Women and Education In Chiapas Mexico

Chiapas is a state located in Mexico that is in fact the only state with indigenous majority. After having done extensive research, Chiapas appears to be one of the poorest states in Mexico, yet abundant in resources. As one of the health workers said, “It’s not true that Chiapas is poor. Chiapas is rich in natural resources. It’s the people of Chiapas who are poor (Farmer, 1998).” Interestingly, Chiapas only accounts for about three percent of Mexico’s population, yet has twelve percent of its natural gas production, thirteen percent of Mexico’s corn and forty-six percent of its coffee. Chiapas is Mexico’s leading beef producer and produces nearly half of the country’s hydroelectric power. Even though Chiapas seems to provide many great resources for Mexico, only one in three Chiapanecan households is hooked up to the electrical grid and fewer than half of the state’s people regularly eat meat. To indigenous people in particular, meat is a delicacy and rarely eaten. Chiapas lags behind the rest of the nation in terms of household income and education. It also has above average rates of infant mortality. These statistics reveal the chronic poverty that Chiapas is currently in and has been in for many decades which is why I have chosen to focus on poverty among indigenous groups in Chiapas as well as its affect on education and indigenous women of the highland region in particular. I believe assimilation of indigenous communities has resulted in poor infrastructure, racism, poverty and malnutrition. Because of the poor, rugged land these indigenous peoples are provided with, it makes it extremely difficult to make money from the land, let alone provide for their families. I chose to focus on highland women of Chamula, Zinacantan, Cancuc and Lacadon municipalities. These indigenous communities have their indigenous language as the main language, rather than Spanish. They are assimilated municipals, having very little contact with outside cities other than through work and tourism.

These poor communities in Chiapas face enormous inequalities, a political system that is completely unaccountable to its poorer constituents, desperate poverty and the degradation of land. They have been facing injustices and inequality for many decades which is important to understand, especially regarding the Zapatista movement. In 1994, once the National American Free Trade Agreement was officiated, the EZLN (Zapatista Army of National Liberation) immediately declared it “a death sentence” to the indigenous people of Mexico (Zugman 2005).” As a result, the EZLN actually declared warfare in protest which can be recognized as a local peasant uprising. Zapatistas believed that these “free market policies open up their borders to free circulation of capital, which they believe will economically undermine and further marginalize them (Govea 2010).” Zapatistas claimed that NAFTA has a negative impact on Mexico’s corn farmers, who are primarily poor, indigenous minorities. Their argument is that these neoliberal agents, such as the World Trade Organization, are displacing the ethnic indigenous populations of Mexico from their lands with the focus on privatizing land, water and other precious natural resources of southern Mexico. NAFTA allows foreign investors and organizations to come in these poor indigenous communities and extract resources from the land and sell them, rather than the indigenous people or peasants extracting the resources and selling it themselves. This can give some reasoning to why Chiapas is referred to as a rich land and a poor state. “The 1994 uprising of the Zaptistas called for the examination of the matrix of domination through its dismantling of traditionally held concepts of the categories of ethnicity, social class and gender and its articulation for the creation of new-non hierarchical categories (Newdick 2005).” This so called “dismantling of traditionally held concepts” is a result of these powerful organizations that support the social structure of capitalism, negatively impacting indigenous communities as whole. As these world markets and economies are becoming interconnected because of technology, there is an increasing support in this social structure resulting in an extreme gap between the rich and the poor. In hopes to make a change, “The Zapatistas have constructed a global image appealing to those who have been marginalized on a multitude of levels (Govea 2010).” The Zapatista movement also focused on women and gender inequality which is important to understand as I chose to focus on four particular Mayan municipals as well as the women and factors contributing to their extremely high illiteracy rates.

