Tzotzil of Zinacantan

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Tzotzil of Zinacantan

ETHNONYMS: Sotz'leb (Tzotzil), Zinacantecos (Spanish), Zinacantecs (English)


Identification. Zinacantan is one of twenty-one Tzotzil-speaking municipios in the state of Chiapas in southeastern Mexico. The name "Zinacantan" derives from the pre-Columbian epoch when Aztec traders named the region and its people "Tzinacantlan," meaning "place of bats" in Nahuatl. Zinacantecos refer to themselves as "Sotz'leb," meaning "people of the bat" in Tzotzil.

Location. The municipio of Zinacantan, an area of 117 square kilometers, is located along the north and south sides of the Pan-American Highway approximately 10 kilometers west of the city of San Cristóbal de las Casas in the central highlands of Chiapas. These rugged limestone and volcanic mountains rise to over 2,900 meters. The ceremonial and political center of Zinacantan is located at 16°45 N and 92°42 W. Chiapas has marked wet and dry seasons. During the winter dry season, the days are sunny and warm and the nights cold, with occasional frost. During the summer, the heavy rains provide a mean annual rainfall of 129 centimeters, the sky is frequently overcast, and it is generally cool. Magnificent stands of pine and oak cover the higher elevations. At lower elevations, oaks replace the pines, and the oaks in turn give way to tropical broadleaf forest and savanna in the hot lowlands of the Río Grijalva.

Demography. In 1994 Zinacantan had an estimated population of 22,000, a dramatic increase over the 7,650 Zinacantecos reported in the national census of 1960.

Linguistic Affiliation. Tzotzil is one of the twenty-nine Mayan languages spoken by over 5 million Indiansthe descendants of the ancient Mayawho live in Chiapas, the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize. Tzotzil is most closely related to the Tzeltal that is spoken in municipios to the east of the Tzotzil area in the Chiapas highlands. Linguists classify the two together as the Tzeltalan languages.

History and Cultural Relations

Linguistic and archaeological data indicate that the Tzeltalan ancestors of the contemporary Tzotzil and Tzeltal moved into their present habitat in Chiapas by a.d. 300, perhaps as early as 100 b.c. Over time, they differentiated into Tzotzil speakers and Tzeltal speakers, and ultimately into the groups that became incorporated into the municipalities that were established by the Spaniards. Spanish chronicles report that Aztec traders came to Zinacantan in the decades before the Conquest to trade for quetzal feathers and amber, which were prized in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán.

The Spanish conquerors reached the highlands of Chiapas in 1523. The first Spanish colony, Villa Real, was founded first at Chiapa de Corzo and soon moved to the cooler site of San Cristóbal de las Casas in 1528. Whereas the neighboring Chamula fought ferociously against the Spanish forces led by Diego de Mazariegos, the Zinacantecos appear to have yielded to, and later assisted, the Spanish penetration. Specific mentions of Zinacantan in the early post-Conquest period emphasize their trading activities and religious rituals. The trading of salt from wells near Ixtapa, northwest of Zinacantan Center, which was then resold in markets throughout the Chiapas highlands, was probably pre-Hispanic and continued during colonial and modern times. A Spanish chronicler described Zinacantan as a pueblo with "an infinite number of gods; they worshiped the sun and offered sacrifices to it, and to the full rivers, to the springs, to the trees of heavy foliage, and to the high hills they gave incense and gifts .. . their ancestors discovered a stone bat and considered it God and worshiped it" (Ximenez 1929-1931, 360).

During the colonial period, Zinacantan was subject to missionary activity by the Catholic friars, and many Zinacantecos became peons on the large estates that had evolved from the earlier encomiendas owned by the descendants of the conquering Spaniards. In 1592 Zinacantan was called "El Pueblo de Santo Domingo," but by 1792 the community was called "San Lorenzo Zinacantan," signaling that Saint Lawrence had replaced Saint Dominic as patron saint. Chiapas was part of Guatemala until (following Mexico's independence from Spain) it seceded and joined Mexico in 1824. When President Benito Juarez came to power in 1863, the Leyes de Reforma stripped both the church and the Indian towns of their corporate lands. Many Zinacantecos lost their ancestral lands and were forced into debt-indentured labor on haciendas owned by the Ladinos in the lowlands. These Ladinos, who were descendants of the Spanish conquerors interbred with Indians over the centuries, speak Spanish, live mainly in the towns and cities, and control the economic and political system of Chiapas.

