Homage to Chiapas : the new Indigenous struggles in Mexico /
Bill Weinberg.
London ; New York : VERSO, 2000.
xxi, 456 p. : maps.
1859847196 (cloth)
More Details
London ; New York : VERSO, 2000.
1859847196 (cloth)
catalogue key
Includes bibliographical references and index.
A Look Inside
About the Author
Author Affiliation
Bill Weinberg is a correspondent, principally on Mexico and Central America, for Native Americas, the quarterly journal of Cornell University's American Indian Studies Program. He is also a columnist and former editor at High Times, and a producer at New York's non-commercial WBAI Radio
First Chapter

Chapter One



From Syncretism to the New Zapatismo

"¡Tierra y Libertad!" With this war cry an army of Indians marched out of the jungles in the south of the Republic, in order to overthrow the dictator and secure land and freedom for themselves.

So opens General from the Jungle , a 1939 novel by B. Traven, the pseudonymous German anarchist mysteriously exiled in Mexico.

    An army of Maya peasants, previously unknown to the outside world, erupts from Mexico's remote southern rainforest under the leadership of an enigmatic and charismatic commander: on the morning of January 1, 1994, the day the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect, exactly this happened.

    The Indians in Traven's novel, isolated in the jungle, didn't know that the Revolution was already over and the dictator overthrown; the peasant army which emerged from that jungle in 1994 claims that the Revolution has been betrayed and dictatorship restored. The demands are identical: "¡Tierra y Libertad!"

Whatever, in their miserable oppression and their pitiful ignorance, they sensed of poetry, of a desire for beauty, of love for mankind and living creatures, of natural faith in some absolute justice that must be found somewhere, as well as deeply felt sorrow for their comrades who had been horribly murdered or bestially tortured to death--all this, and much more that, unknown to them, slumbered within them, found its expression in that single war cry.

This cry is raised anew by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation--their footsoldiers drawn from Mexico's most desperately impoverished Indians; their eloquent spokesman the urbane, mysterious Subcommander Marcos. Their cry comes like an echo from a near-forgotten past, from the twentieth century's first great revolution, the revolution before the Cold War, before Stalin, Lenin and Bolshevism--the revolution of the Mexican Robin Hood, Pancho Villa; of the anarchist, Flores Magón; of the incorruptible peasant insurrectionist, Emiliano Zapata.

    The Zapatistas issued their grito against not only the dictatorship, but also the North American Free Trade Agreement. The simultaneous treaty and uprising have sparked revolutionary struggle across southern Mexico, with indigenous peoples in the forefront. The unarmed popular movements which mobilized throughout Mexico, but especially the south, picking up the Zapatista war cry, are what really give strength and meaning to the Maya army in the rainforest.

    The cultural matrix from which the new zapatismo emerged is a centuries-old tradition of Maya resistance to the Conquest. With a resilience that almost defies imagination, the myth of the returning Indian King remained a spiritual wellspring of resistance to domination, genocide and cultural erosion. Under the colonialists, the caudillos who followed them, and the new technocrats of the ruling party-state, the Maya have been the most rebellious of Mesoamerica's conquered peoples.

    With the new zapatismo , this tradition of rebellion was wedded to a conscious revolutionary analysis. But the centrality of indigenous identity is at the heart of the new Zapatista radical democracy ethic. The first Latin American guerilla movement to emerge after the supposed death of socialism is also the first with real Indian leadership, to whom Marcos is officially subordinate. Neo-zapatismo is something new precisely because it is rooted in something ancient.


Small, rooted economies based on communal maíz cultivation, and common mythological threads, defined Mesoamerican civilization before the Conquest. The Maya of Chiapas, Guatemala, and the Yucatan Peninsula are considered the "sister culture" of this civilization. Even during their periods of building elaborate ceremonial centers, power among the Maya was decentralized, with no city-state achieving total dominance.

    Meanwhile, the Nahuatl-speaking "father culture" in Central Mexico to the north and west witnessed a cycle of rising and falling empires, power and dominion expanding with each resurrection: the early Nahuas at Teotihuacan, the Toltecs at Tula, finally the Aztecs at Tenochtitlan, whose Mexica empire gave the contemporary country its name. Between the imperial eras, waves of Chichimecs--"dog people," nomadic hunter-gatherers--swept down from the deserts of the north to conquer, to establish the new dynasty, and to be absorbed by the persistent, tenacious culture of the conquered.

    Throughout Mesoamerica--a cultural sphere extending from the Central Mexican plateau down the Central American isthmus--the basic and oldest unit of government was the calpulli . At Tenochtitlan, in Central Mexico's lacustrine Valley of Anahuac, the calpullis were elite military orders from which the Aztec nobility and tlatoani --the elective Mexica emperor--were drawn. But at the regional, older level, the calpulli was a piece of land where local kinship groups communally worked their maíz plots, or milpas .

    Writes one geographer:

To the Indian, private and individual ownership of land was as meaningless as private ownership of the sky, the weather or the sea ... Each family of a clan group that shared the calpulli had a right to use part of it under conditions laid down by the local chief, the calpullec . No one had the right to cultivate a particular piece of land in perpetuity, and indeed the migratory nature of milpa farming discouraged this. The individual family was periodically alloted a plot within the area of land that a village regarded as for its own use. To this extent, there was a sense of possession of land, but only as far as the use of the land was concerned.

    Lying beyond the Mexica dominion, the calpullis of the Maya lands were not subject to payments of tribute to Tenochtitlan. They maintained their autonomy, even as they accepted Nahuatl myths and were eyed for eventual incorporation into the empire. In Maya cosmology, as related in the Popul Vuh, the sacred book of the Quiché people of the Guatemalan highlands, the creator god, Gucumatz, fashioned the first humans from maíz .

