Ethnonmyms Santa Catarina Pantelhó, Catarineros, Tzotzil and Tzeltal Maya.


Identification. The people of Pantelhó are Tzotzil and Tzeltal speaking highland Maya Indians. Pantelhó means bridge over water in Tzotzil. Indigenous Tzotzil Maya share the municipio with an equal number of Tzeltal Maya and a small group of ladinos, the latter two groups represent both recent immigrants and long term residents. The ladinos of Pantelhó define themselves in opposition to the indigenous population and identify with the larger Mexican culture. The indigenous population define themselves as catarineros (from Santa Catarina Pantelhó) in opposition to other highland Indian groups, as Tzotzil or Tzeltal Indians in certain contexts both within and outside the municipio, and as indigenous people in opposition to local ladinos and in larger pan-Indian contexts. However, migrations, shifting municipio boundaries, and political considerations make identity a matter of social construction rather than immutable fact.

Location. The municipio of Pantelhó is located 30 miles north of the commercial and administrative center, San Cristóbal de las Casas, on the northern edge of the highlands municipio and is surrounded by Indian municipio. Pantelhó circumscribes 137 square kilometers extending from 17 00' to 17 07' North, and 92 31' to 92 25' West.

Steep hillsides and deep valleys make up most of the land area of Pantelhó. Pantelhó's hillsides range up to 1400 meters (4500') into what the people of Pantelhó call tierra fria (cold country) where there are occasional frosts. The valley of the Rio Grande, at the other extreme, drops to 500 meters (1600'). This is tierra caliente (hot country). Much of the land area of Pantelhó falls into the category of tierra templada (temperate climate) at an elevation of around 1000 meters (3200'). Annual temperature ranges from 40 to 90F. The warmest months are April and May, the coldest December and January. The majority of the rainfall, 1500 mm annually, occurs between May and December.

Demography. Historical documents indicate Pantelhó was abandoned between 1713 and 1796 (see history below). In 1809 the parish priest reported a thriving community of 602 souls. Epidemics of measles and cholera ravaged Pantelhó throughout the 18th century. For example, between January and March of 1843, 186 people died of cholera. Despite these tragedies the community continued to grow: 721 in 1825, 871 in 1850, 2860 in 1900, to 3953 in 1950. In 1990 13,949 people lived in Pantelhó.

Tzotzil and Tzeltal Maya, in roughly equal numbers, constitute the majority. In 1990 only seven percent of the population were ladino, declining from fourteen percent in 1980. The Tzotzil are concentrated in the cabecera or headtown and a few other hamlets on the south side of river. The Tzeltal predominate in hamlets on the north side of the river and in some newly established hamlets on the south side. Despite this general tendency, Tzotzil and Tzeltal live together in several communities.

Linguistic Affiliation.

The indigenous population of Pantelhó speak Tzotzil and Tzeltal, two closely related mayan languages from the Maya-Quiché family. Pantelhó's dialects are mutually intelligible in part and municipal business is conducted in either. The indigenous languages are spoken at home and in bilingual classrooms. The older generations are often monolingual Tzotzil or Tzeltal speakers. The younger generation is becoming more competent in Spanish.

History and Cultural Relations

The highlands of Chiapas were conquered in 1524 by the Spaniard, Luis Marín. The indigenous populations, like their counterparts throughout Latin America, were forced to provide labor and tribute under various Spanish institutions such as encomienda and repartimiento. In 1712 Indians in the highlands revolted. This revolt marked an important turning point in P's history. The revolt was quickly repressed but, because of their participation, the Indians of Pantelhó were exiled for 84 years. Allowed to return in 1796, their autonomy was short-lived. Chiapas became part of Mexico in 1824 and, as Mexico liberalized agrarian legislation over the course of the 19th century, the indigenous population became landless agricultural workers (peons) on newly established ladino ranches (haciendas). In their terms this is when they became the "slaves" of the ladinos.

The Mexican Revolution (1910 - 1920) ushered in a new era. The Constitution of 1917 established the possibility to obtain land (ejidos; see land tenure) expropriated from large ladino ranches. However, the Indians struggle for land was long and bitter. Ladino ranchers resisted expropriation through legal actions and by force of arms. Deaths occurred on both sides. Ethnic antagonisms were reinforced. The first ejidos were not granted until the 1940s and ladinos managed to maintain control of the majority of the land until the 1980s. Throughout most of this century the Indians remained poor and landless. However in the 1980s a combination of political and economic factors changed landholding patterns. By 1990 Indians controlled 90 percent of the land.

