The great social divide between Spanish-speaking ladinos and non–Spanish-speaking Indians—a long-held division reaching back to Mexico's colonial period around San Cristóbal de Las Casas—fueled distrust and complaints of maltreatment and exploitation of the laboring class of Indians. Indians labored under the double burden of ethnicity and class, and dialogues between Indians and ladinos existed throughout the decades in the nineteenth century over issues of labor, land, and pay. On the heels of a violent race war (1867–70) between Indians and ladinos, the state government sought to allow Indians more opportunities to redress legal issues in order to prevent future rebellions. Beyond aggressive tactics by elites to suppress Indians in revolt, government officials opted to reinstitute the colonial office of protector de indios in an attempt to address interethnic issues. Indians used the opportunity to contest and negotiate long-held grievances. A study of the legal culture in San Cristóbal de Las Casas and of the reintroduction of the protector de indios proved precipitous in the two decades prior to the rise of the agricultural-export industry. The use of the protector de indios eased tensions between Indians and ladinos. Moreover, it offered a short period of legal empowerment in the daily lives of individual Indians as they engaged, contested, and actively participated in shaping their relations with the ladino elite, thus demonstrating the dynamic relationship between Indians and ladinos in the state of Chiapas on the cusp of momentous change in the late decades of the nineteenth century.

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