    The local indigenous cultures corresponded to the bioregions of what is today Chiapas. In the southwest, the richly fertile Pacific coastal plain of Sosconosco was home of Zoques and Nahuatl-related peoples, as well as some Mams and Cakchiquels, Maya groups more numerous in Guatemala to the east. Rising to the northeast, the sparsely inhabited Sierra Madre was cloaked in lush cloud forest, forming the headwaters of tributaries that snaked down into the broad, fertile Central Valley of Chiapas, defined by the Rio Grijalva and inhabited by the Chiapaneco Indians. Continuing north and east, the alpine Highlands rise from the Grijalva plain: the Maya heart of Chiapas, inhabited by Tzotzil, Tzeltal and Tojolabal peoples. In the north, homeland of the Chol Maya, the Highlands slope toward the coastal plain along the Gulf of Mexico, home of the Chontal Maya (and the contemporary state of Tabasco). In the east, the Highlands slope down to the lowland rainforest known as the Lacandon Selva.

    Defined by the Rio Usumacinta basin, the Lacandon Selva is contiguous with the Peteñ rainforest of Guatemala, and was the seat of the Classic Maya civilization, which flourished from roughly 300 to 900 CE. The ceremonial cities of Yaxchilan, Palenque and Bonampak (and Tikal and Uaxactun across the Usumacinta in El Peteñ) were giant calendars, each stone temple and pyramid aligned precisely with the movements of the heavenly bodies whose cycles dictated sowing and harvest, peace and ritualized war. This civilization had fallen five centuries before the arrival of the Spanish. The inheritors of the subsequently sparsely inhabited Selva were hunter-gatherer bands known as the Lacandon Maya, who would successfully resist "conquest" well into the twentieth century. The ruins of the Classic Maya cities are still sacred to the Lacandons, who gather at them in annual pilgrimages. At Palenque, built by the king Pacal around 300 CE, on the northern edge of the rainforest, the Lacandon pilgrims today merge with international tourists. The equally majestic Yaxchilan remains even now inaccessible by road, deep in the great forest on the banks of the Usumacinta. The river is now the Guatemalan border.

    The decline of the Classic Maya was followed by the incursion of Toltec-related peoples into Maya realms, bringing Nahuatl, the lingua franca of Mesoamerica, and the myth of Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent. The serpent was already a Maya symbol of fertility, sacrifice and kingship.

    Incursions of more militaristic peoples have been blamed, but intensive agriculture pushing the rainforest past its ecological limits may have been decisive in the Classic Maya decline. A hybrid Maya-Toltec ("Late Maya") civilization subsequently flourished in the savannas of the Yucatan Peninsula to the north, at Chichen Itza, Uxmal and Mayapan.

    In Chiapas, power shifted to the Highlands, where it lay with local calpullis rather than city-states. While the lineage of the Toltec god-king Quetzalcoatl was the Mexica empire's claim to sovereignty, and the Feathered Serpent entered the Maya pantheon (the Quiché Gucumatz), local Maya rule was linked to the kingship deity Votan.

    The Highland Maya from the first refused to recognize the conquistadors, who told them that their sovereign was now Carlos V, the Holy Roman Emperor in Castille. These new lords of the land imposed a feudal order, but could never quench the cycles of Maya rebellion.

    The Maya realms were subjugated only after Hernándo Cortéz had conquered the Mexica empire in Anahuac, in 1521. The year he landed at Veracruz, 1519, was the year the Toltec Quetzalcoatl was prophesied to return in the Mexica calendar, signaling an end to the Aztec dynasty. Unwittingly aided by the prophecy and skillfully building alliances with subjugated city-states ripe for rebellion, Cortéz simply beheaded the Mexica empire and established the Viceroyalty of New Spain in its place. The Viceroyalty's capital, Mexico City, was built on the ruins of Tenochtitlan. The Aztec island-city's great pyramid-bounded ceremonial space (where obsidian blades had thrust into numberless sacrificial victims) became Mexico City's zócalo , or central square, bounded by the National Palace and Cathedral. Those areas which had been beyond Mexica dominion were only tenuously brought under the Spanish heel. In these marginal areas, the Conquest and conversion of the Indians was never really complete. More so than the mestizos (those of mixed Spanish-Indian blood) and ladinos (those of Spanish culture) of the more central areas, Maya peoples remained suspended between Christianity and indigenous cosmology.

    The first contact came in 1522, when tax-collectors were dispatched by Cortéz to the region. They had to be followed by military units to "pacify rebellion"--exacting tribute from those communities which had refused.

    After pacifying the Chiapanecos at Tuxtla, Capt. Luis Marín met fierce resistance from the Tzotzil--the tough "bat people" of the highest part of the Highlands--at Chamula. Marín enlisted the aid of a neighboring Tzotzil town, Zinacantan, which had been Mexica-allied, in a siege. Chamula fell after three days, and was renamed San Juan. Just as the Spanish had allied themselves with groups opposed to the Mexica in order to defeat the empire, they now sought the aid of groups allied with the Mexica to expand the empire under their own rule.

    However, Marín failed to establish settlements, considering the job done after he had exacted tribute. Consequently, Cortéz had to send another military expedition to Chiapas next time. The Chiapas Highlands were truly conquered in 1526 by Capt. Diego de Mazariegos, who established Ciudad Real in the Valley of Jovel, below San Juan Chamula and Zinacantan.

    The Lacandon Selva remained wild--which is what lacandon means in archaic Spanish. Capt. Pedro de Solórzano was assigned the farcical task of "pacifying the Lacandon rebellion." When attacked, the Lacandons simply fled into the dense jungle. Spanish troops, with their horses, armor and cannons, were helpless to pursue.

    The situation was complicated by the fact that separate conquistadors had been assigned to subdue Chiapas, Yucatan and Guatemala--and each claimed the Lacandon as their own turf.

