Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The main agricultural activities, such as cultivation of maize, beans, squashes, or cacao, have been continued from pre-Hispanic times through the twentieth century. In Pre-Hispanic times, the Zoque traded cacao, quetzal feathers, yellow topaz, and cotton cloth with the neighboring Maya and Nahua. They use cochineal dye to decorate cloth and skins. The colonial Spanish disrupted the networks of commerce and oriented the economy toward the production of goods needed by the colonial empire. Plantations were established to increase production of cochineal, cotton, sugarcane, and cattle.
After the annexation of Chiapas by Mexico during the third decade of the nineteenth century, basic cultigens continued to be raised, but the Zoque worked on cattle ranches and on colonial cacao, banana, and coffee plantations established on what was historically Zoque land. In many instances, the Indian peasants began to raise coffee instead of maize and sugarcane on their own land. Zoque seeking wage-labor opportunities have worked in the construction of tourist complexes on the Caribbean and Pacific coasts.
Industry. Textiles were the most important local industry, especially in Chiapas territory; however, already in the 1940s there was a marked decline in handmade textiles because they could not compete with cheaper manufactured goods. The Zoque in Oaxaca produce spun and woven goods from ixtle, especially bags, sacks, hammocks, and nets, which they sell in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec or che lowlands of Chiapas and Tabasco. Both the Oaxaca as well as the Chiapas Zoque make clay cooking pots, casseroles, and jugs, but the tendency has been to substitute industrially produced plastic and metal items for these. In the Sierra de Pantepec some old people still weave baskets, taking them to sell outside their communities.
Trade. Long before the pre-Hispanic period, the Zoque already had an important trade network over land and riverine routes that connected the Pacific coast to the highlands of Chiapas and the piedmont of the Gulf of Mexico. Many of these routes were followed by the Spaniards in their conquest, and today they are highways and roads. The main items of trade were cacao, maize, beans, chilies, fine cloth, grinding stones, straw mats, baskets, and quetzal feathers. With the arrival of the Spaniards, this trade decreased and, in the twentieth century (especially since roads have been made passable), a large number of Zoque have bought industrially manufactured products—specifically, woven goods, shoes, and household appliances—wholesale, in order to sell them in their own and neighboring communities.
Division of Labor. Men are in charge of cultivating the land, tending cattle, and manufacturing items such as pottery and basketry, whereas women take care of the home, the children, and small domestic animals (chickens and turkeys). Often women will also work in ceramics and textiles. Present-day economic needs have caused both men and women to leave their communities to work as wage laborers in the city. Women, generally the single ones, work as domestic servants. Boys help their fathers in the field; it is very unusual for them to go to school after the age of 12. Something similar occurs with young girls, who take care of their younger siblings.
Land Tenure. It can be inferred that during pre-Hispanic times a calpulli system organized kinship and residential relations. During the colonial period, the Spanish Crown granted communities land for subsistence and tribute. The land continued to belong to the Crown and was distributed as usufruct in the form of family plots. The Crown also gave the community pastures and forest lots, known as ejidos. Communal lands attracted Spanish colonists, who seized them and established commercial farms and cattle ranches. Where communal land was taken over by the colonists, the Zoque suffered a rapid sociocultural transformation. In the second half of the nineteenth century, the "liberal" policies of the Mexican government destroyed the remaining system of communal land tenure. "Liberalization" led to an increase in the expanse of commercial farms and a loss of land for the Zoque. This was only partially corrected by the postrevolutionary policy under which the modern ejido became the foundation of the Indian peasants' right to cultivate their own land. Beginning in the 1930s, ejidos were given to the Zoque.