History of Indigenous Peoples of Mexico

1. There is an abundance of documentation concerning the history of indigenous populations of Mexico prior to the arrival of the Spaniards. These documents were constructed from information about the groups with whom the Spaniards had the most contact and focus on the life and governance of these groups. In comparison, relatively little is known of the hunters and gatherers that for most of the colonial period occupied a marginal position relative to the central political scheme. These peoples, located in the arid part of America, were relegated to colonization by religious missionary orders. The Spanish colonization machine with its array of bureaucrats and administrators was first established in the Mesoamerican region because of its geo-political importance as a central area for decision-making and development of the colonial society.

2. What is commonly known as the Aztec Empire consisted of 38 provinces which paid tribute, and the Empire was, in reality, a rather loose confederation of city-states with different political systems and situations. This confederation of city-states encompassed many different ethnic groups and a diverse array of languages. The cities in the central region consisted of primarily Nahuatl and Otomi speaking populations. To the northeast were the Huastecos, Totonacas, and Mazatecos. To the southeast the Mixtecos, Zapotecos. To the south the Mayas. To the southeast the Tlapanecas and Cuitlatecas. To the west the Mazahuas and the Matlazincas.

3. The consolidation of this confederation of cities and settlements by the Mexicans who exercised their hegemony over these varied peoples, created a class of leaders of which the Tlatoani or Supreme Lord, warriors, and functionaries were a part; a class of businessmen and traders, the pochtecas, who, at the time of the colonization, were beginning to enjoy increasing importance and privilege.

4. The campesinos (or countrymen), whether Nahuatl, Zapotec, or Mixtec, continued their life at the margin of these city-states in their apogee. The campesinos or macehualtzin were all members of a community, with usufruct rights to the land where they established their home and an agricultural plot. The territorial space was called the calpulli or what we now know as indigenous communal area or settlement. This calpulli was characterized by a sociopolitical organization based on a definition of territory, barrio or sometimes kinship.

5. The Spanish colonization produced a phenomenon that on one hand tended to blur the cultural differences of the ethnic groups, while on the other contributing to the persistence of the same groups. These managed to retain their own identities yet with a colonial overlay that gave them an identity imposed by the colonizer ( religious, or subjects to the king, mine of hacienda workers. etc.).

6. With independence the indigenous peoples acquired the same liberties and rights as other segments of the population. Nevertheless, in many cases they were still subject to special laws and rules that kept them in a marginal and inferior situation relative to the white mestizopopulation. With the expansion of the agricultural and livestock frontier, and the development of capitalist relations of production in the field (salaried labor, production of commercial crops, capital investments in agrarian property, and the growth of infrastructure in the rural areas) the indigenous populations suffered a massive despoiling and appropriation of their territories, and many of them were exiled or resettled in less hospitable areas.

7. This was the origin of the emergence of the great latifundios and haciendas, that established themselves in the territories belonging to the indigenous people and in which the indigenous populations were incorporated in systems of servants or clientage (peones acacillados ). The exploitation of indigenous labor and the takeover of their lands generated conflict which erupted in the caste wars such as the Yaqui War in Sonora, or the Caste War in Yucatan in the Nineteenth Century, and which eventually culminated in the Revolution of 1910.

8. The new Constitution of 1917 recognized the land rights of the original occupants under their regimen of customary tenure, and devolved these lands to the original peoples and other rural peasants under a new regimen called the ejido. In the same manner, it sought to foster education, health, and a more active participation in a national economy with the end of eventually incorporating and integrating the indigenous peoples into the national culture.

