Chontal of Tabasco

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Chontal of Tabasco

ETHNONYMS: Chontales, Chontal Maya, Chontal Mayan, Yocotan, Yokot'an


Identification. The word "Chontal" is derived from the Nahuatl word for "foreigner" or "stranger," chontalli. This term was originally applied to the Tabascan Maya by the Aztec, whose language, Nahuatl, was used as a lingua franca in many parts of Mesoamerica before and after the Spanish Conquest. The Spanish adopted this term in spite of the fact that it was also applied to different peoples in southern Oaxaca, Mexico, and in Nicaragua whose languages and cultures were unrelated to that of the Chontal of Tabasco. In this article, the word "Chontal" is used to refer only to the Chontal of Tabasco.

Location. The Chontal-Mayan-speaking area of Mexico has shrunk since the pre-Columbian period from an area that included most of the state of Tabasco and western Campeche to just the central part of Tabasco.

Demography. The first Spanish chroniclers, such as Juan de Grijalva and Hernán Cortés, left us with only a vague idea of the population of the Chontal Maya; however, by extrapolating from the data that are available, scholars have estimated that between 135,000 and 240,000 Chontal Mayan speakers lived in Mexico at the time of the Spanish Conquest. In examining tribute lists of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, scholars have discovered that Tabasco and Campeche suffered a rapid population decline during that period. Like other indigenous populations in the New World, the Chontal Maya were not resistant to European diseases such as smallpox and measles. Tabasco's population had fallen to only 8,500 by 1579, and by 1639 amounted to just 4,630. After this severe decline, the population of Tabasco began to recover slowly: by 1794, Tabasco had a population of 35,805 (55 percent Indian, 38 percent mestizo, and 7 percent European).

It was not until the twentieth century, however, that the population of Tabasco began to grow rapidly. Mexican census data from 1960 and 1970 indicated a Chontal-speaking population of approximately 20,000. In the 1990 census, Chontal Mayan speakers older than 5 years of age numbered 30,143 in Tabasco.

Linguistic Affiliation. Chontal is one of the approximately thirty related languages that form the Mayan Language Family. The parent language of all Mayan languages, Proto-Mayan, was last spoken approximately forty-one centuries ago. As time passed, two major language branches appeared: Western and Eastern Mayan. About nineteen centuries ago, Western Mayan split up into Greater Tzeltalan and Greater Kanjobalan. Greater Tzeltalan further divided into Proto-Cholan and Tzeltalan Proper. Chontal, together with Ch'ol, Ch'orti', and Cholti, descended from Proto-Cholan. These four languages form the Cholan Subgroup of the Mayan Language Family.

Chontal, or Yokot'an, as it is called by those who speak it, plays an important role in the sociocultural life of the Chontal community. Unlike many other Maya groups, the modern Chontal Maya cannot be distinguished from Ladinos (non-Indian Spanish speakers) in appearance, occupation, economic level, or place of origin. Knowledge of the Chontal language is therefore the most important social indicator of Chontal ethnic identity.

Chontal Mayan has many dialects. The oldest known dialect of Chontal is exemplified in the Maldonado-Paxbolon Papers (Scholes and Roys 1968; Smailus 1975), which were written between 1610 and 1612. Today, each Chontal-speaking community has its own variety of Chontal; these dialects are mutually intelligible.

Since 93.2 percent of Chontal speakers also speak Spanish, the relationship between Chontal and Spanish is an important one. Spanish, as the more prestigious language, is used in the domains of established religion and education and in the workplace. Chontal is spoken primarily with friends and at home.

Although almost all Chontal speakers are bilingual, the level of fluency varies among the population, based on age and gender. In general, the men and the younger generation (men and women under 50 years of age) speak better Spanish than the women and the older generation (men and women over 50). Just as knowledge of Spanish varies within the Chontal community, so does knowledge of the Chontal languagethe children in many communities speak less Chontal and more Spanish than the adults do. As more children are taught Spanish rather than Chontal, Spanish is assuming a greater role in Chontal communities, replacing Chontal even at home and among friends. Chontal Mayan is a dying language.

History, Trade, and Cultural Relations

In the century prior to the Spanish Conquest, the Chontal Maya were prosperous, and the area was well populated. The Chontal occupied a strategic economic position, playing an important part in the trade carried on between the Gulf coast and the Caribbean, across the base of the Yucatán Peninsula. Yucatan traded salt, cotton cloth, and slaves. In exchange, cacao, obsidian, precious metals, feathers, and other luxury items were imported by the Yukateko from Tabasco and the Caribbean coast to the southeast. Tabasco's population included not only native Chontal Maya but also representatives from other Mesoamerican cultures. For example, Nahuatl speakers from central Mexico established several commercial centers in Tabasco, and many Chontal speakers were bilingual. Zoque- and Yucatec Maya-speaking towns were also present in Tabasco.

