Indigenismo in Mexico

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Indigenismo in Mexico







The concept of race in Mexico is deeply rooted in the xenophobic tendencies of the Spanish colonization. It has been recorded that Hernán Cortés (c.1485–1547), the famous Spanish conquistador responsible for the downfall of the Aztec empire, once stated: “We Spaniards suffer from a disease of the heart which only gold can cure.” Cortés therefore brought an exploitative political philosophy to the New World and its indigenous peoples. Since then Mexico has struggled to come to grips with its history and to define its nationalistic identity and place in the world. The historical periods of Mexico’s development and public policies can be broken down into the following: colonization, independence, revolution, modernization, and neoliberalization. Each is marked by its own particular set of institutionalized and informal racist policies.


Policies regarding race began with allegations of ideological superiority by the Spanish at the time of contact. Cortez’s actions are deeply criticized to this day by the indigenous peoples of the Americas, and “Columbus Day” has been reformulated by Native peoples as “Indigenous Peoples’ Day.”

The imperialistic approach of the Spanish toward the New World was conditioned in large part by the earlier Christian Reconquest of Spain, during which Spanish soldiers battled the Moorish population from 711 to 1492 for control of the Iberian Peninsula. Viewing the Reconquest as a “holy war,” a religious-military complex took shape in Spain. Freedom from Islamic rule was equated with Christian identity, and the religious conversion of Muslims and Jews was a critical ideological driving force behind the Reconquest. Using xenophobia (fear of the Other) as grounds to conquer new lands for god and country, the Spanish carried these ideas to their “New World” colonizations, beginning with Christopher Columbus’s arrival in 1492.

The arrival of the Spanish in Mexico in 1519 marked the end of indigenous control over the region and the collapse of the Aztec empire. Those indigenous peoples not killed by the sword were subjected to a wealth of foreign illnesses from smallpox to influenza, which reduced the population of native peoples from an estimated 27.1 million to as few as 1.2 million shortly after Spanish arrival (Carmack 1996, p. 128). In 1552, the Dominican priest Bartolomé de las Casas (1474–1566) related the devastation that followed the arrival of the encomenderos, Spanish arrivals who earned land grants that included economic and political control over indigenous populations. Upon returning to Spain, Las Casas wrote about Spanish brutality under the encomenderos and about his doubts that the indigenous populations would ever truly be Christianized or fully integrated into Hispanic society.

Indigenismo is “public policy and institutions that address the educational, economic, health, and social needs of the Indian population, with the underlying goal of assimilating Indians into the mainstream culture” (Carmack 1996, p. 478). On the surface such policies appear beneficial to the well-being of the colonial empire, yet they also served to further marginalize the indigenous peoples into resettled communities known as congregaciones (or reducciones). These resettlements were close to towns where labor pools (obrajes) could come from the native communities to aid public work projects that developed the internal infrastructure of the towns (municipios), yet they did little for the rural countryside. Where indigenous labor was not accessible, such as along the coast, African slaves were imported. In the ideal, indigenismo would bring the indigenous people onto an equal footing with their European colonizers. It would, in essence, “civilize” them. Colonization, however, had quite the opposite effect. Chief among the bad consequences of this process was the imposition of a caste system based on a series of status rankings. This became known as the doctrine of limpieza de sangre (purity of blood).

Limpieza de sangre policies brought day-to-day reality to the caste situation in Mesoamerica. It was originally dictated in Spain to allow only those of “demonstratable Christian stock” to be allowed to attain noble status or to hold public office. The extension of the limpieza de sangre led to racial castes based on skin color, heritage, and Indian ancestry. The most prominent among these rankings (from highest to lowest) were the following:

  • Peninsulares: Those born in Spain of Spanish descent (immigrants and dignitaries).
  • Criollos: Those of Spanish descent born in the New World.
  • Mestizos: Offspring of a Spanish man and an Indian woman.
  • Mulattos (Sambos) and Free Blacks: Offspring of a Spanish man and an African woman.
  • Indios (Indians): Indians of pure descent.
  • African Slaves: Those brought from Africa to work on coastal plantations or in the mines (Carmack 1996, pp. 172–174).

The caste status of Indians and African slaves varied from one region to another. Frequently, an Indian death from excessive labor was of no concern to encomenderos, yet the loss of a slave meant a loss of paid property. This justified, at times, the higher status of slaves over Indians.

