By Laura Rubio Diaz-Leal

Over the past seventy years, the rapid increase of non-Catholic Christian churches within Mexico’s indigenous communities has prompted a radical transformation of the religious and social landscapes in various parts of the country. The case of Chiapas is particularly relevant, having occurred in a highly volatile political environment where military intervention, economic deprivation, and disputes over land tenure and control have been paramount. Chiapas is one of the poorest and most diverse states in the nation; it is located in the southeast, bordering Guatemala.[1] Since the 1980s, discrimination, exclusion, and violence have all been part of the Protestant minority’s experience and as a result, thousands have fled to other counties within the political boundaries of the state. Displaced religious minorities consequently developed various public diplomacy-oriented survival strategies that, in the context of conflict and constitutional changes taking place at the federal level in the 1990s, have led to their social and political empowerment.

The initial conversion process in Chiapas began under the leadership of traditional Protestant Churches from Guatemala, namely Baptist and Presbyterian; however, other denominations (e.g. Pentecostal and neo-Pentecostal, as well as biblical non-evangelical denominations: Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventist, and Mormon) became widespread in the region by the 1980s.[2] In most cases, conversion meant a departure from social, religious, and cultural codes, which regulated family and communal behavior. As part of this process, new social categories emerged within traditional Catholic majorities as they tried to cope with the challenges posed by breaking with the past and increasing diversity. For instance, categories such as “dissident,” which in other circumstances meant differences in political affiliation with no serious social drifts, acquired new religious overtones.[3] Minorities thus experienced various levels of victimization: from mild forms of criticism and marginalization from family circles and the community, to less access to economic resources and opportunities, to the more radical prohibition of enrollment of dissidents’ children in local schools, persecution, expulsion from the community, the appropriation of their land by local leaders, transferal to less productive land, and finally, forced displacement.

Although the region has historically been characterized by ethnic and religious diversity, the social and religious reproduction of Protestantism was perceived as a real threat to the hegemony of the local Catholic Church, and therefore to the region’s cultural identity. The larger the Christian community, the more violent forms of discrimination appeared against them. The intensity of religious intolerance unleashed a conflict in the indigenous central regions of the Altos, the Frontier, and the Lacandon jungle. Local authorities (i.e. the mayors of the main cities and municipalities) sanctioned and actively participated in the persecution of minorities.[4] By 1993, a month before the Zapatista uprising broke out in Chiapas, more than 30,000 members of the Christian minorities had been displaced from these regions, particularly from San Juan Chamula.[5] The majority settled in the city of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, altering the already precarious social and ethnic balance there.[6]

Both in the regions of origin and places of refuge, such as San Cristobal de las Casas, resistance to exclusion and persecution triggered the development of a political activism within religious minorities without precedence in the history of the state. Two factors contributed to this phenomenon: the gradual establishment of the religious institutions of the Protestant Church with a recognized—albeit unwelcome—religious presence, and the emergence of a plethora of social organizations, which called for an activism centered around the struggle for legal recognition in the local and federal legal systems, and respect for minorities’ rights (i.e. religious freedom). Thus, the political movement that stemmed from this linked itself with a national movement pursuing constitutional reforms to grant legal standing to all churches in Mexico. This activism had the immediate effect of strengthening the religious identity of the new converts and of the emerging Christian displaced communities, as well as increasing their preaching capabilities.

Other social, economic, and political consequences included the gradual acquisition of disputed land and the formation of religious minority colonies. An example of the latter is Tzanabó, which served as a base for the displaced persons’ religious and political activities.[7] The growth in numbers and significance of the Christian minorities forced the Catholic majority to accommodate, to the advantage of the former. For instance, during elections, Christians have exchanged their vote for economic gain and favors of diverse nature. Furthermore, in times of political crisis, many members of such minorities relied on narratives of victimization, persecution, uprootedness, and loss of access to certain resources, all at the hands of the local government and Catholics.[8] In this way, indigenous religious minorities learned to insert themselves not only in the local economy, but also in the complex social and political dynamics of the region.