Globalization and marginalization are two main factors contributing to the chronic poverty and gender inequalities in these indigenous communities. Women comprise the majority of the labor force; however, “the feminization of poverty is rapidly deepening as globalization continues to displace women (Bhavani and Foran 2007).” Women face extreme gender inequality, not only within their own municipals, but also by outside non-indigenous communities. Globalization has resulted in “degradation of education, deteriorating health and severe lack of economic opportunities for women (Sampaio 2004).” Because of these extreme gender inequalities the Zapatista movement also focused on women’s rights and political standing in their own communities as well as in the entire state of Chiapas. The Revolutionary Women’s Law and Zapatista movement go hand in hand. “Through the granting of special rights and the creation of the Revolutionary Women’s Law, which declared rights for women, such as the right to an education, the right to choose how many children they have, and to be free of physical and emotional abuse, the Zapatistas have pioneered a collective, revolutionary movement in which the voice of women carries the same weight as that of men (Belausteguigoitia 2000).” Unfortunately, this law was never nationally recognized by Mexico nor any other outside states simply because many argued that the Zapatista movement is too inclusive and therefore, this inclusiveness serve as a hindrance to the effectiveness of their movement and this law in particular. Although the Zapatistas sought improvement and equality among indigenous communities in Chiapas, these communities still face extreme poverty, poor infrastructure, and malnutrition as well as poorly run schools and often inaccessible education. My thesis argues that with better infrastructure, access to resources in outside cities and improved education systems, these communities can improve. If this happens, perhaps illiteracy rates will decrease and malnutrition won’t be such a major issue of death among these communities.

As a brief background, Chiapas is a state in which the majority of people do not speak Spanish. Knowing this and the fact that the national language of Mexico is Spanish is important considering all education systems in Mexico are only taught in Spanish. “The state’s illiteracy rate of 30% is three times higher of the national average. The proportion of children who didn’t complete primary school is a shocking 62% compared to that of 21% nationally. Recent statistics from 2005 revealed that teenagers of about fifteen years old had only completed 3.9 years of schooling (Renner 1997).” My focus is on the language groups Tzotzil, Tzeltal and Lacandon and within the Tzotzil language group are the municipals Chamula and Zinacantan. Within the Tzeltal language groups are the Cancuc Mayans. Lacandon Mayans are their own municipal located to the very far east of Chamula, Zinacantan and Cancuc municipals. Chamula and Zinacantan are the highland Mayans that occupy the western part of the highlands, while Cancuc Mayans occupy the western parts of the highland regions. Below is a picture to get an idea of exactly where these municipals are located.

Keep in mind Lacandon is not shown, but it is located to the far east of these municipals. After viewing the Inegi website of Mexico, I was able to get an understanding of municipals Chamula and Zinacantan in terms of education in 2009 and 2010. It appears that only 36,877 people completed primary schooling in Chamula compared to that of 1,881,617 in the state of Chiapas. The number of schools of primary and secondary schools was only 249 compared to that of 18,202 in the state of Chiapas. In 2009, Chamula and Zinacantan only had two libraries in their municipals. Municipals in Mexico can be compared to states in the United States, so imagine the entire state of Michigan only having two libraries. In Zinacantan, 16,610 people had completed primary schooling. As of 2009, Zinacantan only had 106 primary and secondary schools, which was a bit lower than Chamula. Unfortunately, Inegi website did not have an education statistics on the Lacandon or Cancuc Mayans; however I have interviewed an ethnographer who studied in both locations for many years, so I have a good idea on the education systems and most important, access to education in these highland municipals. After viewing these shocking statistics on education and illiteracy rates, it is important to understand the contributing factors to these statistics. I believe the poor infrastructure and difficult access to schools among indigenous communities is why these communities suffer from such high illiteracy rates.

Education in indigenous societies face many difficulties accessing education, gender-biased decisions, paying for books, transportations and many other barriers preventing many people in these communities from receiving proper schooling, let alone more than three to four years of schooling. Primary schools are usually located within the municipals. They may not be difficult to access or take more than an hour to get to; however, often time the teachers do not show up because they themselves have trouble accessing these highland communities and receive very low wages, thus resulting in little incentive to teach. Unfortunately, in Lacandon, Cancuc, Chamula and Zinacantan all primary schools located within their municipals have to pay a registration fee as well as the cost of books. Most of the parents of these kids do not have enough money to eat, let alone pay all these fees just so their child can receive primary schooling. Below is a picture showing a primary school located within the Zinacantan highland community.

Below is another picture of San Cristobal, where most secondary and high schools are located. There is a huge difference in infrastructure.

As you can see, there is very poor infrastructure resulting in difficult access for these teachers as well as students who are coming from the low land regions. In fact, here is another picture showing you of some troubles people living in the low land regions may encounter traveling to the highland regions.

