Protestantism and modernity: the implications of religious change in contemporary rural Oaxaca

Toomas Gross


During Lazaro Cardenas's presidency in the 1930s, Catholic priests in rural Mexico were sometimes referred to as the "guardians of culture and traditions," while schoolteachers represented a more modern, progressive, liberal and atheistic world-view (Marroquin 1996:187). As some have argued, the opposition between traditionalists and modernizers also characterizes contemporary rural Mexico. Catholics as a group can still be regarded as the former, while the role of the latter has been assumed by Protestants, who act as modernizers of "traditional" communities (Marroquin 1992; Montes 1997). Protestants are alleged to promote new forms of social organization, encourage changes in communal practices, and introduce new modes of thinking. They break the links with the past that are established through customs and traditions, because for Protestants "custom" (costumbre) often stands for "paganism" and "idolatry." Rural Mexican Protestantism has even been regarded as a "social movement." As Montes (1997) suggests, it is a movement of struggle against Catholic dominance, and Protestants are regarded as new social actors who demand a more pluralistic and modern society. (l)

This paper is an attempt to review the relationship between Protestantism and modernity in the ethnographic example of indigenous Zapotec communities of the Sierra Juarez of Oaxaca in Southern Mexico, where the rise of Protestant churches coincides with rapid social change. (2) For decades, modernization has been one of the central topics in research on rural Mexico. Most studies, however, have focused almost exclusively on economic change, particularly on the relationship between "traditional" and "modern" economic sectors and the transition from the former to the latter, (e.g. Avila 1969; Cancian 1972; Thompson 1974; Hewitt de Alcantara 1976), while the relationship between modernity and religious change has rarely been scrutinized. The study of Protestantism in Mexico has been concerned mainly with urban contexts (Gimenez 1988; Vazquez 1991) and very few studies have looked at rural Protestantism (Garma 1987; Ramirez 1991, 1995; Sanchez 1995). Yet doing so would offer a considerable contribution to a better understanding of social change in the contemporary Mexican countryside.

In the following discussion I will outline the general dynamics of the process of "religious fragmentation" in Latin America and Mexico and then look at the ethnographic data from the Sierra Juarez to exemplify the apparent social implications of religious fragmentation on rural communities. Is the rise of Protestant churches in rural Mexico and the changes that Protestantism promotes in rural communal life congruent with the transition from "traditionalism" to "modernity" as some studies (e.g. Turner 1979; Garma 1987; Sanchez 1995; Marroquin 1996; Montes 1997) have suggested? To answer this question, I will close with a critical reassessment of the impact of Protestantism on the communities of the Sierra Juarez, arguing that Protestantization and modernization in rural Mexico are parallel but not necessarily congruent processes, and that the social changes that Protestantism "encourages" are often a "collateral" of the Protestant presence rather than an "intended" consequence.


Fragmentation of the "religious field," to use Bourdieu's (1971:298) term, and the rise of Protestant churches, have recently become common phenomena in most Latin American countries. This is an intriguing fact considering that in most of these societies Catholicism has generally enjoyed an undisputed hegemony. In reality, Protestantism in Latin America is not recent, dating back at least to the beginning of the nineteenth century (Bastian 1994:80). But Protestant groups at that time were few, the percentage of Protestants in the population negligible, and the growth of their numbers slow. That was the case until the 1960s when membership growth in Protestant churches suddenly exploded. (3) This phenomenon particularly characterizes Brazil, Chile and various Central American countries, where the Protestant population has been growing considerably faster than elsewhere in Latin America and where Protestants now constitute more than twenty percent of the total population (Barrett, Kurian and Johnson 2001). Yet in most other Latin American countries the share of Protestants in the total population has not yet surpassed the level of ten percent. Despite the regional differences, however, the trend towards Protestant population growth, and the dynamics of the process, are similar everywhere, leading Stoll (1990) to famously ask: "Is Latin America becoming Protestant?"

Mexico has "resisted" religious fragmentation more "successfully" than many other Latin American societies. The percentage of Protestants in Mexico is considerably lower than in Chile and Brazil, for example, but the dynamics of religious change, manifested most notably in the explosive growth of the Protestant population since the 1970s, is similar to the rest of Latin America. Mexican General Census data throughout the 20th century demonstrate it vividly. In 1900, the percentage of "Protestants" in Mexico was 0.4 percent and this figure increased at an average rate of two tenths of a percent per decade, reaching 1.8 percent by 1970. In 1980, this figure was already 3.3 percent, and in 1990 4.8 percent. By 2000, the ratio of "Protestants and Evangelicals" in Mexico had risen to 5.2 percent with 7.3 percent of the population identifying themselves as followers of a "non-Catholic biblical religion." (4)

