Indigenous Self-Reliance. San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico.
Competing Visions that Mediate Reform.

Researcher: Gaspar Morquecho Escamilla. Reporter and bookstore owner, San Cristóbal. Helped found and run the first cultural and development centers in the city's urban periphery.
Researcher: Dr. Jan Rus. Research professor at the Centro de Estudios Superiores de México y Centroamérica (CESMECA) in San Cristóbal de Las Casas.

Project Description:

In the early 1970s, San Cristóbal was a small town of ladinos, with Tzotzil- and Tzeltal-speaking people living in the surrounding mountains in fourteen indigenous municipalities. Indians who found themselves in San Cristóbal at nightfall had to get off the streets to a secure place - a church patio or the home of a patron - until morning or run the risk of being jailed. Forty years later, we find a city of more than 200,000, half of them Mayans who inhabit some eighty indigenous colonias, or shantytowns, ringing the old colonial town center. In the span of two generations, indigenous people have become full economic and political actors in San Cristóbal, developing urban self-reliance networks based on indigenous cultural resources. In turn, the city's ladino elite has shifted from a position of overt racism and hostility regarding the presence of Mayans in the city to new forms of cultural and economic accommodation.

In the early 1970s, the population of the city of San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, and the small mountain valley around it stood at less than 30,000, little changed in the preceding 150 years. Virtually all were Spanish-speaking ladinos, the term in highland Chiapas and Guatemala that traditionally glosses everyone who is not indigenous. The city was the regional center for the surrounding Chiapas Highlands whose mountains and forests contained 14 indigenous municipios with approximately 150,000 Tzotzil- and Tzeltal-speaking people. From colonial times, the city had been both a necessary and a proscribed space for the indigenous - a place where they came to the market, to visit government and Church offices, and to secure contracts and advance payments for the migratory agricultural work that was their principal source of income. Despite this close relationship, however - or rather, given the necessity of maintaining the privileges and control of a non-indigenous minority versus an overwhelmingly indigenous majority, because of it - the city maintained a kind of apartheid. Still at the beginning of the 1970s, for instance, indigenous people who found themselves in San Cristóbal at nightfall had to get off of the streets and to a secure place - a church patio or the home of a patron - until morning or run the risk of being jailed for the night. Given the rigor of this exclusion, indigenous people avoided going to the city any more than necessary. Those who did move into town, typically as servants, soon abandoned indigenous clothing and as much as possible spoke Spanish; they became ladinos.

Turning to the San Cristóbal of today, forty years later, we find a city of more than 200,000, half of them now speakers of Tzotzil and Tzeltal who inhabit some eighty colonias, or shanty-towns, ringing the old colonial city. In some ways, the rural-urban migration embodied in this "new" city replicates that of other Latin American cities over the last half century. Superficially, the only difference is that the Chiapas highlands came late to the transformation, becoming perhaps the last major region of the subcontinent to urbanize. A closer look, however, reveals some sharp distinctions between San Cristóbal's urbanization and that elsewhere. Through its first three decades, right up to the end of the 1990s, San Cristóbal's ladinos continued in general to resist what they perceived as the indigenous "invasion" of their city. In response, indigenous people, driven out of the countryside by demographic and economic pressures not unlike those of other regions, were compelled to develop extraordinarily coherent, militant forms of organization first to push their way into the city and acquire land, and then to secure urban services and eventually political representation and power.

From a distance, some of this coherent organization appears to be a carryover from the historical pattern of dyadic ethnic division:ladinos resisted the indigenous presence as ladinos, and urban Indians organized on their side as Indians. In fact, however, there were profound organizational innovations on both sides. The indigenous migrants, most of whom at the beginning were Protestant converts, soon developed independent political and economic organizations that were at first aligned with their new religious denominations, but soon transcended those boundaries and came to represent entire neighborhoods and groups of neighborhoods, and eventually assumed the functions of labor unions as well. At the same time that the members of these organizations were transcending their religious denominations, they were also uniting across former boundaries of community of origin, and even linguistic divisions. What emerged was a new kind of secular, "pan-Indian," or as people had come to say by the 2000s, Maya political association.

Meanwhile, concomitant changes were also reshaping the ladino side of the dyad. Against the backdrop of a tourist boom that began in the 1980s, and then the Zapatista Rebellion in 1994, increasing numbers of San Cristóbal entrepreneurs and ladino politicians realized they could not have the peace they needed with their Maya neighbors unless they themselves altered their own views and actions. The economic accommodation appears to have come first: as the city's economy accelerated through the 1980s, ladino businesses of all kinds - construction, supermarkets, hotels and restaurant - expanded, and the owners gradually began to appreciate the ready supply of workers represented by the formerly reviled indigenous colonias. Meanwhile, by the second half of the 1980s, ambitious politicians had also realized that the urban colonists' multi-neighborhood associations made it possible to exchange urban services and benefits for votes in a systematic way. At first both of these relationships, economic and political, were largely obscured by a rhetoric of exclusion, even by those ladino entrepreneurs and politicians who participated in them. Following the 1994 rebellion, however - and in particular the Maya rebels' several-day occupation of San Cristóbal - the urban Maya became more assertive, and the ladino elite eventually responded by ceding more space to them in return for economic partnership and institutional, formally democratic decision-making. For the time being, economic and political accommodation allow the ladino elite to maintain its control, while Maya leaders believe it will eventually allow them to take over.

The San Cristóbal chapter in the Enduring Refrom volume explores this forty year process of movement through conflict toward coexistence historically, showing how the actions of each side led the other to modify its organization and rhetoric as they both learned to pursue their group and individual goals in an increasingly complicated urban environment. It also factors in the changes in the larger political-economic context that affected both sides, from the oil boom of the 1970s, through the depression of the 1980s and the rebellion of the mid-1990s.

In San Cristóbal de las Casas, ladino elites modified their overt racism of the past in order to coexist economically and politically with an increasingly self-conscious and militant Mayan majority. Indigenous organizing and the Zapatista rebellion have constrained elite capacities to employ repression, and doing business with Indians on more equal terms enhances economic success in the expanding urban market economy.

In this context, elites speak of the need for urban planning, where there was none before, using it to keep decision-making in their hands; and they propose new though limited political and economic rights for Indians, believing that such rights are theirs to give. In turn, the city's increasingly educated Mayans, many of whom have lived and worked in the US, envision expanding their own marketing, transportation, and policing networks, competing in conventional economic and political arenas, and eventually governing the city. Thus in San Cristóbal, Ladino and Mayan visions constitute competing alternatives for the future of the city that play out in urban spaces the two groups occupy in overlapping ways. Ladinos and Mayans negotiate this new terrain in the Chiapan context of uncertainty over both democratic procedures and public violence.