Mestizaje and Indigenous Identities

See also Ranchero Culture

In order to think about ideas about ethnicity, we also have to talk about ideas about race. From the biological point of view, races simply do not exist. From the cultural and political point of view, however, the concept of "race" is extremely important. Mexican national identity has been constructed in terms of the idea that Mexicans are the product of a creative mixing of Indians and Europeans. In theory this is an argument about a fusing together of cultures but in practice it gets conflated with the idea of mixing of races, mestizaje in Spanish. This is an official doctrine of the state, formulated after the Mexican Revolution of 1910. It is expressed in official rhetoric, mythology and public ceremonial. It is particularly powerfully expressed in Mexico’s famous National Museum of Anthropology. The Museum celebrates the glories of pre-Hispanic Mexican civilisations like the Aztecs, Mayas and Zapotecs on the ground floor. On the first floor, it exhibits the contemporary indigenous peoples of Mexico, set out like a collection of butterflies with lifesize models of people wearing the appropriate dress for their group. This great museum was set up by a group of anthropologists who saw Mexico’s future in terms of the assimilation of what remained of indigenous culture into a new national culture. Their objective was to memorialise something that they wanted to leave in the past. The Revolution was supposed to deliver material progress and social justice to the Indians: they would get back the lands that had been stolen from them by the great estates; they would get schools and clinics, roads and electricity; they would get development projects; they would get treated fairly by the courts, enjoy civil rights, and be freed from the tyranny of local bosses who exploited them and robbed them of their dignity as citizens. In return for this, they would give up their old customs, speak Spanish and join the mainstream of national life. In Mexico, that mainstream is defined as mestizo.

This implies that Indians in Mexico are an "ethnic minority". If you look at an Encyclopaedia, you’ll find that only between 15% and 30% of modern Mexicans are said to be "American Indians". The "majority" is defined as "Indian-Spanish", mestizo, or ladino, a term used for mestizos in Southern Mexico and Guatemala. But what exactly do these categories mean? How do we tell who an "Indian" is? Is it something to do with genes, biological descent from the original inhabitants of the region? Or is it something to do with "culture", the way people dress, the kind of food they eat? Is it something to do with speaking a native American language? Or is it something to do with social organisation, the fact that indigenous people may live in indigenous communities which may have certain peculiarities, such as electing their political representatives by consensus in a community assembly rather than a secret vote in the ballot box? Whatever it is, who decides? Is it the government, which conducts the censuses that give us the figures for the proportion of Indians? Or is it the people themselves, who assert that yes, we are indigenous people, when the census takers arrive? The answers we give to these questions as anthropologists have enormous practical and political importance in the contemporary world.

The anthropologists who created the national museum did indeed hold the view that most Mexicans were mestizos. This sounds like some kind of biological fact: that the majority of the population are the genetic product of mixing of Amerindians with Europeans. But let’s suppose that what is really important here is that most Mexicans have a culture which is a creative marriage of the indigenous and European. Problem one is whether one side of the cultural fusion should be given greater weight. In this case, Europeanness was indeed associated with ideas about "progress" and "modernisation". The dead Indians who had built the temples and the pyramids were therefore seen as "advanced" for their time and place, but living indigenous people were seen as backward and traditional, in need of "modernisation and progress". Now let’s add a dose of confusion between cultural and biological notions of mestizaje: progressiveness and modernity tended to become associated with looking more European and having a whiter skin, so that looking more "Indian" becomes socially degrading.

Racism is a serious problem in Mexico, as is particularly evident in states like Chiapas and Guerrero, where physical violence as well as discrimination by non-Indians against Indians is still commonplace. But it is not really a simple matter of discrimination against Indians by non-Indians. Even within a family, people behave in ways which expresses the deeply ingrained subjective consequences of the racial ideology of mestizaje: the four year old son of one of my godchildren in a Mexican village rushed crying into my house to tell me that his parents and grandparents hated him because he was dark — a morenito ("little darkie/moor) — whereas his new brother had blue eyes and fair skin and everyone had been saying how beautiful he was because he was a "güerito" (little blondie). In the first instance this is the legacy of a Spanish colonial racial ideology, which Lomnitz-Adler analyses at length. But it is an ideology which has been perpetuated in what was theoretically a liberal democratic post-colonial society in which all citizens are theoretically equal under the law. This is because the concept of mestizaje is not just a racial ideology. It was taken over and used in the attempt to construct a political ideology of modern national identity and unity, a nationalist ideology of social progress, by a state which claimed to be revolutionary.