As can be seen from the categories above, even though both criollos and peninsulares had the same skin color, they were separate castes. A constant struggle between peninsu-lares and their lesser criollo elites led to the eventual uprising of criollos against the peninsulares, contributing to Mexican independence from Spain in 1810. The Indians were a prominent part of the uprising because of their resistance to colonial taxation of obrajes and their objection to dominant views of the indigenous populations as “passive, dependent, docile, stupid, incapable of higher civilization, lacking in emotions and sensitivity, impervious to pain and suffering, [and] unable to improve their miserable conditions of living” (Stavenhagen 1998, p. 16).

The prevailing attitude at this time was that the indigenous people needed to be “cared for” by missionaries. During this time, religious confraternities (cofradías) were formed by the missionaries, allowing indigenous peoples some degree of religious self-control over the practice of Christian ceremonies. This led to religious syncretism, or a blending of traditional native beliefs with those of Christianity. In the minds of rural friars, the Indians’ inherent inferiorities kept them low on the caste scale and out of clergy positions. The derogatory nature of the word indio was created through the caste system and resulted in increasing levels of legal discrimination. The missionaries viewed the caste system as a way of interacting with the Indians in similar fashion as they had interacted with the uneducated peasantry of Europe.

This marginalization of the native peoples was met with resistance. In western Mexico, according to Beatriz Rojas (1993), missionaries did not make inroads into the isolated indigenous mountain communities until the 1550s. Thereafter, they met with varying levels of resistance. For example, from 1617 to 1618, the Tepehuán Indians revolted against the Spanish and the Cora were forcibly resettled into villages. In 1712 the Tzeltal revolted against the Spanish in Chiapas.

Mexican independence from Spain did little for the rights of indigenous peoples. Criollo elites simply replaced the peninsulares in positions of power. Mestizos, those of mixed Indian and Spanish ancestry, however, gained prominence as the dominant working class on the ranches (haciendas) of the criollos and as local authorities in the cities. In essence, they filled gaps in the social structure that the elites were unable or unwilling to fill. The indigenous peoples continued to be marginalized, and indigenismo returned in the guise of what was viewed as “the native problem” (el problema indígena).


The Mexican Revolution of 1910–1917 marked the rise of the mestizo. Although nationalistic sentiments were important for the independence movement, a new mestizo caste consciousness was also apparent in the years leading up to and during the Mexican Revolution. The denial of infrastructural development in the rural areas had led much of Mexico’s population to continue to live in poverty and servitude to hacienda owners. In general, the period between independence from Spain and the Mexican Revolution encouraged the advancement of the mestizo as the dominant caste and racial classification.

Mexico’s growing mestizo population was not without its problems. Although mestizos were more Indian in their ancestry than their political opponents, they nonetheless found it necessary ideologically to reject the significance of their Indian past to become a dominant political power in Mexico. This meant the denial of their indigenous heritage in an attempt to be more like their elite neighbors, the criollos. Being Christianized, rejecting the use of one’s indigenous language in favor of Spanish, and changes in one’s style of dress and place of residence were all critical to becoming mestizo.

When he became President, Benito Juarez (1806– 1872), who was half Zapotec Indian and is considered the “founder of modern Mexico,” instituted a series of seemingly liberal social policies that led to the breaking up of the large landholdings of the Church and others, but with the goal of privatizing the lands rather than restoring them to rural communities. This was known as the Ley Lerdo of 1856. Juarez viewed the destruction of collective lands as vital to the emergence of Mexico into a new age of progressivism that would require destruction of two communities—the Church and the indigenous peoples. As a result of his agenda, only the wealthy could afford to purchase the lands taken away by the state.

The Ley Lerdo had devastating effects on the indigenous lands, and indigenous-controlled communities, already outlawed for fear of their ability to influence local municipal governments, were subject to outside electoral control (i.e., mestizo). Indigenous collective lands were either absorbed into the nonindigenous-controlled municipalities to pay off state debts or they were auctioned off. This law affected indigenous communities from the Yucatan to Oaxaca and the Sierra Madre region in the northwest.

Arriving on the heels of Benito Juarez was Porfirio Díaz (1830–1915), who was driven by the need for foreign capital to modernize Mexico. A railroad infrastructure was built, and European arts, music, and literature were promoted. Intellectualism was equated with Europeanism and the wealthy middle and upper classes gained prominence, ushering in a new period of Mexican development in which the population doubled and the infrastructure expanded.

By 1910, 85 percent of mining companies were North American. Many of these companies favored hiring their own nationals instead of Mexicans. The situation became so bad that “only 2 percent of the population held title to land and 3 percent of the properties covered 58 percent of Mexico” (Foster 2004, p. 154). Seventy percent of the Mexican citizenry, however, continued to be farmers. Hunger was prevalent due to poor pay or displaced peasantries. By 1910, only 10 percent of Indian communities held collective land (Foster 2004, p. 155).