Two important trends within the process of religious fragmentation in Mexico have to be emphasized. First, the "Protestantization" process is, in some contexts, becoming synonymous with "Pentecostalization." Neo-Protestant churches have recently been growing faster than "historical Protestant churches." (5) Pentecostal and Neo-Pentecostal churches have been particularly successful. The trend toward "Pentecostalization" is characteristic of most Latin American countries, especially of Brazil and Chile, where Pentecostals constitute by far the most numerous non-Catholic religious group. They are also most numerous in Mexico where, according to the 2000 General Census, Pentecostals and Neo-Pentecostals constituted 31.1 percent of all "Protestants and Evangelicals" and 21.0 percent of the total non-Catholic religious population. Yet in the case of Mexico it is too early to equate "Protestantization" with "Pentecostalization" because various other groups, Jehovah's Witnesses in particular, continue growing fast as well.

The other significant trend within the Protestantization process in Mexico is its increasing regionalization, or, strictly speaking, geographical shift of the "weight" of the process. Until the middle of the twentieth century, Protestant growth was the fastest in urban centers, in mestizo communities and among the middle class, but during the second half of the century the focus of the process gradually shifted to rural areas, lower classes and indigenous communities. According to the 2000 General Census, the percentage of "Protestants" in the Mexican borderline states is considerably higher than in the Central and Western states with strong Catholic traditions.

Considering this, it is not surprising that Oaxaca, the most indigenous Mexican state and one of the poorest, is also experiencing faster than average growth of the Protestant population. Although the percentage of Protestants in Oaxaca is not as high as in neighboring Chiapas, Tabasco and Veracruz, its growth during the past thirty years nevertheless has been remarkable. Until the 1970s, the percentage of "Evangelical Protestants" in Oaxaca was lower than the national average, but grew rapidly from 1.5 percent to 7.3 percent between 1970 and 1990. Within these twenty years, the total population of Oaxaca increased fifty percent, the number of Catholics rose fifteen percent, whereas that of Protestants increased an astonishing 531 percent (Marroquin 1995a:10). By 2000, the percentage of Evangelical Protestants had risen to 7.7 percent, and that of all non-Catholics to 10.1 percent.


Although Oaxaca has registered one of the highest growth-rates of Protestant population in Mexico during the past three decades, the social implications of religious change in this state have been relatively understudied--research by Ramirez (1995), Marroquin (1995b, 1996) and Montes (1995, 1997) being the few exceptions. The Sierra Juarez of Oaxaca constitutes a particularly interesting setting for the study of religious change in rural Mexico due to the particular socio-cultural organization of its communities, the rapid growth of Protestantism in the past decades, and an increasing number of religious conflicts in the area. Before analyzing the implications of this process, however, a brief discussion of the socio-cultural characteristics of the Sierra communities is in order.

The Sierra Juarez belongs to the Sierra Norte, the mountainous northern part of Oaxaca. It comprises two of Oaxaca's thirty-one districts--Ixtlan and Villa Alta--and consists of fifty-one municipalities (municipios). Altogether 144 communities are located in this area, ranging from municipal centers with around 3,000 inhabitants to smaller nuclei of population with just a few families. The vast majority of the Sierra's population is indigenous Zapotec or Chinantec; according to the 1990 General Census, seventy-three percent of the Sierra population spoke an indigenous language. Although the socio-economic and demographic conditions in the contemporary communities vary, most Sierra communities have significant similarities, allowing the Sierra Juarez to be regarded as a distinct socio-cultural entity. The population of most communities is between 500 and 2,000 inhabitants; all communities are socio-politically organized on the basis of usos y costumbres, a system of "autochthonous" socio-cultural norms and practices. The main basis for collective identity in the Sierra Juarez has traditionally been communal affiliation and participation. Most communities face similar changes such as the decline of traditional economic activities, the increasing role of the money economy, socio-economic differentiation, unemployment and out-migration. Because of the latter, many communities have become "ghost-villages" (pueblos fantasmas) as they are sometimes called, inhabited mostly by women, children and elderly people. Also, and most importantly for this discussion, many of the Sierra communities have experienced a considerable increase in Protestant population during the past two decades.

The situation of religious fragmentation in the Sierra, and communal reactions to it, vary. The following three cases from the region where I worked--Madero, Capulalpam and La Trinidad--exemplify this eloquently. The population of Madero, a small Zapotec community of approximately 300 inhabitants, is divided between the affiliates of five religious groups. Protestants clearly outnumber Catholics and all denominations--Baptists, the Seventh Day Adventists, Pentecostals and the Assembly of God--have their churches in the community. Most collective communal events have disappeared and social life in Madero is centered almost entirely in religious congregations that are in "low intensity war" with each other. Many Catholics in the neighboring communities have referred to Madero as the prime example of the disastrous effect of religious fragmentation on communal life and used it to justify their xenophobic attitude towards religious "dissidence." In Capulalpam, for example, "excessive" religious pluralism was discouraged because "it would lead to what has happened in Madero, where customs (costumbres) have disappeared and the community is dead," it was claimed. The religious fragmentation in Capulalpam itself is largely under the control of municipal authorities. The Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses, comprising about ten percent of the total population of the village, have their churches and are allowed to practise their religion freely, while the emergence of new groups is discouraged. In 1998, for example, Pentecostals from a neighboring village attempted to found a congregation in Capulalpam, but were expelled for being "too loud" and for "offending Catholics."

