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Mexico's southernmost state is bounded on the southwest by the Pacific Ocean, on the east by Guatemala, on the north by the state of Tabasco, and on the west by the states of Veracruz and Oaxaca. The state's population in 2005 was 4,293,459, mostly mestizos with about one-quarter indigenous people of Maya descent. The capital is Tuxtla Gutiérrez. Owing to its varied and often spectacular topography, Chiapas has several clearly defined regions, each with its distinct history, demographic base, climate, and means of production. The lowlands are hot and humid; the Valle Central is relatively dry and hot. The Meseta Central is a plateau ranging from 5,000 to 8,000 feet, with a temperate climate and a good deal of forest. North of the Meseta are valleys that drop into Tabasco; east of the Meseta lies the Lacandón rain forest. By most estimates, the forest is home to up to one-fourth of Mexico's biodiversity, but human activity since 1950 (primarily farming, logging, and ranching) has reduced its size by more than two-thirds.

Chiapas was on the western boundary of the great Maya civilization and is home to important archaeological sites of the Late Classic period (600–900 ce) such as Bonampak, Palenque, Yaxchilán, and Toniná. At their first contact, the Spaniards found a variety of ethnic states that occupied distinct territories. Among the most important were the Zoques, the Chiapanecos, the Tzotzils, and the Tzeltals. To the east were the Ch'ols, the Tojolobals, and the reclusive Lacandons. Native society in Chiapas was stratified, with a nobility, commoners, and slaves.


The definitive conquest of the province took place in 1528, when Captain Diego de Mazariegos suppressed an indigenous revolt and founded the first Spanish township, Villa Real (today known as San Cristóbal de Las Casas). Mazariegos distributed the first encomiendas (grants of land and indigenous labor) in the province.

The Conquest triggered a demographic disaster among the native population of Chiapas, chiefly through disease, slavery, and onerous tribute demands. Within fifty years, an estimated two-thirds of the indigenous population had perished; along the Pacific Coast, the natives were wiped out. The depredations of the encomenderos drew the attention of Chiapas' first bishop, Bartolomé de Las Casas. During his brief tenure (1545–1547), this Dominican friar tried unsuccessfully to enforce the 1542 decree abolishing Indian slavery. Las Casas then took his case to the royal court; in time, the local clergy (including the Dominicans) joined the encomenderos and their descendants in extracting labor and tribute from the surviving indigenous population.


When the wars of independence broke out in New Spain in 1810, Chiapas was a marginalized, impoverished intendancy of the capitanía of Guatemala. Economic stagnation and neglect fed a spirit of separatism among the province's oligarchy. After Spain recognized the independence and sovereignty of the Mexican empire in August 1821, Chiapas' provincial assembly declared independence from both Spain and Guatemala and solicited annexation with its northern neighbor. Chiapas became a Mexican state in 1824, and the boundaries with Guatemala were finally settled in 1882.

After independence, factions of Chiapas' ladino (non-Indian) elite fought to control access to Indian land and labor. By 1850 the lands that the Spanish crown had preserved as a buffer around Indian communities—the terrenos baldíos—were claimed by ladinos, and the original occupants were reduced to a serf-like status known as baldiaje. After 1890 modernizing governors invited foreign surveying companies to sell remaining vacant lands and indigenous communal lands. Mexican and foreign capitalists invested in lucrative cash crops such as sugar, bananas, rubber, and, most notably, coffee. The development of plantation agriculture in the lowlands created a demand for seasonal labor that was increasingly met by highland Indians who entered into debt peonage arrangements. Although the press in Mexico City denounced slavery in Chiapas, local landowners and merchants argued that the benefits of coerced labor far outweighed the costs.

The Mexican revolution ran an idiosyncratic course in Chiapas. It was imposed from without, and when it finally arrived in late 1914 it engendered no significant grassroots mobilization. Indians were considered not potential allies, but part of the spoils. When troops loyal to First Chief Venus-tiano Carranza entered the state, they announced a series of land, labor, and anticlerical reforms. A loose coalition of ranchers and planters called the Mapaches (raccoons) resisted the Carrancistas and eventually won a war of attrition in 1920. The Mapaches' leader, Tiburcio Fernández Ruiz, became Chiapas' first postrevolutionary governor. He and his immediate successors resisted or undermined most of the federal reforms associated with the Revolution. President Lázaro Cárdenas (1934–1940) and his allies introduced land and labor reform and indigenismo (official Indian policy) to the state, but these and other reforms were neutralized or undermined in subsequent years by local ranchers, coffee planters, alcohol merchants, and their allies in the state government.


