Who is Rebelling in Chiapas?

Townships in Chiapas differ substantially in ethnic composition, economy, and ecological situation. Within townships significant differences exist between people who are rich and powerful and those who are poor and weak. We believe that all these differences have become more pronounced in recent decades, and that they have a lot to do with where the Zapatista rebellion began.

The rebellion comes out of two decades of rapid economic change: first there was wide-spread prosperity based on expanded government activity. Then, after the economic crisis of 1982, government spending contracted, opportunity decreased, and there was a severe pinch during the de la Madrid administration (1982-88) and the current Salinas de Gortari administration. Such times of rapid change often spell extra trouble for poor people. While tales of entrepreneurship, success, and economic mobility dominate accounts of economic upswings, most poor people stay poor. And they may find "opportunity" scant compensation for the threat posed by expanding entrepreneurs to their already small share of the economic pie. During downswings, they are often the first to suffer.

By looking at two "snapshots" of Chiapas we hope to better understand those who did and those who did not form the core of the Zapatista rebellion. The first snapshot describes the dynamic economic expansion in the 1970s and the early 1980s - and the political conflict that grew along with the economy. The second contrasts two townships: one where Indian peasants have been in control for decades, the other where Indian peasants have fought for centuries to get political and economic control away from a ladino (non-Indian, mestizo) minority. Given the persistent importance of ethnic statuses (Indian and ladino) and economic differences through this entire story, in the conclusions we will consider the rebels' Indianness and their poverty as sources of their actions.


Government spending in Chiapas rose greatly during the populist presidency of Luis Echeverría (1970-76). In 1976 it was roughly ten times what it was in 1970 (in constant pesos). In the early 1970s the Echeverría government spent heavily to promote employment. Later, exploitation of the state's hydroelectric potential by the Federal Electric Commission and of petroleum resources by Pemex (the national petroleum monopoly) heated up the economy even more.

A few simple facts will give some idea of how dramatic these changes were and how important they were to local people. In 1970 all the roads in Chiapas totaled about 3,000 kilometers; by 1975 that figure had doubled, with almost two-thirds of the new roads officially completed in one year: 1973. That year the roads budget for the highlands region would have paid for all the corn needed to feed the roughly 300,000 families living there.

Three new dams harnessed the hydroelectric potential of the Grijalva River as it flowed from southeastern Chiapas to the Gulf of Mexico - the westernmost was built in the 1960s, the easternmost in the middle 1970s, and the third, at Chicoasén, in the late 1970s. When it was built, the Chicoasén dam was the fifth highest hydroelectric dam in the world. In 1960 the state was a rural backwater that had 3 percent of the nation's population and 5 percent of its electric generating capacity. By 1980 it had 50 percent of the national hydroelectric generating capacity and supplied 20 percent of the nation's electric power from all sources.

The discovery of petroleum reserves in north Chiapas during the mid-1970s brought huge investments by Pemex. During 1975 Pemex was responsible for 45 percent of all government expenditures in Chiapas - an amount which itself was three times what all branches of government spent in Chiapas in 1970.

This intense economic activity made the Echeverría (1970-76) and the López Portillo years (1976-1982) prosperous for many people. The expanding economy created many jobs outside of agriculture and offered many new opportunities, especially for Indian peasants from the highlands who gained entry to economic activities that had been ladino preserves - for example, lucrative transportation businesses and skilled construction trades.

At the same time, in those dozen frenzied years before the crisis of 1982, peasants lost land to the activities that fed the prosperity. Cattle and milk production were made more attractive to large landowners by the new roads that brought their land closer to markets. Lakes flooded land as they formed behind the dams, and Pemex took land for petroleum development projects. Many peasants who found wage work an attractive alternative during the expansion of the 1970s gave up farming and made themselves more vulnerable to economic change than they had been previously.

Political troubles multiplied during the years before the economic crisis. A major congress of Indian leaders co-sponsored in October 1974 by the Catholic Church (led by Bishop Samuel Ruíz), and, perhaps reluctantly, by the state government, increased the coherence and communication of Indians' feelings of injustice and of their demands for change. It helped mobilize people who had suffered systematic social and economic oppression for their entire lifetimes. The next decade saw the formation of many independent and increasingly militant peasant organizations in the state.

Mounting political instability was also reflected in the governor's office. During López Portillo's term (1976-82), Chiapas had three governors, rather than the normal one. The first resigned to take an important national cabinet post. The second struggled with increasing trouble in the countryside, made dramatic shifts in government aid away from the population concentrated in the highlands to areas of conflict in the lowlands, and finally resigned. The third took office in 1980 with the goal of controlling widespread dissatisfaction through an innovative program of large block grants that decentralized public works spending to the townships. These grants so focused and magnified existing internal splits in the townships that almost 40 of the state's 110 mayors had resigned before the end of their three-year terms (1980-1982).

Thus, the period of difficult cutbacks since 1982 began with simmering discontent in the countryside. While prosperity in the 1970s brought higher average income, it also made more people ready and able to mobilize around their dissatisfaction. The government's reaction came late, and just before it was enveloped by the economic crisis and international pressure to restructure the economy. Since the early 1980s peasant organizations have grown and became more militant.


The dynamics of the 1970s and 1980s meant different things to different people. We can best illuminate these differences and the roots of the Zapatista rebellion by contrasting two predominantly Indian townships: Zincantán (studied by Cancian in the 1960s and the early 1980s, and by many others since the late 1950s), and Pantelhó (studied by Brown in 1990 and 1991).

Zinacantán borders San Cristóbal de las Cases and is bisected by the paved Pan American Highway that was completed in the 1950s. Even before the arrival of the Spaniards early in the 16th century, Zinacantán was on the main trade route that connected the area with central Mexico. Its present population of about 22,000 lives in about two dozen hamlets scattered across mountain valleys and hillsides. The people of Zinacantán are almost all Indians, speakers of Tzotzil, a Mayan language. They have chosen the Indian mayors (Presidentes Municipales) of their township for many decades. In the 1960s Zinacantecos lived by corn farming, mostly in the Grijalva River Valley on land rented from ladinos, by trading, and - in the case of young men - by wage work on road construction. Zincantán is one of the richest of highland Indian townships; land reform and purchases of private land by Indian residents caused virtually all ladinos to leave the township decades ago. Almost all its people were reached by electrification and piped water systems by the 1970s.

Pantelhó presents a sharp contrast with Zinacantán. Located at the end of a dirt road, it is several hours travel from San Cristóbal. It sits on the northern edge of the highlands, near to Ocosingo, one of the townships important in the rebellion. Like Ocosingo, it has a significant ladino population - about 1,000 of the 14,000 residents in 1990. The remainder are Tzotzil and Tzeltal-speaking Indians in about equal numbers, giving Pantelhó an ethnic mixture rare in the highlands. Much of Pantelhó's land is temperate slopes favorable for coffee production and valley floors ideal for cattle. Throughout much of this century Indians in Pantelhó have lived and worked as peons on ladino-owned ranches. Though the last two decades have brought many changes, most Indians still live in small hamlets, unconnected to roads, and without running water and electricity. Pantelhó is much poorer than Zinacantán.

The recent economic and political histories of the townships illustrate how different the dynamics of rural life in Chiapas can be. In Zinacantán the corn farming that was a central part of economic life in the 1960s was replaced by a diversity of occupations in the 1970s. For example, in Nachig, a hamlet of Zinacantán that straddles the Pan American highway 15 minutes from San Cristóbal, more than 90 percent of adult men had rented plots in the lowlands in 1967. By 1983 things had changed radically: of the 315 men in the hamlet, only 30 percent depended on corn farming for most of their income. Another 30 percent were unskilled laborers on construction (some maintaining small corn fields as well), and another 30 percent were traders, skilled craftsmen and full-time government employees. Twenty men, most of them young relative to those in other occupations, had purchased trucks and used them to transport people and goods. One of the most wealthy had several trucks and the Pepsi-Cola distributorship for the township. Another had two trucks and the Coca-Cola distributorship.

In 1982 PRI was unable to contain political divisions in Zinacantán. Old splits were fueled by internal competition over control of transport and by growing feelings of polarization over economic inequality. One faction was labeled the Truckers, thereby associating them with wealth and price gouging. Though led by a rich vehicle owner, the other faction took on "Peasants" as its label, thus associating itself with the poor, and efforts to control transport prices. In the election for mayor in Fall 1982 the Peasants, most of them regular PRI members in the past, voted for the candidate of the tiny PAN (National Action Party) in Zinacantán. He won by a small majority. As one of two non-PRI mayors among more than 100 mayors in Chiapas, he was constantly challenged by the large PRI opposition in Zincantán. Before the end of his term, he renewed his membership in PRI.

The split in Zincantán developed from old and complex power struggles, and the voting displayed hamlet coalitions as well as economic differences. Thus, Zincantán, a relatively wealthy township whose politics were controlled by its Indian population, found itself in turmoil.

The history of Pantelhó is very different; it is dominated by a struggle between relatively wealthy ladinos and poorer Indians that has expelled from Pantelhó in 1713 for their participation in the Tzeltal rebellion of 1712, and allowed to return only at the end of the century - at approximately the same time that ladinos from San Cristóbal began to acquire large ranches there. Changes begun after the revolution of 1910-17 came slowly to Pantelhó: ladinos still owned 80 percent of the land in 1944, when Zinacantán had 32 percent ladino ownership. While ladinos soon left Zinacantán and sold their land or lost it to land reform, as late as 1980 the ladinos who constituted only 14 percent of Pantelhó's population owned more than 50 percent of the land, dominated local politics, and controlled commerce - especially the lucrative coffee trade.

The pace of change in Pantelhó accelerated in the 1980s. A charismatic Indian leader who had sought to be mayor in the 1970s was assassinated, but in 1982 the first Indian mayor was elected, and only Indians have held the office since. By 1990 Indians constituted 93 percent of the population, and had gained control of 90 percent of the land - both through land reform and through sales made by ladinos under the threat of increasing Indian militancy. Nonetheless, most plots were small and many Indians remained completely landless. In 1991, shortly after a ladino who had murdered an Indian was not brought to justice, a large block of Indians deserted what they saw as the ladino-dominated PRI and voted for the Frente Cardinista, the left-wing party that made the strongest showing in the contested 1988 election of Salinas de Gortari. Relations remained strained.

Major inequalities continued. Ladinos controlled transportation and commerce. While in the early 1980s there were 20 truck owners and roughly twice that many trucks among the 2,000 Zinacantecos in the hamlet of Nachig, only local ladinos owned the vehicles that connected Pantelhó to San Cristóbal. By 1991 there were four trucks owned by Indian cooperative groups - but they all worked routes internal to the township. Ladinos still controlled transportation to San Cristóbal and through it controlled commerce - both commerce in imported consumer goods, and the export of coffee, the township's most important economic resource. Still there was hope among Indians in Pantelhó: responding to what they interpreted as an opportunity to be offered by NAFTA, they began forming a marketing cooperative to export their coffee directly to the United States.


Zinacantán and Pantelhó both have internal economic differences that led to political conflict in the 1980s. But their situations are very different, because Zainacantán has long been Indian-controlled, both politically and economically, while Pantelhó was politically dominated by ladinos until a decade ago, and remains to some degree economically controlled by ladinos.

We would like to briefly interpret the differences, and on the basis of knowledge of other times and other places, speculate about their importance in understanding the Zapatista rebellion.

The story we tell about Zinacantán is that it was for many decades before the 1970s an Indian-controlled defensive refuge that excluded ladino and non-Zinacantecos as much as possible. Such communities are labeled "closed corporate peasant communities" by anthropologists. They are known for their strict control of internal conflict and their efforts to moderate internal economic inequality. Thus the conflicts in Zinacantán need to be explained. We see two important causes: first, the general prosperity of the 1970s lowered Zinacantecos' need to take a defensive posture that suppressed internal inequality, and second, the competition of the 1970s brought out different economic interests within the township. Anthropologists studying other periods in Mexico and other parts of the world have observed similar internal conflict in times of national prosperity.

Recent reports are that no incidents of rebellion took place in Zinacantán, and that, apparently, no residents of Zinacantán took part in the rebellion. We believe this is connected to the fact that their economic conflicts were internal to their township (and their ethnic group), and to the fact that they are wealthier than other Indians.

The stories we tell about Pantelhó and by analogy about Ocosingo are quite different. There, the prosperity of the 1970s, the new roads and the better transportation for cattle and coffee, also led to greater inequality - inequality that was more clearly connected to ethnic differences. Nevertheless, in the 1980s, as conflict between Indians and ladinos intensified, Pantelhó saw a major transition in economic and political power. Thus, we believe, Pantelhó was not one of the hot spots of the recent rebellion - only because Indians there had just made great gains. In Ocosingo and other townships in eastern Chiapas, on the other hand, Indians and many other diverse migrants were still fighting for land reform when the Salinas government ended the program in 1992. They were left with long-established ladino/Indian political and economic disparities, and with a competition between ladino cattlemen and Indian farmers much like those observed in other places and during earlier periods in Chiapas history. Their fight to establish themselves is still in progress.

All this brings us back to the summary question: Who is it that is rebelling in Chiapas? The Zapatista Army declared war on the Mexican government on behalf of Chiapas' indigenous peoples. Press reports say that most of the Zapatistas are Indians. Indianness has been and probably will continue to be important to the movement's mobilization. But many ladinos (especially poor ones), in Chiapas and elsewhere in Mexico, have declared their identification with the Zapatista cause. And some Indians (for example, rich Zinacantecos) are less inclined to support its demands. So, the question becomes more complex.

It is hard to separate ethnicity from class in Chiapas, because economic conflicts are often phrased in ethnic terms like those in Pantelhó, where Indian meant poor peasant or laborer and ladino meant rich landowner or merchant. There class and ethnicity formed a single identity that manifested itself in diverse ways. Yet, in Zinacantán, rich meant rich and poor meant poor. Given what we know of the events of the last few months, it is important to keep in mind the possibility of separating ethnicity from class - for Zapatista rebellion seems to represent particularly poor and particularly oppressed people, not particularly Indian people.

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