Tzotzil speakers entered the Chiapas Highlands around A . D . 1000. After the Conquest, the Spanish implemented a policy of reducción, moving the scattered population into towns built on a standard model. San Bartolomé appears in historical records of the late 1500s. It has been continuously occupied ever since. All regional censuses, beginning in 1572, have listed substantial numbers of both Ladinos and Indians in the town center. Colonial censuses also list "mulattos" and "Negroes" as residents, but the terms are not used in post-1821 census records. The basic relations between Ladinos and Indians were those of dominance and subordination from the town's founding until the 1970s.
From Mexican independence from Spain in 1821 through 1932, the town of San Bartolomé had two parallel governing bodies: the official town council and municipal officers, who were all Ladinos, and a separate, officially tolerated Indian government. The Indian political system was intimately linked with a structure of religious offices connected with the celebration of religious fiestas.
The Indian governing structure was suppressed by the state government in 1932. At the same time, public celebrations of religious fiestas were prohibited, and new names were given to all towns formerly named after Catholic saints. Both the town and the municipio of San Bartolomé de los Llanos were renamed Venustiano Carranza; however, when speaking Spanish, Indians continued to call themselves San Bartoleños. The separate Indian political system was maintained but not publicly or legally recognized. Lay prayer leaders continued religious services, and saints' days were commemorated, but churches were padlocked and there were no public celebrations of religious fiestas.
Churches were reopened and fiesta celebration recommenced with the change of government in 1940, but there was no resident priest between 1932 and 1954. National emphasis on agrarian reform led to the creation of a series of ejido communities within the municipio in the 1930s. Most members of these new communities were Indians of San Bartolomé, but they also included some landless, poor Ladinos. The land base of the new ejidos was taken from lands claimed by the traditional Indian community. Ejido members moved away from the town center to new towns in their newly granted lands, but their Indian majorities recognized a spiritual connection to their former home. When town fiestas were reinstated, Indian ejido members participated and held religious offices.
Completion of a hydroelectric dam across the Río Grijalva in the early 1970s displaced several of the major ejido communities. Resettlement was undertaken by several agencies of government, with little coordination among them. The allocation of lands to the resettled communities was confused, and neighboring towns often made competing claims to the same lands. Ominously, some of the monetary compensation to the displaced communities went to purchasing weapons from international sources.
Disputes over access to land led to repeated armed conflict between opposing Indian groups beginning in 1976 and continuing ever since. As these groups gained armed strength, they also began taking back lands from Ladino ranchers. The largest group, successors to the traditional Indian community of the town center, took credit for the assassination of a well-known, politically powerful Ladino rancher in 1976. Others received death threats, and several Ladino leaders fled the town.
Traditionally, the Indian community looked inward, and Indians of other communities were not seen as having common interests. In the 1970s internal factions began to seek outside allies among other Indians. At the urging of political activists from Mexico City in the mid-1970s, three militant peasant organizations founded in Venustiano Carranza expanded to other towns. This led to increasing solidarity among Indian communities across Chiapas. Intracommunity relationships in recent years are also reflected in greater political participation at the national level.
The January 1994 uprising of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) intensified pan-Indian interaction both in support of official national policy and in opposition to it. Political openings arising from the Zapatista rebellion have been exploited by multicommunity peasant organizations, and San Bartoleños have played a prominent role. Ladinos have openly organized in resistance to Indian demands, and they have been raising private armies to intimidate Indian communities. The presence of about half of the entire Mexican army in Chiapas has complicated all of these conflicts.
By 1995 large areas within the municipio had gone out of production because of uncertainties about who would end up controlling them. Thousands of hectares of arable land changed hands in 1994, often because of extralegal seizures. Every month during 1994 groups of Indians occupied land as squatters, locally called "invaders." For a time, government agencies responded by paying landowners for the occupied lands, and then granting them to landless peasants, not necessarily the squatters who began the process. After the August 1994 elections, this program stopped. Private armies, organized by Ladino landholders, frequently were used to eject squatters. Just before planting time in 1995, a large group representing the San Bartolomé community attempted to occupy communal lands to which legal title had recently been reconfirmed. They were met by the army and state police. There were five deaths.