The third Sierra community, La Trinidad, just a few miles from the other two, was evenly divided into Catholics and Protestants. It was often considered an ideal model for religious tolerance, pluralism, and co-operation between different churches in a community. Communal authorities in La Trinidad had contributed to the construction and renovation of all church buildings and affiliates of all religious groups had served high-ranking cargos, (6) which was exceptional in the context of the Sierra Juarez. It does not mean that religious pluralism has not affected La Trinidad, but its social impact is generally regarded as positive, having, for example, led to the decline of alcoholism and corruption.

These three cases exemplify the difficulty of making generalizations about the state of "Protestantization" process in the Sierra. Although Madero, La Trinidad and Capulalpam are within only three miles of each other, their Protestant populations range from a small minority to a clear majority, and the relationship between Catholics and Protestants from one extreme to another. When discussing the implications of religious fragmentation in the Sierra, it must be kept in mind that the missionary history, as well as demographic, political and economic variables, affects the course of Protestant-led religious change in different communities.

Yet despite the increasing fragmentation of the religious field in the Sierra Juarez and some exceptional examples of Protestant success, the Protestant population in most Sierra communities is still a minority. In more than half of the municipalities it constitutes less than ten percent of the whole population. The social impact of Protestants on communal life should not be judged by their relative numbers, however. Various authors have seen Protestants in Latin America as generators of social change and "vehicles of modernity." Influential studies by Stoll (1990) and Martin (1990) should be particularly emphasized here. Both regarded religious change as a social reform that would lead Latin America into "modernity," revolutionizing the approach to Latin American Protestantism. Some authors (e.g. Garma 1987; Sanchez 1995) also have highlighted the correlation between capitalist development in rural areas and the emergence of Protestant groups in the Mexican context, and a few studies on Oaxacan Protestantism have touched upon the social and economic impact of religious fragmentation. Marroquin (1995b:111), for example, distinguishes between six broader consequences of the Protestantization process in Oaxaca: change in religious identity, secularization of communal authorities, privatization of faith, introduction of pluralist ideas, reformulation of indigenous rights and modification of Catholic pastoral structures. Montes (1995:62), focusing on religious conflicts rather than fragmentation per se, delimits four consequences: creation of new identities and a new "ethos," emphasis on human rights, new relationships with the state and the demand for a secular state.

Speaking of the Sierra Juarez, the impact of religious fragmentation has been most immediate and discernible in the case of collective communal practices, either political, economic, legal, or religious. The combination of these practices in Oaxaca is generally referred to as usos y costumbres, a concept widely used in both official and lay discourses. As a legal concept, usos y costumbres can be regarded as a form of customary law defining the socio-political organization of indigenous communities. As a cultural concept, it refers to "autochthonous" (yet often invented) traditions and customs, primarily to those concerning (folk) Catholicism, which comprises the system of religious cargos and festivals for patron saints. The latter are most strongly affected by religious change, but Protestantism is also supposed to have an impact on religiously more "neutral" collective communal practices like tequio, (7) guelaguetza (8) and the system of civil cargos.

Religious fragmentation has favored the separation of civil and religious cargos. In many communities the essence and form of religious cargos has changed entirely. In Capulalpam, for example, the individuals serving religious cargos form the so-called "church committee" (junta vecinal) that has administrative and organizational rather than religious responsibilities. The rise of Protestantism has also influenced the way communal festivals are organized and financed. In most contemporary communities Mayordomias--individual sponsorships of Catholic festivals--have been substituted by "festival committees" (comites de festejos). Protestants have been particularly reluctant to serve as mayordomos and this constituted the reason for the first religious conflicts in the Sierra in the 1930s (Ramirez 1991:93).

The Protestants' relationship with God is established primarily through the individual study of the Bible and not through the collective celebration of the patron saint or mass attendance. Converting to Protestantism, the emotional link between collective communal symbols, most of them Catholic in their essence, and the individual is broken. Protestants no longer need saints as religious mediators and protectors. "Our aim is to please God and not people," a Jehovah's Witness told me in Capulalpam.