    In the Guatemalan Highlands, Pedro de Alvarado used the Mexica-allied Cakchiquels to help subdue their local rivals, the Quiché--and then subdued them both.

    By the time the conquistador Francisco de Montejo arrived in the Yucatan in 1527, the city-states such as Chichen Itza had also long since given way to a localized village society. In a book transcribed from oral tradition after the Conquest it was written that Chilam Balam, a Maya prophet in the Yucatan, had foretold that strangers would arrive from the east with new gods.

    Demoralized to find a region devoid of gold, or even slaves (most of the Maya had already succumbed to Spanish-introduced smallpox), Montejo departed to conquer Honduras, leaving his son Montejo the Younger to subdue Yucatan. But the Yucatecan Maya began to recover, and the young conquistador had forty years of war before him. Montejo the Younger and his priests blamed the revolt on Maya shamans; it is possible that Chilam Balam was a leader of the Yucatecan resistance.

    In the 1550s, as Spanish control of the peninsula was finally established, the zealous Franciscan Bishop Diego de Landa led his own Inquisition of Yucatan against "relapses into idolatry." All surviving religious texts in the ancient Maya glyphs were put to the torch.

    Iberian feudal society was, replicated in the Chiapas Highlands--Indians as serfs under an oligarchy of criollos , locally born Spaniards. Cattle ranches in the Highlands and Grijalva Valley consumed Indian lands. Under the encomienda , the Crown's right to tribute was transferred to an individual, granting the new lords unlimited slave labor; in Sosconosco, Indians were worked to death on the cochineal plantations. It was only a full century after the Conquest that the Indian population began to recover from the dramatic demographic plunge resulting from disease, hunger and outright slaughter.

    The role of the Church in the Conquest was dual and contradictory. The Church was the self-appointed protector of the Indians from the abuses of conquistadors-turned-administrators and soldiers-turned-landowners. The Dominican Bartolemé de Las Casas, after witnessing the conquest of Cuba, became the unrelenting enemy of the conquistadors. In one sermon he denounced "everything we have done to the Indians so far" as "tyranny and barbarism." The Conquest itself was "against all natural law and the Law of Nations, as well as against all divine law ... and consequently, null, void, and without any validity or legal effect." In 1519 he journeyed to Spain to plead for abolition of Indian slavery before Carlos V. After the conquest of Mexico, he wrote The Devastation of the Indies: A Brief Account , decrying that "kingdoms as large and more felicitous than Spain" had been destroyed and depopulated "by the sword, by fire, and enslavement."

    In the 1530s, Las Casas came to the Kingdom of Guatemala--really a Spanish viceroyalty, then including Chiapas--to demonstrate his belief that the Indians could be converted peacefully. He returned lands which had been usurped, and had his missionaries learn the Maya tongues. In 1542 he persuaded the Crown to pass the New Laws of the Indies, reforming the encomienda and abolishing Indian slavery. The New Laws were met with bitter resistance by the conquistadors, and were repealed after two years. Las Casas already faced death threats, treason charges and a denunciation before the Inquisition for sermons in which he urged soldiers to desert rather than participate in atrocities. Nonetheless, his efforts in Guatemala were so successful that in 1544 he was named Bishop of Chiapas, a position administrated from Ciudad Real.

    After Las Casas was forced to flee for his life back to Spain in 1547, his work was rapidly reversed. Blood-drenched campaigns against rebelling Maya followed the re-seizure of land by criollos in the Guatemalan Highland region Las Casas had christened Verapaz--"true peace." The official abolition of Indian slavery did little to alter the actual condition of the Indians, as debt labor and feudalism became entrenched. Additionally, the New Laws instated a policy of reducciones --"reducing" Indian lands by centralizing the Indians in hamlets clustered around churches. The oligarchs quickly appropriated the lands which had been "reduced."

    The lands ringing the hamlets remained in Indian hands, and became known as ejidos --"exits," because they lay on the way out of the villages. The ejido , adhering to a village rather than an individual, became the surviving remnant of the communal calpulli . It persisted, protecting a degree of village autonomy, in opposition to the oligarchic system of the encomienda , and its successors: the repartimiento , in which the Indians were ostensibly paid for their labor, but lived and died working off their debt, and the latifundio , in which the Indians were supposedly free from obligatory labor, but lived in much the same condition. The municipal powers of the Highland villages also gave them a legal autonomy recognized by Spanish tradition, if eroded by economic and political realities.

    The Church was central to the establishment of criollo Ciudad Real as the center of feudal power in the Chiapas Highlands, with outlying Indian villages such as San Juan Chamula and Zinacantan reduced to impoverished satellites. The new oligarchs co-opted the traditional system of village government into an instrument of control. Under tutelage of the reactionary Catholic hierarchy which consolidated following the flight of Las Casas, the villages established cofradías , religious brotherhoods responsible for collecting tribute and distributing sacraments. The families of the cofradías were afforded local control. The calpullecs became the caciques , the village patriarchs.

    The caciques were rewarded with land: ejidos became their fiefs, producing food for Ciudad Real, delivered in the form of Church tithings. As land grew scarcer, the Indians could afford these tithings ever less. By the eighteenth century, Indian pauperization and ecological degradation escalated as ever more ejidal land came under control of the oligarchy's cattle ranches. As cattle grazed in the fertile valleys, Maya milpas were forced onto the rocky mountainsides, displacing the forests. The soil eroded, gullies opened, and streams dried up.

    Throughout Maya lands, the clergy encouraged the preservation of indigenous lore such as the Popul Vuh and Book of Chilam Balam while playing a paradoxically indispensable role in the ethnocidal suppression of indigenous culture. Just as the conquistadors achieved a transfer of power by adapting the very political mechanisms of the Mexica empire, so the priests achieved a conversion to Christianity by exploiting the parallels to Christian symbology in the Indian traditions.

