The people in this book are Zinacantecos. Their community, Zinacantán, includes more than a dozen hamlets spread over highland valleys and hillsides in southeastern Mexico. Inside this community they maintain a distinctive way of life. It binds them together. And it sets them apart from other Indians and from the non-Indian population that dominates the nearby city of San Cristóbal de las Casas. Outside their community, in the city and on the lands they rent and farm, they and other Indians share the disadvantages of being both poor and low in the ethnic hierarchy.
In their own eyes they are Zinacantecos first, Indians second, and Mexicans last, if at all. At home, they shuck the oppression of the larger world and elevate themselves in relation to economically less successful Indians in nearby communities. They build a nearly-complete universe within themselves, finding good and bad, religious and irreligious, rich and poor, industrious and lazy among the 10,000 people who are Zinacantecos.
Most of the usual and unusual features of Zinacanteco life and customs have been described in detail by anthropologists. They weave with backstrap looms, carry with tumplines. Men wear colorful ribbons on their hats, red and white striped tops and short pants; they carry made-in-Hartford machetes when they go to their cornfields. Women pat out countless tortillas and always walk behind men. Chickens are sacrificed to Maya gods under crosses on a mountaintop overlooking the Catholic church. A proper meal is preceded by rinsing out the mouth as well as hand-washing and Zinacantecos die easily of measles, a European disease.
Having spent three of the last thirteen years doing anthropological research among Zinacantecos, I know that these and similar things provide the form for daily life. But they really make very little difference. Zinacantán is another place where people live.