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ETHNONYMS: Chanabal, Chañabal, Chaneabal, Jocolabal, Jojolabal, Tojolabal


Identification. The Tojolab'al take their name from their language: Tojolab'al (tojol: legitimate/true; ab'al: word/language). They call themselves "Tojolwinik'otik" (legitimate or real men).

Location. Today the Tojolab'al live mainly in the municipio of Las Margaritas, in Chiapas, Mexico, on the frontier with Guatemala, although there are residential groups in the neighboring municipios of Altamirano, Comitan, Independencia, and La Trinitaria. This was not always so. Their present location is a result of processes of miscegenation, of cultural Ladinization, andabove allof land expropriation, from which they have suffered at least since the arrival of the Spaniards in their territory in 1528 (a time when they ruled over the area of the valleys of Comitan).

Demography. There is enormous divergence regarding the numerical count of the Tojolab'al. The highest reckonings, which generally duplicate those given in censuses, are those of anthropologists and other scholars who have worked in the area. Based on these, the number of Tojolab'al should be calculated at between 35,000 and 40,000.

Linguistic Affiliation. Tojolab'al belongs to the Maya Language Family; it is closely related to Chuj and more distantly related to Tzeltal, Tzotzil, and Q'anjob'al.

History and Cultural Relations

After the Spanish Conquest, the Tojolwinit'otik suffered from unprecedented exploitation, which continues to this day. As a result of it, they have seen a drastic reduction in the extension of their best lands, the product of their labor going to others, and the irrevocable loss of many elements of their culture.

Early on, the fertile area around Comitan attracted the Spanish invaders. Although, in the beginning, Comitan was no more than one of the "large villages" of what was called the province of Los Llanos, it soon became the economic axis of this region, which can aptly be described as a mosaic. Within it can be found dense forests of conifers and oak groves in the northern triangle; the high jungle of the western plains; the wide plains of the southern triangle, irrigated by the Río Grijalva and its affluents; and riverbeds and small fertile valleys in the east, where minor rivers and lagoons dot the landscape. The scene changed from conifers to subhumid forests of aromatic balsams and oaks before descending into the high green Lakandon jungle, now cut down mercilessly.

The multizoned ecology eventually supported a complex of farming and animal husbandry including the raising of maize, wheat, sugarcane, cotton, and cattle, and the collection of salt. A fair portion of the commerce between Guatemala and New Spain passed through this area.

The province was, at the same time, an ethnic mosaic, where Tojolab'al, Cabil, Tzeltal, and Totique (Tzotzil) settled, and where these people met the Mocho', Lakandon, Chuj, Q'anjob'al, Mam, and Jakalteko. These different peoples had differing levels of social organization, but all eventually became a source of available and exploitable labor.

To the south of Comitan there were also a series of pueblos that colonial chronicles call "Coxoh." The general tendency had been to consider them Tzeltal, but nowadays it is believed that they were probably Tojolab'al (Lenkersdorf 1986).

At first, the conquerors and their descendants who had settled in Ciudad Real seem to have been satisfied with collecting tribute from the villages in the region of Llanos. The Dominican friars, however, taking advantage of the legislation that allowed them to live in the Indian towns and their ascendancy over the population as a result of their increasing familiarity with local languages and their roles as spiritual leaders, began accumulating property, especially in the warmer areas, from around the second half of the sixteenth century.

When the Crown disallowed the encomiendas, the loss of these tributaries made direct spoliation an insufficient mechanism to ensure the economic well-being of the Spanish civilians of Ciudad Real, so they began to turn their attention toward the Indian settlements in Comitan and the surrounding area.

As cattle ranches, sugar mills, and other types of businesses proliferated, there was an increase in miscegenation and indigenous acculturation. It also gave many Indians the possibility of escaping heavy fiscal, ecclesiastical, and communal taxes as well as a precarious existence in villages that were periodically afflicted with epidemics. In 1795 some Indians themselves mentioned this human crucible, noting that their village was made up of Spaniards, mestizos, and Ladinos, as well as themselves.

The increase in the mestizo population and the greater integration of local economies into the regional market, as well as the reorganization undertaken by the Bourbon regimes in modifying tributary and labor policies, led to a movement of the Indian working force to cattle ranches and haciendas. Indirectly it encouraged Ladinization of many of the indigenous peoples and, in the process, altered the level of regional mobilization.

