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The term indigenismo encompasses a diverse array of intellectual production concerning the indigenous peoples of Latin America. The twentieth century in particular witnessed an explosion of literary, critical, and visual work on the figure of the Indian. It should be made clear from the outset that the term, although most closely associated with Mexico and Guatemala and especially with the Andean region during the first half of the twentieth century, is applicable to Latin America's diverse nations and histories, including those not typically viewed as influenced by indigenismo. This broad geographical and historical scope stems from the wide appeal of indigenismo's central, self-declared objective: the defense and vindication of the continent's indigenous peoples. This objective distinguishes indigenismo from idyllic and idealized representations of the Indian with which Latin American cultural history is rife, as evidenced by, for example, Romanticisminflected Indianist works of the nineteenth century. Indianism tended to portray the Indian in a sentimental light and did not address the social plight of indigenous peoples in modern Latin America. Cumandá (1879) by Ecuador's Juan León Mera (18321894) illustrates Indianism's tendency to portray the Indians as part of an idealized past and thus to ignore their contemporary presence.

In contrast to Indianism, indigenismo defines itself through its critical stance vis-à-vis the dominant society that exploits and debases indigenous peoples and their cultures. Clearly, this perspective has not been unique to modernity. Indigenismo finds foundational antecedents in the accounts of figures such as Bartolomé de las Casas (14741566) and el Inca Garcilaso de la Vega (15391616), who, respectively, denounced the ills visited upon Indians by the Spanish colonizers and praised the integrity and complexity of the Inca Empire in the face of accusations of its barbarity. Other sympathetic works on the Indian can be found in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, including Clorinda Matto de Turner's (18541909) Aves sin nido (1889; Birds without a nest) and Narciso Aréstegui's (18181892) El Padre Horán (1848). The critic Efraín Kristal considered the latter to be the first indigenista work. These works evidence the outrage typical of indigenista works as well as their authors' willingness to challenge such structures of authority as the church and the government. Thus, the vindication of the Indian through the indictment of social and political institutions was already in place at least as early as the mid-nineteenth century. Later indigenistas were equally in debt to figures such as Manuel González Prada (18481918) who was the first, in works such as "Discurso en el Politeama" (1888; Speech in the Politeama), to call for social revolt in order to rectify the abuses committed against the indigenous peoples.

The 1920s and 1930s

While indigenismo should and must be contextualized among the many discourses on the Indian produced during the colonial and Republican periods, its defining moment occurs with the explosion of voices on indigenous matters in the 1920s and 1930s. The movement's seminal novels, such as Alcides Arguedas's (18791946) Raza de bronce (1919; Bronze race), Jorge Icaza's (19061978) Huasipungo (1934), and Ciro Alegría's (19091967) El mundo es ancho y ajeno (1941; Broad and alien is the world), should nevertheless not overshadow the significant and arguably as important critical and scholarly production on the Indian in the same period. Works such as José Carlos Mariátegui's (18941930) Siete ensayos de interpretación de la realidad peruana (1928; Seven interpretative essays on Peruvian reality), Pío Jaramillo Alvarado's (18841968) El indio ecuatoriano (1936; The Ecuadorian Indian), Hildebrando Castro Pozo's (18901945) Nuestra comunidad indígena (1924; Our indigenous community), and José Vasconcelos's (18821959) Indología (1926) purported to study "the indigenous question" in a scientific light. These critical works, perhaps more so than their aesthetic counterparts, reveal the ways in which the importation and acquisition of foreign theoretical models fomented new perspectives on the indigenous problem and thereby offered novel solutions. Marxism, for example, played a central role in giving the defense of the Indian a distinctly revolutionary flavor. On the whole, novelistic, poetic, and critical discourses on the Indian had a profound impact on social and political movements, such as the APRA (Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana) in Peru and the Mexican Revolution, which sought to challenge the standing political and social order. A full study of the impact of the indigenista project on Latin American politics remains to be carried out. It should also be noted that the indigenistas were generally not progressive in terms of gender and that in fact most indigenismo is rife with stereotypical representations of femininity and masculinity.

