Forested Chiapas is the site of some of the region’s most spectacular Mayan ruins—at Bonampak, where intricate murals are preserved, and at Palenque, which is located in a national park. Chiapas ranks second among the Mexican states in the production of cacao, the product used to make chocolate, and is responsible for 60 percent of Mexico’s total coffee output. Other significant crops are sugar cane, bananas and other fruits. Annual milk production in Chiapas totals about 180 million liters (47.5 million gallons).
Chiapa de Corzo, a Mayan settlement in the center of Chiapas, shows evidence of human occupation since 1400 B.C., though little is known about the inhabitants of that area. Around 600 A.D., the Mayan city of Palenque was established and the first large structures were begun. However, much of the early history of the city–like that of the state–remains a mystery to archaeologists.
Chiapas represents a small portion of the region once inhabited by the Mayan Indians. For at least 2,000 years, the Mayan culture flourished throughout Mesoamerica. Skilled weavers and temple builders, they left behind a wealth of archaeological treasures for later generations to discover and admire.
The Mayans who originally occupied the region were later conquered by the Chiapa Indians. Evidence suggests that the Aztecs appeared in the area during the 15th century, although they were unable to completely displace the Chiapa tribe. In Náhuatl, the language of the Aztecs, Chiapas means the place where the chia sage grows.
In 1522, after conquering the Aztec Empire, Hernán Cortés sent tax collectors to the area that is now Chiapas. Soon after, Cortés dispatched his emissary, Luis Marín, to the region to subdue the indigenous Tzotzile Indians. Marín was fiercely opposed in the highlands, and reinforcements were dispatched to help control the natives, many of whom chose suicide over being conquered.
Although formal combat ended in 1528, the natives continued to resist Spanish rule into the 17th century.
While many Mexican states flourished during the Spanish colonial period–in large part because of their natural resources–resource-poor Chiapas languished in poverty and discontent. The melding of Indian and Spanish blood that produced the mestizo population was less pronounced in Chiapas than elsewhere in the country. Consequently, the identity of the Chiapas Indians was better preserved than that of neighboring cultures. Even today, many of Chiapas’ ethnic groups have maintained their ancient cultures, traditions and customs.
Under the leadership of Catholic priest Matías Antonio de Córdoba, Chiapas declared independence from Spain in 1821; in 1824, the state joined the Mexican alliance. Chiapas’ constitution was drafted in 1826, and the state was fully incorporated into Mexico in 1841.
Conflicts between colonial landowners and the indigenous people continued throughout the 19th century. However, the Mexican Revolution, which started in 1910, left Chiapas largely untouched.
In the years following the revolution, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) quickly became a dominant political force. By aligning themselves with PRI leaders, Chiapas’s privileged landowners blocked land reforms designed to benefit the large indigenous population. As a result, Chiapas remained among Mexico’s poorest states.
In 1994, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), designed to encourage trade among the United States, Canada and Mexico by eliminating tariffs and lifting many restrictions on various categories of trade goods, went into effect. In Chiapas, the agreement’s passing was met with an armed uprising by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN). Although the revolt brought attention to the needs of the indigenous people, the rebels were not able to overcome the PRI government.
The Zapatistas continue to seek governmental autonomy for their communities and promote social and political reform. Despite such activism, even today Chiapas’ population is one of Mexico’s most marginalized.
The primary industries in Chiapas include crude oil production, manufacturing, agriculture and coffee export. Chiapas opened its first assembly plant in 2002, a fact that highlights the historical lack of industry in this area. Tourism, another important industry, brings countless visitors to the state each year to visit Tuxtla Gutiérrez, San Cristóbal and other landmarks.
Facts & Figures
Capital: Tuxtla Gutiérrez
Major Cities (population): Tuxtla Gutiérrez (503,320) Tapachula (282,420) Ocosingo (170,280) San Cristóbal de las Casas (166,460) Las Margaritas (98,374)
Size/Area: 28,653 square miles
Population: 4,293,459 (2005 Census)
Year of statehood: 1823
Chiapas’ coat of arms is rich in historical meaning. The red sky stands for the dangers the state has overcome throughout its history, and the river flowing from distant green hills represents firmness and justice. The castle is a symbol of strength, wealth, light and wisdom, and the nearby gold lion signifies heroism. On the opposite cliff, the palm symbolizes victory and fertility, and the lion evokes San Cristóbal, protective saint of old Real Villa of Chiapa. The crown presiding over the scene reflects the state’s noble heritage and timeless authority.
Chiapas’ rainforests are home to thousands of unique animals and plants, some of which cannot be found anywhere else in the world. The El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve in Chiapas, for example, is home to around 400 species of birds including several rare species such as the horned guan, the quetzal and the azure-rumped tanager.
The state has one of the largest and most diverse indigenous populations in Mexico, with approximately 959,000 native language speakers over the age of five, which represents one quarter of the state’s population.
Conservation International and Starbucks Coffee have partnered with farmers in Chiapas to preserve biodiversity by growing coffee beneath the forest canopy.
Poet Jaime Sabines (1926-1999), widely regarded as Mexico’s most influential contemporary poet, was born in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Chiapas. His work celebrates everyday people in common settings. Octavio Paz, the celebrated Mexican writer, called Sabines “one of the greatest contemporary poets of our tongue.”
Emiliano Zapata, a leading figure in the 1910 Mexican Revolution, was born in Morelos, Chiapas. Zapata has become a cultural icon whose exploits have appeared in comic books, historical and fictional literature, music and movies. In 1952, his contributions to Mexican history were captured in the American-made film, Viva Zapata, which featured Marlon Brando in the leading role. Numerous Mexican towns, schools and other sites are named after Zapata.
Archeological Sites and Ruins
A major tourist destination in the area is Palenque, a Mayan archeological site near the Usumacinta River. Although much smaller than the huge sites at Tikal or Copán, Palenque contains some of the finest architecture, sculpture and stucco reliefs the Mayans ever produced.
Chinkultic is another moderate-size archeological ruin in the state. This Pre-Columbian Mayan city flourished in the Mayan Classic Era, which spanned the 3rd through 9th centuries.
The Sumidero Canyon
The Sumidero Canyon was once the site of an epic battle between the Spainiards and Chiapanecan Indians. The Chiapanecans chose to throw themselves from the high edges of the canyon rather than be defeated by Spanish forces.
Today, the canyon is a popular destination for ecotourism. Visitors often take boat trips down the river that runs through the canyon and enjoy the area’s natural beauty including the many birds and abundant vegetation.
The Mayan ruins of Bonampak in the Lacandon rainforest (La Selva Lacandona) feature some of the finest remaining Maya murals. The realistically rendered paintings depict human sacrifices, musicians and scenes of the royal court.