020). Rescate de las casas tradicionales de Santo Domingo (Vol. 12). Obtenido de https://tallerderestauracionfahho.org/wpcontent/
  • UNESCO. (2003). The Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. 12.

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