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ETHNONYMS: Soques, Tsoque, Tzoques, Zoc


Identification. The name "Zoque" is applied to different groups who today live in the states of Tabasco, Oaxaca, and Chiapas, in southeastern Mexico. They have been called by the name of their language, "Zoque," although they like to call themselves "O' de pot," that is to say, "people who have a language" or "human speech." The origin of this name is uncertain, although it is believed that it comes from the word zoquitl, of Nahua origin, meaning "mud" or "humid earth."

Location. The Zoque peoples live in the mountains of the northwestern portion of the state of Chiapas, known as the Sierra de Pantepec, and on the two slopes of the lowlands that originate there: the plains of the Gulf of Mexico in the states of Tabasco and Chiapas and the plains of the Central Depression of Chiapas. Zoque also live in the eastern part of the state of Oaxaca, where the municipios of San Miguel and Santa María Chimalapa meet in what is called the Selva de los Chimalapas. Zoque land contains mountain ranges, hilly terrain, plateaus, ravines, and small valleys. Settlements range between elevations of 330 meters in Tecpatán and 1,770 meters in the Selva de los Chimalapas.

The climate is varied, ranging from the hot lowlands to the cold high-mountain regions. The rainy season, between May and October, is generally extensive, with abundant precipitation, especially in the Sierra de Pantepec and in the Gulf piedmont, places where populations have located in the river flood plains because of their fertility.

The eruption of the Chichonal volcano in 1982 resulted in the disappearance of the municipio of Francisco León and some of the surrounding area. Survivors relocated in other communities of the state of Chiapas, even in such little-known and inhospitable habitats as the Chiapas jungle.

Demography. After the conquest of Chiapas by the Spaniards in 1523, the Zoque population declined, with no increase until after 1877, during the government of the dictator Porfirio Díaz. Census data from 1895 and 1900 show that the Zoque population of Chiapas, Tabasco, and Oaxaca did not exceed 20,000 inhabitants at that time. In 1970 the Zoque population oscillated between 27,000 and 30,000 inhabitants, and in 1980 it reached nearly 40,000. The 1990 census registered 43,160 speakers of Zoque; however, the territorial dispersion of the Zoque, the fact that the census is based only on those who speak the language, and the noninclusion of minors below 5 years of age make it very difficult to establish a reliable count of the Zoque population.

Linguistic Affiliation. Zoque linguistic affiliation is still a subject of discussion, but recent evidence shows the existence of a Mixe-Zoque-Popoluca Language Family. Giottochronological data indicate that these languages may have derived from that spoken by the Olmec. There are several dialectal variations within the modern Zoque language.

History and Cultural Relations

At the time of the Spanish Conquest, the Mixe-Zoque Language Group and speakers of Mayan languages were south of a line running from the coastal plains of the Gulf of Mexico through the present-day city of Tapachula, on the Pacific Coast. Their earliest known ancestors lived on the Pacific coast of Chiapas, some 5,800 years ago. This coastal culture is the first known in Mesoamerica to transform its mode of production from hunting-fishing-gathering to maize cultivation. Migration toward the Gulf of Mexico could have been associated with the rise of the so-called Olmec culture which, according to glottochronological reconstructions, could have shared a language with the inhabitants of the Chiapas coast. This was the vehicle for the transmission of names of cultigens like cacao and beans.

When the Spaniards arrived in 1523, the Zoque were divided into chiefdoms, some independent and others subjects of the Nahua and Chiapas Indians. The disparate geographical distribution of the Zoque led to differentiated economic development; the warm lands were more appropriate for cultivation and better connected commercially by riverine navigation. Regional differences were maintained after the arrival of the conquerors, who imposed new political and economic concepts on the subjugated territories. The policies of evangelization and tributary obligations, first to encomenderos and later to the Spanish Crown, affected agricultural labor, which was based on maize for subsistence and on cochineal, cotton, sugar, and livestock raising for trade with the colonists. Mistreatment and the use of the Zoque as beasts of burdenthey were even branded to serve as slavesprovoked several uprisings against the ruling Spaniards in 1693 and 1722.

Cofradías (confraternities), a Spanish institution transferred to indigenous communities, were the center of the social and religious life of the Zoque until the establishment of local governments (ayuntamientos constitucionales ) in the 1920s.

The rapid loss of Zoque culture because of Spanish pressure was especially felt in the Central Chiapas Depression and Gulf piedmont. Zoque culture survived in the Sierra de Pantepec and surrounding countryside. Zoque culture was similar to that of other Mesoamerican peoples; it was based on the cultivation of maize, beans, and squashes, and on religious practices wherein natural elementsthe earth, the mountains, the sun, the moonwere objects of worship.

