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Identification. "Ch'ol" is a term that applies to the speakers of an American Indian language spoken in southern Mexico; they refer to it simply as lak t'an ("our language"). In colonial documents, the Ch'ol were also called "Palencanos," "Pochutlas," "Topiltepeques," and "Lacandones."

Location. The Ch'ol occupy a continuous area in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. Population is concentrated in the municipios of Tila, Tumbala, Salto de Agua, Yajalon, Palenque, and Sabanilla but has expanded in modern times to jungle areas in Ocosingo.

Demography. The great majority of Ch'ol live in small rural settlements, but a few urban centers are dominated by Ch'ol populations, notably Tila, Tumbala, and Salto de Agua. Allowing for some undercounting, the Ch'ol-speaking population numbers about 100,000.

Linguistic Affiliation. Ch'ol is a member of the Western Branch of the Maya Family of languages, and within Western Mayan, Ch'ol belongs to a subdivision composed of Tzeltalan (Tzeltal and Tzotzil) and Cholan proper. Cholan proper includes Western Cholan (Chontal and Ch'ol) and Eastern Cholan (Ch'orti' and its colonial ancestor, Cholti). Within Ch'ol itself, there are two major dialect areas, the Tila (or Western) dialect and the Tumbala (or Eastern) dialect. There is a high degree of intelligibility between the varieties. Ch'ol has been shown to be closely related to the language transcribed in the Classic period (a.d. 300-900) Maya hieroglyphic inscriptions.

History and Cultural Relations

The Cholan, the historical predecessors of the Ch'ol, once occupied most of the lowland areas from the Río Grijalva on the west to the Río Motagua on the east, including the southern (riverine) half of the Yucatán Peninsula. The urban centers of this civilization were abandoned with the fall of the Classic Maya around the tenth century; the Cholan survived in small agricultural settlements until the sixteenth century, when they were decimated by diseases and other repercussions of Spanish colonialism.

At the end of the sixteenth century, Ch'ol settlements were located along the Río Usumacinta and its lowland tributaries, from northern Guatemala to the Gulf coast. The Ch'ol resisted Spanish incursions, including missionary activity, and carried out raids on highland areas that were pacified and controlled by the Spanish Crown. As a consequence, the Ch'ol were subjected to a 100-year military effort (1590-1690). Conquest and resettlement of the Ch'ol, area by area, resulted, beginning with the lower Río Usumacinta and Río Tulija area and proceeding upriver in successive campaigns that concluded with the subjugation of the Mopán and the Itza' Maya, to the east of the Ch'ol. Ch'ol populations that survived pacification were resettled in Palenque, Tila, Tumbala, and Bachajon, in Chiapas, and in Retalhuleu, Guatemala, but only those in the Tila and Tumbala areas survived into the twentieth century.

John Loyd Stephens, a U.S. explorer who traveled through the Tumbala area in 1840, remarked that the Indians there lived in essentially aboriginal conditions, with little sign of Spanish influence. After mid-century, however, German and North American interests founded coffee plantations and incorporated the Ch'ol in a system of debt peonage. This system disappeared after the Mexican Revolution, and, in the 1930s, Ch'ol gained control of many coffee plantations through land reform.

About 1960, the federal government authorized expansion of highland populations into lowland jungle areas left virtually unpopulated since the seventeenth century. As groups organized and petitioned for lands under the ejido system, hundreds of new settlements evolved, and the population expansion has taken Ch'ol into almost all of the Mexican territory their ancestors occupied in the sixteenth century.


The major urban settlements occupied by Ch'ol speakers are Tila, Tumbala, Salto de Agua, and Palenque; however, these are to some extent dominated by their non-Indian (Ladino) populations. The great majority of Ch'ol live outside these urban centers, in smaller agricultural settlements, the result of land reform under the ejido system.

Ejido settlements tend to be small because the laws governing land reform specify how many heads of family will have land rights and restrict inheritance to one son; land-poor younger sons are the major factor in the formation of newer ejidos. Consequently, these settlements also tend to be peculiar demographically, as they are founded by young generation mates and initially have few elders. By the same token, they are innovative socially; little traditional life survives in the ejidos. A great majority are dominated by Protestant sects, in contrast to the well-entrenched Catholicism of the highlands.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. There is considerable diversity to the economy of Ch'ol settlements, although there is a strong component of subsistence agriculture based on maize, beans, and squashes, with the addition of manioc, chili peppers, tomatoes, and other vegetables, as well as tropical fruits. Cacao was produced in early colonial times but was replaced by coffee. Nineteenthand early twentieth-century plantations also produced cattle, mahogany and other tropical hardwoods, rubber, and vanilla.