    The divinely conceived Toltec prince of peace and self-sacrificing savior, Quetzalcoatl took his name from the Nahuatl creation deity who gave life to the first humans by drawing blood from his genitals. Mysteriously resurrected as Venus, the morning star of the east, the wise god-king had been overthrown by a corrupt priestly class after he abolished the cult of human sacrifice, and departed across the eastern sea with a promise to return and restore justice. After the Conquest, devotion to the Feathered Serpent was transferred to the new salvador . The Virgin of Guadalupe also became a new focus of ancient devotions, her chapels appearing where shrines to the Nahuatl earth goddess Tonantzin or the Maya moon goddess Ixchel had been.

    The Maya Tree of Life, the maíz stalk, icon of regeneration, was stylized as a cross. On the sarcophagus lid excavated from the pyramid at Palenque, it springs from the chest of Pacal in his death throes. After the Conquest, crosses appeared on Highland crags and grottos which had been sacred for centuries. Throughout Mesoamerica, churches were built on the foundations of demolished pyramids, with the very same stones.

    For the Maya, the masks of Christ and the Virgin were thin. For centuries the Maya region would periodically explode into rebellion--becoming the most troublesome area in the Spanish Empire, and the states that would emerge from it. The myth of the Maya king, mysteriously resurrected to restore Indian sovereignty, continued to re-emerge in the new syncretistic nomenclature of Maya "folk Catholicism."


These movements began as purely religious. Homespun cults would center around visions or miracles attributed to local icons, in open rejection of the Church of the Spanish. Worship of idols with Indian names was reported in Chiapas as late as the 1680s; loosening of Church control over the Indians was a direct threat to the feudal system. When the Church declared the cults heresy, warfare ensued--transforming them into messianic movements to drive the Spanish from Maya lands completely.

    In 1708, a ladino hermit preaching from the trunk of a hollow oak tree near Zinacantan claimed that the Virgin was descending from Heaven to help the Indians. Large crowds of Indians from Zinacantan and Chamula gathered at the tree, bringing offerings of food and copal incense.

    In 1711, a Virgin Cult of Santa Marta emerged in a Chamula hamlet. The Virgin appeared in human form to the Santa Marta Tzotzils, wrapped in a cloak. She was brought to a chapel which was built for her; when the cloak was removed, she had been "replaced" with a wooden image. The image was carried to Chamula and other towns and worshipped before Spanish authorities confiscated it. Later that year in nearby Chenalhó, authorities burned down a chapel the Tzotzils built for saint images which had purportedly sweated and emitted rays of light.

    The first such movement to escalate to war was the Virgin Cult of Cancuc, a Tzeltal village north of Ciudad Real. In 1712, the Virgin appeared to a girl of San Juan Cancuc and instructed her to build a chapel in her honor. As construction commenced, the local priest ordered participating Indians flogged, accusing them of "consorting with the Devil." Indians resisted, and the priest fled for his life. Cancuc renounced Spanish priests and established an Indian priesthood. Declarations were sent to surrounding villages, claiming the authority of the Virgin and, according to some sources, the antepenultimate Mexica tlatoani , Moctezuma.

    This was the start of the Tzeltal Revolt of 1712. Participating villages sent representatives to Cancuc to be ordained in the new Indian priesthood. The cultists renamed Cancuc "Ciudad Real" (the seat of local political power), Ciudad Real "Jerusalem" (seat of the false priesthood), and the Spaniards "Jews" (the false priests).

    This was one of history's more amazing examples of anti-Semitism without Jews. The Holy Office of the Inquisition, executing the sadistic crusades against Muslims, Jews and heretics in Spain, had simultaneously held campaigns in New Spain--pursued more vigorously by the Franciscans in Central Mexico and Yucatan than by the Dominicans in Chiapas and Guatemala--against Indians clinging to pre-Christian traditions. But the Spanish lexicon persisted among even rebel Indians for centuries; the word "Jew" conveyed evil for Maya who had never seen one.

    Claiming that "the road to heaven is closed to Jews" (Spaniards), the Soldiers of the Virgin marched against villages that had disobeyed the summons from Cancuc, now rich with offerings and loot. A ladino army raised by Ciudad Real marched on Cancuc--and was defeated by Indians armed with machetes and clubs. In retaliation, the Soldiers of the Virgin marched on Ocosingo and slaughtered the Spanish inhabitants--except the women, who were abducted to Cancuc and married to Indian men (in reversal of the double standard). Captured ladinas were forced to dress as Indian women, to grind maíz and make tortillas .

    The Tzotzil at Zinacantan took the opportunity to stage an uprising of their own. Ciudad Real sent for reinforcements from Guatemala. Before the revolt could spread to the Tzotzils, it was put down. San Juan Cancuc's municipal powers were dissolved, not to be officially restored until the late twentieth century.

    After the Virgin cults came the Indian Kings. The Indian King of Quisteil appeared in 1761 in Yucatan. A Maya named Jacinto Canek claimed the crown and mantle of the town's patron saint image, declared himself king and raised a peasant army to re-establish a "Maya Kingdom." There was a year of fighting before the movement was crushed.

    The revolts were part of the dynamic propelling the region toward independence. In 1701, the Habsburg dynasty was replaced by the liberal Bourbons, who instated Free Trade acts under the reign of Carlos III (1759-88). For the first time, the elites of New Spain and Guatemala could trade with other parts of the empire. A merchant class took hold in the cities, while Indian lands came under still greater pressure in the countryside.

    It was at the margins of New Spain, where indigenous autonomy held its strongest claim, that Indian unrest presaged the anti-colonial struggle. At the other end of Mexico, Yaqui resistance brought war to remote, arid Sonora. The Yaqui, who had been completely outside Mexica control, revolted in 1740 in response to the Bourbon efforts to break up their communal lands in the name of Liberal reform.