The struggle for independence did not in any way mean the end of indigenous oppression. Various republican regimes took advantage of the rationale of judicial equality for exploiting the little remaining communal land that the indigenous peoples had managed to keep. Then began a period of veritable slavery for the Indians employed in haciendas, which indentured them for generations.

In 1931, after the Mexican Revolution, the first timid land distribution began. The peons in the fincas (commercial farms) were freed from their debts and given land. From each finca one, two, and even three ejidos were formed out of hacienda land.


The settlement pattern generally corresponds to what is termed "compact low density" and has a rectangular layout. Each block is occupied by four to six families, almost always linked by family ties. Around the settlement are the cultivated lands; farther out are pastures and communal forests, if these exist.

Houses are built following a rectangular plan, and, although construction materials vary according to the ecological zone, almost without exception they have earthen floors. There is almost no furniture in the houses. Only seldom are there latrines or piped water. Other common constructions in the block compound are chicken coops, pigsties, granaries, sheep corrals and sweat baths (ik'a ).


Land distribution is very irregular. Some settlements have over 3,000 hectares of cultivable land, whereas others have no more than 300. The main difference lies in the quality of the land. Depending on the ecological niche, the kind of crop will vary according to soil type, climate, rainfall, and so forth. In all cases, mountainous lands are communal.

In the highlands, the Tojolab'al cultivate mainly the classic Mesoamerican triad (maize, beans, and squashes), in an effort to be self-sufficient. Those living in the valleys and riverbeds can diversify their cultigens with vegetables, sugarcane, coffee, and citric and other fruits, but those living in the jungle concentrate on the cultivation of coffee and, in some cases, on raising cattle. Forest products (cedar, mahogany, and others) are sold to private and state companies, at risibly low prices.

Tojolab'al living in the highlands, riverbeds, and valleys are obliged to find other ways of boosting their meager family income. They sell their seasonal agricultural surplus in local markets; raise chickens, pigs, and sheep; sometimes sell their handicrafts (embroidered blouses, ceramics, cordage); andabove allwork for wages on coffee plantations, in construction businesses, on maize farms, on cattle ranches, or in sugar mills in the basin of the Río Grijalva. Periods of wage-labor migration can be as long as eight months out of the year (the average is between four and five), and during this time the women are left in charge of all agricultural labor at home, except plowing.


Consanguineous kinship terminology shows a clear cognatic orientation, in which the only indicated differences between collateral kin are by relative age and sex. The following terminology would be used by a male speaker: tatjun (male relative older than father or mother), me'jun (female relative older than father or mother), b'ankil (male relative older than Ego but younger than his father or mother), watz (female relative older than Ego but younger than his father or mother), and ijtz'in (male or female relative younger than Ego). The only variant for a female speaker is to replace the term b'ankil by nu'.

The idea of contrasting older with younger is not limited to kinship terms; almost all objects, beings (including supernaturals), and even cargos are conceptualized within a relationship of older/younger (b'ankilal/ijtz'inal ). Hierarchy, determined by the criterion of relative age, is reflected in the humble and respectful conduct of minors toward their elders, and even in how work groups are structured.

In contrast to consanguineous kinship, affinal kinship is rather poorly delineated. Relatives by marriage are integrated into the consanguineous kinship system.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. There are six types of marriage: traditional marriage (chak'abal ); a series of long marriage petitions accompanied by continuous gift giving; elopement (yiaj'nel ); "dragging off (sjoko'ajnel, wherein the bridegroom forces his bride to follow him, interrupting the process of "petitions"); abduction (elk'anel ), which is frequent among young couples who are not betrothed; and marriage either according to the Catholic rite (nupanel ba iglesya ) or before the civil registry, which is becoming ever more frequent among those converting to some of the Protestant rites or sects. The choice of one or the other method is influenced greatly by the economic situation of the bridegroom. The chak'abal is becoming ever less frequent, especially in the jungle, but questions of prestige also play a role in choosing a marriage type.

Domestic Unit. Daily life is structured around extended-family groups, which in communities in the highlands, valleys, and riverbeds continue to live together virilocally. The mother acts as the domestic authority and is the jealous guardian of traditional values, whereas the father is the primary authority within the family and the community.

The kind of family unit that predominates shows important variations: in Agua Azul, in the jungle, nuclear families make up 62.80 percent of the total, compared with 36.70 percent in Veracruz, in the higher lands, where extended patrilocal families predominate (40.80 percent versus 8.57 percent in Agua Azul).