The growth of the Protestant population in the communities has two important consequences for Catholic festivals: the decline in material contributions to organize the festival, as well as the decreased number of festival participants. Ideally the "festival quota," an obligatory monetary contribution, has to be paid by both Catholics and Protestants alike, but the latter often refuse to do so. In some cases this has led to confrontations, although in most communities the matter has been settled by allowing Protestants to pay their quota for financing alternative communal projects. Jehovah's Witnesses in Capulalpam, for example, paid their contribution directly to communal authorities for buying light bulbs for the whole community. Protestants are opposed to participating in the festivals primarily because they consider worshipping saints idolatry but also because they regard such festivals as socially and economically harmful. Catholic festivals promote drinking, excessive spending, or "burning money" (la quema del dinero) as many would call it, and hence cause poverty. An important consequence of their non-participation is that what previously could have been considered a "communal festival" has now been transformed into a "Catholic festival."

The impact of the increase in the Protestant population on religiously more "neutral" communal practices such as the system of civil cargos and tequios is generally smaller. Yet Protestants have been accused of causing their decline or even abolition. This was a common argument used by those lobbying against the activities of the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), a controversial faith mission, in 1979. (9) Due to the abundance of indigenous ethnic groups, Oaxaca was a particularly preferred region by SIL linguists and missionaries. It is thus not surprising that accusations against the SIL in Oaxaca, and especially in the Sierra Juarez, were particularly numerous. In Ixtlan, for example, the SIL had allegedly urged children not to attend patriotic events (Proceso, October 8, 1979). In Analco, the "prototype of the SIL domination" according to some critics, SIL missionaries had forbidden tequios, religious processions and other collective communal practices (Noticias, April 15, 1988). When people in Atepec started to struggle against the Paper Factories of Tuxtepec and demanded an increase in salaries and payment for raw materials, the missionaries of the SIL allegedly intervened and divided the movement (Proceso, October 8, 1979).

Non-participation and different attitudes towards collective communal practices have caused various "religious" conflicts in the Sierra communities and in Oaxaca in general during the past two decades. Interestingly, however, it is not the conflicts themselves but their resolution that has had a more structural impact on communal life in the Sierra, especially on the traditional ways of communal decision-making. All discussions and decisions concerning the indigenous community are ideally internal matters and made exclusively by (male) community members during communal assemblies that outsiders are not allowed to attend. Religious and other types of conflicts, (10) however, cannot usually be resolved without external mediators. As a consequence, the debates and confrontations no longer remain internal matters of the community. The presence of external agents--consultants, advisers and human rights activists, for example--means that various "communal decisions" are now made at the state, national and even international level.

And finally, whereas Catholicism in the Sierra Juarez can be characterized as "parochial," Protestantism leads to the extension of social networks between communities. A convert becomes a member of an "imagined" religious community using the term by Anderson (1989). The unity of this imagined community is based on shared faith and religious practices, but the expansion of the social networks that conversion and membership in a Protestant congregation lead to can also be very "real." Protestants, for various religious reasons, travel more often than Catholics. According to the results of my questionnaire in Capulalpam, for example, Protestants visited other communities four times more often than Catholics.


Religious fragmentation or "tribalization of faith" as Marroquin (1995a:114) has called it, leads to the pluralism of religious thought and consequently to a certain liberalization of the "monolithic mode of communal thinking" based on Catholicism. The relationships between individual and communal rights, tradition and change, Catholicism and the community, and the nature of the local political system, for example, are entirely new issues in communal discourse. Even discussing theology and religion is a new phenomenon that emerged only in the conditions of religious pluralism.

Can one then argue that religious fragmentation of the Sierra communities is synonymous with the modernization process? There are at least three hypothetical ways to theorize the relationship between the "Protestantization" and modernization processes in the contemporary rural Mexico. First, Protestantism can be regarded as a byproduct of the modernization process. In the age of rationality and efficiency, religion is a "commodity" like any other on a competitive and free (religious) market. Second, Protestantism can be considered to actually initiate or accelerate the modernization process, as suggested by Weber (1976). And thirdly, the Protestantization and modernization processes can be seen running parallel to each other and have common underlying causes such as globalization, socio-economic changes, migration, and the emergence of novel means of communication and transportation. In the latter case, Protestantism may be antithetical to the modernization process and yet in certain ways complement it.

The apparent corollaries of the rise of Protestant churches--the decline of the Catholic cosmological monopoly, the separation of religious and civil authorities, and the diminishing role of "traditions" in the socio-political organization of the communities--seem to allude to the second scenario. Various authors studying rural Mexico, both in the Sierra Juarez and elsewhere, have emphasized the modernizing effect of Protestantism on communal "ethos." Alatorre (1998:330), for example, claims that owing to Protestants, La Trinidad, a Sierra community, has made considerable progress on the social and educational front. Sanchez (1995) claims the same about the Tzeltal Protestants of Yajalon in Chiapas. Turner (1979) in his study among the Tzeltals of Oxchuc, in turn argues that mass conversion in that municipality led to its transformation from the most backward to the most progressive municipality in Highland Chiapas. He tries to present a "non-Western perspective on Weber's thesis," suggesting that conversion alleviates three major problems of many Indian communities: poverty, disease and illiteracy.