Many other changes occurred in the 1980s as well. Indians from nearby municipalities immigrated in large numbers. New communities were created on former ladino ranches. Protestant religions entered the area and gained converts (see religion).


About one-third of the population (4700) is concentrated in the headtown, also named Pantelhó. The headtown is divided into five sections: a ladino dominated center and four largely Indian barrios. The other two-thirds live in 37 recognized hamlets (agencias), ranging in size from 50 to 1000, and untold small homesteads. Settlement patterns vary from dense concentrations of households living in close proximity to widely dispersed households. Generally the ejido communities tend to be concentrated whereas the small property owners are more likely to live dispersed on individual properties, although recent public works (e.g. water, schools) have increased residential concentration.

A typical household complex consists of from one to three small buildings: a cooking/eating building -- cooking being done over a wood fire on the floor, a sleeping building -- beds consist of either a raised wooden platform or a straw mat (petate) on the floor, and a storage building. If there are fewer than three buildings (which is often the case) the building(s) will serve multiple functions. Buildings are framed with poles. The walls are made of either vertical wooden planks tied in place, or mud plastered into a corn-stalk lattice. Roofs are of either thatch or lamina (corrugated metal sheeting). Recently a few Indians have constructed houses of concrete block.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Agriculture forms the basis of the economy. The Indians of Pantelhó practice slash and burn horticulture. Fields (milpas), ranging from one-half hectare to three hectares, are cleared in March and April with machetes and axes, and burned in early May in anticipation of the coming rains. Maize (several varieties) is planted with a digging stick (abonte') in May. Milpas are weeded twice. When mature the maize plant is doubled over and left to dry. Then in September beans (principally black beans) are sown among the corn plants. In hot country a second crop of maize is planted in January. Depending on the climatic zone, bananas, chile, pineapples, squash, and tomatoes are also cultivated. Citrus trees are also common.

In the 19th century ladinos introduced coffee, along with cattle, tobacco and sugar cane to the area. After obtaining land, Indians continued the cultivation of coffee and it has become the dominant cash crop. In 1990 Pantelhó produced over 450 metric tons. Its production and marketing represent an important source of revenue and a continuing source of conflict between largely Indian producers and ladino middlemen.

Throughout most of the last two centuries Indians labored on ladino ranches in Pantelhó or migrated to work on the coffee plantations of the southern coastal highlands (Soconusco). However, once they obtained land of their own they ceased to work for wages. Wage labor is now a pursuit of young men and those who remain landless.

Industrial Arts. The people of Pantelhó rely heavily on imported goods. They purchase machetes, ax heads, plastic and metal containers, shoes, medicines and some clothing. Indigenous crafts are limited. A few Tzeltal women continue to make clay cooking pots and comals (large flat griddles on which tortillas are cooked). The major exception is the Tzotzil women of the headtown who maintain an age old tradition of textile manufacture. Blouses for women and shirts for men are woven of imported cotton on backstrap looms and brocaded in the unique style of P. Recently women have begun to manufacture napkins and table cloths for the tourist market in San Cristobal.

Trade. Commercial activity centers on agricultural products. These products constitute the majority of items exchanged, and revenue from the sale of agricultural products (primarily coffee) is used to purchase manufactured goods, food, medicine, and transportation. The headtown is a major commercial center. A weekly regional market is held on Friday and Saturday. In addition ladinos operate several stores which sell a variety of items ranging from machetes to cheap rum (pox). They also supply smaller stores in Indian hamlets. The headtown is also a transportation hub connecting Pantelhó to San Cristóbal by bus and truck.

Division of Labor. A pronounced division of labor by gender characterizes Pantelhó, as does segregation in other aspects of life. Men's work centers on agriculture, wage labor, construction (e.g. house building) and community work projects. Men and boys clear fields and, with occasional help from wives and daughters, burn the fields, plant, weed, and harvest. Men are also responsible for cattle and horses. Women are responsible for maintaining the household. Their work includes cooking (and the processing of maize into tortillas alone is a time consuming task), cleaning, childcare, textile production, and, to varying degrees, help in the fields. Women are also responsible for raising chickens, turkeys, ducks, and pigs. Women rarely engage in wage labor.

The gender division of labor is more pronounced among the Tzotzil than the Tzeltal. Tzotzil women are less likely to work in the fields and more likely to spend time on textile manufacture. Tzotzil women also collect firewood, whereas among the Tzeltal men and women share this task.