    In 1820, when Guatemala's elites began agitating for independence, a Quiché in the village of Totonicapan donned a crown and declared himself the Indian King, setting off a local crisis.

    The following September, Mexico won independence and Guatemala--including Chiapas and all Central America--declared its own independence the following day. Conditions only deteriorated for the Indians, with the Crown's strictures against the most blatant abuses removed.

    In Sonora, the Yaquis revolted again under the chieftain Banderas, declaring their own independence from the independent Mexico. The Banderas rebellion, joined by the neighboring Mayos, lasted well into the 1830S. More such unrest would soon follow in the Maya south.

    The Chiapas oligarchy elected to secede from Guatemala and join the self-proclaimed (and short-lived) Empire of Mexico with Independence, fearing the Liberal tendencies of the Central American independence leadership. Concentration of Chiapas Maya land in oligarchic hands intensified. Some one hundred ladino families claimed virtually all Indian lands not actually within village centers. Families already working those lands suddenly found themselves subject to monthly tributes of crops or labor to their new landlords.


In the Yucatan, the ladino power structure was more Liberal, the bourgeois stronghold of Merida a center of regional commerce, growing impatient with the Conservative regime in Mexico City. The Liberals, with their ethic of industry and progress, were in general even worse from the perspective of the Indians: while the Church sometimes made paternalistic efforts to protect Indians from the worst abuses, commercial interests saw them as near-slaves to exploit at will.

    In the Yucatan, business meant sugar. After Independence, when Mexico lost Spanish Cuba as a source, the "sugar frontier" expanded south into the savannas of the peninsula's "wild" Indian interior. In the north, the Maya were reduced to debt labor; in the interior, they remained autonomous, practicing slash-and-burn rotation agriculture in the tropical plains and dry forests. Tensions grew as sugar plantations penetrated the domain of these undomesticated Indians.

    In 1847, when the Conservative Dictator Santa Anna went to war with the United States over Texas, Yucatan's Liberals declared independence. An Indian army was conscripted, Maya cooperation bought with promises of land reform and abolition of debt labor, church dues and the aguardiente tax. But after providing the Indians with arms and military training, the Merida ladinos balked on their promises. Maya troops rioted in Valladolid, Yucatan's second city. Yucatan's governor executed the leaders, thereby sparking what was feared--a general Maya revolt.

    Wealthy ladino homes, shops, plantations and government offices were sacked. Early in 1848, Valladolid was evacuated as Maya troops besieged the city. Governor Miguel Barbachano met with Maya leader Jacinto Pat and agreed to his demands, appointing him Grand Cacique of all Yucatan's Indians. It was hoped the rebellion's other leader, Cecilio Chi, would respond by attacking Pat. Instead, he escalated his attacks on ladino targets.

    The peace accord was forgotten. Separatist and loyalist ladinos , recently embarking on a civil war, united to fight the common enemy of "civilization and religion." With the separatist revolt called off, the US Navy, theretofore defending the Yucatan coast from Mexico, started blockading Yucatan's ports.

    In the spring of 1848, the Maya army was advancing on Merida. An evacuation of the city was being prepared when the Maya suddenly halted their drive. The halt corresponded with the beginning of maíz planting season, and many Maya troops apparently returned to their villages to sow the ground. Maya leaders were probably also aware that large shipments of arms had arrived from Havana, Veracruz and New Orleans. The summer of 1848 was the turning point in the Caste War of Yucatan, and saw the deaths of both Pat and Chi.


In the aftermath, ladino troops forcibly relocated much of the Maya south, deeper into the Yucatecan interior. Uprooted from their maíz plots, many died of starvation. In an effort to depopulate the region, Yucatan reinstated Indian slavery, officially outlawed for centuries, selling war captives to Cuba. Mexican and Spanish authorities turned a blind eye.

    In 1850, the defeated Maya sought sustenance in a cult of the "talking cross," which emerged at a remote refugee settlement called Chan Santa Cruz. A new war for control of the settlement ensued as word of the cult reached the ladinos and they resolved to crush it.

    Cholera became a weapon of the war. The ladinos and Indian cultists, referring to each other in hateful derision as "Jews," each did what Europe's gentiles had accused Jews of doing during the Black Death--poisoning wells. The ladinos wrested control of Chan Santa Cruz in 1854, but the Maya succeeded in re-taking the settlement the following year. War continued.

    The cultists called themselves the "Cruzob"--the Spanish word for cross with the Maya plural suffix. Chan Santa Cruz (Maya for "small" and Spanish for "sacred cross") was also the site of a cenote , one of the open wells which dot the Yucatan karst. Cenotes had been sacred before the Conquest, and determined the location of such ceremonial cities as Chichen Itza.

    With the fall of Santa Anna in 1855, Merida and Mexico City reached accommodations. But military pressure on the Cruzob was relieved as Merida's troops put down a new separatist revolt in the poorer Yucatan region of Campeche. Cruzob power grew. The Balam Na (House of God) was built for the talking cross. By 1858, when Campeche was separated from Yucatan, the Cruzob were launching raids on ladino towns.

    In the 1860s, as the French puppet Emperor Maximilian seized Mexico and civil war erupted again, the Cruzob became a political pawn. Maximilian won the support of Merida by offering to re-attach Campeche to Yucatan. In return, Merida would aid the French in annexing Belize, the British colony to the south. British gun-runners armed the Cruzob. Confused fighting spread throughout the peninsula.

