An educational project of the
Houston Institute for Culture

By John P. Schmal

During the last decade, the State of Chiapas - long a neglected and oppressed region of the Mexican Republoic - has been thrust onto the world stage and into the media spotlight. The attention given to the political situation in Chiapas has initiated a great interest in the plight of the indigenous people of that state. But an understanding of the present-day situation in this southern state requires a review of its history and its complex ethnic diversity.

The Aztec Empire
Map of Mexico
History of Mexico
Mexican Traditions
While many Mexican states flourished during the Spanish colonial period, in large part because of their mineral wealth or agricultural potential, Chiapas - far to the south and seeming to be without mineral resources - languished in poverty and discontent. The mestizaje and assimilation that took place in most Mexican states transformed the identity of the Mexican Indian into the Mexican mestizo. And, with independence, the Mexican mestizo became the citizen of the Mexican Republic.

The process of mestizaje, however, was not as widespread or pervasive in Chiapas as it had been in the north. As a result, the indigenous identity of the Chiapas Indian - while altered - did not evolve to the same extent. While many of the other Mexican states witnessed the assimilation, exploitation, and cultural demise of their indigenous groups, many of Chiapas' ethnic groups have maintained their ancient cultures, traditions and customs. As such, Chiapas questioned its position as part of México, but never totally embraced its Mayan neighbor to the south, Guatemela. In essence, the State has retained one indisputable identity: Chiapas is forever indigenous.

On its southwestern border, El Estado Libre y Soberano de Chiapas (The Free and Sovereign State of Chiapas) shares a long coastline with the Pacific Ocean. Chiapas also borders the states of Tabasco (on the north), Veracruz-Llave (on the northwest), Oaxaca (on the west) and the nation of Guatemala (on the southeast). Altogether, Chiapas occupies 73,724 square kilometers, taking up 3.8% of México's national territory and ranking eighth among the Mexican states in terms of area. Politically, the State is divided into a total of 111 municipios (the Mexican equivalent of counties), with its capital at Tuxtla Gutiérrez.

The name Chiapas is believed to have been derived from the ancient city of Chiapan, which in Náhuatl means the place where the chia sage grows. Chiapas itself is merely one portion of the large region that was inhabited by the Mayan Indians. The ancient Mayan culture flourished across a large portion of present-day Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, western Honduras and the five Mexican states of Yucatán, Quintana Roo, Tabasco, Campeche and Chiapas. In all, the territory occupied by the Maya was probably about 500,000 square kilometers in area and is sometimes referred to collectively as El Mundo Maya (The Maya World).

For at least two thousand years, the culture of the Mayan Indians flourished throughout Mesoamerica. The Mayas made a living through agriculture, hunting and fishing. They were also skilled weavers and temple builders who left a treasure trove of archaeological sites for later generations to admire. The Mayan Linguistic Group is one of the largest in the Americas and is divided into a multitude of Mayan languages, including the Huastec, Yucatec, Western Maya, and Eastern Maya groups.

While Yucatec is the dominant language spoken in northern Guatemala, Belize and the Mexican states of the Yucatán Peninsula (Campeche, Quintana Roo, and Yucatán), the Western Maya language group is the dominant tongue in Chiapas. The most common of the Western Maya languages are the Tzeltal and Tzotzil. However, other Western Maya languages spoken in Chiapas include Chontal, Chol, Tojolabal, Chuj, Kanjobal, Acatec, Jacaltec, and Motozintlec.

The first contact between Spaniards and the people of Chiapas people came in 1522, when Hernán Cortés dispatched tax collectors to the area after the Aztec Empire was conquered and dismantled. Soon after, in 1523, Luis Marín, one of Cortés' officers, arrived in Chiapas to begin the Spanish conquest in that area. Although Marín was able to pacify some of the indigenous groups, his forces met with fierce resistance from the Tzotzil Indians in the highlands.

