Tzotzil of Chamula - Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The extended family, compadrazgo, and the cargo system constitute the backbone of sociopolitical organization in Chamula. The cargo system in Chamula is a variant of civil-religious hierarchies in indigenous Mesoamerica, a system through which individuals alternate between civil and religious positions, thus climbing the ladder of prestige and power in their communities. The Chamula express their strong feeling of community by serving in this traditional hierarchy. Assisting the deities, they bring blessings upon their families and all the Chamula people.

Political Organization. The regional town council, the traditional form of government, consists of several civil officials selected by a group of respected community elders. Its function is to uphold traditional Chamula values, arbitrate disputes over lands, and resolve intrafamilial problems. The regional town council also includes the religious hierarchy, a body of officials who sponsor public and private celebrations in honor of the saints. The regional town council represents a survival of the system of government that prevailed before the direct intervention of national and state controls in local affairs. Although Spanish and Mexican authorities had always encroached upon the affairs of Chamula, the government has intervened directly in its political life since the 1930s. Through the creation of the constitutional town council mandated by law, the government effectively manipulates the Chamula governing elite. A native elite has benefited from these ties, becoming rich and powerful while acting against their own people. This new imposed system has diminished the influence of the traditional system of government in which community and religion were central guiding forces.

Social Control. Shame is a powerful deterrent both for children who are learning Chamula ways and for adults who stray from the community's mores; hence, gossip acts as a central control mechanism. Minor offenses are punished by the regional council: the offender is shamed before a large audience at the town hall and is required to spend a few days in jail in Chamula. Rape and murder cases are adjudicated by the state authorities outside Chamula and punished by terms in state prisons.

Conflict. Since the early 1970s, political opposition against the ruling oligarchy in Chamula has taken the form of religious conversion to several evangelical sects. Converts oppose the authority of ilols (shamans), object to paying taxes for celebrations they consider pagan, and stop buying liquor. The ruling elite claims this behavior imperils the unity and cultural continuity of the Chamula people and, consequently, expels the converts. More than 15,000 people have been ousted in this way. The converts usually establish residence in colonies close to Chamula, on the outskirts of the Ladino town of San Cristóbal de las Casas. Conflict between traditional Chamula and expelled converts periodically erupts in violence and has become a major source of instability in Chamula.

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