In spite of the breakup of their communities by the Spanish, the Zoque kept up their contacts with their Maya neighbors through commercial and ritual exchange. In the 1990s Zoque often worked temporarily outside their communities. The contacts with Spaniards and various neighboring groups and the variations in their economies and dialects led to the dispersal of, and an eventual variation in, Zoque culture. The unifying mark of "Zoqueness" today may possibly be a common worldview and a common linguistic origin.


Beginning in 1549, Spanish conquerors destroyed the dispersed settlement pattern of the Zoque in order to resettle them in communities that were more suitable for evangelization and the collection of tribute. The agricultural pattern that characterized the pre-Hispanic Zoque made it easy to assemble them. Nowadays this settlement pattern continues. The Zoque communities are dependencies of municipios, many of which have no Zoque in their capital towns.

Living quarters have a four- or two-eaved roof made of palm fronds or metal sheets. House construction is done with locally available natural materials, generally cane and adobe. Homes usually have a single room that serves both as a sleeping and eating place. Frequently the kitchen is separate from the main building.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The main agricultural activities, such as cultivation of maize, beans, squashes, or cacao, have been continued from pre-Hispanic times through the twentieth century. In Pre-Hispanic times, the Zoque traded cacao, quetzal feathers, yellow topaz, and cotton cloth with the neighboring Maya and Nahua. They use cochineal dye to decorate cloth and skins. The colonial Spanish disrupted the networks of commerce and oriented the economy toward the production of goods needed by the colonial empire. Plantations were established to increase production of cochineal, cotton, sugarcane, and cattle.

After the annexation of Chiapas by Mexico during the third decade of the nineteenth century, basic cultigens continued to be raised, but the Zoque worked on cattle ranches and on colonial cacao, banana, and coffee plantations established on what was historically Zoque land. In many instances, the Indian peasants began to raise coffee instead of maize and sugarcane on their own land. Zoque seeking wage-labor opportunities have worked in the construction of tourist complexes on the Caribbean and Pacific coasts.

Industry. Textiles were the most important local industry, especially in Chiapas territory; however, already in the 1940s there was a marked decline in handmade textiles because they could not compete with cheaper manufactured goods. The Zoque in Oaxaca produce spun and woven goods from ixtle, especially bags, sacks, hammocks, and nets, which they sell in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec or che lowlands of Chiapas and Tabasco. Both the Oaxaca as well as the Chiapas Zoque make clay cooking pots, casseroles, and jugs, but the tendency has been to substitute industrially produced plastic and metal items for these. In the Sierra de Pantepec some old people still weave baskets, taking them to sell outside their communities.

Trade. Long before the pre-Hispanic period, the Zoque already had an important trade network over land and riverine routes that connected the Pacific coast to the highlands of Chiapas and the piedmont of the Gulf of Mexico. Many of these routes were followed by the Spaniards in their conquest, and today they are highways and roads. The main items of trade were cacao, maize, beans, chilies, fine cloth, grinding stones, straw mats, baskets, and quetzal feathers. With the arrival of the Spaniards, this trade decreased and, in the twentieth century (especially since roads have been made passable), a large number of Zoque have bought industrially manufactured productsspecifically, woven goods, shoes, and household applianceswholesale, in order to sell them in their own and neighboring communities.

Division of Labor. Men are in charge of cultivating the land, tending cattle, and manufacturing items such as pottery and basketry, whereas women take care of the home, the children, and small domestic animals (chickens and turkeys). Often women will also work in ceramics and textiles. Present-day economic needs have caused both men and women to leave their communities to work as wage laborers in the city. Women, generally the single ones, work as domestic servants. Boys help their fathers in the field; it is very unusual for them to go to school after the age of 12. Something similar occurs with young girls, who take care of their younger siblings.

Land Tenure. It can be inferred that during pre-Hispanic times a calpulli system organized kinship and residential relations. During the colonial period, the Spanish Crown granted communities land for subsistence and tribute. The land continued to belong to the Crown and was distributed as usufruct in the form of family plots. The Crown also gave the community pastures and forest lots, known as ejidos. Communal lands attracted Spanish colonists, who seized them and established commercial farms and cattle ranches. Where communal land was taken over by the colonists, the Zoque suffered a rapid sociocultural transformation. In the second half of the nineteenth century, the "liberal" policies of the Mexican government destroyed the remaining system of communal land tenure. "Liberalization" led to an increase in the expanse of commercial farms and a loss of land for the Zoque. This was only partially corrected by the postrevolutionary policy under which the modern ejido became the foundation of the Indian peasants' right to cultivate their own land. Beginning in the 1930s, ejidos were given to the Zoque.