Though extraordinary, the life of José Carlos Mariátegui (18941930) illustrates the contradictions that riddle indigenismo. Impoverished mestizos from the provinces, the young Mariátegui and his family emigrated to Lima, Peru's capital city, in hopes of bettering their social condition. Having dropped out of grade school in order to work, the crippled Mariátegui rose to prominence within the growing journalism industry with virtually no formal education. He did not turn his full attention to the problem of the Indian until his return from Europe in 1923, when he famously stated that his exile had allowed him to see Peru for the first time. This vision, filtered through his study of Marxism, led to his groundbreaking Siete ensayos de interpretación de la realidad peruana (1928; reprint. Mexico: Era, 1993), in which he declared:

la literatura indigenista no puede darnos una versión rigurosamente verista del indio. Tiene que idealizarlo y estilizarlo. Tampoco puede darnos su propia ánima. Es todavía una literatura de mestizos. Por eso se llama indigenista y no indígena. Una literatura indígena, si debe venir, vendrá en su tiempo. Cuando los propios indios estén en grado de producirla. [indigenista literature cannot give us a rigorously truthful version of the Indian. It has to idealize and stylize him. Nor can it give us his own soul. It is still a literature made by mestizos. That is why it is called indigenista and not indigenous. An indigenous literature, if it is to come, will come when it is ready. When the Indians themselves have the capacity to produce it.] (p. 306)

Conscious of his place within this dynamic, Mariátegui facilitated the forging of an indigenous voice through his publication of Labor, (19281929) a paper for the working class, and through his encouragement of indigenous self-organization.

The Uruguayan critic Angel Rama has presented the most compelling analysis of the social dynamics behind the effervescence of indigenismo in the 1920s and 1930s. In his seminal Transculturación narrativa en América Latina (1982; Narrative transculturation in Latin America), largely concerned with the problem of representing autochthony in the region, Rama argues that the indigenismo of this period is in fact a product of the rise of the mestizo middle classes to power. In Rama's scheme of things, indigenismo is a kind of Trojan horse that, while addressing authentic social concerns regarding the Indian, nevertheless makes inroads against the dominant land-owning oligarchies to the benefit of mestizospersons of mixed European and American Indian ancestryand not especially the indigenous peoples. This observation reveals a crucial feature of indigenismo that has been taken for granted by most criticism, although notably not that of Mariátegui and his interlocutor Luis Alberto Sánchez (19001994). It demonstrates that while indigenismo claims to speak of the Indian's plight, it is in fact a phenomenon that occurs almost entirely within the majority mestizo culture of the continent. In the end, then, indigenismo benefits what Rama calls mesticismo, or the empowerment of the mestizo.

This observation rests primarily on the cultural and social heterogeneity that undergirds indigenismo. Indigenismo's mode of production reiterates the paradox at the center of the indigenistas' intellectual production: through its expression in the dominant language and culture, it tends to exclude those very subjects it represents. As such, indigenismo should be viewed less as a window on the indigenous people of Latin America and more as a complex example of how intellectuals have imagined alterity, or otherness, in the continent. Indigenista production can and must be read against the grain, as it certainly provides a vast and detailed portrait of the urban mestizo middle classes at the beginning and throughout much of the twentieth century. Indeed, the more recent writers in the indigenistra tradition, including Rosario Castellanos (19251974), Miguel Angel Asturias (18991974), and José María Arguedas (19111969), have since 1950 transformed the indigenista vision into one that increasingly considers the role of indigenous culture in relation to mestizo society.

See also Mestizaje .


Aquézolo Castro, Manuel, ed. La polémica del indigenismo. Lima: Mosca Azul, 1976.

Cornejo Polar, Antonio. Literatura y sociedad en el Perú: La novela indigenista. Lima: Lasontay, 1980.

Kristal, Efraín. The Andes Viewed from the City: Literary and Political Discourse on the Indian in Peru (18481930). New York: Lang, 1987.

Mariátegui, José Carlos. Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality. Translated by Marjory Urquidi. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971.

Rama, Angel. Transculturación narrativa en América Latina. Hanover, N.H.: Ediciones del Norte, 1982.

Jorge Coronado

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Broadly defined, indigenismo (Spanish, indianism) refers to the representation of indigenous peoples (indígenas in Spanish) in Latin America by outsiders (called indigenistas ). It is a uniquely American phenomenon, and its origins are inextricably bound together with debates on the question of how colonized indigenous peoples should be treated. Its importance as a philosophical aspect of Latin American thought dates to the beginnings of European attempts to subdue the aboriginal inhabitants of the American continent in the late fifteenth century. It reached its high point in the early twentieth century in countries with high concentrations of indigenous peoples, particularly Mexico and Peru. Although its characteristics changed over time, indigenismo always presented a critique of indigenous issues from an elite, educated, urban perspective rather than from that of the indigenous peoples.

The Dominican priest Bartolomé de las Casas (14841566) presented the earliest articulate defense of indigenous rights from a European perspective. But he retained loyalty to the Catholic Church and to the Spanish Crown, and ultimately the purpose of his efforts was for the conversion of indigenous peoples to Christianity and their assimilation into the Spanish kingdom.

Modern indigenismo first emerged in the nineteenth century and was characterized by romantic and humanitarian impulses. This indigenista discourse came to be dominated by intellectuals who were strongly influenced by Spencerian positivist thought meant to assimilate the surviving indigenous peoples in the Americas into a dominant Spanish or Portuguese culture. Indigenismo particularly gained strength in Mexico in the aftermath of the 1910 revolution because it embraced the countrys glorious indigenous past while assimilating their descendants into a unified mestizo nation.