    As Republican guerillas took Merida, Cruzob attacks escalated. Chan Santa Cruz became a warrior mini-state. The talking cross had its own priesthood (one Cruzob village, Santa Cah Tulum, had a priestess, a rare exception to Maya practice), which dictated when the miraculous cross had spoken a command for a raid. Neighboring Maya groups, armed by Merida, waged war on the Cruzob. Ladino "generals" offered the warring Maya groups professional military command, playing for power in whatever new order would emerge in the peninsula.

    British gun-runners continued to arm the Cruzob even after the fall of Maximilian in 1867, as a means of assuring that their aggression would be directed north, not south. By 1900, the long dictatorship of Gen. Porfirio Díaz had ended the warfare among the Yucatan ladinos , but failed to subdue the Indians in the interior. Escaped black slaves and Chinese coolies from Belize fled to the Cruzob; elements of Yoruba and other African traditions were influencing the Maya cult.

    Prosperity returned to Yucatan; the henequen industry throve, with the US firm International Harvester maintaining a monopolistic control over the market in this cactus fiber. The Díaz years also saw a resurgence of slavery in the Yucatan--in the form of forced labor as punishment for rebellion.

    The contradiction between the Yucatan's ladino coast and Maya interior intensified. When the Cruzob attempted to resist the building of a railroad across the Yucatan, Díaz prepared the Mexican military for a final offensive against Chan Santa Cruz. Gen. Ignacio Bravo launched a campaign of deforestation, depriving the Cruzob of the element they had successfully fought in for fifty years. Chan Santa Cruz fell, and was renamed Santa Cruz de Bravo. Decimated by casualties, epidemics and starvation, the Cruzob fled deeper into the interior. Bravo had the Federal Territory of Quintana Roo established in their former stronghold.

    The Mexican Revolution brought some relief, but its full impacts would not be felt in the Yucatan for a generation. In 1912, Bravo was recalled to Mexico City by the revolutionary government of Francisco Madero. The new governor of Quintana Roo made peace with the Maya, returning Chan Santa Cruz to them. The Cruzob destroyed the railroad and telegraph lines which had been built through their territory, but abandoned Chan Santa Cruz, deeming it beyond purification--Bravo had used the Balam Na as a stable. The cult survived--when the Cruzob had fled before Bravo's army, they took the cross with them and carried it from place to place in the wilderness.

    The 1915 invasion of Yucatan by Gen. Salvador Alvarado's Constitutionalist Army of the Southeast, representing the new revolutionary regime of Venustiano Carranza, finally put an end to outright slavery. But even a radical state regime under the Socialist Party of the Southeast (PSS) in the 1920s could not effectively challenge the planter elite. Gov. Felipe Carrillo Puerto, an agrarian populist who had fought in Emiliano Zapata's peasant army in Morelos, began expropriating land in his native Yucatan and empowering Maya "leagues of resistance" to stand up to the landlords. In 1923, a local army mutiny--supported by the planter elite and counter-revolutionaries who had seized power in Campeche--deposed Carrillo. He was assassinated while trying to escape to Cuba.

    Meaningful redistribution of land only came to Yucatan in the 1930s, when President Lázaro Cárdenas made the backward peninsula a showcase for his agrarian reform (and made the PSS an appendage of his one-party state). Conditions improved somewhat for the Maya, and the Cruzob gradually faded. A new agricultural boom--this time chicle, the stuff of chewing gum--provided work for veteran Maya warriors. The Cruzob's ladino military leaders moved from leading Indian revolts to growing chicle with Indian labor, and became prosperous.


The Caste War of Yucatan panicked ladinos in Chiapas and Guatemala. Upon independence from Spain, Ciudad Real was renamed San Cristóbal de Las Casas; but the town's spirit bore little resemblance to that of its namesake. San Cristóbal sided with Maximilian against the Liberal Republican insurgency. When the Republicans took power, in 1867, they punished San Cristóbal by relocating the Chiapas capital to the Liberal city of Tuxtla Gutiérrez in the Central Valley. But abuse of the Maya by merchants, landowners and clergy remained rampant, and included periodic slave labor (thinly disguised as "taxation" or "debt-collection").

    After Independence, all forests and presently uncultivated Indian land had been appropriated by private ladino owners under new laws passed in the name of efficiency and progress. Much of it was cleared for cattle ranches, oblivious to the fact that it was only "unused" because it was in the fallow cycle of rotation agriculture--a vital hiatus for replenishing soil fertility. This blindness to indigenous agricultural patterns again accelerated Maya pauperization. With less land, the Indians were forced to abandon rotation, and the land itself consequently grew poorer. Unable to subsist on depleted plots, the Maya sold themselves into debt labor on the coffee plantations of Sosconosco. Forced there to wear ladino clothes and speak Spanish, their culture eroded.

    In December of 1867, an Indian girl named Augustína in a Chamula hamlet found three stones that "fell from the sky" while she was tending goats. Indians reported hearing the stones "talk"; offerings of copal , flowers and pine needles were brought, and the girl was pronounced "Mother of God." A shrine was erected in Chamula, but removed to the hamlet as Chamula's ladino priest interfered. A leader named Cuscat emerged as Indians congregated on the hamlet. Local authorities arrived at the hamlet in the midst of a religious celebration and arrested Augustína.

    Cuscat urged the Tzotzils to cease worshipping the white Christ, and choose one of their own to worship as savior. According to local government reports, on Good Friday of 1868, a 10-year-old Tzotzil boy was crucified in the hamlet square. An account written by a San Cristóbal ladino twenty years later read: "We do not know what the new Jews did with the body and blood of the martyr of barbarism, although it is not improbable that they drank the latter." Some historians maintain the crucifixion was a fabrication to justify repression. In any event, that year for the first time no Chamulas arrived in San Cristóbal to worship the white Christ image at the Cathedral during Lent.