Although Mexico is formally a democracy, and has been ruled by civilians since the revolution, a single party has remained in power throughout the last 70 years. Far from delivering social justice to the Indians, the Mexican state has failed them utterly. Since 1994, its disastrous neoliberal economic policies have created mass unemployment and impoverished large sectors of the population, a situation which is producing a rapid unravelling of the regime and a mounting tide of violence in both town and countryside. The problem facing the indigenous rights campaigners in Mexico is how they win the support of broad sections of the public in a country in which Indians are seen as a "minority". One approach has been to try to deconstruct the established ideas about mestizaje: in other words, to invite ordinary Mexicans to reevaluate the "Indian" side of their identities as mestizos. What the elites of the region have done over the centuries is manipulate ideas about "ethnic" difference to divide lower class people against each other: to encourage them to feel they are intrinsically "different" and have nothing in common. So again we can see that looking at how ethnic distinctions are constructed is not just an academic issue. It has very important political implications, especially given that national elites tend to be seen by ordinary people as different from themselves and essentially "more European". In his powerful critique of the ideas of the older generation of Mexican anthropologists who advocated assimilation of indigenous peoples, the late Guillermo Bonfil called on his countrymen to abandon the vision of an "imaginary Mexico" that modernisers had produced through their celebration of western ideals. He called on them to look instead at the "deep Mexico" embodied in the lives, world views and social practices of most ordinary Mexicans. He didn’t simply hope to foster public attitudes towards indigenous peoples that would be the basis for a multi-cultural society based on mutual respect. He hoped that seeing the ideology of mestizaje for what it was would enable all Mexicans to build a less authoritarian, more democratic society and a new kind of nationalism.

In some ways, Bonfil’s ideas are rather romantic, and the new politics of indigenous rights does face a number of genuine and serious practical difficulties, precisely because most Mexicans have learned to see themselves as "different" from Indians. Nevertheless, it is quite clear that people can develop new kinds of identities. I have myself worked with poor landless mestizos who have come to re-identify themselves with Indian neighbours with whom they now feel that they share a common ancestry, although they no longer speak an indigenous language or share exactly the same culture. One of the most important developments today is the development of broader kinds of indigenous identities and political movements. The emergence of a pan-Maya identity, for example, is quite new: different groups of Maya speak different versions of the language: local and even village identities were generally stronger even than identification with sub-groups of the Maya. People from Tzotzil village X might feel they had little in common with Tzotziles from village Y, and the two communities might be fighting over land or boundaries on a day to day basis. Today anthropologists are being asked to justify their scholarly accounts of Maya culture by Maya intellectuals and community activists who are actively recreating "Mayanness" and risking their lives by demanding a better deal from the state. We might feel that pan-Maya ideologies are, in a strict sense, "invented traditions" based on imaginary reconstructions of past culture, but it is not easy to dismiss them as "inauthentic" if they are capturing the imaginations of large numbers of people and becoming their cultural traditions as far as they are concerned. This is not, however, a totally new phenomenon. Indigenous culture and society has been evolving for the last 500 years in a complex kind of interaction with the culture and society of colonising groups.

Pre-Hispanic Mesoamericans spoke a variety of languages, divided into four main families. The biggest of these was Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, who were the last group to construct an empire, centred on the Valley of Mexico. The Aztecs had come from the northern part of modern Mexico, an area which was inhabited in the 16th century by nomadic hunter-gatherers. To the West of the Aztec empire was the state of the Tarascans or Purépecha, which the Aztecs were unable to conquer. The Purépecha spoke a language which was unrelated to others in Mesoamerica, and Western Mexico seems to have been in contact with Andean civilisation since before the time of the Incas. But the post-Conquest history of Mexico was affected in a funadamental way by the fact that the Basin of Mexico of Mexico contained over half the total pre-Hispanic population of the Mesoamerica region. It was a heavily urbanised civilisation based on highly productive irrigation agriculture. South of the Valley of Mexico to the West were the Mixtec and Zapotec civilisations of Oaxaca, and to the East of the Aztecs were the Huastecans. Finally, to the South were the Maya, concentrated in the Yucatan peninisular and along the coasts and mountains leading down through Guatemala and beyond. None of these other civilisations were politically unified: they consisted of a series of small polities, each with its own ruler: although particularly successful states like the Quiché periodically succeeded in conquering and ruling neighbours, no one power dominated anywhere else in Mesoamerica like the Aztecs did. The greater political and economic integration of the Basin of Mexico did not, however, imply a more "advanced" type of civilisation on some sort of evolutionary scale. The Mixtecs and Maya had more sophisticated writing systems than the Aztecs and the predictive powers of Maya astronomers were not equally by European science until the 20th century.

