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chiapas people

Misunderstood, Excluded and Abused: Who are the indigenous people of the Chiapas?

Pope Francis has spoken out against those who have mistreated and taken advantage of the indigenous population of the Mexican south: the people of the Chiapas, but who are they?


chiapas people

Chiapas is located in south-west Mexico- right a the foot of the country and near the border of Guatemala. It is the eighth-largest state in the country and neighbours the states of Tabasco, Veracruz and Oaxaca.

It has 111 villages, 12 towns and 18 major cities, the largest of which is San Cristobel de las Casas, where the Pope made his speech about the Chiapa

It is home to some notable geographical landmarks, such as the Lacandon Jungle, the beautiful Miramar Lake, the waterfall at Agua Azul and the Tacana Volcano, which is still considered active and a threat to the indigenous populations that reside nearby.


chiapas people

In the history of the indigenous people of Chiapas, there have been three known groups: the Mixes-Zoques, the Mayas and the Chiapa. It’s thought that there are roughly 3.5 million indigenous people in this state, which accounts for 13.5% of Mexico’s entire indigenous population. That makes it the fifth most ‘indianised’ state in the country.

It is thought that most of the indigenous groups in the state descended from the ancient Mayans, and their speaking language has been derived from them. Although the Chiapa people all fight for the same cause, they are split up into several closely related native languages. These include: the Tzeltal, Tzotzil, Ch’ol, Tojolabal, Zoque, Chuj, Kanjobal, Mam and Lacandon. 


chiapas people

Chiapas is Mexico’s poorest state. While widespread poverty is suffered across Latin America, the people of the Chiapas are the ones who are suffering particularly badly with 76% without homes, and the balance of wealth between its indigenous people and the rest of the population is becoming more uneven with every day that passes.

In 1994, the indigenous people of Chiapas revolted as a group known as the Zapatistas rose up against the government after tensions grew when fears emerged that their independence and agriculture felt threatened. The initial uprising was crushed by the government, but has been prolonged for decades, and indigenous groups have rebelled against the Mexican government as recently as 2014.

In some communities, tensions have also been at a high level between Catholics and Protestants. In some residential areas, people who have converted to Protestantism have been expelled from their homes, excluded and had their land taken over. They’ve also been known to have been denied their basic rights to water and electricity.


chiapas people

The indigenous people of Chiapas have been protected by many leading figures throughout their history, but their most well-known and beloved defenders were Samuel Ruiz and Bartolome de las Casas, who were both Bishops in San Cristobel.

Bartolome de la Casas was alive in the 16th century, and was known by his title ‘Protector of the Indians’. He was born in Spain but moved to Mexico and felt strongly opposed to slavery and was soon appointed Bishop of Chiapas, and set out specific laws to protect indigenous people, which outlined that anyone who mistreated them would be ex-communicated from the church.

Samuel Ruiz died as recently as 2011, and was also Bishop in Chiapas. He is held in high regard by people in Chiapas for acting as mediator during the infamous Zapatistas Uprising- attempting to calm the violence and encourage peace talks between the two parties. He was eventually forced to resign in 1998 after accusing the government of ‘simulating’ a peace resolution.

Hope For the Future

While the Chiapas people have certainly had their fair share of suffering, not only in last few decades, but continually over centuries gone, if ever there was someone they needed to vouch for their support, it was Pope Francis.

The Pope is one of the most influential figures on the planet, as well as one of the most respected. Hopefully, now that Pope Francis has spoken out about the terrible manner in which the Chiapas people are being treated, action will now be taken.

The indigenous population can at least rest assure that more awareness to their cause has been raised, as sometimes the only way to send a message is to get the world talking. The revelations made by the Pope were truly shocking and together with other campaigners across the world, there might be optimism that the Southern state of Mexico can find the independence and the freedom that they crave.

Article written by Oli Gamp