Despite all the apparent evidence, I would be hesitant to employ the Weberian link between Protestantism and modernity in explaining the role of Protestantism in rural Mexico. Weber (1976) developed the argument for the case of Calvinism and Western Europe of the sixteenth century and his model is not easily transferable to the context of contemporary Sierra communities and the case of Neo-Protestant churches. Weber's model was questioned by his contemporaries, most strongly by Troeltsch, who suggested that there exists no direct road from the ecclesiastic culture of Protestantism to non-ecclesiastic modern culture. In his seminal Protestantism and Progress (1986) Troelsch argues that the opposite might actually hold true. Studying the rise of Protestantism through family, law, state, economics, society, science and art, Troeltsch found everywhere a twofold result: while Protestantism had furthered the rise of the modern world, often largely and decisively, in none of these cases did it appear to have been its actual creator. What it did simply was to secure a greater freedom of development, although in various cases it actually maintained or even reinforced the opposing influences drawn from the late-medieval worldview (Troeltsch 1986:87).

One should also be critical about the link between conversion and "capitalist spirit." Martin (1990:205), in his study of Pentecostalism in Latin America, has also challenged the loosely Weberian claims that Latin American Protestantism is associated with economic success and questioned whether Protestantism really increases social mobility. My data from communities of the Sierra Juarez led to a similar hesitation. In most observed cases religious conversion did not give rise to a particular "capitalist spirit" or economic success. Indeed, conversion in a Sierra community frees people from economically burdensome obligations like mayordomias and material co-operation for Catholic festivals, but, at the same time, it also often causes converts' increased marginalization and alienation from communal life and resources. Conversion severs the economically and socially beneficial relationships between converts and the rest of the community or even with their families and co-families. (11) Most individuals in the Sierra, as my interviews revealed, had converted to Protestantism either because of family pressure, or, in case of migrants, because of the lack of kinship ties. Being a migrant makes conversion both easier and more desirable, because Protestant congregations provide their members with a protective web of social networks that they lack in the community. (12)

I am also hesitant to regard Protestants in the Sierra communities as modernizers per se. They are new actors in the religious field, who demand space for themselves, but they are rarely motivated by the construction of civil society and the promotion of ideological pluralism. Rather, their overarching goal is the distribution and eventual hegemony if not monopoly of their own religious doctrine. Although they have an obvious impact on the "ethos" as well as on the social, political and economic organization of the Sierra communities, it is simply an unintended consequence of their presence.

Many other conventional arguments about the "modernizing impact" of religious conversion and Protestantism in the Sierra communities should be challenged. Membership in new religious groups is supposed to satisfy the need for authority and prestige, and religious affiliation to serve as a "cover identity" for political dissent. In situations where all other forms of political struggle to transform living conditions are blocked and controlled by caciques, religious movements constitute an ideological alternative that provides the politically marginal groups with new spaces for expression and participation. Garma (1987) has claimed this about Ixtepec, Puebla; Juarez (1989) about Yajalon, Chiapas; Aguirre Beltran (1992) about Zongolica, Veracruz; Robledo (1997) about Chamula, Chiapas; and Fortuny (1989) about South-Eastern Mexico. But the "power" acquired through conversion is rarely economic or political, rather it is manifested only as acknowledgement within the group itself. As Sanchez (1995:54), in her study of the Presbyterians of Yajalon demonstrates, the elders had authority within the group of converts but lacked it in the general communal context. Similarly, although the leaders of Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses in Capulalpam were influential within their congregations, Catholics often criticized them more severely than other converts. Very few Adventists and no Jehovah's Witnesses played an active role in communal life and decisions; with conversion, their alienation from "communal power" had actually increased.

Conversion is also supposed to increase the social mobility of women and give rise to a more liberal politics of gender. Weber (1978:489) pointed to a great receptivity of women to all religious prophecy, loan Lewis (1975), in his influential study, demonstrated that women are particularly prone to join what he called marshal possession cults as opposed to central ones. While the latter reinforce official morality and established power, the former constitute a form of indirect protest by the "downtrodden." In the Latin American context, Smilde (1994:40) has suggested that "Evangelicalism" has "elective affinity" to Latin American women. Loreto and Das Dotes (1997:42), focusing on Pentecostalism, argue that this has not only redefined the relationship between gender and public versus private spaces in Latin America but has also led to the emergence of a "new man" and a "new woman." Traditional Catholicism in the Sierra communities is also relatively "male-centered" and one is tempted to conclude that women, suffering from subordination to men and lacking "socially accepted" means of public participation, are more prone to convert and become members of non-Catholic churches. This would enable them to increase their status and acquire "public power."