A subsequent economic decline during the early 1900s resulted in foreign debt and infrastructural collapse. It was during this time that the rural areas began to rebel against the policies effected by the Porfiriato regime, leading to the rebellion of Pancho Villa’s forces in the north and Emiliano Zapata’s forces of the south. The success of the rebellion was achieved in 1917, though at the loss of as many as 2 million lives.


The Mexican Revolution and the expansion of the mestizo race did little for the indigenous populations of Mexico. A nationalistic image of Mexico was created, which aimed to shroud the pluralistic nature of the country in a romantic image of the past, known as Mexico profundo (Bonfil Batalla 1996). In the world of the Mexico profundo, the de-Indianized peoples were reclassified as part of the rural peasantry. Stripped of their sense of identity, a romantic notion of the past was created and perpetuated by the mestizo. In this image, the indigenous peoples no longer existed except as part of the past Mexico—a modern Mexico required a unified nation-state, and indigenous identity represented a threat to that unity.

The Mexican Constitution of 1917 institutionalized the destruction of collectively owned lands (ejidos), even though one of the major goals put forth in the constitution was the restoration of communal lands that had been lost to wealthy owners and foreign companies. This ruling was known as the Agrarian Reform Law (La Reforma Agraria), or Constitutional Article 27, and its intended purpose was to restore power to the rural proletariat through land redistribution and certification.

With the passage of the Agrarian Reform Law and the rise of President Lázaro Cárdenas (1895–1970) in 1934, foreign control was to be reduced, if not eliminated all together. Lands were to be restored to rural village communities in collective fashion. In principle, the Agrarian Reform Law had great potential not only for the mestizo, but for indigenous peoples as well. The government failed to fully implement the ruling in all affected areas, however. In general, lands in indigenous areas that were determined to have worth to the now federalized resource associations were never restored. Chief among these government-controlled, nationalized industries was Petroleos Mexicanos (PEMEX), which came to control much of the oil rich lands of southern Mexico.


Neoliberalism is a term that was often used by indigenous peoples in the 1990s to refer to the renewed policies of governmental reforms, economic justice, and political ideology that benefited the elites and commercial centers at the expense of indigenous peoples and the poor. According to George Collier and Elizabeth Quaratiello, neoliberalism “looks to the marketplace to solve all of society’s problems and meet all its needs. Neoliberalism has changed society, both for the better by contributing to dramatic growth of civil institutions independent of the government, and for the worse by leading the government to militarization and repression to hold onto power” (1999, p. 157). It is the belief of the native peoples of Mexico that neoliberalism is directly responsible for the continued violation of indigenous rights, economic justice, and sovereignty observed in the early twenty-first century.

In 1975 the first National Congress of Indian Peoples was held, organized in part by the Mexican anthropologist Guillermo Bonfil Batalla. The goals of the congress were the same as those to be later mentioned by the Zapatistas in their 1994 uprising in southern Mexico. These issues included:

  • Much of the land was considered infertile or lacking in amount to prove useful.
  • The lack of public health care facilities and services.
  • The lack of basic human services, such as running water or electricity, despite tax payments.
  • The prevalence of malnutrition and poverty brought about by the lack of arable land.
  • The poor availability and quality of education, and educational institutions that did not benefit indigenous communities.
  • Low salaries and unfair labor conditions.
  • Exploitation of peasant and native industries by wealthy middlemen (Collier and Quaratiello 1999, p. 63–64).

In the twenty years after the First Indigenous Congress, it was apparent that the government was doing little, if anything, to address these basic human needs in Chiapas. In the 1970s, a number of indigenous organizations were begun in response to government inaction, among them the Emiliano Zapata Peasant Organization (OCEZ), the Independent Confederation of Agricultural Workers and Indians (CIOAC), and Popular Politics (PP). These organizations aided indigenous peoples with land reform and with organizing workers. The CIOAC enabled farmworkers to “sue ranchers under federal labor laws for back wages and improved working conditions,” while PP was a Maoist-Marxist student organization that engaged university students to work with impoverished communities in eastern Chiapas (Collier and Quaratiello 1999, p. 71).

Indigenous organization largely failed amid a booming development phase of the Mexican economy in the 1970s, dominated by oil. Oil exports reached new heights until the market’s decline in 1981, displacing thousands of indigenous farmworkers from their land and resulting in a two-class system of extreme wealth for the few and impoverishment for the majority.

