For the Indigenous Poor, All Roads Lead to Mexico City : Recent economic and political turmoil has dislodged a half million native people who now lead desperate lives in the capital. Will the city explode?

<i> Homero Aridjis is president of the environmental Group of 100 and author of a forthcoming novel "The Lord of the Last Days: Visions of the Year 1000."</i>

Ever since the Zapatista army arose in Chiapas to fight for the human rights of the indigenous peoples of Mexico, the general living conditions of the nation’s natives have worsened. They are the victims of their own demographic explosion, the pauperization of the countryside, the devastation of their environment and the economic crisis ravaging the country. The native peoples are realizing they cannot earn a living in their home states; many are being forced to migrate. And since many towns and cities are as poor as the rural areas that surround them, all roads lead to Mexico City, where every thoroughfare is swarming with mendicants and street vendors plying their informal commerce.

The Mazahuas from the state of Mexico; the Nahuas of Guerrero; the Otomis of Hidalgo, Queretaro and Puebla; the Purepechas of Michoacan; the Zapotecs and Mixtecs of Oaxaca; the Totonacs of Veracruz, and the Triques of the Highlands and the lowlands--all are setting up shop. Day after day, you can see women and children, sitting or standing, outside of hotels, restaurants and nightclubs, or loitering in avenues, traffic circles, markets, bus terminals.

When the stop lights change colors, legions of street vendors, among them many Indians, smother the halted cars. It is a common sight to see young children, who have just learned to walk, amid the traffic. Their mothers, wearing traditional garb, sell chewing gum or beg for spare change.


As a general rule, the desperately poor gravitate to the wealthier areas of Mexico City; they are often controlled by small-time Mafiosi who rent them space on the streets. In Lomas de Chapultepec, one of the most affluent sectors of Mexico City, pickup trucks daily drop off Indians at intersections where traffic is heaviest. Shopping malls, hotels and up-scale restaurants are off limits to them, however.

The most recent census, taken in 1990, counted some 500,000 indigenous people in Mexico City, about 3% of the metropolitan area’s population. According to the National Indigenous Institute, almost half of them speak an Indian language as their mother tongue, representing 4% of the indigenous population nationwide whose maternal tongue is not Spanish. The institute reports that the Indians who come to the capital tend to be young couples with many children.

Daniel Camarillo is one of them. At age 25, he left a small village in Oaxaca, where he farmed corn, “to do hat” (to beg by extending a hat to receive spare money) in the big city. He positions himself outside Hotel Calinda, on Liverpool Street, in the middle of the tourist area from 9 in the morning till nightfall. He wears no shoes. He thrusts his hat into the paths of passersby in hopes of collecting some coins.

His wife, Delia Martinez, 24, and their four children--all barefoot--sit by his side. Camarillo speaks Spanish but the rest of the family only speak Mixteco. They subsist off corn tortillas. They all sleep on cardboard cartons on the floor of a room located in an outlying area. So far, Camarillo has avoided falling into the evils of delinquency, drugs and prostitution that have snared many of his younger compatriots.

“Nobody ever imagines that in Mexico City, within a year, a month, or a week, a conflict or a social outburst could occur,” warns David Cilia Olmos, coordinator of human rights at the Yax’ Kin Center. “But it will happen if we do not attend to the demands and problems of these marginalized people who have come to Mexico City simply to survive. All over the country, ethnocide is taking place, and those who escape from it and come to the city find themselves in the same situation.”

The first problem new arrivals face is unemployment. In Mexico City, the official figure for unemployment reached 7.5% in the first six months of 1995. Coupled with those city residents who practice informal commerce, who work fewer than 15 hours a week or only occasionally, this would mean that nearly 1 million capital dwellers will have lost their jobs this year.


The second problem is that the ancestral poverty of indigenous peoples has been caused by the corruption and inefficiency in the type of feudal government practiced in the states. It can also be blamed on inept Cabinet ministers and their legions of bureaucrats who have proved time and again to be incapable of handling, when not prolonging, the economic crisis.

Now the inhabitants of Mexico City have to suffer not only the pains related to their own devalued middle-class status, but also to witness the devaluation of the scores of indigenous people flowing into their city. The worse part, perhaps, is that people are beginning to feel there is little, perhaps nothing, they can do to improve the situation.*