MEXICO ON THE CUSP : The Plight of the Indigenous Population

<i> Homero Aridjis is author of "1492: The Life and Times of Juan Cabezon of Castile" and president of the ecologist Group of 100</i>

The modern history of Mexico’s Indians is the history of the destruction of their culture. The Zapatista uprising has drawn attention to this fact not only in Chiapas but in all Mexico, a country torn between its attempts to integrate itself into the economic future of North Ameri ca and its indigenous past. Eleven million of Mexico’s 90 million inhabitants are indigenous; 11% live in Mexico City, making it the city with the world’s largest indigenous population.

In predicting the impact the North American Free Trade Agreement could have on Mexico’s indigenous population, anthropologist Felipe Sermeno said: “Compared with the United States, Mexico is unable to compete, and if the price of corn is deregulated, half of Mexico’s agriculture will be eliminated.” Traditionally, indigenous Mexicans have devoted themselves to growing corn, a grain of nearly mythological significance to them, since, as it is said in Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the Mayans: “Their flesh was made of yellow corn and of white corn: the arms and legs of man were made of corn dough. Only corn dough went into the flesh of our fathers, the four men who were created.”

Yet, ever since Jan. 1, when the uprising began, all indications are that the real victim of the conflict will be the Lacandon Forest, which has sustained a more accelerated rate of destruction, in proportion to size, than the Amazon. In 1875, the forest measured 32 million acres. Between 1875 and 1960, it diminished by 6%. Since 1982, the rate of deforestation has been 3 1/2% a year. By 1990, only 30% of the original forest remained, and 18% of this was damaged.

It was for this reason that a group of intellectuals and environmentalists, known as the Group of 100, urged that the parties in the Chiapas conflict respect the inhabitants of the region as individuals and as ethnic groups, that they stop harming the natural and cultural patrimony of the area, including the archeological sites of Yaxchilan, Bonampak and Palenque. We asked to send an observer. There has been no response from the government.


The Indians’ complaint about their lands being taken over by local political bosses, large landowners and government agencies is so frequent and familiar that it is hardly noticed by the Mexican press. As recently as a month after the Chiapas uprising, in February, 1994, land was taken from the Masiaca, in northern Sinaloa. The site was near the Huites Dam hydraulic project, which was supposedly going to help the peasants overcome their extreme poverty through irrigation of their crop lands. But when the project was completed, the large landowners took over the peasants’ land. People from the Masiaca community said they sold their lands at $150 a hectare (2.47 acres) “because the land never produced anything but failure.”

But what has happened to the Tarahumara Indians better illustrates the plight of the indigenous. On Oct. 1, 1991, 80 indigenous leaders declared that “The irrational and illegal logging occurring in the Tarahumara Mountains constitutes a human-rights violation against the four ethnic groups inhabiting that area. The earth is eroded, and this forces these ethnic groups to emigrate away from the mountains.” The government’s land-reform program was attacked, in a letter from the Apostolic Vicariate of the Tarahumara Mountains, as being the key that would open the doors to large Mexican and foreign investors to exploit Indian lands, since they are not considered to be in productive use. “The Tarahumara Indians maintain that they have the right to make decisions, carry out their own justice, name their own officials, freely associate with nearby ethnic groups and establish the inheritance of rights to the lands of their family heritage according to their traditions,” stated the Vicariate.

Nothing was done at the time. Last month, according to the newspaper Excelsior, 400 Tarahumara Indians occupied the grounds where the Chinatu Ejido Forestry Cooperative stores its trees. Always ceremonial, always poor, carrying wooden crosses, the Tarahumaras performed their ceremonies and the dance called Yumare “to keep hunger away and create sources of employment in the mountains.”

As long as I can remember, I have heard the statement, “The Tarahumara Indians are dying of hunger.” Punished by disease and extreme poverty, they have survived in the magical land of Mexico by making their bodies into a place of ceremony. Victims of annual famines and an adverse climate, the Tarahumaras realize they have nothing to lose, that the only way to defend themselves from their traditional enemies is by getting organized and confronting them.


“We don’t want them to give us things; we want them to support our efforts to transform our natural resources, which are very great,” asserted Gustavo Fierro Ruiz, adviser to the high council of the Tarahumara, adopting the plea of Mexico’s Indians: “Allow the Tarahumaras to work in conditions of justice, respect for their customs, way of life and government, and full equilibrium with nature.”

Indigenous Mexicans, whose ancestors created unique civilizations and whose contemporaries are makers of original popular arts, have become aware of their human rights. With this awareness, they can escape the labyrinth of history in which they have been mistreated for centuries. The years to come will be the years of their liberation. But in order to achieve this, they, and all other Mexicans, must first democratize the country.