Mexico’s Indians

Alternative names: Various, including Nahautl, Maya, Zapotec
Location: Mexico, central and southern states
Population: 5.7 million
% of population: 8.5%
Religion: Catholic, indigenous Indian beliefs (sometimes mixed together)
Language: Nahautl, Maya, Zapotec plus some 30 other languages

Indians, the descendants of the indigenous peoples of Mexico, represent ethnic groups with varying levels of social and cultural development. Most live in the central and southern states of Mexico. Although the lot of Mexico’s Indians is generally better than that of most Latin American Indians, they still tend to find themselves at the bottom of the social order of the mixed Mexican population, where approximately 60% are Mestizos, i.e. of mixed Spanish-Indian descent.

Prior to the arrival of the first Spanish conquerors in 1519, Mexico had seen 2,000 years of Indian civilization which had produced, among other things, the magnificent architecture of the Yucatan peninsula. The latest, and relative newcomers to power, were the Aztecs. Thanks to their bloodthirsty religious rituals, other groups encountered by the Spanish proved more than willing to participate in their overthrow.

For the next 300 years “New Spain” was the most important part of the Spanish Empire and some 200,000 white settlers moved there. Strenuous efforts were made to eradicate the native culture and institutions, while the Spanish allowed, and even encouraged, development at local level, thus widening the social differences already apparent at the time of Aztec domination.

The population, thought to be as high as 20 million at the time of the conquest, was decimated through disease and, a century later, had fallen to about two million. Another factor was the destruction of the socio-economic structures, particularly the introduction of mining and cattle ranching. Economiendas were established to provide labour, but were replaced after 1550 by a system of forced wage labour. Voluntary labour was finally introduced but under this system Indians, tricked into debt-bondage, became virtual slaves under the hacienda system. The Indians did receive some legal protection, but after independence in 1821, they lost their special rights as liberal political thought was dominant. After the revolution of 1910–20 which left Mexico in chaos, Indian rights were ignored. With the presidency of Lazaro Cardenas (1936–40), Indians were encouraged to become “Mexican”. The Independent Department of Native Affairs was established in 1946 and placed under the Ministry of Education. As a result, Indian children were taught Spanish; brigades of Native Improvement were set up and legal support centres were established.

At Patzcuaro, at the first Inter-American Indigenista Congress in 1940, the Inter-American Indigenist Institution (III), based in Mexico City, was set up. It conducted medical research and socio-anthropological projects in Indian areas. It functions as a semi-governmental institution with autonomous status. Co-ordination centres were created such as the National Indigenist Institution (INI). There are now some 50 of these centres, controlled by anthropologists, which are seen as more advanced than other Latin American countries, in regard to both consistency and realism.

Relationships between the Indians and the Spanish and Mestizo (mixed race) population is, and historically has always been, based on commerce. What little land is owned by Indians is often too poor to support them, so most must seek waged labour in a market where they are regarded as inferior both by Spanish and Mestizo employers. Their work is usually menial, they tend to be cheated in shops, forced to sell their goods at cheap prices and are generally treated with a lack of respect.

Indians still live in over-crowded, often substandard housing, and few children spend much time at school, although by law they are required to do so. They are needed at home to work for their parents. Where basic needs are met, Indians have proved highly receptive to literacy and modern technology providing, it seems, that their social customs and symbolic values are not destroyed. The INI makes no direct attempt to secure the latter, but simply aims to improve health, communications, education and agriculture in order to incorporate Indians into a pluralistic society, rather than trying to make them conform.

Social change and mobility are only possible for most Indians by ceasing to be Indian. This can be achieved by moving to cities, learning Spanish, or by marrying Mestizos. Many of the poorest city dwellers and illegal immigrants working as cheap labour in the USA are the Indians of yesterday. They have ceased to be part of Mexico’s Indian population and have become part of Mexico’s burgeoning poor. Many Mestizos in Indian areas resent what they regard as the government’s treatment of Indians as a privileged underclass, partly because it reduces their own chances of exploiting them, and partly because many Mestizos are themselves poor and feel ignored.

As with many poor Mestizos, Indians suffer from land shortage which has forced many to act as low-paid agricultural labourers. There have been many reports of human rights violations against Indian communities, especially in the southern states of Oaxaca and Chiapas, where Amnesty International has documented political killings, detention, “disappearances” and torture of Indians fighting for land rights.

(See also Maya of Guatemala; Miskito Indians of Nicaragua)