Marín was not able to bring the natives of Chiapas under complete control after three years. To finish the job, the Spaniards dispatched a new military expedition under the command of Diego de Mazariegos. But, faced with capture and slavery, many indigenous warriors preferred death to the loss of freedom. In the Battle of Tepetchia, many Indians jumped to their deaths in Cañon del Sumidero, rather than submit to the foreign invaders.

Gradually, however, the indigenous resistance weakened and Spanish control was established through most of Chiapas. By the end of 1528, the conquest of Chiapas was complete, with both the Tzotzil and Tzeltal Indians subdued. On March 31, 1528, Captain Mazariegos established the Ciudad Real in the Valley of Jovel. Ciudad Real - which was later renamed San Cristóbal de las Casas - would be the capital of the province for 364 years.

The Spanish colonial administration quickly introduced the encomendero system into Chiapas, virtually reducing the indigenous population to slavery and bondage. Forced to pay tribute twice a year, the Chiapas natives carried an undercurrent of resentment from one generation to another, leading to the revolt of the Tzeltal communities in Los Altos in 1712. Soon, the Tzoltziles and Choles joined the Tzeltales in rebellion, but within a year, the government was able to extinguish the rebellion.

According to an 1814 census, roughly 130,000 people inhabited Chiapas. This population was made up of 105,352 Indians, 21,477 mestizos, and 3,409 Spaniards. During the late Eighteenth Century, a number of Spanish and mestizo farmers and ranchers had made their way to Chiapas. These newcomers became an elite group of wealthy landowning families who steadily expanded their holdings, gradually depriving the Indian communities of their traditional lands before and after independence.

In 1821, México became an independent country. On September 1, 1821, Chiapas declared its acceptance of México's Plan de Iguala, expecting that that neighboring Guatemala would do the same thing. And on September 3, 1821, Chiapas officially declared its separation from the Spanish empire. However, during 1823, Guatemala became part of the United Provinces of Central America, which united to form a federal republic that would last from 1823 to 1839. With the exception of the pro-Mexican Ciudad Real, many Chiapanecan towns and villages favored a Chiapas independent of México and some favored unification with Guatamala. At the same time, the elite classes of Chiapas openly pushed for incorporation into México. In July 1824, the Soconusco District of southwestern Chiapas split off from Chiapas, announcing that it would join the Central American Federation.

In September 14, 1824, following a referendum on either joining Federal Republic of Central America or México, the government of Chiapas endorsed the state's incorporation into México. But, the Soconusco District maintained its neutral status for eighteen years until 1842, when Oaxacan forces under General Santa Anna occupied the province. After the completion of the military occupation, Santa Anna declared that Soconusco had been reincorporated into the Mexican Republic. Guatemala did not recognize this action until 1895.

However, even after the reincorporation of Soconusco, the Mayan states of México continued to forge a separate path from the rest of the country. The predominantly Mayan state of Yucatán rose in rebellion in 1839 and declared independence from México on May 31, 1841. Reincorporated into México in December 1843, the state declared independence again in 1846, although it was reincorporated soon after. From 1847 to 1855, the "Caste War" ravaged the Yucatán Peninsula, causing many Caucasian inhabitants to flee. Discontent of a similar kind brewed in the highlands of Chiapas, where the Mexican Government feared and suspected the emergence of a second "caste war." From 1868 to 1872, the Tzotzil rebelled, but Government control was eventually reestablished.

Well into modern times, Chiapas has boasted a significant indigenous-speaking population. In the 1895 federal census, 120,942 people five years of age and over who lived in Chiapas were classified as indigenous-language speakers, accounting for 37.8% of the total population of the state (315,599). Five years later, at the turn of the century, the indigenous population of Chiapas - numbered at 129,843 - constituted 36% of the state's total population (360,799).