While the population was booming in the highland region, there was increasingly little arable land available in the low-lying areas. This especially impacted the Tzotzil Indians of the region. Much land had been turned over to cattle ranching, was lost in the construction of hydro-electric dams to supply power to the cities, or was to be used for oil drilling by PEMEX. Industry, it was argued, could not lose these lands because of the wealth they provided.

By 1982, oil exports became 80 percent of the Mexican export economy, to the detriment of agriculture and other internal industries. The export market crashed in 1982, however, and left many with nowhere to go. The living situation had become untenable in the highland region. Pesticides and herbicides used to increase production on small plots of land had not only damaged much of the soil, but the debts incurred by farmers through loans to acquire these chemicals resulted in further land losses by the many who could not afford to repay their debts.

The succeeding events of the 1980s were no better for the Zincanteco peasantry and Tzotzil Maya. Basic government services were limited and budgets were slashed. Moreover, the indigenous Maya peoples were monolingual Tzotzil speakers and illiterate. These factors resulted in deep divisions between the indigenous and the literate Spanish-speaking peoples (ladinos) of the region. Not only did educational barriers prevent the ladinoization of the indigenous Maya, but political affiliation became a factor. Loyalty to the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which had held power since the revolution, determined whether or not one had access to certain governmental programs and services. Indigenous and ladino communities alike became divided. Native communities that had remained loyal to the PRI since the reforms of President Cardenas became angry with the cuts in agricultural subsidies that aided the poor. Only those regions where elections were being held or contested received government support, and affiliation with competing political parties, especially the growing Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) grew.

The 1988 Mexican national election resulted in the continued dominance of the PRI. Carlos Salinas de Gortari (b. 1948) became president amid allegations of corruption and ballot-box stuffing. Salinas continued to support free-trade policies, which led to inflated prices for foods such as the tortilla, a staple of the Mexican diet, yet eliminated farm subsidies. Assistance was supposed to be received regardless of one’s political affiliation, but this was not the case. Forty-eight percent of the population lived below the official poverty level, and the distribution of funds to indigenous communities in Chiapas and elsewhere did not occur as planned. PRI officials continued to use literacy and legalism to take advantage of indigenous peoples. Salinas’s worst mistake, perhaps, was the amendment of Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution in 1992 in order to again allow privatization of ejido lands. Fifty-four percent of Mexican lands were held as ejidos, including indigenous territories (Stephen 2002). In order for ejidos to remain as collectives, ejidatarios had to enroll through a complicated certification process. In addition, women could not vote under these rules, nor did the necessary electoral structure exist. Frustrated with the political impasse, the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) took matters into their own hands. In 1994 an army composed mostly of Zapotec and Tzotzil Indians revolted, timing their revolt to coincide with the implementation of the U.S.-led North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). In the revolt, the Zapatistas took over government offices throughout Chiapas. An Internet posting called international attention to the event and detailed the 34-point agenda of the Zapatistas. Chief among these demands were the return of privatized lands to native communities, hospitals and medicine for indigenous communities, housing and basic services (e.g., water, plumbing, electricity), an end to illiteracy, fair prices for their farm products, and an end to hunger and malnutrition. Very few of these demands differed from those listed twenty years previously by the 1974 Indigenous World Congress, or those called for in the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) Conventions 107 and 169, which had been ratified into the Mexican constitution in 1990. These ILO resolutions were specifically designed to protect indigenous collective rights on religious, political, labor, and land freedom issues. They were viewed by many merely as symbolic gestures, however, in order to show that Mexico was making progress in its commitment to a “plural-ethnic” state.

When the Zapatistas finally voluntarily withdrew from the government centers, an international conference was held between the Zapatistas and the government’s Commission of Agreement and Peacemaking (COCOPA) officials to reach a consensus over demands. This agreement, known as the San Andreas Accords, was later signed by President Ernesto Zedillo, who later refused to implement any of the resolutions. However, the idea that indigenous people could organize themselves began to spread to other indigenous peoples.

The end of the rebellion and subsequent meetings resulted in several self-proclaimed autonomous communities by the Zapatistas, which continued to face armed vigilance from the Mexican military in 2005. The autonomous Zapatista communities reflect a socialistic model of social welfare by engaging the Indians themselves to construct and promote schools and bring basic services into their communities as well as to form artisan cooperatives to bring in funds to the autonomous communities.


