Identification. The indigenous Tzotzil- and Tzeltal-speaking highland Maya Indians share the municipio of Pantelhó—which means "bridge over water" in Tzotzil— with an equal number of Tzeltal Maya and a small group of Ladinos; the latter two groups include both recent immigrants and long-term residents.
Migrations, shifting municipio boundaries, and political considerations make identity a matter of social construction rather than immutable fact. The Ladinos of Pantelhó define themselves in opposition to the indigenous population and identify with the larger Mexican culture. The indigenous population defines itself as "Catarinero" (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.
Location. The municipio of Pantelhó is located on the northern edge of the highlands, 48 kilometers north of San Cristóbal de las Casas, a commercial and administrative center. Surrounded by Indian municipios, Pantelhó circumscribes 137 square kilometers, extending from 17°00′ to 17°07′ N and 92°31′ to 92°25′ W.
Steep hillsides and deep valleys make up most of the land area of Pantelhó. Pantelhó's hillsides range up to 1,400 meters, 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, descends to 500 meters. 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 1,000 meters. Annual temperatures range from 4° C to 32° C. The warmest months are April and May, the coldest December and January. The greater portion of the 150 centimeters of annual precipitation falls between May and December.
Demography. Historical documents indicate Pantelhó was abandoned between 1713 and 1796. In 1809 the parish priest reported a thriving community of 602 souls, but epidemics of measles and cholera ravaged Pantelhó throughout the eighteenth century. For example, between January and March of 1843, 186 people died of cholera. Nevertheless, the community's population continued to grow, reaching 721 in 1825; 871 in 1850; 2,860 in 1900; and 3,953 in 1950. In 1990, 13,949 people lived in Pantelhó.
Tzotzil and Tzeltal Maya, in roughly equal numbers, constitute the majority of Pantelhó's population. In 1990 only 7 percent of the residents of Pantelhó were Ladinos, a decline from 14 percent in 1980. The Tzotzil are concentrated in the cabecera, or "headtown," and a few other hamlets on the south side of the river. The Tzeltal predominate in hamlets on the north side of the river and in some more recently established hamlets on the south side. Despite this general tendency, Tzotzil and Tzeltal live together in several communities.
Linguistic Affiliation. The indigenous populations of Pantelhó speak Tzotzil and Tzeltal, two closely related Mayan languages from the Maya-Quiché Family. Pantelhó's dialects of these two languages are, to some extent, mutually intelligible, and municipio business may be conducted in either. The indigenous languages are spoken at home and in bilingual classrooms. Whereas the older generations are often monolingual Tzotzil or Tzeltal speakers, the younger generation is becoming more competent in Spanish.