In the unusual 1921 Mexican census, residents of each state were asked to classify themselves in several categories, including "indígena pura" (pure indigenous), "indígena mezclada con blanca" (indigenous mixed with white) and "blanca" (white). Out of a total state population of 421,744, 200,927 persons (or 47.6%) claimed to be of pure indigenous background. Another 152,956, or 36.3%, classified themselves as being mixed, while a mere 49,836 (11.8%) claimed to be white.

Although 47.6% of Chiapas residents claimed to be of pure indigenous heritage, a much smaller number of persons were classified as speakers of indigenous languages. A total of 98,105 persons five years of age and older spoke at least twenty-five indigenous languages in 1921, representing 27.4% of the state population five years of age and older. The most spoken languages in this census were the Tzetzal (25,839 speakers), Tzotzil (20,803), Zoque (11,592), Chol (10,330), Mame (6,158), Chontal (1,454), and Zapoteco (1,145).

By the time of the 1990 census, 716,012 inhabitants of Chiapas 5 years of age or more spoke any one of the fifty-seven indigenous languages found in Chiapas. Another 169,593 children between the ages of 0 and 4 were tallied in these indigenous-speaking households. Another 244,221 persons were classified as Indians but could not speak an indigenous language. The end result leads us to the conclusion that in 1990, there were 1,129,826 persons classified as Indian or indigenous speakers, which represented 35.19% of the total state population (3,210,496). In addition, this large number of Indian people represented 12.97% of the total indigenous population of the Mexican Republic.

According to the 2000 census, the population of persons five years and more who spoke indigenous languages amounted to 809,592 individuals. The largest indigenous groups represented in Chiapas were: Tzotzil (291,550), Tzeltal (278,577), Chol (140,806), Zoque (41,609), Tojolabal (37,677), Kanjobal (5,769), and Mame (5,450).

The ethnic distribution of Chiapas is very complex and represents a dynamic, ever-changing phenomenon. Even today, out of Chiapas' 111 municipios, ninety-nine have significant indigenous populations, the majority of which are Mayan-speaking groups, closely related to one another. In the 2000 census, thirteen municipios of Chiapas contained indigenous populations that comprised at least 98% of the total population of the municipio. In all, twenty-two municipios had indigenous populations over 90% and 36 municipios had populations exceeding 50%.

The largest concentration of indigenous speaking individuals is living in five of Chiapas' nine regions: Los Altos, Selva, Norte, Fronteriza, and Sierra. The remaining four regions (Centro, Frailesca, Soconusco, and Costa) have populations that are considered to be dominantly mestizo. The major groups of Chiapas are discussed below:

Tzotzil Maya (Batsil winik'otik)
The Tzotzil Indians call themselves Batsil winik'otik, which means "true men" in their language. Their closely related cousins, the Tzeltales, refer to themselves as winik atel, or "working men." Both groups speak a language, which they call batsil k'op (true or legitimate language). The Tzeltal and Tzotzil languages form the Tzeltalan subdivision of the Mayan language family. Lexico-statistical studies indicate that these two languages probably became differentiated from one another around 1200 A.D.

In the 2000 census, a total of 291,550 people 5 years of age and over spoke the Tzotzil language, representing 36.0% of the total indigenous population of Chiapas. The only indigenous group whose numbers approach that figure were the Tzeltal, who numbered 278,577, representing another 34.41%. Together, the two indigenous groups were represented by 570,127 individuals 5 years of age and older, accounting for more than 70% of the total indigenous population and 14.54% of the total state population (3,920,892).

Today, the Tzotzil live in almost every municipio of Chiapas, but are most prominent in ten municipios in the Los Altos region. The traditional Tzotzil territory is to the northwest and southwest of the city of San Cristóbal de las Casas in the highland region of central Chiapas.

The Tzotziles of Los Altos are organized into barrio communities, each of which has its own social and cultural identity. Each barrio has its unique patron saint as its protector and the benefactor of its population. The Tzotzil are engaged primarily in agricultural pursuits, growing chiefly corn (maize), beans, and squash. As the economy of Chiapas has become more diversified in recent decades, the Tzotzil have begun to expand from their traditional areas into northern urban areas.