    The Chamulas made elaborate preparations for the Festival of Saint Rose, August 30, with Cuscat as priest and the released Augustína as priestess. During the ceremony, the two were arrested, with several others. But the Liberal governor in Tuxtla ordered Cuscat released on grounds of religious freedom, now a constitutional guarantee. Cuscat had been arrested on charges of "disobedience toward authority and attempted rebellion"--not crucifixion!

    Newspapers wrote of an imminent "Caste War of Chiapas." An adventuresome ladino named Ignacio Galindo arrived from Mexico City to organize the Chamulas. San Cristóbal appealed to the federal government for help and had Cuscat and Augustína arrested yet again. On June 17, 1869, five thousand Tzotzils surrounded San Cristóbal, armed with shotguns, knives, machetes and spears, with Galindo dressed as a Chamula chieftain. Galindo offered himself in exchange for Cuscat and Augustína. The authorities accepted, because reinforcements had not yet arrived.

    Galindo was executed. The movement, and Chamula guerilla raids on ladino ranches, persisted for another year.



As Liberals consolidated power in Mexico, the Chiapas oligarchy resisted, remaining loyal to the old order, like the Carlists in post-Napoleonic Spain. The Liberal Díaz dictatorship, with its official cult of economic and "scientific" progress voraciously devouring Indian land throughout Mexico, cut an implicit deal with the Chiapas oligarchy to begin integration of the marginal state into Mexico's economy. Those families which were favored by the Dictatorship--generally in Tuxtla and the Central Valley--became the dominant force in the state.

    With the Revolution of 1910, the corruption and brutality of the Dictatorship gave way to explosive violence throughout the country. Indians and campesinos rose in rebellion elsewhere in the Mexican south under Emiliano Zapata. The anarchist (and deceptively named) Mexican Liberal Party established a foothold among the Sosconosco coffee pickers, and the Industrial Workers of the World among the railroad workers in Tapachula, the region's main town--much to the horror of the landowners.

    In Highland Chiapas, however, Indians were manipulated into serving in the counter-revolutionary forces of the aristocracy. The Maya were organized into militias by the ladino oligarchy to fight against Liberal forces and Zapata-inspired insurrections. The ladinos effected this manipulation by telling the Maya that the revolutionary forces were anti-God and would take away their religion. If that proved insufficiently persuasive, Indians were press-ganged at gunpoint.

    The most powerful group in Chiapas in 1910 was the Rabasa family, representing the Liberal elite in the Grijalva Valley. The Rabasa group was loyal to the Francisco Madero government which first inherited Mexico from the ousted Dictatorship. But the San Cristóbal Diocese appealed to the Maya with promises of land and tax relief to fight the federal and Rabasa forces. The Chamulas fought fiercely under their leader Pajarito, and the Liberal army cut off the ears of captured Indians as a lesson that civilization would prevail. A fragile truce followed a 1911 battle at Chiapa de Corzo. When President Madero was removed in a counterrevolutionary coup d'état two years later, the dilemma was temporarily resolved.

    War returned in 1914, when the Carranzista forces entered Chiapas. Gen. Jesús Agustín Castro sought to abolish the privileges of the aristocracy and finally subjugate Chiapas to the central government. This time, the Rabasa elite and the Highland elite closed ranks against the invader. The San Cristóbal oligarch Alberto Pineda assumed control of an army of masked rebels called the Mapaches (raccoons), who resisted Castro's forces. The Mapaches threw their allegiance behind Félix Díaz, a nephew of the overthrown dictator then waging a counter-revolutionary insurgency.

    The Mapaches waged a reign of terror in the Highlands against any Indians suspected of sympathizing with the revolutionary forces. In Cancuc, they summarily hanged five hundred men, nearly the whole adult male population of the village. The hanged men had their lands taken over by the Mapache officers. Huge landholdings were consolidated in such incidents--many of which remain intact today.

    Even as the centralist Carranzistas consolidated power in Mexico City, Chiapas remained quasi-independent. The new federal regime was forced once again to cut a deal with the Chiapas oligarchy. This was consolidated in 1925. President Plutarco Calles had allowed Carlos Vidal of the Chiapaneco Socialist Party, with a base among the Sosconosco farmworkers, to become governor. Within two years he was killed in a general massacre of Socialist leaders in Chiapas. The federal government acquiesced in the coup because the Socialists had equivocated on joining with the one-party state Calles was then organizing. Land reform and anti-clerical measures which were imposed elsewhere in Mexico were overlooked in Chiapas. Even Pineda remained an important landholder. Thus, the counter-revolutionary Cristero revolt, which shook rural Mexico in the 1920s, did not affect Chiapas; it was superfluous.


