Mexico Struggles to Come to Grips With Treatment of Indians


When farmer Andres Nunez walks into a store, clerks act as though he isn’t there. When Juana Gomez hawks embroidered bags at a marketplace, people brush by her. When Agustin Vazquez pleads for aid, government officials ignore him.

The reason, these three and many others say, is simple: They are Indians.

“We Indian farmers seem to cause blindness in people because they act like they don’t see us,” said Vazquez, an elder in Chenalho, a Tzotzil Indian town. He wears a traditional beribboned hat and carries a wooden staff of authority.

The treatment of Mexico’s Indians has been largely an invisible issue for decades.

By and large, Mexicans--most of whom are varying shades of mixed Indian and European ancestry, and who often are themselves the victims of discrimination in the United States--view racism as a foreign phenomenon.


“There isn’t any racism in Mexico because we have no blacks,” goes a common saying that ignores several realities, including Mexico’s small Afro-Caribbean population.

For decades, Mexico’s 10 million Indians have been revered in textbooks and government propaganda--and systematically ignored in reality.

The official line, sculpted in stone or bronze on monuments for 70 years, reads: “Here was born the Cosmic Race,” a term coined in the 1920s by a pioneer of modern Mexican art and education, Jose Vasconcelos, to describe a seamless continuum of Indians and mestizos, those of European and indigenous heritage.

The theory praised Indians but said the future belongs to mestizos. They would inherit the Indian strength and wisdom, and Indians, about 10% of the population, would just get folded into the mix.

Mexico has no official definition of who is an Indian, nor any special benefits for them. There has been no real debate on whether to integrate Indians or help them develop separately.

Mexico hasn’t even decided on a name for them: The simplest term, “Indio,” has come to be an open insult. “Don’t be an Indian,” many mestizos say. It means don’t be ignorant or uncouth.


But after Mexico’s first democratic transfer of national power in last year’s presidential election, there is now at least a serious debate within government about which way to go for Mexico’s 62 Indian groups.

Upon assuming office Dec. 1, President Vicente Fox took up the questions broached by the 1994 Zapatista uprising, quoting a slogan popularized by the mostly Indian rebels: “Never again a Mexico without us.”

He pledged to slash poverty among Indians and proposed legislation that would grant some autonomy to Indians to follow ancient traditions in local governance, culture, land ownership and natural resources.

Many Indian rights activists have worried that the ascent of Fox’s National Action Party--largely middle class, and thus more white--may mean a reduction in the number of high-profile Indians in politics.

But Fox signaled a new approach by appointing Xochitl Galvez, an Otomi Indian, as Mexico’s first Cabinet-level Indian affairs director. Galvez says she wants to develop something that Spanish doesn’t quite have a word for: empowerment.

It’s something she wants to give the millions of Indians who toil in labor camps to build hotels and office buildings on land their ancestors ruled 500 years ago, before the Spaniards conquered the Maya and Aztec empires and dozens of other indigenous peoples.


“For 500 years you’ve been told you’re an imbecile, that you can’t do anything for yourself, and in all that time you’ve demonstrated just the opposite,” Galvez said. “One of the main things we have to do is recover self-esteem.”

Although she put herself through college and founded a technology consulting firm, Galvez knows what that struggle is like.

“When I first came to Mexico City at 16, I was fired from my job on the first day because of the Indian accent I had,” Galvez said.

Indian accents and mannerisms are the butt of jokes on television and in movies. At official “cultural” events, Indians are sometimes depicted with buckskin dresses and feather headdresses that seem copied more from U.S. cowboy movies than from any group that exists in Mexico.

Such attitudes have been common for generations. In the 1880s, dictator Porfirio Diaz--whose mother was a Mixtec Indian--ordered his servants to powder their faces so visiting dignitaries “won’t think we’re a country of Indians.” He also invited Germans to immigrate “to improve the race.”

After the 1910 Revolution, official propaganda depicted Indians as bronzed heroines and heroes who resisted the Spaniards, and land reform programs in the 1930s released some of them from near-slavery on haciendas--but they continued to lose territory to mestizo farmers.


The Institutional Revolutionary Party, which held the presidency from 1929 until Fox’s victory, actively recruited Indian leaders and used meager aid programs to keep the Indian masses as a reserve of captive votes.

By the early 1990s, however, the PRI’s turn to free-market policies meant Indians were considered simply the worst of Mexico’s poverty pockets. Farm subsidies were cut, replaced by infrastructure and self-help projects.

Jokes about the kind of soft, lilting accent Galvez once had are still a staple of television comedy shows, and almost all characters on Mexico’s ever-popular nightly soap operas--even the Indians--are played by light-skinned, often blond, actors.

