Identification. The name "Zoque" is applied to different groups who today live in the states of Tabasco, Oaxaca, and Chiapas, in southeastern Mexico. They have been called by the name of their language, "Zoque," although they like to call themselves "O' de pot," that is to say, "people who have a language" or "human speech." The origin of this name is uncertain, although it is believed that it comes from the word zoquitl, of Nahua origin, meaning "mud" or "humid earth."
Location. The Zoque peoples live in the mountains of the northwestern portion of the state of Chiapas, known as the Sierra de Pantepec, and on the two slopes of the lowlands that originate there: the plains of the Gulf of Mexico in the states of Tabasco and Chiapas and the plains of the Central Depression of Chiapas. Zoque also live in the eastern part of the state of Oaxaca, where the municipios of San Miguel and Santa María Chimalapa meet in what is called the Selva de los Chimalapas. Zoque land contains mountain ranges, hilly terrain, plateaus, ravines, and small valleys. Settlements range between elevations of 330 meters in Tecpatán and 1,770 meters in the Selva de los Chimalapas.
The climate is varied, ranging from the hot lowlands to the cold high-mountain regions. The rainy season, between May and October, is generally extensive, with abundant precipitation, especially in the Sierra de Pantepec and in the Gulf piedmont, places where populations have located in the river flood plains because of their fertility.
The eruption of the Chichonal volcano in 1982 resulted in the disappearance of the municipio of Francisco León and some of the surrounding area. Survivors relocated in other communities of the state of Chiapas, even in such little-known and inhospitable habitats as the Chiapas jungle.
Demography. After the conquest of Chiapas by the Spaniards in 1523, the Zoque population declined, with no increase until after 1877, during the government of the dictator Porfirio Díaz. Census data from 1895 and 1900 show that the Zoque population of Chiapas, Tabasco, and Oaxaca did not exceed 20,000 inhabitants at that time. In 1970 the Zoque population oscillated between 27,000 and 30,000 inhabitants, and in 1980 it reached nearly 40,000. The 1990 census registered 43,160 speakers of Zoque; however, the territorial dispersion of the Zoque, the fact that the census is based only on those who speak the language, and the noninclusion of minors below 5 years of age make it very difficult to establish a reliable count of the Zoque population.
Linguistic Affiliation. Zoque linguistic affiliation is still a subject of discussion, but recent evidence shows the existence of a Mixe-Zoque-Popoluca Language Family. Giottochronological data indicate that these languages may have derived from that spoken by the Olmec. There are several dialectal variations within the modern Zoque language.