Copyright © 2000 Bill Weinberg. All rights reserved.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Library Journal on 2000-08-01:
The indigenous revolutionary movement that began in the early 1990s in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas has had a significant impact on all of Mexico. Among other things, it inspired the organization of similar antigovernment movements in other parts of the country. Journalist Weinberg (Native Americas magazine; War on the Land) provides an interesting panoramic view of a variety of recent movements that have developed throughout Mexico and have become an important part of the contemporary, post-NAFTA political scene in Mexico. This readable journalistic account, based primarily on newspaper articles and the author's personal research and interviews, will be of interest to university research collections specializing in Latin America as well as public libraries that serve the Latino community.DMark L. Grover, Brigham Young Univ., Provo, UT (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 2000-08-04:
Weinberg's compelling, often shocking report presents a picture of U.S.-Mexico relations that vastly differs from the one usually seen on prime-time news. It was NAFTA, he charges, that pushed the indigenous communities of southern Mexico over the brink into open rebellion, triggering the Zapatista armed revolt in the state of Chiapas. A producer at WBAI radio and a correspondent for Native Americas quarterly, Weinberg explains how NAFTA has allowed agribusiness giants to swallow up the lands Mexico redistributed by agrarian reform. Meanwhile, U.S.-sponsored sweatshops (maquiladoras) just inside Mexico's border pay workers on average $1.64 per hour; these same companies dump toxic wastes in the area, creating an ecological nightmare and spawning hepatitis epidemics and birth defects. Weinberg interviewed Zapatista rebelsÄmostly teenagers with semiautomatic riflesÄon their own turf and also conducted a rare interview with their elusive "Subcommander Marcos" (the alias of Rafael Vicente, a long-missing philosophy professor), who insists his movement is democratic, but vows a long guerrilla struggle. Weinberg details the drug cartel wars in northern Mexico and documents a web of narco-money laundering, bribes, disappearances and assassinations reaching to the highest levels of Mexico's government. (According to Weinberg, under cover of the "war on drugs" the Pentagon trains right-wing Mexican officers who use their newly acquired skills in torture and warfare to oppress Zapatistas and other indigenous Mexican protest movements.) This pointed critique of how Uncle Sam treats its southern neighbor has implications that go beyond gringo-Latino relations. (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review Quotes
Bill Weinberg gets into Indian Mexico deeper than any other reporter. Beyond Chiapas, he reports on the political-ecological tinderbox that is Mexico, and how the Mexican indigenous 500-year quest for justice will impact North America critically in the next decade.
Bill Weinberg's comprehensive yet readable page-turner brilliantly locates the Zapatista movement in its historical and social context. Based on outstanding research as well as first-hand knowledge, this excellent book is indispensable for a full understanding of the uprising, as well as movements against 'free trade' internationally.
Bill Weinberg slogs through jungles to uncover heroic insurrectionary hopes ' radical journalism the way it is supposed to be done.
Bill Weinberg slogs through jungles to uncover heroic insurrectionary hopes “ radical journalism the way it is supposed to be done.
Bill Weinberg slogs through jungles to uncover heroic insurrectionary hopes radical journalism the way it is supposed to be done.
'oeBill Weinberg gets into Indian Mexico deeper than any other reporter. Beyond Chiapas, he reports on the political-ecological tinderbox that is Mexico, and how the Mexican indigenous 500-year quest for justice will impact North America critically in the next decade.'
'oeBill Weinberg's comprehensive yet readable page-turner brilliantly locates the Zapatista movement in its historical and social context. Based on outstanding research as well as first-hand knowledge, this excellent book is indispensable for a full understanding of the uprising, as well as movements against 'free trade' internationally.'
'oeBill Weinberg slogs through jungles to uncover heroic insurrectionary hopes '" radical journalism the way it is supposed to be done.'
'oeProvides an interesting panoramic view of recent movements that have developed throughout Mexico.'
Provides an interesting panoramic view of recent movements that have developed throughout Mexico.
This item was reviewed in:
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Library Journal, August 2000
Publishers Weekly, August 2000
Boston Book Review, December 2000
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Bowker Data Service Summary
Homage to Chiapas vividly depicts the grassroots struggles for land and local autonomy now underway in an economically strategic nation. It analyses the impact on Mexico's campesinos.
Main Description
The new Zapatistas in Chiapas have served as a catalyst for revolutionary indigenous movements across Mexico, pioneering a new model of resistance and posing a powerful threat to the stability of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Homage to Chiapas vividly depicts the grassroots struggles for land and local autonomy now underway in an economically strategic nation of nearly 100 million people. Weinberg analyzes NAFTA's impact on Mexico's campesinos with on-the-spot reportage from Tabasco, where fishermen blockade state owned oil wells to protest local pollution, from Central Mexico where plans for a giant computer complex and golf course spark an Indian uprising, as well as from Chiapas where he interviews Sub-commander Marcos. He also examines Mexico's growing militarization in the name of the war on drugs and reviews the Zapatistas' challenge to their supporters to carry the struggle throughout Mexico and beyond its borders.
Unpaid Annotation
Bill Weinberg slogs through jungles to uncover heroic insurrectionary hopes radical journalism the way it's supposed to be done.
Table of Contents
Acknowledgementsp. xi
List of acronymsp. xiii
Glossaryp. xviii
Map of Mexicop. xxii
Map of Chiapasp. xxiv
New York City 1999p. 1
Chiapas 1999p. 2
The Legacy of Resistance
Five Hundred Years of Maya Rebellion: From Syncretism to the New Zapatismop. 15
"Misery in the Name of Freedom": Free Trade Mexico as a US Slave Colonyp. 37
Southern Mexico in the Free Trade Order: Political Ecology of the New Zapatismop. 66
War Cry from Chiapas
Zapata Lives: 1994p. 97
Behind Lines with Marcos: 1994p. 118
Parallel Power: 1995p. 133
The Challenge of San Andres: 1996p. 153
Stealth Counterinsurgency: 1997p. 164
Dirty War of Attrition: 1998p. 176
"A Revolution to Make a Revolution Possible"p. 187
The Flame Catches
Oil and Resistance in Tabasco: The Chontal Maya Survival Struggle in Mexico's Land of Black Goldp. 205
Guardians of Tehuantepec: Campesino Struggle and Revolutionary Echoes in Oaxaca and Guerrerop. 237
The Golf War of Tepoztlan: Popular Defense and Ecological Struggle in the Heartland of Zapatap. 253
Shadow Dances
Fire in the Sierra Madre Del Sur: Who Is the Popular Revolutionary Army?p. 279
Anatomy of the Narco-Dictatorship: The Counter-Revolution Devours Its Childrenp. 301
Opium Fields of the Tarahumara: Narco-Colonialism in the Sierra Madre Occidentalp. 323
Intervention and Solidarity in the Free Trade Order
Narco-Imperialism: The New Interventionismp. 345
Border Wars: Scapegoating or Solidarity?p. 361
Notesp. 388
Bibliographyp. 439
Indexp. 446
Table of Contents provided by Syndetics. All Rights Reserved.

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