Chiapas is one of Mexico's leading producers of corn, coffee, timber, sugar, beans, and cattle. In the 1970s the Mexican government completed two major dam projects in the state, and Chiapas now produces half of Mexico's hydroelectric power. The state also has important oil reserves. However, increased economic productivity has tended to exacerbate preexisting social inequities in Chiapas, as most of the benefits have accrued to non-Indian landowners and entrepreneurs. As the hunger for land grew, so too did frustration with the agrarian reform process. In the 1980s the political system grew increasingly corrupt and the state apparatus more repressive. Caciquismo (bossism) in the indigenous highlands flourished, nurtured and protected by the state and federal governments. Highland indigenous communities loyal to the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) expelled residents on a variety of economic, political, and religious grounds. Many expelled Maya settled in eastern Chiapas, where they governed themselves democratically and joined independent peasant unions.

Matters reached a breaking point when the Mexican government accelerated the country's integration into the globalized market through neoliberal economic policies. In 1992 Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari suspended land reform as a precondition for entering the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Many indigenous communities in eastern Chiapas voted for war.

On January 1, 1994, Mexico officially entered NAFTA, and Chiapas exploded in violence. The indigenous rebels, most hailing from eastern Chiapas, called themselves Zapatistas, after Emiliano Zapata, who led the fight for agrarian reform during the Mexican Revolution. Their list of denunciations was long—political corruption, caciquismo, the recent decision to end land reform, inadequate medical care, and a useless and culturally insensitive education system, among others. Their spokesperson, a pipe-smoking mestizo who called himself Subcomandante Marcos, called NAFTA "a "death certificate for the Indian peoples of Mexico." After seizing several towns and suffering heavy losses, the Zapatistas retreated to the eastern forest. Better prepared for guerrilla theater than guerrilla warfare, they entered into negotiations with the federal government, exposed the illegitimacy of Mexico's one-party state, and forced Mexican society to contemplate a multiethnic nation.

Although negotiations between the Zapatistas and the federal government failed to produce meaningful accords on indigenous rights and culture, some observers have argued that the Zapatista conflict played a role in ending the PRI's seventy-one-year hold on federal power. In August 2000, several weeks after Vicente Fox's unprecedented defeat of the PRI's candidate in the presidential election, an opposition coalition orchestrated an equally unprecedented defeat of the PRI's candidate for governor of Chiapas. The opposition's victory shook the political landscape. Many indigenous communities in Chiapas had been among the PRI's most loyal supporters, and the PRI's defeat broke the bonds of patronage that had cemented their loyalty. In the 2006 presidential elections, many indigenous communities voted for Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the candidate of the left-leaning Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD).

Meanwhile, the Zapatista conflict remained unresolved. Denied a legal avenue to autonomy, in 2003 Zapatistas in eastern Chiapas created five Juntas de Buen Gobierno (Good Government Boards) and put their notion of regional autonomy into practice. The state and federal governments did nothing to block this development, perhaps hoping that, after ten years, the Zapatista movement would fade into irrelevancy.

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, an estimated 76 percent of the population of Chiapas earned less than $8 a day. Approximately 300,000 residents of Chiapas have found work in the United States. Remittances sent to Chiapas from the United States have increased so much that Chiapas as of 2007 ranks among more traditional "sending" states like Michoacán and Zacatecas. Unless measures are taken to restore the viability of small-scale agriculture in Chiapas, this trend is expected to continue.

See alsoAgrarian Reform; Encomienda; Indigenismo; Indigenous Peoples; Las Casas, Bartolomé de; Mexico: The Colonial Period; Mexico, Political Parties: Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI); North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA); Slavery: Indian Slavery and Forced Labor; Zapata, Emiliano.


Benjamin, Thomas. A Rich Land, A Poor People: Politics and Society in Modern Chiapas, rev. ed. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996.

Harvey, Neil. The Chiapas Rebellion: The Struggle for Land and Democracy. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998.

Lewis, Stephen E. The Ambivalent Revolution: Forging State and Nation in Chiapas, 1910–1945. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005.

Rus, Jan. "The 'Comunidad Revolucionaria Institucional': The Subversion of Native Government in Highland Chiapas, 1936–1968." In Everyday Forms of State Formation: Revolution and the Negotiation of Rule in Modern Mexico, edited by Gilbert M. Joseph and Daniel Nugent, pp. 265-300. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994.

Rus, Jan, Rosalva Aída Hernández Castillo, and Shannon L. Mattiace, eds. Mayan Lives, Mayan Utopias: The Indigenous Peoples of Chiapas and the Zapatista Rebellion. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003.

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

Viqueira, Juan Pedro. Encrucijadas chiapanecas: Historia, economía, religion e identidades. Mexico: El Colegio de México/Tusquets, 2002.

Vos, Jan de. La paz de Dios y del rey: La conquista de la selva lacandona, 1525–1821. Mexico: Secretaría de Educación y Cultura de Chiapas y Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1988.

                                        Stephen E. Lewis


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Chiapas is a land of stark contrasts: geographically, economically, and socially. One can find everything from frigid mountains to steaming jungles, from poor peasant farmers to wealthy oil executives, and deeply rooted ethnic differences between indigenous Maya and ladinos (those who trace at least part of their ancestry to Spain).