Secondary schools are often located far from these indigenous municipals, particularly the ones I’m studying. These students must travel nearly three to four hours to access secondary schools in outside non-indigenous communities. Because racism is so defined in these outside cities, most indigenous students change their clothing to something similar of the western style clothing in these cities to prevent any racist comments people may make to them. Because it is such a hassle to commute to secondary schools on a daily basis, students usually find someone in an outside city such as San Cristobal, who will provide them with shelter and food for the days they are attending schools in that area. The cost of food, transportation, clothing, books and enrollment fees is too much for these indigenous people to afford. Usually, the family decides whether it’d be beneficial for them to send their children to school or not. The municipals I’m studying are such impoverished areas that education is simply not in their budget. As I’ve interviewed ethnographer Sarah Harrison, it appears women are the last of their family to receive education. For this reason, I chose to elaborate a bit on women’s roles in society, their role as a woman in an indigenous family, thus resulting in such high illiteracy rates among indigenous women.

In most of these communities, tourism is popular and is a definite means of making money in these communities, especially for women. “Ironcially, it is this extreme marginalization that now makes Indians a prime tourism attraction for affluent First World travelers in search of a primitive, authentic order (Berge 1995).” In the Lacandon jungle for example, because they are so rich and diverse in resources, medicinal herbs and animal species, many tourists are attracted to the area.

Below is a picture of a plant/hallucinogen from the Lacadon jungle.

Mexico as a country definitely has some influence as to why tourism has grown in the Lacandon jungle. In fact, the Lacandon jungle has the best infrastructure of all the municipals I’ve researched with the help of Mexico providing them with better road systems and means of transportation for both the indigenous people themselves as well as tourists. In Lacandon, tourists can come into these municipals and actually have places to stay, in which benefit the Lacandon Mayans as well. However, in Chamula it is a bit different. Chamula is the most densely populated municipal with the least land of the four municipals I’ve researched. These highland regions are nearly completely deforested and do not have very productive land. Women often travel to San Cristobal, to sell their handmade clothing and other crafts. Below is a picture of Chamula women selling their hand crafts in San Cristobal, an outside, non-indigenous community. Chamula Mayans do not welcome tourists into their municipals other than the main municipal center. The main municipal center usually includes the authority leader of that municipal, a church and a few other things. Municipal centers can be compared to capitol cities, for example, Lansing.  Cancuc, which are the Mayans who occupy the eastern highlands, are the poorest of the municipals I’ve researched. Cancuc has very unproductive, rocky land as you can see in the picture below. This area is the most impoverished and has the highest illiteracy rates as well as the most difficult access to outside cities such as San Cristobal. Tourism is not prevalent in this particular municipal because families cannot even afford the costs of weaving and other craft materials to make items to sell to tourists. Lastly, Zinacantan is the most affluent of the municipals. The indigenous people of these communities have the best access to outside cities, where they collaborate with technicians and farmers in outside cities to learn new techniques beneficial to the Zinacantan Mayans. Here, the land is very fertile and productive. This particular municipal has the highest literacy rates of the four municipals. The high literacy rates most likely result from easier access to outside communities, where Spanish is predominately spoken. Zinacantan Mayans usually travel to San Cristobal to sell their weaved clothing and other hand crafts as well. Because each municipal has varying access to outside cities, resources and productive land, there is a bit of difference in women’s roles in societies. Although men do perform much of the labor and account for most of the income of the family, women have many more responsibilities. In fact, several women that were interviewed in the Lacandon region claimed that they “support themselves and their households instead of relying on male family members (Gonzalez 1999).” Because women have so many more responsibilities, I believe it is important to focus on their roles as Mayan women, perhaps resulting in less access to education and therefore, low illiteracy rates.

Below are some pictures of the (unproductive) land in Cancuc, Chamula women selling crafts in San Cristobal, Chamula weaving and Cancuc women.