The three most important recent historical events in their impact on Zinacantan have been: the ejido program stemming from the Mexican Revolution (1910-1921) which provided long-delayed additional farming lands for the Zinacantecos beginning in 1940; the construction of the Pan-American Highway (completed in 1954), which passes through the municipio of Zinacantan and provides access to markets by truck and bus; and the establishment of the Instituto Nacional Indigenista (National Indian Institute) center in 1950 in San Cristóbal de las Casas, which was followed by various federal programs to improve the quality of Indian life in the highlands of Chiapas. Zinacantecos are aware of the 1992 provisions allowing the privatization of ejidos; there has been no immediate move to change the status of their landholdings.


Zinacantan has a dispersed settlement pattern, with a ceremonial and political center and twenty-six outlying hamlets. The ceremonial center, usually called "Zinacantan" in Spanish or "Htek-lum" (meaning literally "the land of a group from one set of ancestors") in Tzotzil, is located in a well-watered mountain valley at 2,252 meters, with the hamlets at elevations ranging from 2,580 meters down to 1,600 meters. The 1982 population of the center was 2,269. Hamlets varied in population from the largestNachih (2,221), Paste' (2,093), and Navenchauk (1,122)to the smallestIcalum (152), Comlum (113), and Tzum El (99). Some hamlets are compact in settlement, others more dispersed, the crucial variables being the terrain and availability of household water in the dry season. Even in compact hamlets, houses are never wall-to-wall. Each extended family constructs a cluster of houses in a compound surrounded by a maize field and separated from neighboring families. House plots are normally inherited by the sons of the family head, and women move into the compounds of their husbands. Houses are usually rectangular, one-room constructions. The traditional house had wattle-and-daub walls and a steep, four-sided roof, thatched with grass. Modern houses are of adobe brick or cinder block roofed with tile. The fireburning within the area enclosed by the three hearth-stones that hold the griddle for cooking maize tortillas and support the pots of boiling beans or squashesis located on the floor, normally toward the setting-sun side of the house, the domain of the women. The men's domain, which is toward the rising sun, is where they keep their belongings and sometimes set up an altar containing images or pictures of saints. Since these one-room houses normally have only one or two doors and no windows, they are often smoky. Men sit on small wooden chairs or benches, women on the ground. The members of the family sleep on reed mats placed on platform beds or on the floor.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Until recently the Zinacantecos were almost all agriculturists, growing crops of maize, beans, and squashes, which were cultivated by swidden agriculture using axes, machetes, planting sticks, and hoes. Sheep are owned and herded by women to provide wool for weaving ponchos and shawls. Chickens are kept both for their eggs (to sell) and to eat, especially on ritual occasions. Although families who own sufficient land continue to farm maize, an increasing number of Zinacantecos have gone into a variety of alternative enterprises, such as wage work on highways and in construction, driving trucks and buses, and cultivating flowers and fruit for urban markets. Many Zinacantecos have also become merchants, buying and selling maize, beans, fruit, and flowers. Most households have a mix of off-farm and onfarm production.

Industrial Arts. The most notable craft is weaving, which is performed by women on backstrap looms on which they weave both the cotton and the wool clothing that is worn by both sexes. Zinacanteco clothing is distinctive in the Chiapas highlands, instantly recognizable from the abundant use of red cotton threads and wool dyed bright red. Men weave their hats from white and black strips of palm or plastic, adorning them with long, flowing red ribbons reminiscent of the feathered headdresses worn by the ancient Maya. Women traditionally go barefoot, whereas men wear sandals purchased in San Cristóbal and, on ceremonial occasions, high-backed sandals manufactured by Chamula artisans. In the 1960s many men began to wear purchased, European-style clothing, especially when away from their homes.

Division of Labor. In the Zinacanteco view, men are the maize growers, women the tortilla makers. Men do all of the field work, tend large animals (e.g., the horses or mules used as pack animals), build the houses, hold all of the politicai offices and most of the religious posts. Women cook, fetch water and wood, herd sheep, weave, hold a few of the ritual officessome shamans and all of the "incense-bearers" are womenand assist their husbands in their cargo duties. Children are cared for by the women, but men assist when they are at home.

Land Tenure. In theory, all land is owned by the ancestors and transmitted to descendants within patrilineages each generation. Although Mexican law stipulates that daughters must also receive shares of the land inheritance, the choice lands for houses and farming are in fact transmitted to sons, whereas daughters (who will be supported by their husbands) are given plots on steep hillsides.


Kin Groups and Descent. The basic unit of the social structure is the domestic group composed of kin who live together in a house compound and share a single maize supply. Each of these domestic groups is symbolized by the "house cross" that is erected outside the principal house in the compound and serves as the ritual entrance to the house. The exact composition of the domestic group varies as the unit moves through developmental cycles and responds to economic and social pressures. The nuclear family has become increasingly prevalent as Zinacantecos have become involved more in outside wage labor and less in traditional farming at home, a trend that began in the 1960s and accelerated in the 1980s.