Chiapas is Mexicos southernmost and eighth most populous state (3.9 million in 2000). Most residents live in rural areas. Only three cities have more than 100,000 inhabitants: Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the political and economic center, Tapachula, a coastal port, and San Cristóbal de las Casas, a colonial city in the highlands. Chiapass population is also the youngest in all Mexico with 50 percent at twenty years of age or younger. Many are indigenous; over 25 percent speak one (or more) of Chiapass Mayan languages (Tzotzil, Tzeltal, Chol, Tojolobal, to name only the most common). Most are Catholic (64%), with a growing number of Protestants (14%), and a few Jewish, Muslim, and those without religious beliefs.

Agro-extractive industries dominate. Chiapas is one of Mexicos leading producers of coffee, corn, cattle, and cocoa. From Chiapas comes 54 percent of Mexicos hydroelectric power, 24 percent of its crude oil, and 47 percent of its natural gas. However, broad scale economic and social development was historically a low priority and not everyone has benefited equally. Twelve percent of homes lack electric power. Twenty-six percent of homes lack running water, and 43 percent adequate sewage. Fifty-three percent cook with wood. Chiapas also has the highest rate of illiteracy in Mexico (22%), the fewest doctors per person (1 per 17,856), and the second lowest life expectancy (sixty-seven years).

Inequities, exploitation, and ethnic distinctions began in the colonial period and continued after independence. In 1528 the Spanish conquistador Diego de Mazariegos subdued the indigenous populations of Chiapas. Chiapas had no mineral wealth, no gold, no silver. Its riches were agricultural products, including cochineal (red dye), cocoa, sugarcane, and tobacco, and forced indigenous labor, granted to Spaniards by the Crown, made their production possible. The conditions were so extreme and treatment so cruel that many died, others fled, and some rose in rebellion (the Tzeltal Rebellion of 1712, the Tzotzil Uprising of 1868). Independence in 1824 changed the form but not the nature of relations between indigenous and ladino. Liberal reforms privatized land held by the Catholic Church and indigenous communities. In Chiapas, ladinos used these reforms to obtain title to vacant lands, which often belonged, though not officially, to indigenous people. On these they established coffee and cattle ranches and obligated the very indigenous from whom the land had been taken to work for them, in forms often bordering on slavery. Thereby the general trend of wealthy landed ladino and poor landless indigenous continued.

Inequitable landholding was one of the causes of the Mexican Revolution in 1910 and land became a focal point for indigenous organizing in Chiapas. Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution of 1917 granted landless people the right to petition the government for land, which the government could expropriate from large landowners. The process was long and drawn out, pitted landless indigenous against landed ladino, and often required secretive organizing, land invasions, and armed confrontations. Indigenous organizing grew throughout the century, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, so that by 1992 over one-half the land in Chiapas was ejido (commonly held) and the indigenous had gained control of many local political offices and some commerce.

In 1992 the Mexican president Salinas de Gortari changed the constitution, abolished the ejido, and in so doing dashed the hopes of many landless poor and exacerbated political unrest. That unrest came to a head in 1994 with the Zapatista Rebellion. The day that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) took effect poor, largely indigenous men and womenthe EZLN, Zapatista Army of National Liberationrose in rebellion. The Zapatistas had begun organizing in 1984 and voted to go to war in 1992. As their charismatic leader, subcomandante Marcos, put it, If you dont have land, youre living dead, so why live. It is better to die fighting (Russell 1995, p. 40). The Zapatistas demanded a wide range of social and political reforms. By 1996 the government and the Zapatistas had negotiated an uneasy truce. The Zapatistas refuse anything having to do with the bad government, but receive important contributions from abroad. The government offers many forms of aid to those who reject zapatismo and acknowledge the government. In their intransigence both sides have polarized the countryside, pitting, to unprecedented degrees, indigenous against indigenous: the most devastating manifestation being the massacre in Acteal, during which more than fifty women and children, of a nonviolent Zapatista faction, were brutally murdered by a pro-government faction.

From the mid-1970s to the present, Chiapas has seen many changes: large-scale indigenous organizing, religious conversions, and rebellions. More so than ever before people migrate to cities in search of opportunity and, almost unheard of in the 1990s, residents, especially the young, leave Chiapas by the thousands bound for the United States.

SEE ALSO Indigenous Rights; Liberation Movements


Benjamin, Thomas. 1996. A Rich Land, a Poor People. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Collier, George. 1999. Basta: Land and the Zapatista Rebellion. Chicago: Food First Books.

Ponce de Leon, Juana, ed. 2001. Our Weapon Is Our Word. New York: Seven Stories Press.

Russell, Philip L. 1995. The Chiapas Rebellion. Austin, TX: Mexico Resource Center.

Pete Brown