Tojolab'al - History and Cultural Relations

After the Spanish Conquest, the Tojolwinit'otik suffered from unprecedented exploitation, which continues to this day. As a result of it, they have seen a drastic reduction in the extension of their best lands, the product of their labor going to others, and the irrevocable loss of many elements of their culture.

Early on, the fertile area around Comitan attracted the Spanish invaders. Although, in the beginning, Comitan was no more than one of the "large villages" of what was called the province of Los Llanos, it soon became the economic axis of this region, which can aptly be described as a mosaic. Within it can be found dense forests of conifers and oak groves in the northern triangle; the high jungle of the western plains; the wide plains of the southern triangle, irrigated by the Río Grijalva and its affluents; and riverbeds and small fertile valleys in the east, where minor rivers and lagoons dot the landscape. The scene changed from conifers to subhumid forests of aromatic balsams and oaks before descending into the high green Lakandon jungle, now cut down mercilessly.

The multizoned ecology eventually supported a complex of farming and animal husbandry including the raising of maize, wheat, sugarcane, cotton, and cattle, and the collection of salt. A fair portion of the commerce between Guatemala and New Spain passed through this area.

The province was, at the same time, an ethnic mosaic, where Tojolab'al, Cabil, Tzeltal, and Totique (Tzotzil) settled, and where these people met the Mocho', Lakandon, Chuj, Q'anjob'al, Mam, and Jakalteko. These different peoples had differing levels of social organization, but all eventually became a source of available and exploitable labor.

To the south of Comitan there were also a series of pueblos that colonial chronicles call "Coxoh." The general tendency had been to consider them Tzeltal, but nowadays it is believed that they were probably Tojolab'al (Lenkersdorf 1986).

At first, the conquerors and their descendants who had settled in Ciudad Real seem to have been satisfied with collecting tribute from the villages in the region of Llanos. The Dominican friars, however, taking advantage of the legislation that allowed them to live in the Indian towns and their ascendancy over the population as a result of their increasing familiarity with local languages and their roles as spiritual leaders, began accumulating property, especially in the warmer areas, from around the second half of the sixteenth century.

When the Crown disallowed the encomiendas, the loss of these tributaries made direct spoliation an insufficient mechanism to ensure the economic well-being of the Spanish civilians of Ciudad Real, so they began to turn their attention toward the Indian settlements in Comitan and the surrounding area.

As cattle ranches, sugar mills, and other types of businesses proliferated, there was an increase in miscegenation and indigenous acculturation. It also gave many Indians the possibility of escaping heavy fiscal, ecclesiastical, and communal taxes as well as a precarious existence in villages that were periodically afflicted with epidemics. In 1795 some Indians themselves mentioned this human crucible, noting that their village was made up of Spaniards, mestizos, and Ladinos, as well as themselves.

The increase in the mestizo population and the greater integration of local economies into the regional market, as well as the reorganization undertaken by the Bourbon regimes in modifying tributary and labor policies, led to a movement of the Indian working force to cattle ranches and haciendas. Indirectly it encouraged Ladinization of many of the indigenous peoples and, in the process, altered the level of regional mobilization.

The struggle for independence did not in any way mean the end of indigenous oppression. Various republican regimes took advantage of the rationale of judicial equality for exploiting the little remaining communal land that the indigenous peoples had managed to keep. Then began a period of veritable slavery for the Indians employed in haciendas, which indentured them for generations.

In 1931, after the Mexican Revolution, the first timid land distribution began. The peons in the fincas (commercial farms) were freed from their debts and given land. From each finca one, two, and even three ejidos were formed out of hacienda land.

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