The Indian Resurgence in Mexico

The Indian uprising in Chiapas in January 1994 (See Cultural Survival Quarterly, Spring 1994) (See Cultural Survival Quarterly, Spring 1994) took most people by surprise (so much for the predictive value of the social sciences!). The implications of this social and political movement will be debated for a long time, but already it calls for the need to reassess relations between indigenous peoples and the Mexican state. The Chiapas movement points to the persistence of the as yet unresolved and still acute "national question" in Mexico (as in the rest of Latin America).


Whereas the historical roots of this problem are to be found in the colonial history of Mexico, the socio-economic structures which gave rise to today's national question emerged after independence in the early nineteenth century, as the ruling elite was faced with the daunting challenge of building a new nation and a national identity.

However, a rift existed along class lines in Mexico, between small ruling groups of land and mine owners, and the majority indigenous peasantry. The subordinate Indian populations had been incorporated by the Spaniards into the colonial economy as servile labor, and a rigid system of segregation and stratification kept them effectively outside the political process. After independence, slavery and serfdom were abolished and the equality of all citizens was proclaimed. However, the subordination and exploitation of the Indians continued, mainly through the landholding system.

The concept of the nation state and of national culture were developed by the upper classes, the white descendants of the European settlers, the landholding aristocracy, the urban bourgeois elements. The model of the modern nation which evolved together with the expanding capitalist economy was that of Western liberal democracy on the French, British and American patterns. The elites considered themselves part and parcel of Western civilization, by religion, language and cultural ethos.

The fact that by the beginning of the twentieth century the majority of the population still spoke Indian languages and lived in closed, semi-isolated villages or tribal communities according to ancestral customs did not basically alter the national self-perception of the dominant classes.

As elsewhere in the world, it was the ruling class and the intelligentsia who imagined and invented and modern Mexican nation. The indigenous peoples were excluded from the "national project" that emerged in the nineteenth century; they have remained in the background since then, shadowy figures which, like Greek choruses, step into the historical limelight on certain occasions (revolutions, rebellions, uprisings) only to recede again into a forgotten world.


The major ethnic fact of the twentieth century, was the rapid growth of the mestizo population. The mestizos also occupied the middle rungs of the stratified socio-economic system and have been increasingly identified with Mexico's growing middle classes. Originally marginal to both Spanish and Indian cultures, the mestizos lacked a coherent identity of their own, a problem which preoccupied intellectuals, psychologists and sociologists for a long time. While the Indians were rejected outright as passive, dependent, fatalistic, lacking in emotion and sensitivity, impervious to pain and suffering, unable even to improve their miserable living conditions, and therefore major obstacles to progress, the mestizos were said to embody the worst elements of both their ancestors: mestizos were passionate, violent, unreliable, dishonest, shiftless, opportunistic and generally less than ideal candidates to rule and run Mexico.

But times changed. The mestizos in fact came to occupy the prominent occupational slots and economic and social space which neither the reduced criollos (of pure Spanish descent) nor Indian peasants were able to control. With the expansion of the economy and the growth of cities, trade, services and industry, the mestizos soon became identified with the national mainstream, the driving force behind economic, social and eventually, political progress. The earlier doubts about the mestizos' biological and psychological capabilities vanished, except among some foreign observers who still conveyed the old stereotypes well into the twentieth century.

By now, the mestizos had developed their own distinct culture; they became the bearers of truly nationalist sentiments. Moreover, the mestizos soon were identified with the burgeoning urban middle classes, and thus with progress, change and modernization. An ideological reversal had occurred. Mestizo intellectuals themselves sang the virtues mestizaje as not only a biological process, but rather as a cultural and political condition leading to economic development and political democracy. Pormiraza hablará el espíritu (The spirit will speak through my race), proclaims the slogan of the National University of Mexico, coined by Josí Vasconcelos, Minister of Education in one of the postrevolutionary governments and standard bearer of the mestizos as a new "cosmic race" in Latin America

Shunned and despised at first, by the middle of the century the mestizos were considered to have incorporated the best features of the two original races (white and Indian). The rise of the mestizo, now extolled in literature, social science and political discourse, coincided with the growing political presence of the middle classes. The identification of the mestizo population with national culture, the middle classes, and economic progress soon became the ideological underpinning the various government policies designed to strengthen the unitary nationstate and the incorporation of "non-national" elements, the Indian peoples, in the nation.