After the Spanish Conquest, Tabasco lost its strategic economic position. Instead of being prosperous traders, the Chontal became peons, paying cacao, maize, and chickens as tribute to their Spanish overlords. As the Tabascan population declined, so did tribute income, agricultural production, the labor supply, and trade. Tabasco's economy suffered an economic depression that lasted through most of the colonial period and well into the nineteenth century.

The nineteenth and twentieth centuries have been a period of continuous growth in population, territorial expansion, settlement, and economic activity in Tabasco. Economic prosperity returned to Tabasco with the exploitation of petroleum in the twentieth century. The ratio of Chontal speakers to the total population in Tabasco is steadily declining, however, and areas inhabited by the Chontal Maya in Tabasco have shrunk considerably in the last hundred years.


The first descriptions of Chontal settlements were recorded by Spanish chroniclers. As early as 1579, Tabasco was described in two reports written by Alfaro Santa Cruz and other officials of the Villa de Tabasco. Their reports included a detailed map of the province. At the time of the Conquest, the most heavily populated part of Tabasco was the Chontalpa, a region that included a group of twenty-three Chontal-speaking towns. Other Chontal towns were located by the coast and along rivers, grouped together in provinces. Each province had a center surrounded by subordinate hamlets.

Another key region of Chontal speakers was the province of Acalan, located on the Río Candelaria where it flows into the Laguna de Términos, in the modern state of Campeche, Mexico. With its seventy-six towns and villages, the province of Acalan was well populated. The late pre-Columbian and early colonial history of Acalan is described in the Maldonado-Paxbolon Papers.

The colonial period produced not only a population decline but also a change in population distribution. Most of the coastal areas were abandoned during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, because of raids and looting by pirates. During the height of the pirates' power, most of the people in Tabasco lived in the sierra region and in the Chontalpa. As pirate incursions ceased in the second half of the eighteenth century, many inhabitants of the sierra region returned to the coastal areas.

Today, Chontal speakers are clustered in the Tabascan municipios of Centla, Macuspana, Nacajuca, and Tacotalpa, and the indigenous language that is spoken in western Campeche is Yucatec Maya.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Prior to the Spanish Conquest, Tabasco was a major agricultural and commercial area. Farmers raised not only subsistence crops (maize, beans, squashes, sweet potatoes, and manioc) but also commercial crops, such as cacao. The majority of Chontal subsistence farmers still till their land in the same slash-and-burn manner as their pre-Columbian ancestors. They grow most of the same subsistence crops, as well as plantains and rice. Raising household animals, hunting, and fishing help to supplement the Chontal diet.

Modern commercial farming is limited largely to the production of tropical and subtropical crops, such as cacao, sugarcane, bananas, and coconuts. Cattle raising is also an important commercial enterprise. From 1625 to 1925, the exploitation of tropical-forest products was next in importance to farming and cattle raising. Today the lumber industry is of minor importance, because of overcutting. Commercial fishing, particularly of shrimp, has increased in importance since 1950. Beginning in the 1950s, Tabasco's economy grew astronomically, based on the exploitation of petroleum and natural gas. Consequently, the Chontal are prosperous, compared to most Mayan groups in Mexico and Guatemala, primarily owing to the petroleum industry. The modern economy of Tabasco and the Chontal is tied to the economy of Mexico and the world.

Industrial Arts. For many years, the hat industry was the most important enterprise of the Chontalpa; Chontal Maya men, women, and children used their free time to weave long strips of palm leaf. As the demand for these hats has diminished, and as opportunities for wage labor have increased, the hat industry has lost its importance. Many traditional artssuch as hat weaving, gourd carving, embroidering, and some types of pottery makingcontinue to be of primary importance because of the tourist market.

Division of Labor and Land Tenure. Traditionally, the Chontal Maya have been subsistence farmers or ranchers. Chontal communities are surrounded by farmland owned or rented by Chontal Maya. Some communities were established as ejidos, settlements formed around the new lands that were created by land reform. As the Tabascan economy has boomed, however, so has the number of wage jobs increased.