The economy of the ejidos varies widely, as each settlement struggles independently to develop its own locale. Some ejidos are strictly limited to subsistence; others have developed a variety of cash crops, including not only coffee but cacao and fruit trees. Farming of produce for local markets is poorly developed. Government support of cattle production often results in lands cleared for farming being converted to pasturage.

Industrial Arts. The Ch'ol are overwhelmingly agricultural, with little development of other industries. Weaving and embroidery, once essential crafts for women, have now disappeared almost entirely, replaced by sewing. Western-style dresses of brightly decorated satinlike cloth, worn with rows of beads and numerous hair clips, are a hallmark of ejido Ch'ol women.

Trade. The major regional product for outside trade is coffee, produced both on large commercial plantations and by family enterprise on smaller plots.

Division of Labor. Males do most of the agricultural work, women perform domestic chores (i.e., men produce food, and women process it, as in other Mayan communities).

Land Tenure. Most land is held through the ejido system, as prescribed by law: groups of heads of households petition for use of unoccupied lands (or lands held in excess of legal limits) and are granted an ejido. Shares can neither be bought nor sold, and are inherited by only one son. Other sons traditionally emigrate to form other ejidosthe process by which the lowland rain forest has been repopulated since about 1960.


Kinship terminology and kin-based organization are rapidly acculturating to regional Hispanic norms, but reconstructions based on internal Ch'ol and external Mayan comparisons indicate an earlier stage with patrilineal clans, and this hypothesis is supported by evidence from Classic-period hieroglyphic inscriptions.

Kin Groups and Descent. Various forms of evidence indicate the former existence of patrilineal exogamous clans (Villa Rojas 1969, 236), but these currently survive mainly in a feeling of implied kinship and reciprocal obligation between persons of the same surname. Ethnohistorical records in Classic-period hieroglyphic inscriptions indicate rule normally passed to a child of the preceding (male or female) ruler. Because most rulers were male, dynasties of patrilineally related kings resulted, and the data suggest patrilineal descent groups were important elements in Classic political organization.

Kinship Terminology. Kinship terminology of the Omaha type is attested, but in most communities a degree of acculturation is noted. Unacculturated terminology is structurally identical to the working Omaha system attested in the nearby Tzotzil community of Chalchihuitan (i.e., patrilineages with sibling marriage exchange between neighboring families).

Marriage and Family

Family units are important and positively valued. Relations between brothers are said to be strained and competitive, whereas relations with cousins are friendly. Uncles are counselors and helpers; grandparents are treated with respect and are sought out for advice.

Marriage. Marriage is expected to take place when both parties are about 21. Accompanied by an older male family member, the prospective groom calls on the bride's parents in a series of informal visits, during which gifts of food are delivered. After tacit agreement is reached, courtship lasts six months or more. Marriage is accomplished by both civil registration and religious ceremonies. Postmarital residence is usually patrilocal, but the possibilities include the groom residing matrilocally and working with his father-in-law, ultimately inheriting as if he were a son.

Domestic Unit. Residential units are nuclear-family or extended-family households with elder parents or recently married children added to the nuclear family.

Inheritance. Inheritance goes to the last child, especially if this child is male. If the last child is female, she must be unmarried so that the goods remain in the same patrilineal family.

Socialization. Socialization of young children is by a combination of good role models, discipline, and instruction, with the expectation that positive early formation prevents problems from occurring later.

Sociopolitical Organization

Ejido settlements are governed by prescribed structures (an ejido commissioner and councils) but often function more democratically, with men meeting daily for public discussions and weekly more formal public assemblies, decisions being made by consensus. Religious authorities exercise considerable influence over community members. Highland and urban settlements have legally prescribed systems of governance under federal law, balanced against a traditional cargo system. The latter now has mainly religious functions but nonetheless constitutes a political power base capable of opposing civil authority.

Social Organization. The traditional cargo system (ch'ujulbä e'tel, "holy work") survives best in Tila. There, more than fifty citizens at a time hold ritual offices for one-year terms, organizing festivals, caring for sacred images, and receiving and interceding on petitions from supplicants, including pilgrims from outside the community. Marriage is a prerequisite for these offices, and cargo holders' wives have ritual obligations.