Indian cultures were thought to be backward, traditional and not conducive to progress and modernity. Furthermore, the existence of a diversity of Indian cultures, distinct from the dominant Western, urban culture of the wielders of political and economic power, was considered detrimental to efforts towards national unity and development. Thus the "solution" found by governments and social scientists in the twentieth century was to further what has variously been called acculturation, assimilation, incorporation or integration. For this purpose, the state set up specialized institutions and followed specific policies in educational, cultural, economic and social fields designed to "integrate" Indian populations into the so-called national mainstream.

In the post-revolutionary period, particularly during the administration of president Cárdenas (1936-1940), the government's agrarian reform program provided land rights and titles to thousands of Indian communities. By the nineteen forties a set of government policies had been devised, known by the name of indigenismo, in order to carry out the "national integration" of the indigenous communities. By then, indigenous cultures had already changed considerably, and many observers believed that they were no longer viable and would soon disappear of their own accord.

Indigenous cultures were deemed to be underdeveloped, archaic, backward, traditional; communalistic rather than individualistic; parochial rather than universalistic. Theories of the social sciences were invoked to explain differences between Indian communities and national societies, and such theories provided parameters for public policy, particularly as expressed in the guiding ideology of the Instituto Nacional Indigenista, the Mexican government's main instrument for the integration of Indians into national society.

Official statistics currently note 56 different indigenous groups in the country, mostly concentrated in the southern states. Among the most numerous are the Mayaspeaking peoples (including those in Chiapas), the Zapotecs and the Mixtecs in Oaxaca, and the Nahuatl-speaking groups dispersed in central Mexico. Though statistics are notoriously deficient on such issues, about 15% of Mexico's total population of around 90 million inhabitants, is now considered indigenous. While the proportion of Indians relative to the national population is declining, absolute numbers of Indians are rising, and in certain areas Indians constitute a clear majority.

Indians, once believed to be isolated peasants, now migrate in massive numbers to urban centers, the northern borderlands, and the United States. Indians do so without losing much of their Indian identities. On the contrary, in the conflictive situations they face in the cities, on the farms and in the job market, a rising indigenous identity has become an instrument of social and political struggle. New transitional indigenous communities link rural communities with circuits of migrant laborers, circuits which will soon traverse Mexico, Canada and the United States, all signatories to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The earlier "national question" is in fact rapidly also becoming an "international question".

In modern Mexico, the concept of national culture was predicated upon the idea that Indian cultures do not exist. When their existence could not simply be wished away, it was stated that such cultures had little or nothing to contribute to "national" culture (their greatness, if any, lay in the historical past). Indigenous cultures, if they were to be recognized as such at all, were considered only remnants, reduced from their former splendor, which were thought to be naturally disappearing; therefore, the best which an enlightened government could do was to hasten their demise. In this fashion, so the argument went, not only would national culture and unity be strengthened, but the indigenous peoples themselves would greatly benefit in terms of material and spiritual development, modernization and progress.

The two principal ideological currents of the times carried rather clear ideas about how to deal with el problema indigena. Neo-liberal thinkers believed that the problem of the Indian populations was simply one of underdevelopment, technological backwardness, traditionaism and marginality. Within the generally accepted framework of modernization politics, and unilinear economic and social development, economists, anthropologists and politicians decided that the socalled Indian problem would disappear by way of community development, regional planning, education technological innovations and paternalistically guided acculturation.