One very recent area of competition between Catholic majorities and Protestant displaced minorities has been in mass media. Up until the year 2000, Protestant minorities in Chiapas were not authorized by local and federal authorities to inform and communicate with their audiences through their radio broadcasting agencies; thus they were deprived of access to mass media outlets. However, from 2000 onwards their struggle focused on their perceived right to a presence in radio and television, as well to form political parties and participate in existing ones (such as Partido Encuentro Social y el Partido Demócrata Campesino).[9]

Today, there are 68 radio stations with an Evangelist profile, which transmit their religious messages to Protestant audiences in 32 counties around the state of Chiapas without formal approval (i.e. concession) from the government. They transmit openly and online, allowing them to establish collaboration networks with similar organizations beyond the state of Chiapas, and even beyond Mexico in the United States and Central America. Their goals are not only religious in nature, but also social and political. They use their media presence to denounce social problems such as alcoholism and theft, and to promote health, social welfare, and education programs. So far, the government has allowed these transmissions because they do not seem to stimulate protest or violence.[10]

Prior to this Protestant incursion into mass media, the Catholic Church had not been interested in using radio or television as a communication tool; thus its first radio station, Radio Tepeyac, appeared only in June 2012 to counteract the influence of Protestant radio stations.[11] With the arrival of Radio Tepeyac, competition for new converts and a struggle to retain old devotees has ensued.

In brief, the dissemination of Protestantism in Chiapas, and the insertion of its devotees into the economic, social, and political landscape of the region show an inherent tension between agency and victimization. Their growth in numbers and the development of “new” minority religious identities in the midst of political change have both empowered them and kept them on the margins of society in Chiapas.

References and Notes

[1] The state of Chiapas ranks eighth in physical size (73,211km2) and seventh in population (approximately five million inhabitants) in Mexico. The population is very diverse linguistically (twelve dialects) and ethnically, with eight ethnic groups stemming from the Mayan ethnic group.

[2] Rivera, Carolina. “Creencias y prácticas religiosas censuradas. Expulsión de evangélicos indígenas por cambio de adscripción religiosa,” El desplazamiento interno forzado en México:Un acercamiento para su reflexión y análisis. Ed. Severin Durin, Mexico City: CIESAS, 2013. Print.

[3] Kovic, Christine. “Para tener vida en abundancia: visiones de los derechos humanos en una comunidad católica indígena” (eds.), Los derechos humanos en tierras mayas. Política, representaciones y moralidad. Ed. Pitarch, Pedro and Julián López García, Madrid, Sociedad Española de Estudios Mayas, 2001. 273-290. Print.

[4] Martínez Velasco, Germán. “Conflicto étnico
y migraciones forzadas en Chiapas.” Política y Cultura. No. 23 (Spring 2005), 195-210. Print.

[5] Centro de Derechos Humanos Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas, Donde muere el agua. Expulsiones y derechos humanos en San Juan Chamula. San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas, México,  2001. 71. Print.

[6] Tsotsil, Tseltal, Tojolabal, and Chole ethnic groups; as well as other even smaller groups such as Lacandon, Zoque, and Mame.

[7] Rivera, Carolina, op cit. 89.

[8] Marcos Arana y Ma. Teresa del Riego, Estudio sobre los Desplazados por el Conflicto Armado en Chiapas. Programa Conjunto por una Cultura de Paz, México, D.F, 2012. Print.

[9] Rivera, Carolina. “Acción política de organizaciones evangélicas en los Altos de Chiapas,” Conflictos locales y religiones globales. Revista Iztapalapa (Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana). No. 62-63 (January-December), 2007. 25. Print.

[10] Sarelly Martínez, Francisco Javier Cordero, and Hugo Alejandro Villar, “El púlpito electrónico: la radio religiosa en Chiapas,” Razón y Palabra. No. 83, June-August 2013. Web. April 10, 2014.

[11] Martínez, Sarelly. “Radiodifusoras religiosas sin concesión,” Chiapas Parelelo. February 24, 2014. Web. April 10, 2014.



Laura Rubio Díaz-Leal is Associate Professor at the International Studies Department of the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México (ITAM) in Mexico City. She holds a PhD in History from the University of Manchester, with a focus on forced migration; a Master of Arts in East Asia Area Studies from The University of Southern California, and a Bachelor of Arts in International Relations from Universidad Iberoamericana, Mexico City. She is the author of various articles on violence-induced internal displacement in Mexico and Latin America, refugee identity in East Asia, and Chinese foreign policy. She is external consultant of the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (Norwegian Refugee Council), and Refugees International. Dr. Rubio coordinates the Internal Displacement division within the Comisión Mexicana para la Defensa y Promoción de los Derechos Humanos (CMDPDH).