Identification. San Juan Chamula is a Maya township located in the highlands of central Chiapas, the southernmost state of Mexico. Chamula's Tzotzil name is "Chamo1," or "[where] the water died." According to a myth, Chamula's civil-ceremonial center was built on the site of a lake that San Juan (the patron saint) had dried up in order to make it habitable. Chamula is the largest and most densely populated of more than thirty Maya-speaking communities in the Chiapas highlands.
Location. Chamula occupies an area of 364 square kilometers and the average elevation of its lands is 2,300 meters. Most people live close to the lands they plant, in hamlets scattered along hills and basins across Chamula's eroded terrain. As a consequence of erosion, water holes, the main sources of water, tend to dry up before the rainy season. When this happens, the Chamula abandon their hamlets, temporarily or permanently, and find other places to live. The highest mountain in the region, the Tzontevitz, lies within Chamula and is sacred to the Chamula and neighboring indigenous groups.
Demography. The Chamula number around 100,000, of which about one-half live in the township, and the rest have emigrated to establish new communities both within and outside the highlands. The emigration process began more than a century ago and continues today as land shortages and political and religious conflicts force people to leave.
Linguistic Affiliation. The Chamula speak Tzotzil, a language belonging to the Tzeltalan Group (Tzotzil, Tzeltal, and Tojolab'al) of Mayan languages.