6 Things That Make Ikoot Community San Mateo Del Mar Unique

Written By Estrella Soto & Ta Corrales

Published March 9, 2021

a collage of 6 images showing Ikoot fisherwomen on a canoe at the dead sea, textiles, a fisherman and his kite/net, totopos, the living sea, and baked stuffed fish

San Mateo del Mar is a coastal indigenous Ikoot (pronounced as ee-cot) community located in the Tehuantepec Isthmus of Oaxaca, Mexico. Estrella Soto, Smith Assembly’s Global Innovator, has worked in this community since 2019 to support local innovation and entrepreneurship projects with a group of Ikoot women through the OAXIN Innovation Center. For this blog post, she shares with us six things that make San Mateo del Mar unique.

1. They are the Ikoot people (not the Huave people)

The Ikoot have inhabited various towns on the shores of the Tehuantepec Isthmus since pre-Hispanic times. Currently, they live in four different communities: San Mateo del Mar; Santa María del Mar; San Francisco del Mar; and San Dionisio del Mar. Ikoot translates into English as “the true us”. Even though many pieces of literature and Wikipedia call the Ikoot people, their culture, and their language “Huave”, locals have told us time and time again that they don’t like that term because they perceive it as derogatory. Instead, they prefer to be called the Ikoot people, or alternatively “mareñas” or “mareños” which means “people of the sea” in Spanish.

2. Two sacred seas feed the community, the Dead Sea and the Living Sea

The community of San Mateo del Mar, or Saint Matthew of the Sea, is located in an extraordinarily narrow peninsula between the Pacific Ocean, the Tileme Sea, and the Superior Lagoon of Oaxaca. The Ikoot refer to the Pacific Ocean as the “Living Sea” and call the Superior Lagoon the “Dead Sea”. The Ikoot people’s whole subsistence and worldview depend on the sea. For the Ikoot, the sea is a god and it is sacred. If someone enters the sea, it’s as if they have entered a church, and if someone dies in the sea, they remain with God because they died in a sacred place.

A very peculiar characteristic of the Dead Sea is that instead of sand on the shores, the substrate is composed of mollusk shells which have accumulated over centuries. The Ikoot people believe that the waters of the Dead Sea are healing — which is why, when someone from the community is ill, they go there to bathe and thus heal faster. The Dead Sea is where the community fishes for shrimp, although it’s becoming increasingly difficult for fishermen to find shrimp nowadays. The Living Sea is rich in fish products like mullet, seasonal stingray, snook, milkfish, fishfish, seahorses, starfish, puffer fish, and even sharks.

3. Ancestral fishermen and fisherwomen innovated their fishing techniques in the 70s

The Ikoot use artisanal and ancestral fishing techniques. Shrimp are fished during the early mornings. Fishermen go into the Dead Sea and lure shrimp into their canoes with the light created by their homemade oil-filled bottle lamps. This type of fishing always has to be done before the sun rises, because that’s when shrimp are active (during the day, they bury themselves in the mud). To fish the Dead Sea, fishermen throw hammocks and cast nets from canoes or the shore. They often enter the Dead Sea by walking — since the waves aren’t strong, it’s almost always safe.

On the other hand, fishing the Living Sea is considered risky almost year round (especially during the winter). The Ikoot fishermen don’t use motorized canoes or boats because they’re too expensive and the community doesn’t have any docks safe enough for boats to leave the shore without capsizing from the aggressive Pacific waves. For this reason, in the 70s, an innovation emerged in the community to use kites for fishing. The function of the kite is to place a fishing net in the sea and prevent it from being pushed back to shore by the strong waves. This technique, still used today, helps fishermen increase their catches.

4. Skilled female textile artisans tell Ikoot stories with their designs

Ikoot textiles are woven from cotton on a backstrap loom. Cotton is collected through traditional techniques and later colored by artisans using natural dyes found in the community such as dried leaves, purple snail, and indigo. Textile art has changed a lot over the years in San Mateo del Mar. For example, over the last 40 years, it’s been influenced by crafts from the neighboring Zapotec villages.

Their textiles tell the stories of San Mateo del Mar. In them, artisans capture elements of daily life in their community. They generally commercialize their textiles — the most common products sold are tortilla chip napkins, blouses, huipiles (traditional dresses), and table runners. Their technique of backstrap weaving is being lost among younger generations, although there are currently several efforts underway to recover the textile art within the Ikoot community.

5. Delicious gastronomy replaces tortillas with unique totopos

The gastronomy of San Mateo del Mar is centered around products from the sea, which vary according to the season. Mullet is the most used type of fish in several of their traditional dishes because it can be fished all year round. Shrimp is also a common food, frequently eaten raw with lemon and chili. During the months from November to February, the stingray minilla arrives to the Pacific Coast and is commonly made into a stew. Because the soil of San Mateo is sandy and not very fertile, vegetables and fruits are hardly grown or harvested. The only exceptions are tamarinds, mangoes, coconuts, and plums, which are common in the region.

Unlike most communities in Mexico, soft tortillas do not play an important role in the Ikoot community's daily diet. Instead totopos, a unique type of hard tortilla, are consumed at nearly every meal. They’re made from corn, look like a thick tortilla with holes, and crunch like a cracker when eaten. Totopos, which are consumed throughout the Isthmus region, are baked on the sides of a particular type of cylindrical oven called a comixcal.

6. Rich oral tradition includes many stories like “The Rabbit and the Lizard

San Mateo del Mar also has a rich oral tradition of stories, an example of which we’ll share with you all here. Enjoy!

The Rabbit and the Lizard

A man went to get honey. He found his honey and filled his gourd. On the way back, he saw a dead rabbit and wanted to pick it up, but he left it, he didn't pick it up. Shortly after walking, he found another rabbit. He regretted: with two rabbits, it could be worth it to take them.

But the rabbits were only one rabbit, playing dead. The rabbit had just thrown himself on the ground a second time. He was deceiving the honey man.

The third time the man saw a rabbit, he said: I am going to leave my honey here and I am going to go back to get the other two rabbits. He put down the rabbit, put down his gourd, and went to pick up the other two rabbits.

The rabbit turned the gourd over, emptied all the honey on top of himself, and went to roll in the garbage, on the leaves of the trees.

The man did not find the other two rabbits, and when he returned he no longer had honey.

The rabbit, disguised as a man, did all this to trick the lizard, because the lizard did not want to let the rabbit drink water.

When the lizard saw this thing full of leaves that he didn’t know was a rabbit, he got scared and left. And so, the rabbit was finally able to drink water.