The Tzeltal (Winik Atel)
The Tzeltal call themselves Winik atel, which means "Working Men" in their language. The Tzeltal (Winik Atel) are repsented by 278,577 people five years of age or more in the state of Chiapas. This figure represents a significant 34.41% of the total indigenous figure of the state. The Tzeltal language is concentrated in twenty of Chiapas¹ 111 municipios.

Under Spanish rule, the Tzeltal people were subjected to the encomendero system and forced to pay an oppressive tribute twice a year. For centuries, the Tzeltales were forced to labor in the mines, mills and haciendas of Chiapas for meager wages. Like the Tzotales, the Tzeltal are presently engaged primarily in agriculture and cultivate corn, beans, chili, squash, yucca, sweet potato, potato and chayote. In the Tzeltal region, the identity of the community is also very prominent and significant. Each Tzeltal community constitutes a distinct social and cultural unit, with its own dialect, leaders, customs and religious rites.

Choles (Winik)
The Chol language, with 140,806 speakers five years of age and older in the 2000 census, is spoken by 17.39% of Chiapas' total indigenous population and is the third most common native language in that state. The Choles call themselves "Winik," a Mayan word that means "man." For centuries, the Choles have referred to themselves as "the miliperos," the people whose lives and existence have revolved around the cultivation of maize, their most sacred food.

Some two thousand or more years ago, the Choles lived in the region now known as Guatemala and Honduras. Over time, they split into two main groups, the Chol migrating gradually to the region of present day Chaipas, and Chortís staying in the region of Guatemala. The Choles of today are closely related to both the Chontal in Tabasco and the Chortí of eastern Guatemala.

The Choles are especially common in the northwest part of Chiapas and inhabit an area that is contiguous with the neighboring state of Tabasco. The fundamental economic activity of the Chooles is agriculture. They primarily cultivate corn and frijol, as well as sugar cane, rice, coffee, and some fruits.

Zoques (O'deput)
The Zoques of Chiapas call themselves "O'de püt," which signifies "people of the language," or "word of man," which may be construed to imply "authentic" or "true." According to the census of 1990, the total number of Zoque speakers in México five years of age and older numbered 43,160. Of this number, 34,810 lived in the state of Chaipas and were distributed through 57 municipios. By the year 2000, the population of the Zoques had dropped to 41,609 individuals five years of age or older, representing 5.14% of Chiapas' indigenous-speaking language. The municipios, in which the Zoques are predominant, stretch across 3,000 square kilometers of northern Chiapas.

Tojolabales (Tojolwinik'otik)
The Tojolabales call themselves Tojolwinik'otik, which means "legitimate or true men." According to oral tradition, the Tojolabales came north from Guatemala. At the time of the 2000 census, 37,667 residents of Chiapas spoke Tojolabal, making up 4.65% of the indigenous population. In 1980 the army massacred fifty Tojolabal Indians who had occupied a finca (large farm) forty miles from Comitan.

The Kanjobal speakers of Chiapas mainly live along the border of Chiapas and Guatemala. Although most Kanjobal live in Guatemala, 5,769 Chiapas residents five years of age and older spoke the language at the time of the 2000 census. It is believed that a significant number of these Kanjobal-speakers may have been born in Guatemala and immigrated to Chiapas, maintaining strong cultural ties to the neighboring nation.

The Mame language is one of the most ancient Mayan languages. The Mames primarily inhabit Guatemala, but 5,450 Mame speakers were tallied in Chiapas in the 2000 census. Most of these individuals lived in Fronteriza, Sierra, and Soconusco.

Events in 1994

The Zapatista movement first came to the attention of the world when their rebel forces occupied the Chiapan towns of San Cristobal de las Casas, Las Margaritas, Altamirano and Ocosingo on January 1, 1994, the same day that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was due to begin operation. They read their proclamation of revolt to the world and then laid siege to a nearby military base, capturing weapons and releasing many prisoners from the jails. The Mexican army responded savagely, pushing the rebel forces back into the rural highlands of Los Altos.