Kin Groups and Descent. Before the agrarian land distribution that resulted in the ejido, the patrilineal orientation of Zoque nomenclature was more evident; both inheritance and postmarital residence depended on the father, and the family was extended for two to three generations. Family fragmentation typical of a market economy and the arrival of new religious beliefs has led to a system that recognizes both the father's and the mother's side of the family; there is now a tendency for postmarital residence to be ambilocal. At baptism, the child was once named for a relative from the previous generation, in a sense becoming his or her replacement on earth, but this practice has been infrequent since 1970.

Kinship Terminology. Traditional family terms follow the Omaha kinship pattern.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Family-arranged marriage has practically disappeared, giving place to marriage based on individual decision or elopement. Thereby the long and costly marriage negotiations are avoided, which could entail up to ten visits and presents of chocolate, bread, refreshments, and alcoholic drinksthings that the groom's family must take to the prospective bride's family. The ancient division of communities into ceremonial wards and kinship-oriented entities facilitated internal endogamy. Nowadays their almost total disappearance leaves endogamy at the community level as a defensive mechanism to limit the usufruct of community lands to community families. Polygamy is infrequent, and those cases that do occur are condemned by Catholic or Evangelical ecclesiastical authorities.

Domestic Unit. The basic residential unit is the nuclear family, particularly since the decline in patrilocal residence. Each biological or nuclear family takes meals by itself, independently of the other families, although nuclear families help one another in agricultural labor and in ritual obligations.

Inheritance. Traditionally, inheritance was in the male line. Patrilineal inheritance has been replaced by bilateral inheritance, although the tendency is for men to receive lands, whereas women inherit domestic animals and utensils. Many inheritances are granted in life, causing tensions and disputes between parents and children and between siblings.

Socialization. Children are generally treated with respect and are not punished. Their play is relatively unsupervised, and they are very close to their mothers, with whom they live and whom they help in various domestic tasks. School is obligatory, although very few children finish their primary studies. The other medium of socialization is participation in religious rituals, depending on the family's religious orientation.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. During the pre-Hispanic period, the social hierarchy was based on wealth and traditional authority. The former was displayed by the chiefs, whereas the latter was divided among chiefs, priests, elders, and shamans, who performed ceremonial rites and preserved the ancient knowledge. The father of each household was recognized as the head of the extended family. After the Spanish Conquest, new social institutions originating in the Iberian Peninsula were incorporated: the Catholic church, cofradías, and compadrazgo (ritual kinship). The cofradías served to create social prestige through the assumption of cargos within them. Elders continued their active participation in ceremonies; this is still evident in traditional ritual practices.

Political Organization. When the Spaniards arrived in Zoque territory, they found it organized into chiefdoms with subject peoples. There was no centralization of power, and each chiefdom exerted control over a specific area, based on kinship. The status of the chief was extended to his kin; thus social differentiation was created in the chiefdom.

After the Conquest, a system of religious cargos maintained the principles of age and prestige within a civil-religious hierarchy. After the second decade of the twentieth century, the establishment of the local village governments removed political power from the civil-religious hierarchies and recast Zoque political systems within institutions created by the national and state governments.

Social Control. Territorial dispersion of the Zoque makes it difficult to identify control mechanisms that represent the whole group; however, in the municipio of Tapalapa, Chiapas, a form of social control on the natural and supernatural level has been noted. People believe that a mythical tribunal of I'ps Tojk ("twelve houses" or "twelve places") punishes people who transgress social and moral norms. This tribunal is addressed in dreams by people who possess kojama (animal-companion spirits). Illness is an indication that the kojama of the victim may be held prisoner by the tribunal. Only treatment by a jama yoye (curer) can lead the victim to health. The jama yoye persuades the victim to abandon his incorrect social behavior and/or involves himself in symbolic combat between various implicated animal-companion spirits. Another mechanism of social control is ritual reciprocity, which communicates trust and good intentions, thus reducing tension between families within the community.