The domestic groups are embedded in two other crucial social unitsthe localized lineage and the water-hole groupwhich are in turn grouped into hamlets. The localized lineage is composed of one or more patrilineages that are extensions of patrilineally extended families. The waterhole groups consist of a series of localized lineages living around a communal water hole, from which they draw water for livestock and for household use. Each of these localized lineages and water-hole groups maintains a number of cross shrinessome on hills and mountains, for praying to their ancestors, and some in caves, for making offerings to the Earth Lord.

Kinship Terminology. Age, gender, and generation are strongly reflected in kin terms. The terms "older brother" (bankilal ) and "younger brother" (its'inal ) are of such importance that they are used as a general principle for classifying much of the universe, including sacred mountains, musical instruments, and saints, which are thus placed in pairsone "older" and the other "younger." Much respect is tendered older people, who are addressed as "father" (htot ) and "mother" (hme' )Affinal terms are proliferated and commonly used. Ritual kinship is universal as "cofather" (compadre ) and "comother" (comadre ) terms acquired during Catholic baptisms and confirmations are extended to all of the people who sit together at ritual meals following these ceremonies or weddings. All adults linked by this system of ritual kinship are strongly bonded and may count on one another for political support, loans of money, and assistance in ceremonies.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. The patterns of courtship and marriage are innovative creations deriving from both ancient Tzotzil and sixteenth-century Spanish Catholic practices. A formal petitioning for the bride is followed by a lengthy courtship, during which gifts are presented by the boy's family to the girl's family. On the wedding day, the couple goes through a triple ritual process of registering at the town hall, then having a Catholic priest marry them in the church, and finally attending an elaborate Tzotzil ceremony at the house of the groom. The bride is then left in her new home. Since the 1980s, a majority of Zinacantecos have been eloping, thereby reducing the time and expense for all concerned.

Socialization. All Zinacanteco babies are born at home with the aid of midwives, who attend the mother, assist in the birth (which takes place in a crouching position, over a reed mat), cut the umbilical cord with a machete, and perform the necessary after-birth rituals. Babies are kept constantly with their mothers, nursing, wrapped in shawls and carried on their mothers' backs, or asleep beside their mothers in bed. After a few months, the infants' contacts are expanded to include members of the extended family. By age 7 or 8, girls begin to work for the household; at 9 or 10, boys begin to accompany their fathers to work in the fields.

Sociopolitical Organization

The Mexican municipio structure has been imposed upon the ancient Tzotzil political system. In the town hall in Zinacantan Center, a set of ranked officials (presidente, sindico, four alcalde jueces, and nine regidores ) serve three-year terms to carry out their political duties, including collecting funds for and supervising public works and settling disputes among Zinacantecos. In the hamlets there are official representatives of the governing town hall in Zinacantan Center; some hamlets also now have an official agente, who can perform many of the duties of the presidente, including holding court and settling disputes.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The mountainous terrain that reaches into the clouds of highland Chiapas is the visible surface of the Zinacanteco world, which is conceived of as a large, flat quincunx in quadrilateral form. The center of this surface is the "navel," a mound of earth located in the ceremonial center. The world rests on the shoulders of the Vashak-Men, the local version of the "Four-Corner Gods" or "Sky-Bearers" of the ancient Maya. Below the visible world is the "Lower World," inhabited by a race of dwarfs who, along with monkeys, were made in the past when the gods unsuccessfully attempted to create real men. In the sky above the earth is the domain of the Sun, the Moon, and the Stars. The Sun, called "Our Father Heat," travels on a path that encircles the earth each day. Preceded by the "Sweeper of the Path" (Venus), the Sun appears in the morning, pauses at high noon to survey the affairs of the Zinacantecos, and disappears in the evening. The Moon, called "Our Holy Mother," travels on a similar path around the world. Under the influence of Spanish Catholicism, the Zinacantecos have come to associate the Sun with God the Father or Jesus Christ and the Moon with the Virgin Mary. The quincuncial model of the cosmos is reflected in the rites performed for houses and fieldsthe ceremonial circuits proceed counterclockwise around the four corners and end in the center, where offerings are made to the gods. Hills and mountains located near Zinacanteco settlements are the homes of ancestral gods, called "Fathers-Mothers," who are the most important deities of all. It is impossible to pray in Tzotzil to a male or female ancestor; the name for these gods is Totilme'il, literally translated as "Sir Father-Madam Mother," with the father image always linked to the mother image, indicating a unitary concept representing the primordial reproductive pair. These ancestors provide the ideal models for human life. Next to the ancestral gods, the most important deity is the Earth Lord. He is pictured as a large, fat Ladino living under the ground with piles of money, herds of livestock, and flocks of chickens. He owns the water holes and all the earth products used by Zinacantecostrees and mud to build houses and limestone for lime. A person cannot use land or its products without compensating the Earth Lord with appropriate offerings in a ceremony.