Table 3.1 Summary of Post-independence Political Movements

Historical Periods and Dates National Administration Public Policies Impacts and Indigenous
Agrarian and Economic Cultural and Educational
Liberal Politics
30 year dictatorship
President Benito Juarez
President Porfirio Diaz
Initiates the privatization of
communal lands.Distributes large blocks of lands to estate owners. Encourages
colonization by Italians, Spanish, and French farmers.
No educational or cultural support
to indigenous peoples.Initiates first schools for indigenous peoples. Society
appropriates symbols from the past.
Beginning of the “caste wars”
of indigenous groups.Armed rebellion of the Yaqui, Cora, Huichol, Otomi, and
Nahuas for land rights.
National Reconstruction
Presidents Madero and Carranza. 7 years civil war. Constitutional
Reform/ Agrarian Law
Presidents Obregon and Calles
Chaotic division of land in private
plots. Expropriate large holdings and recognize comunidades. Create
ejidos. Create indigenous affairs bureau in Secretary of Agriculture.
Initiate ethnographic studies
and propose solutions.Create Department of Education and Indigenous Boarding
Zapatista movement for land begins
in Morelos. Logo is “Land and Liberty.”Sociedad Unificadora de
la Raza Indigena (SURI) created. PRI formed. Agrarian reform pressures.
Agrarian peace and industria-lization in Mexico
Presidents Portes Gil and Cardenas
First Interamerican Congress of Indigenists held in Mexico.
Agrarian reform carried out and
give millions of has. to ejidos and comunidades. Create Bank
for Ejido Credit.
Create INAH (1938); Dept. for
Indigenous Affairs as a Ministry. 33 indigenous regions and boarding schools.
Propose use of indigenous language in school system.
Students in boarding schools form
Supreme Council of the Tarahumara (CSRT). Establish regional congresses
of other groups. National Peasant Confederation formed in PRI.
Consolidation of the Revolution and modernization of country.
President Avila Comacho, Aleman,
Ruiz, Cortinez, and Diaz Ordaz.
Construct large dams and other infrastructure.
Through period, continue to give
reform lands. In 1948 create INI and 11 regional centers. Theory of assimilation
and cultural integration. Create indigenous patrimony of Yaqui in Mexquital
In 1963 introduce bilingual education
as means to develop indigenous peoples and assist assimilation process.
Experiments in the 11 regional centers.
Sign agreements with Yaquis and
other groups. Resettlement of indigenous peoples due to infrastructure.
Create National Confederation of Youth and Indigenous Communities (CNJCI).
New organizations arise (CCI, UGOCM, CAM). 1968 student movement. Guerrilla
movements start in Chihuahua, Guerrero, Oaxaca, and Mexico City.
1970-1980 Presidents Echeverria and Lopez
Twelve million hectares of land
is given in land reform. 60 new INI centers created for national coverage.
Large development programs like PIDER, FIDEPAL, Plan Huicot, and COPLAMAR.
Create Department of Indigenous
Education and recognize value of bilingual education. Create centers for
study of social issues and indigenous issues in CIESAS and CONAFE.
First indigenous congress in Chiapas
in 1974. CNC and government organize First Congress of Indigenous Peoples
in Michoacan. National Confederation of Indigenous Peoples (CNPI) created
after 1975 Congress. Organize National Association of Indigenous Bilingual
Initiate NAFTA dialogue and neoliberal reforms.
Theories of marginality and poverty emerge.
Presidents Lopez Portillo, De
la Madrid and Salinas
Slow down of land reform programs.
Development Programs like Solidaridad are consolidated to attend marginality
and poverty issues. Reduce or cancel agrarian support programs like INMECAFE,
Expansion of bilingual education
coverage. Expand Popular Culture programs for indigenous cultural
Establish radiotrans-
mitters in indigenous areas for transmission in local
Conflict in Huasteca with new
indigenous political organizations against state governments. New producers
organizations emerge to respond to fewer support programs. Multi-party
alliances start to emerge. Many NGOs emerge to provide assistance in rural
Consolidate neoliberal model. 1994 economic crisis with
rapid recovery but persistence of strong inequality.
Presidents Salinas and Zedillo The reform of Article 27 of the
Constitution by President Salinas permits transaction of ejido land and
the subsequent land titling program (PROCEDE) of the Zedillo administration
seeks to complete the land regularization and agrarian reform process.
Solidarity program developed with new coverage of Municipal Funds. Oaxaca
initiates a process of developing the Indigenous Peoples and Communities
Rights Law.
1992. Modification of Article
4 of the Constitution. New intellectual movements to recognize indigenous
identity. Political parties begin to adopt a new discourse on indigenous
Emergence of peasant confederations
in all political parties. Politicization of indigenous movements to promote
legal reform. 1994-armed rebellion in Chiapas.
1996 San Andres accord signed and autonomous municipalities
start to form.

Billie De Walt and Martha Rees with Arthur Murphy. The End of Agrarian Reform in Mexico. Transformation of Rural Mexico, No. 3. Ejido Reform Research Project. Center for US Mexican Studies, UCSD, 1994.
Jorge Luis Ibarra Mendivil. Propiedad Agraria y Sistema Politico en Mexico. Colegio de Sonora, 1989.
Juan Pedro Viqueira y Mario Humberto Ruz. Chiapas:Los rumbos de otra historia. Mexico, UNAM y CIESAS, 1995.Table 3.2 Short Summary of International Events
and Impact on Indigenous Political Movements

Dates Events Recommended Policies Impacts
Patzcuaro, Michoacan
Interamerican Indigenous Congress
promoted by countries of region.
To respect and protect indigenous
peoples for their development. Creation of national institutions for indigenous
Create the Indigenist Institute
of Latin America in Mexico City as result of Congress. Create INI in 1948.
Paris, France
1951 Create Regional Center for
Basic Education in Latin America (Michoacan)
Train specialized education professionals
for indigenous education.
Influence the educational politics
in the Continent.
OAS, Washington, D.C.
Organization of American States
formulates an Applied Social Science Program in Mexico.
Train Anthropologists and other
Applied Professionals in the region.
Professionals work in INI and
indigenous education and work with indigenous organizations.
1957 and 1989
International Labor Organization (ILO).
Convention of 1957 (107) for indigenous
and tribal peoples and Convention of 1989 (169)
Respect for indigenous culture
and rights to indigenous identity and customs.
Mexico ratifies Convention 169
and approves this as a law. Indigenous groups begin to make demands for
Second Vatican Council, Rome
Vatican promotes liberation theology
and organizes missions.
Promote indigenous rights through
activities of church authorities and leaders.
Church organizes indigenous peoples
and a process of reflection, especially in Chiapas.
United Nations, New York.
Project for Global Declaration
of Indigenous Peoples Rights.
Commission of Human Rights recognizes
the urgent necessity of respecting indigenous rights, lands, and cultural
The impact is made on national
and state laws, through reforms related to the Article 4 of the Constitution.
Interamerican Development Bank.
Madrid, Spain.
Creation of the Indigenous Fund
(Fondo Indigena) in Bolivia with IDB support.
Establish a mechanism for channeling
resources and technical assistance to indigenous communities and their
Mexico subscribes to this convention
and provides financial resources for human development. World Bank creates
Indigenous Peoples Training program with IDF Funds.

Instituto de Ecologia, UNAM