Conflict. Conflicts are generally generated out of scarcity, such as the need for land. Conflicts between neighbors over land can become serious. Confrontations involve nuclear or extended families and can be started by an illness interpreted as sorcery. Physical violence is generally avoided through the mediation of a curer, who super naturally protects the victim. The disappearance of curers and the decline of rituals that functioned as mechanisms to calm social tensions between families and neighbors has resulted in the use of legal mechanisms to resolve land disputes and other problems such as adultery, marital conflict, insult, physical aggression, theft, and murder.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Catholic religion was systematically imposed, beginning in 1564, with the foundation of the convent of Tecpatán, Chiapas. Nevertheless, in the twentieth century, there is an evident religious split between the Catholics linked to the official church and people maintaining traditional ritual forms. In the 1930s groups of Seventh Day Adventists successfully penetrated the communities and now are practically the only Protestant denomination in Zoque municipios.

The Spanish Conquest did not result in the complete acceptance of Catholic beliefs. Traditional gods continued to be worshiped at sacred places. In caves and mountains, gods of naturethe sun, the moon, lightning, the serpent, the jaguar, Jantepusi (Mother of the Earth)were venerated, as were gods who were apparently a synthesis of pre-Hispanic agricultural cults represented in various images sculpted in stone, clay, and wood. Such deities could appear in various forms, but were almost always associated with the moon and water. Mythical figures among present-day Zoque are Piowacwe ("little old woman" or "burning woman"), a female god of misfortune who lives in the bowels of the earth in the Chichonal volcano, and Nawayomo ("evil woman" or "water woman"), deceiver of men. Both have the capability of transforming themselves, and the latter appears in the form of a woman and a serpent with a dentate vagina.

Religious Practitioners. Native ritual practices aimed at propitiating the gods were performed clandestinely during the colonial period or were syncretized with Catholic institutions. Through cofradías and mayordomías, the role of wise elders as ritual specialists was perpetuated. Festivals for the saints, which were institutionalized in mayordomías, maintained the religious life of many communities. Religious fragmentation now has decreased the influence of elders as ritual leaders, making it possible for younger men to hold important posts in official Catholic and Seventh Day Adventist institutions.

Ceremonies. The Catholic ceremonial calendar was superimposed on the pre-Hispanic calendar, and the saints took the place of the ancient deities. This has resulted in a public religious system organized around festivals for the patron saints of communities or barrios. These ceremonies involve processions, the ritual exchange of saints with other communities, the distribution of images among ritual participants, and offerings in the form of dances, music, flowers, food, and drink. Pilgrimages and Carnival festivities expand the ritual repertoire, which also includes marriages, baptisms, communions, deaths, and ritual curing.

Arts. The production of textiles and ceramics is now practically nonexistent among the Zoque. Basketry is still produced, however, and masks and musical instruments (drums and flutes) are designed and made for ritual use. Dance and music are an integral part of ritual. Also, bilingualand indigenous-language publications have opened an expressive literary field to Zoque narrators and poets.

Medicine. Illness is seen as the result of transgression against the social order or the effect of sorcery. In both cases, the mediation of a curer is required, usually a man knowledgeable in the ancient ways, who by "pulsing"reading the rhythm of the patient's bloodcan determine the causes of illness. By means of various rituals, in which dreaming plays an important part, he will be able to restore the patient's kidnapped tonal. This practice is becoming increasingly infrequent, and the knowledge is dying out; recourse to community health centers has become more frequent. Medicinal plants continue to be used, however; men specialize in their collection. Women function as midwives, but only rarely do they engage in ritual mediation.

Death and Afterlife. Zoque believe that the soul separates from the body at the time of death. They do not see death as contaminating members of the family; therefore, when someone dies, relatives and people close to the family offer help and support. Wakes are held; coffee, bread, and, sometimes, alcohol are distributed to attending guests.

The Days of the Dead (Todos Santos) are celebrated on the first two days of November. These are joyful days with ritual exchanges of food and the preparation of altars in honor of the dead. In the graveyard, tombs are cleaned, and offerings of food and drink of the kind that the deceased enjoyed during his or her lifetime are made. Each family enjoys a ritual meal near the remains of their loved ones.


Aramoni Calderón, Dolores (1992). Los refugios de lo sagrado: Religiosidad, conflicto, y resistencia entre los zoques de Chiapas. Mexico City: Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes (CNCA).

Codry, Donald Bush, and Dorothy Codry (1941). Costumes and Weaving of the Zoque Indians of Chiapas. Paper 15. Los Angeles: Southwest Museum.

Fábregas Puig, Andrés (1986). "Los estudios sobre zoques de Chiapas: Una lectura desde el olvido y la reiteración." In Anuario de investigación, 1993, 78-125. Tuxtla Gutiérrez: Instituto Chiapaneco de Cultura; Gobierno del Estado de Chiapas.

Thomas, Norman D. (1974). Envidia, brujería, y organización ceremonial: Un pueblo zoque. Mexico City: Secretaría de Educación Publica.

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