In Tila, each saint represented in the central cathedral has a mayordomo, and ritual advisors and assistants fill out the ranks of the cargo holders. Men who have passed through various offices gain the status of respected elders (local Spanish: tatuches ; Ch'ol: lak tatna'ob, literally "our ancestors"). In Tumbala, religious cargos are partially merged with political offices.

Political Organization. Outside the ejidos, the political organization prescribed by federal law is the ayuntamiento, headed by the presidente municipal. In Tila, this organization is balanced against the cargo holders and the official church hierarchy (bishop, priests, etc.), who mediate problems informally. In Tumbala, the state-sanctioned offices have largely replaced the political roles of cargo holders.

Conflict and Social Control. Social control is accomplished through socialization. Individuals believe they are responsible for their acts, not only to others but to the supernatural world. Consequently, bad actions will result in illness and other forms of supernatural discipline.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. There is great diversity in current religious practices and beliefs among ethnic Ch'ol, ranging from traditional Maya-Christian syncretism of various degrees, to mainstream Catholicism, to fundamentalist evangelical Protestantism.

Traditional syncretic Maya-Catholic beliefs, as manifested in the Ch'ol area, have merged the Sun with Christ and the Moon with the Virgin Mary, in accordance with pre-Columbian mythology, in which the Moon is the mother of the Sun. Tila is the center of a syncretic tradition featuring a Black Christ, the Señor de Tila (Lord of Tila), whose image is preserved in a cave, a center of worship, as an anthropomorphic stalagmite. Worshipers come to annual festivals in great numbers, making Tila a major pilgrimage site in southern Mexico.

The name "Tila" derives from the Gulf Coast Nahuatl tillan, "place of (the) black (one)," and Black men who live in caves figure prominently in highland folklore. Caves are also the domain of the principal earth deity (the Earth Owner of the Tzotzil and other Mayan groups), owner of earthly goods who must be petitioned for reasonable use of his plants and animals. Two elements of the overriding Ch'ol philosophy are that gifts must be repaid and that evil will turn back against its agent. Offerings in caves for success in hunting and other pursuits continue to be made.

Religious Practitioners. Apart from priests and pastors serving mainstream Christian churches, shamanistic curers are the principal religious practitioners. Summoned to their responsibility in dreams, curers visit caves to solidify their powers. Curing practices involve invoking supernatural powers; petitions to supernaturals are accompanied by offerings of candles, incense, and liquor. An essential element is the "promise" made by the interlocutora pledge of offerings and good behavior in return for divine assistance. Most shamans are male, but a similar position is held by female midwives, who likewise draw their powers from the supernatural and are destined to serve from birth.

Ceremonies. Tila is the site of a major round of religious ceremonies tied to the Christian calendar but retaining elements of pre-Columbian and colonial beliefs and practices. The festival honoring the Señor de Tila occurs in mid-January and features masses and processions of images of the Lord. Carnaval (from the weekend to Ash Wednesday) is the occasion for replacing cargo holders in office, public dance performances (Black Men and Marias), and ritual combat between bulls and jaguars (symbolizing Hispanic versus indigenous cultures). All Saints' is mainly a family occasion, with house altars prepared to receive the family dead. Tumbala, whose patron saint is Saint Michael, celebrates a similar series of festivals, on a smaller scale.

Arts. Verbal arts are respected, and the Ch'ol have a rich body of traditional folktales and sacred myths; they are skillful at joking and narrating ordinary events. Creation stories involve the Moon and her sons, who account for the origin of the animals as well as agricultural practices, and symbolize conflict between male siblings. Other common topics are pursuit by underworld beings, transformation (people changing into animals, and vice versa), and encounters with Earth Owner, who sometimes appears in the guise of a man named Don Juan.

Medicine. Major illness results from souls being imprisoned by earth powers (caves, rivers, and the like). Shamans cure with a combination of herbal and spiritual treatments (prayers, offerings, and threats). Some illness may result from witchcraft, which is accomplished through pacts with earth powers. Principal illnesses are caused by fright, envy, and wrong thoughts, all of which involve disharmony with the spirit world. Curing techniques include ritual bathing, herbal remedies and diets, and prayers and offerings. Midwives care for pregnant women and assist in deliveries.

Death and Afterlife. Death is considered to be a natural process; people must die to make room for others. Burial is with Christian rites. A wake features prayers and offerings on behalf of the soul of the departed. Gifts of food and candles are received by a designated family member of the same sex as the departed, and money, candles, and incense are ritually presented to the cadaver.


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