The Zapatistas, however, brought to the surface long-standing issues about the indigenous people, their poverty and their ties to the land. According to México's National Population Council, today Chiapas is the poorest state in México. Ninety-four of its 111 municipalities live on the poverty line. In Ocosingo, Altamirano and Las Margaritas - the towns where the Zapatista Army first came into prominence in 1994 - 48% of the adults are illiterate. Eighty percent of the families earn less than $245 a month and seventy percent have no electricity.

This is amazing because, in recent decades, Chiapas has become recognized as one of the most resource-rich states in all of México. The agricultural production of coffee, corn and cocoa, the growth of cattle-ranching, hydroelectric power, and timber harvested from the Lacandona rainforest have given Chiapas a new economic clout with its sister states. Chiapas produces 35% of México's coffee, which traditionally has been the state's primary cash crop. However, the production of bananas, cacao and corn make also made Chiapas México's second largest agricultural producer overall.

It has also been determined that Chiapas has rich petroleum reserves, giving it a higher level of status in the international economy. Oil production began during the 1980s and Chiapas has become the fourth largest producer of crude oil and natural gas among the Mexican states. Thirty-five percent of México's electricity is generated from Chiapas' hydropower. And because Chiapas contains many archaeological remains of the Maya past, it has also become a magnet for international tourism.

In light of Chiapas' economic potential and indigenous poverty, the Zapatistas have explained to the world that they are struggling for work, land, housing, food, health care, education, independence, liberty, democracy, justice, peace, cultural recognition, information, and security. Furthermore, they have dedicated themselves to the cause of protecting the environment and combating corruption. The issues that the Zapatistas have with the Mexican Federal Government are too complex to discuss in the context of this article. However, the following website provides some background to events in Chiapas, especially those issues relating to the Zapatistas:


The Chiapas of the Twenty-First Century is a land in turmoil. Torn between its indigenous past and a world hungry for its rich natural resources, the State is witnessing population movements that will change the ethnic demography that existed for so many centuries. However, even with all the changes, the plight of the indigenous campesino has essentially remained the same. The Chiapas of the future will witness a battle between those who demand change and those who wish to preserve the social structures that have endured since 1526.

Copyright © 2004 by John P. Schmal. All Rights Reserved. Read more articles by John Schmal.

Recommended Reading:

Alvarez, Fernando, "Peasant Movements in Chiapas," Bulletin of Latin American Research 7,2 (1988): 277-298.

Benjamin, Thomas, "A time of Reconquest: History, the Maya Revival and the Zapatista Rebellion in Chiapas," American Historical Review 105,2 (4/00):417-50.

Hayden, Tom (ed.), The Zapatista Reader. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press/Nation Books, 2002).

INEGI, Resultados Definitivos del XII Censo General de Población y Vivienda.

Lyon, Stephen. Zapata Lives!: Histories and Cultural Politics in Southern Mexico. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

Weinberg, Bill, Homage to Chiapas: the New Indigenous Struggles in México. London: VERSO, 2000.

Recommended Websites:

"The Situation in Chiapas"

"About the Zapatistas"

John Schmal is an historian, genealogist, and lecturer. With his friend Donna Morales, he coauthored "Mexican-American Genealogical Research: Following the Paper Trail to Mexico" (Heritage Books, 2002) and "The Dominguez Family: A Mexican-American Journey" (Heritage Books, 2004). He has degrees in History (Loyola-Marymount University) and Geography (St. Cloud State University) and is a board member of the Society of Hispanic Historical Ancestral Research (SHHAR). He is an associate editor of SHHAR's online monthly newsletter, www.somosprimos.com. John is presently collaborating with illustrator Eddie Martinez on a manuscript entitled "Indigenous Mexico: Past and Present."