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Tzotzil People: History, Language & Religion

Instructor: Grace Pisano

Grace has taught high school history in several states with a master's degree in teaching.

The Tzotzil people of southeast Mexico connect ancient Mayan cultures with Spanish influences. In this lesson, we will examine how their history, language, and religion show us a cultural fusion of these two societies.

An Independent Group within Mexico

If you were traveling through southeastern Mexico and happened upon a group of Tzotzil people, you would recognize almost immediately that they are different from others throughout the country. Their Tzotz language is distinctly different from Spanish, their religious customs are unlike anything you have seen before, and their culture blends modern practice with tradition. Let's talk about some specific elements of the Tzotzil and you will understand what makes them so unique!

History

The Tzotzil people trace their roots to the Mayan Indians. Today they are mainly found in the state of Chiapas in southeastern Mexico. They are distinct from the rest of Mexico because the Tzotzil have their own time zone, language, and religion. How is this small community in the mountains of Mexico so different from the rest of the country?

When the Spanish arrived, the Tzotzil resisted as much of the cultural and political takeover as they could. Today they are independent and have their own form of self-government, where the men elect leaders. In addition, they run their own schools and have a law-enforcement agency independent from Mexico.

The Tzotzil live in the highlands among mountains, volcanoes, and valleys. Their climate is cool year-round with rainy summers. They are an agricultural society whose main crops are maize, beans, and squash. Since they live in a cooler climate, they breed sheep for their wool. Just how important are sheep to their history? Let's find out!

Language

Today, 300,000 people speak the Tzotz language. The word tzotz means wool, which shows the importance of sheep and their wool to the Tzotzil people. However, although it is related in appearance, the word Tzotzil in their language is actually not related to wool! Instead, the connotation of the word means ''bat people.'' Why bat people? This was the name given to them by the Spanish colonists to the area because they worshiped a bat statue.

There are five to six dialects of the language. Since each dialect is very different, some linguists say that they are almost another language entirely! Despite the linguistic differences, Tzotzil people of one language can typically understand what is being said in another dialect.

Religion

The most interesting aspect of the Tzotzil culture is how it blends together native, Mayan beliefs with the Catholicism brought over by Spanish settlers. This example of cultural syncretism, or fusion of cultures, is very strong among the Tzotzil.

The religion of the Tzotzil includes animal sacrifices, religious leaders called shamans , and fireworks. Doesn't sound like traditional Catholicism, does it? Their religion also does not include Bibles, gives the pope no authority, and places no importance on figures such as nuns or monks.

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