The variation in the percentage of these family types apparently stems from economic differences. Oriented toward the cultivation of maize and in great measure dependent on men's wage labor, the Veracruzan family requires group work. On the other hand, the cultivation of coffee in the jungle, which requires labor beyond that which it is possible for the family to offer, has accelerated a reduction in family size in Agua Azul.

Variations are also observed in the type of postmarital residential pattern: in 1981 in Veracruz 54.7 percent of the male population had lived with their parents for over seven years; 61.8 percent for over 5 years, and 97.4 percent for over one year. In Agua Azul, however, 72.5 percent of the married ejidatarios had built their own houses before spending three years in patrilocal residence, and 100 percent had left the paternal home before five years of marriage. Of the present-day inhabitants of Agua Azul who formerly lived in Veracruz, 89.20 percent lived with the husband's parents; 3.57 percent with those of the wife, and barely 7.14 percent lived in their own homes. Among them all only 11.80 percent owned land in Veracruz.

Sociopolitical Organization

Community structure is rather lax; individuals identify themselves as members of a community and show this even in the small variations in typical female dress. Although it is said that local authority was formerly vested in a council of elders, today the political offices in each colony are limited to those of the ejido commissioner, agente municipal, church president, and their respective helpers, secretary-treasurer, policemen, and alféreces.

The significance of such posts is rather limited. The church president, for example, limits himself to opening the church on Saturdays, making sure that prayer services are performed (led by a chatechist), and serving the priest when he visits the community. Although cofradías were common in the area until the nineteenth century, there is no record of any today.

The agente municipal is elected in an assembly and holds his post for a year, during which he plays the difficult role of intermediary between the community and the municipal authorities.

The most important post is that of the ejido commissioner, elected in the assembly and ratified by the municipio (which is controlled by mestizos). His main areas of activity are the organization of agricultural labor and the resolution of local problems, situations in which he acts as a mere regulator and represents the group's decisions, because, in the last analysis, decisions are always taken by the community assembly. This does not mean, however, that the Tojolab'al practice pure democracy. There are fragmentary power units focused on family nuclei, each of which tries to carry water to its own mill. Nonetheless, anyone can express his opinion and defend his point of view, and final decisions are always made by consensus; an assembly can consequently last an entire day.

Community cohesion is faced with increasingly adverse conditions. It is being threatened by the divisionary tactics of the political parties (Institutional Revolutionary party, Revolutionary Democratic party) and the cult of individualism encouraged by the new churches and sects, which multiply vertiginously in the area. Intracommuriity confrontations, including armed conflicts, are ever more frequent.

Economic activities and rituals also reflect community structures, for example, in obligatory community work; in jelanel, lending grain in times of scarcity; in k'otak'in, sacrificing cattle that are hopelessly hurt, cutting up the carcass, and selling the meat within the community to help the animal's owner recuperate from the loss; and finally, when a neighbor needs more manual labor than his family can supply. Such a person can appeal to the community assembly for help. The assembly then names those who are to help him and fixes the wages to be paid, which are always lower than those demanded when working outside the community.

Community efforts to keep its members immersed in a climate of cooperation and friendship are not always successful. Conflicts are frequent, and, at times, a great deal of energy and wisdom is required on the part of the authorities and the community to keep them from ending up in fights that, given the network of extensive kinship relations, could involve the entire population.

In the highlands and in the poorer riverbed communities, where land disputes have led to occupations by the landless Indians and have been brutally put down by the military and paramilitary, ejido unions tend to achieve a greater ethnic unity as an effective defense against the interests of the dominant mestizo group.

In the early 1990s some Tojolab'al groups nominated Indians for municipio posts. Although they did not win, the Tojolab'al are conscious of their rights and have been strengthening their position in successive elections; the consciousness of being an oppressed people crystallizes with increasing frequency in revindicatory agrarian, economic, political, and ethnic demands.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The universe is conceived of as being composed of three levels: Satk'inal or sky, Lumk'inal or terrestrial space (divided into three concentric levels: sea, hot land, and cold land), and K'ik'inal or underworld. Each is inhabited by different beings whose intervention can effect changes in both community as well as individual harmony.

Satk'inal is inhabited by K'ajwaltik Dios (Our Lord God), Nantik Santa Maria (Our Lady Mary), and two stars that direct the cycle of daily life: K'ak'u (Sun) and Ixaw (Moon).

In Lumk'inal there reside, besides men, the "gods" or saints, representatives of God, who ordered them to found and protect the villages, and their counterparts, the allies of the Lord of the Underworld, who punishes behavior that is considered unacceptable, including that directed against the environment.