In the early twenty-first century, the term Zapatismo stands for the new indigenous rights movement. Reorganized as the Fuerza Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (FZLN) to emphasize nonviolence, Zapatismo is a pan-Indian consciousness that includes the indigenous peoples of Mexico and nonnative sympathizers around the world. The Mexican military’s acts of social injustice have come to be closely watched by such organizations as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

Mexico continues to deny the implementation of any plural-ethnic model of Mexican society, though outwardly promoting it, and the Mexican authorities continue to vigilantly police the indigenous areas of Mexico for fear of uprisings. The military and state police closely watch native gatherings and migrations, and human rights abuses against the indigenous peoples of Mexico continue, including the illegal detention of Huichol religious pilgrims on their way back from collecting peyote for use in community religious festivities (Valadez 1998) and military vigilance (searches and questioning) toward individuals coming into and out of the Huichol Indian communities. In addition, the Jaliscan State Police have appeared at biannual community meetings where natives were searched, questioned, and religious artifacts seized (Biglow 2001, p. 158–159). These events occurred despite protection for native religious practices expressly

being covered in the ratification of the ILO conventions into the Mexican constitution in 1990.

The idea of indigenous communities as “closed corporate communities” (Wolf 1957) is no longer a viable model to describe the changing peasantry. Indigenous identities blend interchangeably with regional identities, resulting in a sort of polybian, a person who can exist in two or more worlds (Kearney 1996, p. 141). These polybians are part of regional identities that are difficult to separate from other native or nonnative populations. Whereas ethnic identity and affiliation were previously based on appearance (dress and/or phenotype) and language, these can no longer be the sole criteria for ethnic classification. Self-identification has become the chief factor for this determination. This change was reflected in the 2000 Mexican national census, where 30 percent of the population now identify themselves as indigenous and descended from sixty-two different recognized ethnic groups (Foster 2004, p. 257).

Ongoing confrontations with missionaries further complicate the situation of indigenous rights. Despite the fact that many indigenous communities have passed local resolutions forbidding missionaries from residing in native areas, missionary activity continues due to support from both domestic and foreign missionary organizations. While some measures employed by missionaries are clearly clandestine and dishonest, other less blatant practices also seem to violate native conceptions of sovereignty, including the repeated aerial dropping of radios that receive evangelical shortwave stations, onto native lands where missionaries are forbidden (National Public Radio 2001b).

Injustices against native peoples have continued in the twenty-first century. The 2000 election of Vicente Fox as the first non-PRI party president in seventy-one years has done little to benefit the indigenous communities. The National Action Party (NAP) promised new economic growth in the indigenous areas, and President Fox maintained that NAFTA would both stabilize Mexico’s economy and bring it firmly into status as a First World nation. This has not occurred, however, as maize imports continue to come from the United States, undercutting Mexican prices for the grain. Rural and indigenous farmers, particularly Zapotec farmers of Oaxaca, have been forced to turn to bio-engineered crops (transgenics) to increase production (Enciso 2001, National Public Radio 2001a). This was done despite a long-standing indigenous connection with corn production as the chief crop in their diet and the religious connection of corn fertility to human life (Sandstrom 1991; Biglow 2002).

The increase of services to some indigenous areas, such as the Huichol Indians of western Mexico, has brought about a rapid Mestizoization of the population. Traditional village politics are turning from an egalitarian socialistic model, with status based on age-prestige social rankings, to a class-based stratification whereby personal wealth and political affiliation largely determine one’s place in society (Biglow 2001). This has been compounded by the downfall of cheap labor factories (maquiladoras) along the U.S.-Mexico border in 2002, in favor of cheaper labor in Asia.

Not only has lack of employment become a problem for Mexicans in general, but by 2002, nearly one in three Mexicans had been to work in the United States, either legally or illegally (Foster 2004, p. 251). Few realize, however, that the majority of the illegal immigrants are indigenous Mexicans who have become landless in Mexico and are forced to seek out agricultural jobs in the United States. It is therefore important to note the presence of indigenous peoples living in diaspora in the United States and Canada.

Mexican racial politics continue to play a large role as the nation struggles with the ideas of unity and nationalism in the early twenty-first century. A number of recurrent themes have come about, including: (1) the denial of an indigenous past and ethnic diversity, (2) the failure to recognize indigenous sovereignty and constitutional protections for their diverse peoples, and (3) a continued attention to the demands of industry over the will of its the people. While there are no easy solutions to these policies, Héctor Díaz-Polanco (1997), a prominent Mexican anthropologist, argues that at least some degree of indigenous self-determination or autonomy appear crucial if Mexico is to survive as a unified nation-state. Adding to this argument, the Mexican national Consultation of 1999 showed overwhelming support by the populace for Zapatista demands. The World Trade Center bombings in September 2001 and subsequent attention to border security and illegal immigration appear to have halted these initiatives but they will continue to dominate the political scene in the coming years.

SEE ALSO Mexicans; Zapatista Rebellion.


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Brad M. Biglow