Lacandon Mayan women of these communities have expanded their roles outside of the traditional domestic boundaries to include some customary male activities, which is really interesting and not seen in Cancuc, Chamula or Zinacantan municipals. The typical roles of a Lacandon woman include the following:”preparation of food, weaving, care of children…grinding corn, hauling water, collecting firewood, making clothing…” and many other things, all which they usually begin at about six o’ clock in the early morning (Gonzalez 1999). Women’s amount of work they accomplish is made possible with the help of their daughters, both old and young. By the time the girls are about five or six, they too “prepare food, haul water, pick vegetables in house gardens, and feed chickens, all while carrying a younger sibling on their backs (Gonzalez 1999).” In this case, the adult women are able to perform a variety of activities that aren’t as tedious and repetitive as the activities listed in the previous quote. With the help of the daughters, older women have more time to manufacture crafts and such which their husbands will market to tourists. In Chamula, a woman’s work space is in the home. Interestingly, “The tasks she performs, even the fact that she sits on the floor while the men and boys in her family sit on small stools, are all sanctioned by Chamula religious cosmology that relates women to the earth and men to the sun (Gonzalez 1999).” This can somewhat reveal the gender biased factors that play a major role in indigenous societies. Because land is unproductive in Chamula regions, most Chamula women are pastoralist, where they use the fur of sheep for their weaving. Growing flowers, maintaining gardens and selling hand crafts is a major source of income for Chamula women. Zinacantan is also another municipal where weaving is very popular among women as well as maintain gardens and farming. Keep in mind the weaving often takes weeks and months to finish. Cancuc women, on the other hand, do not make crafts or do weaving to make money. The only source of money in this municipal is through farming and house work. Cancuc women often spend their entire day doing chores and house work, with the help of their daughters. It is very obvious that women and their female children have a great amount of work to do on a daily basis. I argue that if the economic status of these communities wasn’t so much worse than that of outside cities and states, these communities could flourish without having to do so much work. The tasks women are expected to fulfill takes up the majority of their day, leaving them with no time for education. Because their daughters are expected to start helping out at the age of five or six, education for them is really not an option.

After doing extensive research and interviewing ethnographer Sarah Harrison, I found the poverty, difficult access to education as well as women’s roles in society shocking. I believe because these municipals are marginalized and have such poor infrastructure compared to that of outside cities and states in Mexico, they have much higher illiteracy rates as well as malnutrition. Women and their children have so many activities needed to be performed on a daily basis that education is not really an option, thus resulting in such high illiteracy rates. I believe that if Mexico’s government improved infrastructure, implemented better and more education systems in these communities, with no enrollment or book fees, these indigenous communities could have the chance to flourish and improve their economic status. Very little access to education in these municipals is critical and contributes to the chronic poverty and racism these indigenous communities face.


Belausteguigoitia, Marisa. 2004. The Right to Rest: Women’s Struggle to be Heard in the Zapatistas’ Movement. The Society for International Development 43(3): 81-87.

Belausteguigoitia, Marisa. 2004. Naming the Cinderellas of Development: Violence an Women’s Autonomy in Mexico. Development 47(1): 64-72.

Bhavnani, Kum-Kum, and John Foran. 2007. Feminist futures: From Dystopia to Eutopia? Futures 40(4):319.328.

Farmer, Paul. “A Visit to Chiapas.” America 178.1028 Mar. (1990): 14-18. Print.

Informal interview with ethnographer Sarah Harrison.

McGee, Jon R., and Belisa Gonzalez. “Economics, Women, and Work in the Lacandon Jungle.” Frontiers (1999): 175. Web. 4 May 2011.

Newdick, Vivian. 2005. The Indigenous Woman as Victim of Her Culture in Neoliberal Mexico. Cultural Dynamics 17:73-92.

Renner, Michael. “Chiapas: An uprising born of despair.” World Watch 10.1 Feb. (1997): 1-12. Web. 10 Apr. 2011.

Sampaio, Anna. 2004. Transnational Feminisms in a New Global Matrix: Hermanas en La Lucha. International Feminist Journal of Politics 6(2): 181-206.

van den Berghe, Pierre L. “Marketing Mayas.” Annals of Tourism Research 22.3 (1999): 566-88. Web. 4 May 2011.

Zugman, Kara. 2005. Autonomy in a Poetic Voice: Zapatista and Political Organizing in Los Angeles. Latino Studies3(1): 325-346.

Zugman, Kara. “Women, Activism, and Globalization in the Zapatista Movement.” Department of Sociology 8.216 Apr. (2010): 1-37. Print.

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