My analysis of the statistical data from the Sierra communities, however, does not support these claims. According to the 1990 General Census, (13) the number of female and male non-Catholics relative to the total female and male population in the Sierra was almost the same, 12.0 percent and 11.6 percent respectively. (14) Nor can I entirely agree with the claim that conversion in the Sierra would necessarily provide women with more "public power." The leaders of Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses in Capulalpam, for example, had always been men who enjoyed the respect and following of the congregation, thus reproducing the gender relationships characteristic of patriarchal Catholicism. Smilde (1994:56) has also argued that even if women acquire higher status in the new religious movements, it is common that this "religious equality" quickly evaporates when the movement becomes institutionalized.

Furthermore, not only have the advocates of the Protestantization process often exaggerated its impact--so have its critics. Regarding Protestants as "anti-traditional" and "anti-national" has a long history in Mexico, going back to the era of the Mexican Revolution. Many Protestants participated actively in the Revolution against Porfirio Diaz's regime and subsequently held important positions in Carranza's government (Mondragon 1994:307). (15) Catholics viewed their revolutionary militancy, however, as a "camouflage" to conceal their "real" aim to destroy the "national religion," as well as the nation's cultural integrity, and prepare ground for the U.S. intervention. Such criticism, common throughout the twentieth century, is often based on the claim that Catholicism in Mexico is not simply a religious but also a cultural and national phenomenon. (16) The "de-culturizing" impact of Protestantism on both urban and rural Mexico is, however, smaller than generally argued. Protestant churches in the Sierra communities, with the exception of Jehovah's Witnesses, rarely oppose national culture and patriotic symbols. On the contrary, because communal authorities and Catholics often mistakenly attribute the Jehovah's Witnesses' lack of patriotism to all non-Catholics, many groups try to expose their national identity and patriotism as explicitly as possible. In various communities of the Sierra Juarez, Adventists and Pentecostals, for example, have a national flag permanently in the church to differentiate themselves from Jehovah's Witnesses.

Nor are most Protestant churches directly opposed to the socio-political system of indigenous communities. Pentecostal churches are particularly adaptable to the conditions of the indigenous communities, which could actually explain their success and appeal. They tend to blend with or assimilate the elements of indigenous cultures. In some cases Protestant groups may even reinforce certain "authentic" cultural practices like healing with faith and charismatic leadership Sanchez (1995:117), in her study of the Tzeltal Presbyterians of Yajalon in Chiapas, shows that the new religious ideology has not provoked drastic changes in the Tzeltal cosmology, nor in everyday practices, and concludes that Presbyterianism has actually become a new form of popular religion from which Tzeltal-Presbyterian identity is constructed. Gros (1999:193), comparing various cases from all over Latin America, concludes that the spread of Protestantism among indigenous populations does not necessarily erode ethnic and cultural frontiers, but can actually strengthen them. He argues that ethnic identity combined with Protestantism is "a striking innovation to Weber," further suggesting that the impact of Protestantism is actually not so different from that of folk Catholicism. Protestantism can "dress itself in indigenous clothes," as Gros (1999:193) claims. Also, Protestant movements are often less influential than nativistic movements, as demonstrated eloquently by O'Connor (1979) in the study of the Mayo Indians of Sonora. Making use of the distinction introduced by Aberle (1966:330) between "transformative" and "redemptive movements," she argues that contrary to the nativistic diospasko movement that embraces the poorest and most "revolutionary-minded" members of the community, the Protestant groups focus on the change of an individual rather than the entire system.

Even the apparently obvious Protestant impact on collective communal practices outlined above has to be reviewed. Judging by the Sierra communities, I cannot agree with Montes's (1995:46) argument that non-participation in collective communal practices is how the converts most clearly express their individualism and new ideological position. Protestants obviously do not celebrate patron saints and avoid participating in Catholic festivals, but cases where they refuse to participate in non-remunerated tequios or serve obligatory cargos completely are rare. On the contrary, according to my questionnaire data and interviews with municipal authorities, in all but one case in my sample of 29 Sierra communities, Protestants participated both in tequios and civil cargos. Moreover, Protestants often regard participation as a religious obligation, claiming "the Bible obliges you to obey the authorities." Negative reactions to the cargo system and tequios exist but they are very specific, depending on the religious convictions of the particular group and the nature of the responsibility. Most Protestants only refuse to participate in the tequios for the Catholic Church or Catholic festivals; tequios held on Saturdays go against the religious conviction of the Seventh Day Adventists. Most Protestants do not have a religiously motivated reason for rejecting civil cargos, except Jehovah's Witnesses, whose religion prohibits them from getting involved in politics and hence from serving high-ranking cargos. Also, while serving cargos, Protestants may avoid particular responsibilities if these go against their faith. In Capulalpam, for example, it is a custom during Easter that all topils, the lowest rank of the cargo system, collectively purchase a palm tree and on various occasions Jehovah's Witnesses serving as topils have refused to collaborate.

