This paper introduces the Tzotzil Maya by establishing some of the essential information about them. The home of the Tzotzil Maya lies in the highland region of central Chiapas in southeastern Mexico. Their territory has increasingly started to overlap with the Tzeltal, which are also Mayan indigenous people. This has caused them to influence each other culturally, linguistically, and politically. The habitat of the Tzotzil is highland, with mountains, volcanic outcroppings, and valley lowlands. The climate at high altitudes is cool to cold, and summers are very wet.
The native Tzotzil live mainly in the higher reaches. Chiapas is rich in natural resources, generating 35% of the nation’s electricity from hydropower, producing 35% of Mexico’s coffee, and the second state in livestock production and maize. The south and eastern parts of the state are rich in forests. The rocky highlands are a region that was never considered by the Spaniards as being resource rich and was largely left in the hands of the indigenous groups.
The highlands served as a source of cheap labor for commercial agriculture in the more fertile estate lands of Chiapas. The region is going through complex changes in response to population increase, which has encouraged people to move to less populated areas of the territory. Thirty years ago the indigenous population was highly concentrated in the highlands, dispersed in small communities in the rainforest, or along the borders with Guatemala and Oaxaca. Today, the Tzotzil have expanded northward and into northern urban areas.
The particular demography of the highlands is shaped by the movement of the Tzotziles and the Tzeltales. Since they have developed overlapping territories even within the same municipalities, and because their languages are closely linked, they have developed ties among younger adults, even though community boundaries remain separate. After the 1940s, the highlands experienced rapid demographic growth. Between 1950 and 1990, the population of the region tripled.
In the Altos, the Tzotziles are organized into communities, each with their own social and cultural unity. Each community has their own identity with a patron saint as protector and benefactor of its members, its own particular language characteristics, a body that governs it, and annual rites including celebration of the festivals for the saints. The inhabitants of the Altos identify themselves by their community of origin. The communities are organized in barrios. The barrio can function as a ceremonial unit, provide justice in minor offenses, decide use of land, maintain demographic statistics, and assign representatives for the municipal government. The Tzotzil have mediated land access by maintaining communal land structures through inheritance of land through the paternal line. Nonetheless, it is possible that inside a community, members can buy or sell land. Each family owns small parcels in different agro-ecological zones that are used for different activities such as collection of firewood, plants and animals and some cultivation of crops. They occupy communal territory in dispersed settlements known as “parajes” which represent a social as well as territorial system of organization.
. The Tzotzil are agricultural, growing chiefly corn (maize), beans, and squash. Fields are burned to clear them and planted and cultivated with the hoe and digging stick. Vegetables and cash crops such as peaches are also raised. The production of maize produces low income, since production of one ton of maize requires 150-300 labor-days compared to 17 nationally. All farmers supplement their income with day labor outside the community. In the north, coffee covers 10,000 acres, introduced by indigenous laborers experienced in working the commercial coffee estates. Guatemalan refugees, who accept cheaper wages than Mexican indigenous workers, have largely replaced Tzotzil workers on the commercial farms. Sheep are kept, primarily for their wool, and there are occasional chickens, turkeys, and pigs. There is also some hunting and fishing. Pottery is made in some areas, and weaving is universal. Baskets, nets, hammocks, hats, and rope are made of fibre products as well. Carpentry, stonework, and leatherwork are skills of the Bohom (Chamula) region.
Houses are built of a variety of materials, including wattle and daub, poles, and
lumber. Thatched roofs are usual. Households are generally congregated loosely around a central village. Clothing styles vary a good deal from community to community, but basically they consist of shirt, short pants, neckerchief, hat, and, for warmth, a wool poncho for men while women wear a blouse or huipil (long overblouse or tunic), long skirt, sash, and shawl. They are very meticulous weavers and often their huipiles are bordered in bright colors. Colors, styles, materials and decorative elements of clothing vary considerably. In some communities, men weave straw hats, make hammocks, or other crafts depending on the availability of natural fibers. The Tzotziles of Chamula provide furniture for many homes in the region, and have begun to diversify their production.
The Tzotzil of Chiapas call their own language Bach’i K’op. There are several dialects, considered different languages by some, and in all there are 265.000 speakers in Central Chiapas. The Tzotzil are one of the indigenous groups represented in the Zapatista movement (the most numerous one, after the Tzeltal), fighting for their rights.
Two religious movements expanded in Chiapas from the 1970’s onward. One was the Catholic movement of liberation theology based on the social goals of the Second Vatican Council and the Protestant movements fostering individual reflection and self-improvement. These movements found fertile ground in a set of communities with decreasing available land per family, landed traditional authorities who preferred to maintain control by requesting ever more expensive community services from community members, rather than responding to changing needs, and a group of young adults who through access to temporary labor had income to invest. Unable to confront traditional authorities on their own, these people and their families converted to more open-ended religious sects. They then migrated to the colonizing areas and formed new communities, often expulsed by the traditional Catholic community members who resented their unwillingness to maintain “tradition”. In San Cristobal, the expelled population has founded a number of new localities in urban areas, centered around a series of Protestant religious organizations, a form of “re-indianization” of the urban space and a recomposition of the indigenous community outside of their traditional territory.
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