In the centuries since the Conquest, the Zinacantecos have acquired over seventy sacred objects that they call "Saints," including carved wooden or plaster images of Catholic saints and pictures of saints. The images are clothed in long, flowing robes derived from colonial styles, but almost all have some item of Zinacanteco dress. The most important have distinctive personalities, and there are special myths about how they came to be in Zinacantan. Shrines composed of large wooden crosses, including one called a kalvaryo, where the ancestral gods have their weekly meetings, are also sacred.

Interaction between living Zinacantecos and their gods takes place via two types of souls that are possessed by each human being: a ch'ulel and a chanul. The ch'ulel is an inner, personal soul, located in the heart; it is also found in the blood, which is known to be connected with the heart. It is placed in the unborn embryo by the ancestral gods. This Zinacanteco "inner soul" has special attributes. It is composed of thirteen parts, and a person who loses one or more of these parts must have a curing ceremony performed by a shaman to recover them. At death, the inner soul leaves the body and ultimately joins a pool of souls that is kept by the ancestors. It is later utilized for another person. "Soul loss" is caused by fright, which can be engendered by falling down or seeing a demon on a dark night. At a more profound level, soul loss is believed to be due to the ancestral gods, who, in order to punish misbehavior, cause a person to fall down or send a lightning bolt to knock out parts of the soul; it may also be caused by an evil person who performs witchcraft in order to sell the soul to the Earth Lord for use as a servant.

The inner soul of a person, the ch'ulel, is shared with a chanul, a wild animal, which is an animal-spirit companion. Throughout each person's life, whatever happens to the animal spirit also happens to the person and vice versa. These animal-spirit companions, consisting of jaguars, ocelots, coyotes, and smaller animals such as squirrels and opossums, are kept by the ancestral gods in four corrals inside "Senior Large Mountain," east of Zinacantan Center. If the animal spirit is turned out of the corral by the ancestral gods, the person is in mortal danger and must undergo a lengthy ceremony to round up the chanul and return it to its corral.

Religious Practitioners. The religious rites in Zinacantan Center are performed by a religious hierarchy, or "cargo system," consisting of sixty-one positions at four levels of a ceremonial ladder. To ascend the ladder, men must serve a year at each of the levelsmayordomos and mayores; alfereces; regidores (not to be confused with the civil regidores at the town hall); and alcaldes (again, not the same as the political alcalde jueces). During the year he spends at each level, a man is expected to move from his hamlet into the Ceremonial Center and engage in a complex and expensive round of ceremonies. An increasing number of the first-level cargos are now being served in the hamlets, however, most of which have local chapels. Many of the ceremonies, especially those of the mayordomos, take place in the Catholic churches, two of which are located in the Ceremonial Centerthe church of Saint Lawrence and the church of Saint Sebastian; other cargo ceremonies occur in the hamlets. The Center also has a chapel dedicated to Señor Esquipulas (a Christ-on-the-cross image connected to the salt trade in Guatemala and in Zinacantan), in which additional ceremonies, especially office-changing rites, are performed by cargoholders. Other ceremonial practitioners carry out ritual and political duties in the hamletsthese are the h'iloletik, or "shamans." The word h'ilol means "seer," signifying that the shamans have the power to look into the mountains and see the ancestral gods. There are now more than 300 shamans in Zinacantan, all ranked in order of the time that has elapsed since their debuts (following their dreams of being called before the ancestral gods and instructed as to how to perform their ceremonies).

Ceremonies. Two basic types of ceremonies are performed: the rituals of the cargoholders in Zinacantan Center, which follow the annual Catholic calendar of saints' days, and the rites of the shamans, which include curing illnesses, dedicating new houses, blessing maize fields, making offerings to lineage and water-hole group ancestral deities, renewing the year, and rainmaking.

Death and Afterlife. At death, the body is washed and placed in a pine coffin with various offerings, including a chicken head, representing the chicken who will guide the inner soul of the deceased to the other world. Burial takes place in a cemetery located near the hamlet. Interaction with the deceased continues for many years, as the descendants light candles and leave offerings at the grave each Sunday and on All Saints' Day.


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