In reality, the contemporary changes in the cargo and tequio system are often responses to more general socio-economic changes rather than religious fragmentation. Monetarization of tequios, an increasing trend in Oaxaca, is a good example. Tequio has traditionally been based on solidarity and collective participation, but this is being substituted by monetary relations. Some scholars (e.g. Fabre 1995) have regarded this as resulting from having to find a solution to religious conflicts, but I would argue that the reason is rather the increasing socio-economic stratification that has enabled relatively richer members of the community to pay the poor to do their tequios. Changes in the cargo system are likewise a result of the socio-economic conditions in the contemporary communities. In the situation where communities and households are losing self-sufficiency, cargos are increasingly often regarded as a burden, rather than as means of gaining prestige and recognition or fulfillment of one's moral responsibility. Complaints because of the difficulty of serving non-remunerated cargos are common among Catholics and Protestants alike. The municipal presidents who responded to my questionnaire spent almost ten hours a day on an average on their cargo. Only about one tenth of them claimed that their domestic economy during that time was "normal" while almost half of them were relying on their family for support, working part-time or using personal savings and loans to maintain themselves. Although lower-ranking cargos are economically less harmful, evading cargos increasingly has become a reason for out-migration from the communities, as I was often told.

Even in the case of religious festivals, the impact of Protestantism is often not as significant as generally expected. In an interesting analysis, Montes (1995:27) demonstrates that the decline of religious festivals can actually be related to agricultural changes that started in the middle of the twentieth century, especially to the decline of the cultivation of maize. Most festivals to celebrate patron saints in Oaxacan communities take place in summer or autumn, traditionally the times for sowing and harvesting maize. The cultivation of other crops, especially the cash crops like coffee and banana that now more and more are replacing maize, does not coincide with the festival days. Consequently, during the festivals, people have less money to spend. Moreover, the new crops are also less dependent on weather conditions and hence do not need similar protection by the patron saint. The "cost" of being Catholic can also affect religious participation. Binford (1990) shows in the example of the Zapotec peasants in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec of Oaxaca, for example, that increasingly fewer members of poor households formally join vela associations, Catholic circles that organize periodically small religious festivals, because of the prohibitively high cost of membership.

Finally, although religious fragmentation creates a new kind of religious community and although Protestantism certainly favors a more individualistic religious experience, conversion in the Sierra Juarez is rarely a radical break from the collective communal sentiment. Non-Catholics are seldom entirely opposed to the collective lifestyle of an indigenous community but just its Catholic premises. Escalante (unpublished) has argued that individualism does not suit the indigenous community regardless of its religion composition. Even if the majority of the population converts to Protestantism, a "closed homogenous community" based on territoriality tends to be recreated, he claims. There are, indeed, numerous examples of this in Mexico, especially in the case of religious expulsions. The expelled Chamulan Protestants in San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, for instance, formed suburbs with biblical names, trying to recreate a religiously homogenous community organized socio-politically as a territorial municipality (Robledo 1997). Another noteworthy example is New Jerusalem, a Protestant "holy village" founded in 1973 in Michoacan (Barabas 1994:39).


Aguirre Beltran, the foremost Mexican anthropologist, has provocatively suggested that the decline of Catholicism in rural Mexico and the changes in communal practices discussed above are somewhat inevitable processes. He chinas:

   The traditional religious system based on the cult of saints,
   conspicuous consumption and the fulfillment of cargos as means to
   acquire prestige and power is probably arriving to its end; [it]
   seems to have given everything that it could give of itself during
   its long existence of almost five centuries (Aguirre Beltran

Aguirre Beltran regards socio-economic forces as the causes of these changes and the secularization of indigenous life as their inevitable outcome. Although agreeing with his causes, I would call the secularization argument into question. Various recent studies have challenged the idea that rural Mexico and Central America are becoming secularized (Stephen and Dow 1990; Garma 1999). The "religious field" in contemporary rural Mexico is changing, but this change is rather "fragmentation" than "secularization." It does not mean that the Catholic Church in Mexico has lost its hegemonic position--Catholicism continues to be the religion of a vast majority of Mexico's population and non-Catholic religions are numerically still weak and organizationally dispersed. However, similar to the rest of Latin America, Catholicism is forced to make more space for Protestant and other non-Catholic churches, the membership of which is constantly growing. The slow but gradual decrease of the role of the Catholic Church in the religious field that one can witness now is significantly different from similar processes in the 1860s or 1920s. Whereas then the changes were imposed by the state, they are now caused primarily by voluntary individual conversions.