Land Tenure. Land tenure has fluctuated repeatedly over the centuries from communal to private and vice versa. There were two forms of land tenure in Pantelhó through 1993, ejido and private. According to the Mexican Constitution qualified rural landless agriculturalists could petition the government for grants of land, ejidos. The eight ejidos in Pantelhó offered their members rights to land -- rights which could be inherited, but not ownership. Two local variations of private property, ranches and copropiedades, were found in Pantelhó. Ranches are owned by individual families, usually ladino. Copropiedades represent former ranches purchased by collective groups of Indians who assign individual ownership but often maintain an association with some control over the use and distribution of the land. Ejidos make up about 60 percent of landholdings. Most land holdings in Pantelhó, with the exception of individually owned ranches, fall between two and ten hectares.

In 1993, led by president Carlos Salinas de Gortari, Mexico changed the Constitution allowing for the privatization of the ejido, de facto ending the ejido system. The ramifications are unclear, however a comparison of ejido and non-ejido members in Pantelhó suggests increased inequalities and greater poverty are likely outcomes.


Kin Groups and Descent. The nuclear family is the fundamental kin group in Pantelhó. Frequently the nuclear family is extended to include the spouses of married children and their children. They may live in the same household area and work land cooperatively. This group, however, has no permanency, and will likely dissolve as soon as financial independence is achieved, though the youngest son will often remain to care for the aging parents and inherit the house and remaining property. Relations may continue but it is a matter of individual choice. Dyadic relations (i.e. compadrazgo) may replace kin ties.

Descent is patrilineal and the Spanish double surname (father's last name followed by mother's father's last name) is used throughout Pantelhó.

Kinship Terminology. Traditional kinship is bilateral, distinguishing lineal from collateral relatives. Relative age is also distinguished, marking younger and older siblings. Older sibling terms are often extended to non-kin as respectful terms of address.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage practices are changing. Traditional marriages were arranged by the parents and marked by bridewealth. The groom provided maize, beans, pigs, and alcohol to the bride's father. Bride wealth was substantial, the equivalent of 400 to 600 days wage labor, though it could be spread out over a period of a couple years. Nowadays young couples often meet at public events and decide to elope. Then, after the marriage has taken place, the young couple will ask to be pardoned and the groom will provide some small gifts (amounting to about 10 days wage labor) to the bride's father. Today people marry young. Men are often married by the age of 18, women by 16.

Postmarital residence is variable, being determined largely by access to land. Because fathers usually pass on land to their sons there is a tendency to live in the hamlet of the groom's family (see also domestic unit). However, lacking access to land the couple may decide to live with the bride's family or to migrate to San Cristóbal and establish a new household.

Domestic Unit. A married man usually heads the household. Female headed households are rare. A typical household consists of a husband, a wife, and their several children (on average over four). Other family members may join these households such as an aged single parent, children's spouses, and grandchildren. The household works collectively in the fields, cooks and eats together, and provides money and labor for community projects.

Inheritance. Inheritance is bilateral as per Mexican law. However, there is a marked tendency for sons to inherit productive resources such as land, coffee trees, and large domestic animals. Resources are divided equitably among the sons. Daughters usually receive a minor cash settlement or other compensation, though occasionally they inherit animals or coffee trees.

Socialization. Children are socialized in the household. They are rarely apart from their mothers. Mothers carry their children in large shawls tied on their backs as they work during the day and sleep next to them at night. Older siblings, especially girls, also play a large caretaking role. As children grow they learn by watching and working with their parents and siblings. Young boys work with their fathers and girls with their mothers. Parents are usually tolerant, children respectful, though excessive drinking does, on occasion, produce abusive behavior in adult men. School is beginning to play a larger role. Schools are found in most communities now, and are introducing Mexican national culture, history, and identity. However, because children rarely attend beyond fourth grade (to do so requires them to migrate to the headtown or outside the municipio) the impact remains limited.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. During the 19th century the Indians, as a class, were impoverished peons with little control over their lives. Marriage, residence, and other aspects of their lives were subject to control by ladino ranchers. A strong sense of shared poverty continues. High status among Indians was achieved through community service, civil and religious, and this remains true at present. However class differences are becoming more salient. Three classes are widely recognized: the landless, subsistence farmers, and those with coffee and/or cattle.

Political Organization. Political organization closely follows the Mexican pattern. A presidente municipal (municipal mayor) is elected every three years and, together with a sindico (vice-mayor), a treasurer, and six regidores, controls municipal finances, dispenses justice, and represents the municipio to the outside world. These are paid political offices. In monthly meetings representatives from each hamlet discuss issues with municipal leaders. Within their hamlets these agentes (chosen yearly) settle disputes and, with the help of secretaries and various public works directors, plan hamlet activities. These are all voluntary positions.