A mestizo actress, Maria Elena Velasco, has created one of Mexico’s most enduring movie series with her character “Maria the Indian.” Maria outwits the rich but also repeats the stereotypes of Indians as simple-minded, fearful people fascinated but confused by modern contraptions like washing machines.

Nunez, the young Tzotzil farmer, said Indians often have a mild, patient manner that makes it easy for mestizos to ignore them.

“You see it in the stores, the markets, the offices,” he said. “They see the way you speak, the way you dress, and then you get the feeling that they stop paying attention to you.”


Like many Indians in the mountains of Chiapas, Nunez eschews the traditional white cotton pants and black wool tunic of his ancestors for Western-style work clothes. He speaks workable Spanish and serves on a Zapatista governing council in the town of San Andres Larrainzar.

“Everywhere you go, people see you as an Indian and they aren’t going to take you into account,” he said. “They make you wait. You can be standing there for hours, days, and nobody will care if you’re tired or hungry.”

Most agree it isn’t color that primarily drives discrimination, but speech or dress.

Galvez, relatively light-skinned herself, jokes about “a white gene” she must have picked up somewhere, and about how an “Indio-meter” would be needed to sort out what is often largely a cultural distinction.

The situation is complex. Subcomandante Marcos, the leader of the Zapatistas’ Indian rights fight, is a light-skinned mestizo, the son of a reasonably well-off family from the Gulf Coast state of Veracruz.

And Fox, at 6 feet 5 inches with an Irish grandfather and a mother born in Spain, is about as far from Indian as one can get.

Most Mexicans have some Indian blood. But being an Indian is often a matter of self-definition. The Mexican government uses language as a rough guide, but even that measure fails.


In the 2000 census, 7.3 million people said they spoke an Indian language, but 2 million of those denied being Indians, “a situation that could be associated with concepts of social or cultural mobility,” according to the census report.

On the other hand, 1 million people who don’t speak an Indian language said they were indigenous--that in a country where Indian status brings no special aid, benefits or rights.

The better off people are, the less likely they are to call themselves Indians. The poorest are the one-fifth of Indians who don’t speak any Spanish, most concentrated in southern states like Chiapas.

The government still runs small local radio stations that provide a few hours a day of programming in 31 of the 62 Indian languages spoken in Mexico.

Some Indians get a rudimentary bilingual education in grade school, but all are expected to learn Spanish, study the same history and civics, and live in communities governed on the same principles as the rest of Mexico.

But most Indian communities are not like the rest of Mexico. In terms of technology, Indian towns in Chiapas have missed out on many of the advances since the Mexican Revolution. Men use hand tools to plant corn; women sit weaving at flexible waist-height looms and mill corn on stones near wood fires.


Many are governed by councils of elders, like Vazquez, with a proven record of allegiance to their community. Their meetings are respectful, with almost no Western-style debate.

Elders sum up the collective experience; no one interrupts. Younger people add their bit to the discussion, and at some point a decision is reached, sometimes by a vote but more often by a spirit of consensus.

Tasks like road maintenance and construction projects are handled communally, with each able-bodied male expected to show up for a certain number of days each month. Land rights are often held by the group, not the individual.

Rare instances of petty theft are treated harshly--elders often impose a spell in a primitive township jail, for example--because they are viewed as crimes not against individual property but against the community.

The Indian legislation now before Congress would give legal status to some of those practices.

Some customs grate on modern-day sensibilities. Indian communities often exclude women from decision-making and treat them as second-class citizens.


Galvez said ancient customs should be respected “insofar as they don’t affect the rights of others,” particularly women’s rights.

She also sees a need for the government to help Indians, but bridles at the idea of “integration.”

“That has always meant, ‘I’ll exterminate your culture, your language, in the name of my idea of development,’ ” she said.

Instead, she touts a plan to help Indians exploit their own strengths in traditional medicine, organic farming and other fields to escape poverty.

Just how poor they are is illustrated by Fox’s goal of reducing the level of malnutrition among Indian children from 41% to 30%.

For generations, Indians have clung to isolated villages, planting the land the Spaniards or mestizos didn’t want. When it was exhausted, they moved farther into the outback, or to Mexican or U.S. cities to find work as day laborers.


The first part of that age-old solution is no longer viable: The land has simply run out.

Just how hard it will be for Mexico to come to terms with its Indians was illustrated in November when Fox floated a plan to persuade Indian villagers to move from isolated hamlets by building modern, centralized settlements.

The idea brought heated criticism from some Indian activists, who warned it might break up cultures based on communal work and landholding, and the plan was dropped.

“I took it upon myself to make sure that idea was left safely behind,” Galvez said. “The indigenous peoples can decide for themselves what they want to do.”


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