The responsibility for carrying out such policies lay in the hands of the tutelary state. Via such policies, Indian subsistence peasants would become modern farmers; traditional values, considered inimical to progress, were to be changed through modern education; the virtues of individualism and entrepreneurship would be taught; the bonds of local communities would be broken so that the outside world could penetrate such communities. For many observers of the time - the heyday of developmentalism - the indigenous problem was merely an economic problem, to be solved by technological change, investments, cash crops, wage labor, profit maximization and the monetarization of local subsistence economies.

It was also felt that as long as indigenous peoples lived in poverty and backwardness, isolated from the centers of modernization and growth, Mexico as a whole would remain backward and vulnerable to foreign interference and interests. Except in museums, handicrafts and folklore and as tourist attractions, Indians have constantly been denied a cultural collective existence. A vigorous school of "applied anthropology", linked to indigenismo, fostered the theory and praxis of this approach.

A second approach, that of orthodox Marxism, reduced the Indian populations to the category of exploited social classes. Indeed, Indians were recognized as being probably the most exploited and backward faction of the working class, totally lacking in class consciousness because of their community-centered, traditionalistic world outlook. Moreover, their cultural distinctiveness (language, dress, religious organization, family and community structures) which set them apart from the mestizo population, allowed the bourgeoisie and landholding oligarchy to super-exploit them by depressing wages, maintaining forced with the revolutionary proletariat. Indeed, it was held that the maintenance of indigenous cultural specificity was actually in the interests of the bourgeoisie within the framework of dependent capitalism. Indigenous cultures were treated simply as insignificant remnants of a pre-capitalist stage of development or as artificial constructs fostered by an oppressive ruling class to better exploit indigenous labor.

Though originating in different intellectual traditions and based on different analyses and interpretations of social and economic dynamics, the neo-liberal and the orthodox Marxist approaches to the indigenous problem had one thing in common: they shared the view that indigenous peoples constituted obstacles to development and progress. Both approaches set out to devise policies to overcome such obstacles; in one case it was "acculturation" and "modernization"; in the other, the "class struggle". In both scenarios, indigenous cultures would have to disappear eventually, and the sooner the better. Both approaches resulted therefore in policies which in fact hastened the ethnocide of the indigenous peoples. Both approaches were developed, moreover, without indigenous participation and were later severely criticized by emerging Indian intellectuals.

A third approach bases its analysis on the relation between the dominant nationstate, controlled by the white and mestizo ruling class, and the subordinate indigenous peasantry. The concept most aptly used to describe this situation is "internal colonialism," linked to the alternatives of "ethnodevelopment", "Indian liberation" and "self-determination". While not denying the exploitative class relations which determine the Indians subordinate position in society, it emphasizes Indian identity and the specificity of indigenous ethnicity as explanatory categories as well as dynamic mobilizing forces in social struggle.

As the indigenous peoples became the victims of renewed assaults upon their lands, resources and cultures, as a result of economic liberalism and modernization (now strengthened by the recently adopted North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA), they began to adopt new forms of resistance and defense. Mainly since the seventies, indigenous, political organizations have emerged with claims about Indian rights that had only been stated occasionally and unsystematically before. As with other forms of social and political mobilization, factionalism and rivalries appeared. Grassroots organizations sprang up in different areas; professional interest groups were also formed (e.g. bilingual schoolteachers, indigenous health specialists). The ruling PRI tried, rather unsuccessfully, to organize an indigenous sector within its corporate structure.

While in the sixties, probably not more than a smattering of indigenous organizations existed, by the beginning of the nineties hundreds of such groups have been identified, though no exact count is available. The widespread debate in Mexico concerning human rights, democracy, equity, political participation and development, led in 1992 to a constitutional amendment by which for the first time, indigenous peoples, their customs and forms of organization, are legally recognized. As of this writing the debate continues around the additional legislation that must be adopted by the national Congress in order to implement this amendment. The new text reads as follows (author's translation):

The Mexican nation has a pluricultural composition based originally on its indigenous peoples. The law will protect and promote the development of their languages, cultures, uses and customs, resources and specific forms of social organization, and will guarantee their members effective access to the jurisdiction of the state. In judicial and agrarian proceedings to which they are a party, their legal practices and customs shall be taken into account in the manner established by law.