Social Control. Social control takes place at one of three hierarchical levels: hamlet, municipal, and state. Internal disputes are often successfully mediated by hamlet agentes. However, they have no sanctions. Minor crimes and disputes within municipal boundaries are adjudicated by the municipal mayor or judge. These officials can impose fines and/or jail time of short duration. Major crimes are often passed directly to the state judiciary or the legal section of the Indian affairs agency. Land disputes which cannot be mediated locally go to the judiciary or to the land reform office. There is a general desire among Indians to resolve their problems locally, but major conflicts, especially those crossing ethnic lines, are usually taken to outside authorities.

Conflict. Most conflicts involve land and most of these conflicts, at least through the 1980s, pitted Indian against ladino. Indian strategy to obtain land was to invade a ladino ranch, en masse, harvest the coffee, kill and eat the cattle, plant milpas, and build houses. Then they would either offer to purchase the land or petition the government for a grant of ejido. Ladinos in response, and sometimes in anticipation, would destroy Indian milpas and even whole communities. Recently land disputes between Indians have occurred.

Other sources of conflict are marital infidelity and witchcraft accusations. The first are usually settled between the households involved, the latter frequently involve assassinations of the suspected witch. Theft is very rare.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Religious beliefs and practices vary widely, often blending traditional and European. Ceremonies range from the dedication of a new water system to the Earth God to the singing of Baptist hymns on Saturday night. About 70 percent of the people are Catholic, 25 percent protestant, and some profess no religious beliefs.

Local Catholic religious practices involve various saints -- saints which combine aspects of Mayan gods and European beliefs. They pray to the saints, the saints watch over them, and they care for the saints' images (see religious practitioners). In addition many Catholics and a few others continue to believe in animal spirit counterparts (chulel).

Religious Practitioners. A Catholic priest holds regular church services and performs other ceremonies such as baptisms and marriages in the headtown for Indians and ladinos. Catechists, lay people who read and discuss the Bible, lead Catholic services in many of the hamlets. Protestant speakers (predicadores) lead church services in Pantelhó's several protestant churches. Few traditional curers live in Pantelhó; most come from neighboring municipalities.

The Tzotzils of Pantelhó have an active religious cargo system. Individual men, supported by their families, serve voluntarily in one of two sets of socially ranked cargos. There are 14 year-long positions (6 alguaciles, 4 mayores, and 4 regidores). These cargo holders are responsible for the care of the saints and perform other religious duties. Other individuals take responsibility for major celebrations (see ceremonies). Alfereces sponsor the events, often at great personal expense. They are assisted by capitanes.

Ceremonies. The most important community-wide ceremonies occur on important Catholic holidays and saints' days. Carnaval is the largest, followed by Santa Catarina (the patron saint of P), San Sebastian, San Martin, and Jesus of Good Hope. During these ceremonies food, drink, and music are provided for all. Holy Week and All Saints (todos santos) are also celebrated. Local residents believe their participation shows respect for God and will bring good fortune. Ceremonies devoted to Mayan gods are held in some hamlets before planting. Ceremonies are also held at the inauguration of new public works, on New Year's eve, and Independence Day. Curing ceremonies are held in individual households. A cure involves prayer and the ritual sacrifice of a chicken.

Arts. Women's richly brocaded textiles are the traditional form of artistic expression. Men play the flute, guitar, and violin during religious celebrations. Peonage, poverty, and hard work have left little time for the development of diverse artistic traditions.

Medicine. A wide variety of medicinal practices are found in P. Doctors are available in the headtown, and antibiotics are widely used. Trained health workers administer western medicine in the hamlets. Indian mid-wives assistant childbirth. In addition to western medicine, herbal cures are widely used to treat digestive and respiratory disorders.

Death and Afterlife. Death may be attributed to natural or supernatural causes. Untimely death is suspect, especially in the case of healthy adults or children. Sorcery will be considered as an explanation.

The dead are buried in unmarked graves in community cemeteries as soon as possible. Funeral celebrations are common and may involve considerable expense. During todos santos the graves are covered with marigold petals and candles are burned. Women ritually wail over the graves of family members. The dead are thought to return to visit their living relatives on this day and may bring good fortune if treated well, or bad fortune if neglected.


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Pete Brown

Assistant Professor of Anthropology

University of Wisconsin Oshkosh


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