Despite the relatively low percentage of Protestants in the population of contemporary Mexico, the religious changes in rural Mexico are significant to the extent that some have regarded it, contrary to Aguirre Beltran, not as an outcome but as a cause of the changes in the traditional organization of the communities. Protestantism, in particular, is believed to have considerable social, political and economic implications. It has been credited with the role of an "engine" that leads rural communities to more modern and democratic forms of social organization, ideological pluralism and male-female egalitarianism. In this article I have been concerned with the link between Protestant-led religious change and modernization in rural Mexico in the ethnographic example of the indigenous Zapotec communities of the Sierra Juarez in Oaxaca. I have argued that the "modernizing" impact of Protestantism in rural Mexico has often been overestimated.

Judging by the example of the Sierra Juarez, I would agree with Troeltsch that the road from Protestantization to modernity is not necessarily a direct one. Fragmentation of the religious field in the Sierra Juarez encourages certain social changes, but may do so in opposition to or independently of the actual intentions of the new religious actors. The latter are rarely initiators of the modernization process. Once present in the community, they tend to indirectly second the process, although conflicts between religious groups, a frequent consequence of religious fragmentation especially in Oaxaca and Chiapas, can have repercussions for communal life.

Yet a critical reassessment of the relationship between Protestantism and modernity should not lead us to deny Protestantism a role in the process of social change in rural Mexico altogether. As Troeltsch (1986:98) has suggested in his historical analysis, although Protestantism was not the creator of most social, political and economic changes attributed to it, it did give birth to what he called "modern religious feeling." The pluralism of religious feelings and world-views that the fragmentation of the religious field generates forces the communities to "think" differently in order to come to terms with their internal heterogeneity. This is a very significant contribution to social change in rural Mexico, the complete impact of which remains to be seen as Protestantism continues to gain ground.

(1) A general analysis of social movements can be found in Touraine (1981).

(2) The empirical data of this discussion are based on my fieldwork in various Zapotec communities of the Sierra Juarez for a total of 18 months between 1998 and 2000.

(3) I am using the term "Protestant" for all non-Catholic Christian churches, although it is a heterogeneous group. Some of the churches are, strictly speaking, non-biblical (e.g. Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, the Seventh Day Adventists) and hence very different from the "Evangelical" Protestant churches.

(4) Until 1990, Mexican general censuses distinguished between five religious categories--"Catholic," "Protestant/Evangelical," "Judaic," "Other" and "Non-religious" (earlier "Atheist"). Non-Evangelical Christians were included under the category "Other." The 2000 General Census, however, listed them as a separate group ("Biblical non-Evangelical"), distinct of the category "Other."

(5) By "historical Protestant churches" I mean the Protestant churches that emerged in Western Europe in the sixteenth century (e.g. Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, Anglican, etc.), while "Neo-Protestant churches" are generally an American "invention" of the nineteenth and twentieth century.

(6) Cargo system refers to a hierarchy of communal responsibilities that all men, generally aged from eighteen to sixty, have to fulfill as members of a community.

(7) Tequio (also known as faena) in the Sierra Juarez stands for collective and non-remunerated communal work obligatory to all men aged 18-60.

(8) Guelaguetza is a form of voluntary economic collaboration between individual households. In most contemporary Sierra communities, guelaguetza relationships are limited to events like weddings, funerals, and festival sponsorships.

(9) On the history of the SIL in Mexico and in general, see, for example, Rus and Wasserstrom (1981), Stoll (1982), or De la Torre (1995).

(10) Land disputes are the most common type of conflicts in Oaxaca. Feuding between different political factions within a community, although not so common in the Sierra, is also a frequent cause for conflicts.

(11) By "co-families" I mean the persons related to an individual through the relationships based on comparazgo, a Catholic form of ritual kinship.

(12) This does not mean that religious conversion should be reduced to "rational" choice. Conversion can, of course, have "truly" religious causes, but they are beyond the focus of this research.

(13) By the time of completing this article, the respective data for 2000 were not yet available.

(14) In Oaxaca the respective figures in 1997 were 8.6 (men) and 8.9 (women), and in the whole county 7.6 and 8.3 (INEGI 1999).

(15) On Protestant opposition to Dfaz's regime see also Bastian (1992); on their role in the Mexican Revolution in general see Baldwin (1990) and Bastian (1991).

(16) The prime example of this is the Virgin of Guadalupe who has become a powerful national and patriotic icon that symbolizes Mexican independence.


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Toomas Gross *

University of Tartu

* Direct correspondence to Toomat Gross, Department of Public Administration, University of Tartu, Tugi 78, 50410 Tartu, Estonia. E-mail I am grateful to the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at University of California at San Diego for providing me with funding and facilities during the completion of this article.