Until 1932, Indian San Bartolomé had a typically Mesoamerican system of a civil-religious hierarchy. Political groups were territorially based; recruitment to leadership was through ceremonial organizations.
The significant unit of interaction in the territorial system was the sitio, a group composed of all households living on a single bounded house site. The owner of the sitio, if male, or the owner's husband, if the owner was a woman, was effectively the leader of the group. Contiguous sitios formed neighborhoods; the centers of these neighborhoods were known to all, but their peripheries were only vaguely distinguished. Neighborhoods were potential support groups behind individual leaders. Neighborhoods in the Indian areas of the town were divided into five barrios, larger areas with explicit boundaries. Each barrio recognized a legitimated group of leaders. Finally, the Indian community as a whole was divided into two endogamous moieties: the "upper" section, consisting of the barrios of Calvario, San Sebastián, and Convento, and the "lower" section, those of Señor del Pozo and San Pedro. "Upper" and "lower" referred to elevation on the mountainside, not to status.
Ceremonial groups were organized in a single status hierarchy. Each of the five barrios had a ceremonial organization to celebrate its annual fiesta. Similar organizations at the community level were dedicated to saints and the celebration of their fiestas. Each fiesta group had four ranked officers, the mayordomos. Higher status groups had additional upper-level officers, alcaldes and alféreces. Many groups also enlisted temporary participants for their annual fiesta day.
Men accrued status and power through periodic service in named offices at rising levels in the fiesta groups. Officeholding required a man to be joined by his wife or a relative able to provide equivalent services. Officeholders paid all the expenses of monthly public ceremonies and the annual fiesta; their wives prepared food for participants and onlookers. Each successive level of service required larger expenditures; the highest office, alférez of San Bartolomé, cost the equivalent of several years' income.
Men were required to serve up to four times as mayordomos as they accumulated enough surplus to pay the cost. Prayer leaders and ritual musicians were permanently exempt from mayordomo service, and those who accepted public ritual roles for the day of a major fiesta were exempt from other service that year. Once a man had been mayordomo four times, he became a pasado, one who had passed through. He did not have to serve again. Pasados with certain Tzotzil surnames had hereditary eligibility to take on higher ceremonial offices if they chose, but they could not be required to do so. A pasado who served in three higher offices became a principal, a legitimated leader entitled to both decision-making power and ritual deference.
San Bartolomé had a town council of six regidores and an alcalde; these named political offices were alternated annually between moieties. These offices conferred no decision-making power; any communitywide decisions were made by the principales. Internal disputes at the community level were adjudicated by principales; they also controlled interchanges with outsiders. They had the power to arrest and jail Indians, to assess fines and penalties, and to expel community members. Each barrio was led by a council consisting of all principales of the barrio. They exercised similar power within the barrio.
Specific portions of communal lands were assigned to each barrio and controlled by barrio principales. Members of other barrios within the same moiety were granted usufruct without payment, but men from the other moiety had to pay for the right to use barrio lands. In rare cases in which a man wanted to marry across moiety lines, he had to get permission of the principales of his potential spouse's moiety.
Traditional recruitment to the rank of principal ended in 1932 when fiestas were banned and the Indian government was suppressed. In the final years of the old system, a young Indian who was literate in Spanish was hired by the Indian government to serve as communal scribe. He used his control of paperwork to insert himself as cultural broker between the Indian community and the outside world. The scribe was not a principal, but the links he set up with principales from all five barrios gave him a unique support base, which he converted into effective political power. His example and his day-to-day political maneuvering encouraged others to seek power by nontraditional means.
New-style leaders accumulated power through multiplying dyadic links of several kinds. The core of their support came from control of a sitio group and from close consanguineal kin. From this base, leaders recruited supporters by managing strategic marriages to gain the support of new affines. They solicited ritual kinship to bind others to the support group. Emerging leaders made special efforts to link up with close neighbors, and with traditional-style principales. Leaders also encouraged possible followers to work fields close to their own. The initial labor investment in clearing a field would only be repaid if the same field were planted several years in a row. Shared tasks and close association in the milpas over the years led to particularly solid relationships. Of course, every man had many individual ties to birth, affinal, and ritual kin, as well as to neighbors both in town and in the fields. What marked the new style of leader was the conscious doubling and tripling of such links by means such as inviting work companions to become compadres, marrying a daughter to a neighbor, and encouraging close kin to join a work group in the fields. Those bound to a rising leader through multiple links became his solid support group and the source of his power.
When open celebrations of fiestas returned in 1940, they were organized by the new-style leaders, and old-style principales took a secondary role. It was no longer possible to jail or fine men for refusing to take ceremonial offices. Instead, expenses of fiestas were paid by public contributions, barrio by barrio.
Organized by the new leaders, all the barrio principales went in a body from house to house collecting payments for the fiestas. Since acting mayordomos no longer faced large cash outlays, men were willing to serve voluntarily. The major barrio fiestas are still celebrated, but some other fiestas are extinct, and the remainder have not had mayordomos for many years.
Gradually, the new-style leaders took over control from the traditional principales in landholding organizations as well as in the fiestas. Indeed, they came to be called principales even though none of them had completed the requisite service. They continued to show ritual deference to the old-style principales, and were not themselves shown the same kind of deference. Still, the new-style principales became the recognized leaders of the community. The five barrios continue as significant political subunits. The barrios of each moiety of the past continue as allies against the barrios of the opposite moiety.
Beginning in the 1970s, competing groups of new-style principales have sought support from competing national organizations. Affiliates of the Confederación Nacional Campesina (CNC), essentially a subunit of the reigning Institutional Revolutionary party (PRI), formed "La Casa del Pueblo." With help from CNC organizers, they seized control of the main communal lands and ejected those who did not accept the leadership of CNC-linked principales. Others broke away, joining established ejido with support from the National Institute of Agrarian Reform in taking over other communal land. Other leaders took their followers into militant statewide peasant groups, "invading" both Indian and Ladino landholdings. These invasions at times led to transfer of land titles to members of the occupying group; sometimes such a group holds control by armed force without legal title. Struggles over land are now the principal arena of San Bartolomé politics.