This rather general statement, which was presented to the Congress by the executive branch, provoked stormy debate in the chamber, some of whose members saw it as a threat to national unity, a return to a "caste" society, and an incentive to eventual demands by indigenous peoples for separation or secession. Other did not feel that this belated constitutional recognition of the country's multiethnic make-up represented much of a danger to the state. Indigenous organizations, in general, were not satisfied with the wording, because it does not specifically recognize indigenous rights, nor does it impose new obligations on the state vis-á-vis the indigenous peoples. The issue of autonomy for indigenous peoples, which has become an increasingly vocal demand in recent years, is not addressed. The regulation of customary law in judicial proceedings still awaits implementing legislation. However, neither indigenous peoples nor indigenous communities as such are recognized as legal subjects. Mexico's future administration (which will emerge from the August 1994 presidential and congressional elections) will have to address these issues. Indigenous organizations will have to present viable legal projects and alternatives, or they will remain, as they are now, mere passive objects of governmental fiat.

Some political forces (most notably the organizations which sympathize with the demands of the Zapatistas in Chiapas) have expressed the need for an overall constitutional revision by a Constitutional Assembly. In early August 1994, the Zapatista rebel army (EZLN) and other popular organizations hosted a "National Democratic Convention" (modeled after a similar assembly that took place during the Mexican Revolution in 1914), which was attended by thousands of delegates, special guests and observers from all over the country and abroad. Surprisingly, the national government and the army, while not happy with this political happening, made no effort to prevent it. The major political parties contending in the election, recognized that the EZLN had put forth some legitimate demands, though they all rejected the recourse to armed struggle. There is consensus among analysts that the Indian uprising has dramatically challenged the body politic, and that the next government, of whatever party, will have to deal directly with the issues raised by the rebels. This time, it seems, the Greek chorus has taken center stage.

The constitutional recognition of Mexico as a pluri-cultural nation comes at a time when the government has also pushed through another constitutional amendment, effectively negating agrarian reform and permitting the privatization of collectively owned ejido and communal lands. Many observers see this as the beginning of renewed concentration of private landholdings, a consequence of which will be to push more millions of poor Indian and non-Indian peasants out of the agricultural sector. While this process is a logical implication of the North American Free Trade Agreement, it also raises the question as to the meaning of the recognition of Mexico as a culturally plural society when at the same time the material base for the survival of so many indigenous communities is jettisoned within the framework of neo-liberal capitalist development.

It is likely that in the forthcoming debates, the emerging Indian intelligentsia will play a crucial role, aided by pro-Indian advocates from the social sciences, the progressive elements of the Catholic church and a number of political organizations. In earlier years, the Indian intelligentsia would have been siphoned off and assimilated into the dominant society. While this still happens, indigenous professional people, intellectuals and political activists are increasingly adopting consciously their ethnic identity and providing leadership to their communities. The new leadership is also displacing the more traditional kind of community authority which has played such a fundamental role in the period of passive resistance and retrenchment when, as anthropologists would have it, Indian peoples lived in "closed, corporate communities". AnIndian communities are also becoming internally differentiated according to socio-economic criteria, so the new indigenous leaders often reflect different interests in the community itself. Whether this leadership represents the interests of indigenous ethnic groups at large, or only those of an emerging "indigenous bourgeoisie" is currently being widely debated.

Social scientists, political activists, and more recently indigenous leaders themselves, debate at length the relations between the state, the nation, the class structure and the indigenous peoples. Such controversies illustrate more than a bit of cultural history; they also show how intellectual perceptions not only interpret but can indeed shape the course of events.

The Chiapas uprising in January 1994 has once again underlined all of the issues mentioned in the preceding paragraphs. Whatever its eventual outcome (at the time of this writing, August 1994, no solution has been arrived at), the Maya peasants of the Lacandon jungle and their allies effectively challenge the Mexican nation to take a new, good, hard look at itself.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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