Tojolab'al - Sociopolitical Organization



Community structure is rather lax; individuals identify themselves as members of a community and show this even in the small variations in typical female dress. Although it is said that local authority was formerly vested in a council of elders, today the political offices in each colony are limited to those of the ejido commissioner, agente municipal, church president, and their respective helpers, secretary-treasurer, policemen, and alféreces.

The significance of such posts is rather limited. The church president, for example, limits himself to opening the church on Saturdays, making sure that prayer services are performed (led by a chatechist), and serving the priest when he visits the community. Although cofradías were common in the area until the nineteenth century, there is no record of any today.

The agente municipal is elected in an assembly and holds his post for a year, during which he plays the difficult role of intermediary between the community and the municipal authorities.

The most important post is that of the ejido commissioner, elected in the assembly and ratified by the municipio (which is controlled by mestizos). His main areas of activity are the organization of agricultural labor and the resolution of local problems, situations in which he acts as a mere regulator and represents the group's decisions, because, in the last analysis, decisions are always taken by the community assembly. This does not mean, however, that the Tojolab'al practice pure democracy. There are fragmentary power units focused on family nuclei, each of which tries to carry water to its own mill. Nonetheless, anyone can express his opinion and defend his point of view, and final decisions are always made by consensus; an assembly can consequently last an entire day.

Community cohesion is faced with increasingly adverse conditions. It is being threatened by the divisionary tactics of the political parties (Institutional Revolutionary party, Revolutionary Democratic party) and the cult of individualism encouraged by the new churches and sects, which multiply vertiginously in the area. Intracommuriity confrontations, including armed conflicts, are ever more frequent.

Economic activities and rituals also reflect community structures, for example, in obligatory community work; in jelanel, lending grain in times of scarcity; in k'otak'in , sacrificing cattle that are hopelessly hurt, cutting up the carcass, and selling the meat within the community to help the animal's owner recuperate from the loss; and finally, when a neighbor needs more manual labor than his family can supply. Such a person can appeal to the community assembly for help. The assembly then names those who are to help him and fixes the wages to be paid, which are always lower than those demanded when working outside the community.

Community efforts to keep its members immersed in a climate of cooperation and friendship are not always successful. Conflicts are frequent, and, at times, a great deal of energy and wisdom is required on the part of the authorities and the community to keep them from ending up in fights that, given the network of extensive kinship relations, could involve the entire population.

In the highlands and in the poorer riverbed communities, where land disputes have led to occupations by the landless Indians and have been brutally put down by the military and paramilitary, ejido unions tend to achieve a greater ethnic unity as an effective defense against the interests of the dominant mestizo group.

In the early 1990s some Tojolab'al groups nominated Indians for municipio posts. Although they did not win, the Tojolab'al are conscious of their rights and have been strengthening their position in successive elections; the consciousness of being an oppressed people crystallizes with increasing frequency in revindicatory agrarian, economic, political, and ethnic demands.


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