Chontal men are the traditional breadwinners of the family, either as subsistence farmers or as wage earners. The women are responsible for domestic chores and child rearing. More and more Chontal women are becoming wage earners, however, as Chontal communities become part of mainstream Mexico.


The Chontal Maya kinship system is now bilateral, and Spanish kin terms are often used. Chontal kin terms differ from their Spanish counterparts in that they often stress age relative to Ego. Ritual kinship, compadrazgo (coparenthood), is widely practiced in baptisms, weddings, and other key events in the life of the Chontal Maya.

Marriage and Family

Marriage, Domestic Unit, and Inheritance. In the past, it was the custom for parents to arrange the marriages of their children. The young man's parents would visit the young woman's parents several times to discuss the marriage. If the marriage was agreed upon, a date was fixed, and a more formal ceremony was held with the young woman's relatives. The groom would bring giftscandles, maize, beans, cacao, and turkeyto make a large meal to celebrate the wedding announcement. A civil wedding ceremony, occasionally followed by a religious ceremony, would take place several weeks later. Often, the couple would remain at the young man's parents' house until they were able to build their own.

Modern weddings are less formal. The couple, often after a furtive relationship, decide to get married. If the parents do not agree to the marriage, the couple may run away and live together. Common-law marriages are accepted by the community. Most households consist of nuclear families.

Land and property are usually transferred from parents to children in accordance with Mexican law and parental wishes.

Socialization. Chontal-speaking communities are in a state of rapid change. Traditional values and rituals are being replaced with working-class Ladino values. Children are being exposed to mainstream Mexican and Catholicchurch values and culture through priests, nuns, missionaries, schoolteachers, radio, and television. In many communities, children are being taught Spanish instead of Chontal.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Within Tabascan society, the Chontal Maya (as well as all other Indians) are at the bottom of the social scale. The desire for higher status is a major reason for the assimilation of Chontal Maya into Ladino society. Among the Chontal Maya, status depends on economic success, particularly in communities in which political, religious, and traditional avenues to advancement no longer exist.

Political Organization. The formal government is run by officials of the municipio, who are periodically elected according to Mexican federal laws. For the most part, elected officials are Ladinos. In some Chontal communities, traditional officialselderly men who have held religious postsare still being elected.

Social Control and Conflict. Social control is maintained through familial constraints and by Church officials and the Mexican legal systems; however, the 1990s have been characterized as a period of increasing social unrest among the Chontal Maya. The economic crisis in Mexico, the civil war in Guatemala, and the rebellion of the Mayan Indians in the neighboring state of Chiapas are all contributing factors.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Chontal Maya are very religious. In most Chontal communities, the Catholic church is the most important building. Each town has its own patron saint and some secondary saints. Many Chontal Maya make pilgrimages to visit the saints in other towns, particularly, El Señor de Tila, the patron saint of Tila, in Chiapas. Each patron saint has an annual festival, with a lavish display of music, food, and prayers.

Religious Practitioners. Since the 1940s, however, a growing number of Chontal Maya have converted to Protestantism and no longer participate in the religious festivals for saints. As the religious competition between Catholics and Protestants increases, more Catholic priests and nuns and Protestant missionaries are visiting Chontal communities. The net result is that more adults and children are learning modern Catholic and Protestant doctrine and are being taught to reject traditional rituals. The traditional recomendores (religious petitioners) and patrones (church officials) are losing influence.

Arts. Among the Chontal Maya, expressive culture is focused primarily on religion. Music, drama, and art are part of all religious and ritual events. Churches and saints are decorated during the festivals, which culminate in elaborate processions, often with music and dancing.

Medicine. Traditional folk practices coexist with Western medicine in most Chontal communities. Most Chontal Maya seek medical help for serious injuries and illness. Curanderos (folk healers) are frequently consulted, however, particularly by older, more traditional Chontal Maya.

Death and Afterlife. The Chontal Maya believe in an afterlife in which one is rewarded or punished for having led a good or evil life. Traditional Catholic Chontal Maya believe that communication with the dead is possible and that dead friends and relatives can function as intermediaries between the living and the saints. Consequently, formal petitions to the dead are an important part of traditional Chontal ritual. Such petitions are offered during novenas (nine-day mourning periods) for the dead and during the month of October, climaxing on the second day of November. The petitions are usually offered by a Chontal recomendor, a ritual specialist who is hired to pray and petition the dead and the saints, although laymen occasionally offer the petitions. During these rituals, food, beverages, incense, candles, and skyrockets are offered to the dead and/or the saints, together with requests for aid.


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