Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Prior to the Spanish Conquest, Tabasco was a major agricultural and commercial area. Farmers raised not only subsistence crops (maize, beans, squashes, sweet potatoes, and manioc) but also commercial crops, such as cacao. The majority of Chontal subsistence farmers still till their land in the same slash-and-burn manner as their pre-Columbian ancestors. They grow most of the same subsistence crops, as well as plantains and rice. Raising household animals, hunting, and fishing help to supplement the Chontal diet.
Modern commercial farming is limited largely to the production of tropical and subtropical crops, such as cacao, sugarcane, bananas, and coconuts. Cattle raising is also an important commercial enterprise. From 1625 to 1925, the exploitation of tropical-forest products was next in importance to farming and cattle raising. Today the lumber industry is of minor importance, because of overcutting. Commercial fishing, particularly of shrimp, has increased in importance since 1950. Beginning in the 1950s, Tabasco's economy grew astronomically, based on the exploitation of petroleum and natural gas. Consequently, the Chontal are prosperous, compared to most Mayan groups in Mexico and Guatemala, primarily owing to the petroleum industry. The modern economy of Tabasco and the Chontal is tied to the economy of Mexico and the world.
Industrial Arts. For many years, the hat industry was the most important enterprise of the Chontalpa; Chontal Maya men, women, and children used their free time to weave long strips of palm leaf. As the demand for these hats has diminished, and as opportunities for wage labor have increased, the hat industry has lost its importance. Many traditional arts—such as hat weaving, gourd carving, embroidering, and some types of pottery making—continue to be of primary importance because of the tourist market.
Division of Labor and Land Tenure. Traditionally, the Chontal Maya have been subsistence farmers or ranchers. Chontal communities are surrounded by farmland owned or rented by Chontal Maya. Some communities were established as ejidos, settlements formed around the new lands that were created by land reform. As the Tabascan economy has boomed, however, so has the number of wage jobs increased.
Chontal men are the traditional breadwinners of the family, either as subsistence farmers or as wage earners. The women are responsible for domestic chores and child rearing. More and more Chontal women are becoming wage earners, however, as Chontal communities become part of mainstream Mexico.