By the 1920s indigenismo had become a form of protest against the injustices that Indians faced. Political parties, especially populist ones, began to exploit indigenista ideologies for political gain. Indigenismo flourished in the 1930s, particularly in Peru and Mexico, and in the 1950s it was institutionalized in the Guatemalan and Bolivian revolutions. With officialization, indigenismo lost its revolutionary potential to improve the lives of Indians. Elite mestizo intellectuals and leftist political leaders led this movement, which they often used only to advance their own political agendas.

Indigenismo often emerged out of anthropological and archaeological studies. Manuel Gamio (18831960) was both a pioneer anthropologist and indigenista in Mexico who reconstructed archaeological sites for tourists, including Teotihuacán north of Mexico City. Although indigenistas proudly championed the ancient Aztec and Inca civilizations, they often ignored or discounted their present-day descendants.

Peruvian Marxist José Carlos Mariátegui is one of the best-known indigenista intellectuals. In Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality (1928), Mariátegui criticized various strategies that others had employed to improve the lives of indigenous peoples, including humanitarian campaigns, administrative policies, and legal reforms. He argued that their problems were rooted instead in the nature of the land-tenure system, and that only through fundamental economic change and land reform would social improvements be possible. Mariátegui was an indigenista in the classical sense in that he was an urban mestizo intellectual who had little contact with Perus indigenous peoples, but he did not portray the worst elements of paternalism and assimilation common to indigenismo.

Indigenismo was also represented in literature, particularly in well-known novels such as Jorge Icazas Huasipungo (1934) in Ecuador or Rosario Castellanoss Balún-Canán (1957) in Mexico. Typically, such novels focused on the oppression of poor indigenous agricultural workers at the hands of large landholders, depicting indígenas as primitive and ignorant people who are unable to improve their lives without outside assistance. The solution, when one is offered, is that through education they might be elevated and assimilated into the dominant culture; rarely are indigenous cultures recognized as valuable and worthy of protection. In art, the paintings by the Mexican artists Frida Kahlo (19071954) and Diego Rivera (18861957) utilized indigenous themes to advance their leftist political ideologies.

In 1940 the Mexican president Lázaro Cárdenas (18951970) organized the First Inter-American Indigenist Congress at Pátzcuaro in the state of Michoacán. Delegates were anthropologists and sociologists as well as religious workers and high government officials such as John Collier, the architect of Franklin D. Roosevelts Indian policy in the United States. The Pátzcuaro Congress broke from colonialist thought, but its tone was still integrationalist. The Instituto Indigenista Interamericano (III, Inter-American Indigenist Institute) that emerged out of the Pátzcuaro Congress was based in Mexico City, and Gamio served as its first director. The III held congresses about every five years, and indigenistas formed national branches in many of the American republics. In addition to publishing the journals América Indigenista (later renamed Anuario Indigenista ) and Boletín Indigenista, the III became an official organ of the Organization of American States (OAS).

In 1971 eleven anthropologists gathered in Barbados for the Symposium on Inter-Ethnic Conflict in South America. Their Declaration of Barbados demanded the liberation of indigenous peoples from colonial domination, specifically calling for the defense of indigenous culture and territory, the establishment of economic, social, educational, and health assistance, and support for a native-led panLatin American movement for self-government.

As indigenous peoples began to build their own organizations, they presented a sustained critique of indigenismo as a construction of the dominant culture, a paternalistic impulse designed to stop liberation movements. Indigenous peoples criticized academics who studied their cultures without returning any political benefits to their communities. Rather than letting outsiders appropriate indigenous cultures and concerns for their own purposes, indigenous leaders insisted that they could represent themselves. Particularly strong indigenous political movements emerged in countries with relatively weak indigenista traditions such as Ecuador and Guatemala. By the end of the twentieth century indigenous leaders had created a neoindigenismo that advanced their own political agendas.

SEE ALSO Indigenous Rights; Natives


Bonfil Batalla, Guillermo. 1996. Mexico Profundo: Reclaiming a Civilization. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Castellanos, Rosario. [1957] 1992. Balún-Canán [Nine guardians]. Trans. Irene Nicholson. London: Readers International.

Dawson, Alexander S. 2004. Indian and Nation in Revolutionary Mexico. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Díaz Polanco, Héctor. 1997. Indigenous Peoples in Latin America: The Quest for Self-Determination. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Graham, Richard, ed. 1990. The Idea of Race in Latin America, 18701940. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Icaza, Jorge. [1934] 1973. Huasipungo [The Villagers]. Trans. Bernard Dulsey. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Mariátegui, José Carlos. [1928] 1971. Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Marc Becker

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