Among students of Latin America, the undiminished vitality of sizable Indian communities today in areas like highland Chiapas has provoked a lively debate about the relationship between ethnicity and social class. Such communities have failed to become part of class society, it is often said, because they retain those customs and traditions that arose under colonialism, because in some sense they remain encapsulated to this day within the feudal social order. A few experts even claim that Indian customs have themselves become the primary agent of economic and political exploitation in rural areas.1 According to this view, native people have accepted more or less passively a culture that was foisted on them by Spanish missionaries and administrators, a culture that emphasized ethnic differences at the expense of class solidarity.2 In contrast to these ideas, contemporary records indicate that such people did not simply resign themselves to the fate that colonial authorities designed for them. Of primary importance, native protests and rebellions, messianic movements and religious heresies occurred in Chiapas with astonishing regularity throughout the centuries before independence. By focusing on these events, then, and particularly on the motives that moved their participants to action, we may formulate a more coherent view of colonial society -- a view that also helps us to understand the question of ethnicity among Indians today.
For a variety of reasons, Chiapas would seem to lend itself ideally to such an exercise. First, the central highlands, inhabited at present by nearly 500,000 Tzeltal, Tzotzil, and Chol (Maya) people, have provided much of the anthropological evidence on which modern debates about ethnicity in Latin America are based. For nearly three generations, schol-