Pukuj or Niwan Winik (Great Man) is the Lord of the Underworld, of the forest, and of its inhabitants. He also holds the secrets of witchcraft, which on occasion he may communicate to some men.

Throughout his existence the individual tries to maintain an equilibrium between the various forces that populate the universe; if any of them were to dominate, this could result in drought, epidemic, flood, plague or, on a personal level, illness, defined as the loss of the harmonious equilibrium between biological and sociocultural factors, that is, between the natural and supernatural worlds.

On the individual level, this equilibrium resides, to a great degree, in the sk'ujol, an entity located in the region of the heart, but which has many of the functions often attributed to the brain; in it reside sensibleness, spirit, character, memory, confidence, goodness, happiness, sadness, genius, soul force, judgment, and the conscience.

Ceremonies. One way to maintain equilibrium is through traditional rituals that mix Christian elements with others of clear pre-Hispanic origin, for example, the cult of the dead and the community carnival (Ta an k'ou).

Myths and tales in the oral tradition speak of how the abandonment of rituals (costumbre ) can cause trouble to the individual or the community. If equilibrium is destroyed, it can be restored by performing personal rites, such as those performed by pitachik' and sorcerers, or by family and community rituals.

According to Tojolab'al concepts, there are certain men, designated as vivos (living ones), who have received a special grace from God. Whereas some vivossuch as lightning-strike-men (hombres-rayo ), rainbow-men, and sheet-lightning-men (hombres-relámpagos )use their power for doing good or simply to entertain themselves, others seek further power from alliances with the beings of the underworld and then cause harm. These vivos possess a nahual (wayjel ), with whom they share their good and bad fortune.

Of the four pilgrimages that were of prime importance for all Tojolab'al but are nevertheless declining in significance, three are performed before the rainy season, with the objective of asking the saints to bring rain.

Conversion to Protestantism or certain sects is a phenomenon that is on the rise among the Tojolab'al, especially among those living in the jungle, and has resulted in a loss of traditional values. Some communities have even given up using their native language because the priests say that "God does not understand Tojolab'al." These religions encourage individualism and break up community solidarity.

Medicine. Local curers are also considered vivos; they have an animal companion and the gift of curing. Among them are the ajnanum, herbalist; the pitachik', a curer capable of hearing messages that the blood transmits through the pulse beat (pita = hear, chik' = blood ); and the me'xep , midwife (lit., grandmother).

Music. As befits a culture with an oral tradition, it is music, together with language, that occupies a privileged place in all these ceremonies. Not surprisingly, the Tojolab'al are splendid performers on the drums (wajabal ) and the flute (aj-may ), as well as on the guitar, violin, and harmonica. The latter are used on festive, but not ritual, occasions, and they never accompany rites in which flutes and drums are used. Besides the aforementioned, other elements in ritual activities are the use of copal (pom ), certain flowers, fireworks, and aguardiente (snichim Dyos : flower of God), a spirituous liquor.

Just as Tojolab'al values are expressed in their language, social organization, and the continuance of attitudes, concepts, and common beliefs, there is also an auto-perception that reflects the uniqueness of this people, expressed in their interaction with other ethnic groups and the society at large, in which they are immersed and which determines their daily life as well as their transformations and their permanence.


Brody, Jill, and John S. Thomas, eds. (1988). Tojolabal Maya Ethnographic and Linguistic Approaches. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University.

Furbee-Loose, Louanna (1976). The Correct Language, Tojolabal: A Grammar with Ethnographic Notes. New York: Garland.

Gomez Hernández, Antonio, and Mario Humberto Ruz (1992). La memoria baldía: Los tojolabales y las fincas. Testimonios Bilingües. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México; Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Chiapas.

Lenkersdorf, Carlos (1979-1981). B'omak'umal (Dictionary). Vol. 1, Tojolab'al-kastiya (Tojolab'al-Spanish) ; Vol. 2, Kastaiya-tojolab'al (Spanish-Tojolab'al). Mexico City: Editorial Nuestro Tiempo.

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Ruz, Mario Humberto (1983). "Médicos y loktores: Enfermedad y cultura den dos comunidades tojolobales." In Los legítimos hombres. Vol. 3, 13-102. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Instituto de Investigaciones Filológicas. 2nd ed. 1991.

Ruz, Mario Humberto (1992). Savia india, floración ladina: Apuntes para una historia de las fincas comitecas (siglos XVIII y XIX). Mexico City: Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes.