Tzeltal are a
Maya people of Mexico, who chiefly reside in the
highlands of Chiapas. The
Tzeltal language belongs to the Tzeltalan
subgroup of Maya languages. Most Tzeltals live in communities in about
twenty municipalities, under a Mexican system called “usos y
costumbres” which seeks to respect traditional indigenous authority
and politics. Women are often seen wearing traditional huipils and
black skirts, but men generally do not wear traditional attire.
Tzeltal religion syncretically integrates traits from Catholic and
native belief systems.
Shamanism and traditional medicine is still
practiced. Many make a living through agriculture and/or handcrafts,
mostly textiles; and many also work for wages to meet family needs.
1 Origin and history
4 Social system and religion
Origin and history
Tzeltal are one of the descendents of the Maya, which was one of
the early and largest Mesoamerican cultures. This group left behind a
large number of archeological sites such as
Tikal and Palenque, and
the Mayan linguistic group is one of the largest linguistic groups in
the Americas, subdivided into Huastec, Yucatec, eastern Maya and
Western Maya. Mayan civilization reached its height in the Classic
period of Mesoamerican chronology, but from 900 to 1200 CE went
through a period of decline into smaller, rival city states with
almost all cities completely abandoned by the 15th century. It is not
known why Mayan civilization collapsed. From this point on,
various Mayan dialect speaking peoples formed related but distinct
cultures with various related languages. The Spanish conquered Mayan
territory in the early to mid 16th century including what is now the
state of Chiapas. They founded the city of San Cristóbal de las Casas
which is on the edge of
Tzeltal territory and subjected the Tzeltal
people to the encomendero system with the payment of tribute. Over
most of the colonial period until the Mexican Revolution, this and
other indigenous groups were forced to labor in the mines, mills and
haciendas of the state for little to no wages. Even during the 20th
century economic and political marginalization remained severe,
culminating in the
Zapatista uprising in 1994, which many of the
Tzeltal people participated along with other indigenous groups.
In the mid 20th century, the population of the state and the highlands
experience population growth which outstripped local resources.
Since the 1930s, many Tzeltals, along with other indigenous and
mestizos have migrated from the highland areas into the Lacandon
Jungle. These migrants came to the jungle area to clear forest and
grow crops and raise livestock, especially cattle. Now there are
groups of Tzetzals in the lowlands living with members of other
indigenous groups. This process of taking over “empty
jungle” to create settlements for highland
Chiapas indigenous groups
continued with the support of the Zapatistas, which whom the Tzetals
were generally supportive, putting them in conflict with the area’s
Lacandon people and environmental groups.
Tzeltal girl from Amatenango
Tzeltal call themselves Winik atel, which means "Working Men" in
their language, or as the “batzil’op” or “those of the
original word” referring to the Mayan oral tradition. They are
largest indigenous ethnicity with 278,577 people aged five years of
age or more in the state of
Chiapas who speak the language according
to the 2000 census and an estimated 500,000 total, representing 34.41%
of the total indigenous population of Chiapas. They are
followed by the closely related Tzotzil Maya who also live in the Los
Altos region near San Cristóbal. The traditional territory of the
Tzeltal is to the northeast and southeast of San Cristóbal in the
municipalities of San Juan Cancuc, Chanal, Oxchuc, Tenejapa,
Altamirano, Sitalá, Socoltenango, Yajalón, Chilón, Ocosingo,
Amatenango del Valle
Amatenango del Valle and Aguacatenango .
Tzeltal territory is
bordered by that of the Tzotzils to the west, the Ch'ols to the north
and north east and the Tojolabal to the southeast. The Tzetals in the
main concentration distinguish themselves more against “Ladinos”
(Spanish speakers, usually of mixed race) and from those indigenous in
the more rural areas. This is mostly due to a history of
socioeconomic oppression and conflict with colonial, then later state
and federal authorities. However, many
Tzeltal practices have survived
to the present day because of this group’s large number vis-à-vis
the Spanish and Ladinos, giving it a certain amount of power to resist
acculturation to European culture.
Tzeltal communities are governed under a concept of “usos y
costumbres” (usage and customs) which attempts to allow for the
maintenance of traditional indigenous societal structures. This is
theoretically respected unless it conflicts with the rights given
under Mexico’s Constitution. However, there has been controversy
Tzeltal and other indigenous group as to the empowerment of
women, with many women suffering greater poverty, lower levels of
education and very limited access to power. One recent case involves a
Tzeltal named Cecilia Lopez from
Oxchuc who registered as a pre
candidate for the PAN party in 2009, but whose name was then removed
from the rolls.
The Western Maya language group is dominant in
Chiapas with the most
common variety being Tzeltal, along with Tzotzil . The two
languages are part of the Tzeltalan subdivision and are closely
related, estimated to have started separating around 1200 CE.
The two are related to other Western
Maya languages in the state such
as Chontal, Ch'ol, Tojolabal, Chuj, Q'anjob'al, Acatec, Jakaltek, and
Motozintlec . The
Tzeltal language is concentrated in twenty of
Chiapas' 111 municipalities, with two main dialects; highland (or
Oxchuc) and lowland (or Bachajonteco). Most children are
bilingual in the language and Spanish although many of their
grandparents are monolingual
Social system and religion
Tzeltal dancers waiting to perform in San Cristobal
Tzeltal region is divided into three zones: north, central
and south, with some demographic and cultural differences among these
zones. Women are distinguished by black skirt with a wool belt and
an undyed cotton blouse embroidered with flowers. Their hair is tied
with ribbons and covered with a cloth. Most men do not use traditional
attire. A more important cultural distinction is the small
community or village, each of which is a distinct social and cultural
unit, with its own territory, dialect, clothing and more based on a
kinship system. This intra-community loyalty supersedes that at the
ethnic level. These communities are based on a main village
or town, on which there are a number of smaller dependent communities.
These are often mirrored in the official municipality system of the
state. The seat is the political, religious and commercial center of
the entire community. This seat is divided into two or more
neighborhoods called barrios or calpuls, with their own local
authorities and sometimes with their own patron saint. The more
conservative communities maintain the inheritance of land through
patriarchal lineages and a complicated set of kinship terminology.
Less traditional systems tend to be more aligned with Ladino
practices. Although there are some extended families, the nuclear
family is more the norm.
Tzeltal religion is a syncretism of Catholic and indigenous elements.
Most ceremonies and festivals are associated with saints’ day,
organized by sponsors called “mayordomos” with assistants called
“alfereces.” Mayordomos in charge of the ceremonies are often
leaders in more secular village affairs. These rituals follow an
Shamanism and magical practices still remain. The
cosmology of the
Tzeltal is based on the concept of the interaction
among the body, mind and spirit of a person and how these interact
with the community, the world and the supernatural. This has a large
bearing on traditional medicine, which is important because it is
often the first source of treatment for most
Tzeltal and due to lack
of modern medical facilities, is often the only source. This cosmology
ascribes both religious and magical elements to the relationship of
sickness and health. Illness can be ascribed to the breaking of
societal rules as sanctions imposed by the saints or gods. It can also
be ascribed to witchcraft done by someone seeking to do harm. To
counter both, there are rituals. As sickness is considered to be a
case of the lack of harmony within the person or with the person and
the world/supernatural, healing is focused on restoring this
harmony. They traditionally regard barn owls "disease givers".
Agriculture is the basic economic activity of the
Traditional Mesoamerican crops such as maize, beans, squash, and chili
peppers are the most important, but a variety of other crops,
including wheat, manioc, sweet potatoes, cotton, chayote, some fruits,
other vegetables, and coffee are also grown. Domestic animals
include pigs, donkeys, cattle and domestic fowl. Those who live in
larger villages tend to specialize in craft production, with surpluses
traded through a regional market system. This system has links to the
wider Mexican economic system. Handcrafts mostly consist of
textiles woven on backstrap looms decorated with traditional Mayan
designs. For women the most common item is huipils, shirts and
tablecloths/napkins which are then used in the home or sold. The best
textiles come from Tenejapa, Pantelhó,
Larráinzar and Chenalhó.
However, for many
Tzeltal the income from these agriculture and crafts
is not enough to support their families, and many work for wages as
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Indigenous peoples of Mexico
More than 100,000 people
Less than 1,000 people