The impact of European colonisation was very different in different regions of Mesoamerica. In the densely populated Basin of Mexico, most indigenous people experienced day-to-day interaction with European immigrants, a majority of whom were men. Although European diseases decimated the aboriginal population, it was so large to start with that there was no prospect of its disappearing. What did happen, however, was that many Indians became permanent workers on Spanish landed estates, called haciendas. Even those who remained in indigenous communities worked on them seasonally. In the Basin of Mexico, historical conditions favoured the emergence of a peasantry which spoke Spanish and came to see itself as mestizo rather than Indian.

The Spanish Crown had intended to take the lion’s share of the fruits of plundering the New World for itself, rather than let them go to Spanish landlords. Indians became wards of the Crown, and were to pay tribute to it. To this end, the Crown created a legal category "indigenous town", which had its own forms of political and religious organisation. If you lived in an indigenous town, you were an indigenous tribute payer. Being indigenous was therefore something that depended on where you lived and what you chose to do. There were no legal restrictions of the mobility of indigenous people in the province of New Spain (Central Mexico). You could cease to be "an Indian" by ceasing to reside in an Indian town, choosing to speak Spanish and wear European dress. This is, in fact, what large numbers of indigenous people actually did.

If we look at the area to the North of Mexico City, we get to a region known today as the Bajío. In the pre-Hispanic period this had been populated by nomadic hunter-gatherers. It has highly fertile land, but was mostly unsuitable for cultivation without the plough and animal traction. Pre-Hispanic peoples had no oxen, mules or horses. It was also the region where the Spaniards discovered silver. The development of the mines created a migration northwards not just of European immigrants but of Indian colonists, generally from ethnic groups which had been of lower status in the Aztec world. The Bajío became the richest region in the colony, agriculturally and commercially as well as in terms of mining wealth. Unlike in the Andes, the mines were not run by indigenous forced labour. Indigenous people who went to the Bajío rapidly abandoned their indigenous identities and disappeared into a mestizo population of peasant villagers, hacienda workers, miners and urban artisans.

What happened in Central Mexico and the Bajío suggests that ethnic identity was a social and political strategy. In Central Mexico, some indigenous towns did survive as going concerns, because native elites had their own reasons for wanting to retain control of village resources and a degree of separate political control. These reasons were often linked not to "tradition" but to the fact that powerful people in the indigenous villages had become participants in the Spanish-dominated market economy. They could use communal village institutions to defend their private economic interests. But they often used "traditional" institutions and forms of authority to keep control over the poorer Indian peasants. Even in the 18th century, communities still kept parallel legal records in Nahuatl of the boundaries of their territories, at the same time as their bilingual elites defended community interests in the Spanish courts. These territories corresponded to pre-Hispanic local units called altepetls, communities organised on a mixture of kinship and territorial principles which defined themselves in terms of the cosmic spaces surrounding the central temple. Indian village leaders thus attempted to defend their interests by ritual as well as secular legal measures. Indian communities also adapted Spanish religious institutions to the ends of marking the boundaries between Indian and Spanish society, as was the case with the confraternity (cofradía) system. Cofradías were a Spanish introduction, intended to aid the work of Spiritual Conquest. But the Indians appropriated the Spanish institutions and reinvented the cofradías and the cults of the Saints as "native customs from time immemorial". What we have here, then, is a picture of an indigenous society adapting itself to the new colonial relations imposed on it, actively and creatively. It is not a question of indigenous culture continuing unchanged beneath a veneer of Christianisation and compliance: there were profound changes in indigenous cultural practices and world-view. But the result is not adequately described by the idea of cultural syncretism or hybridity: it is more useful to look at cultural change as a process through which indigenous people used old and new cultural practices to adapt themselves to living in a new colonial world, an adaptation that involved both accommodation and resistance. And it is important to recognise that Indian communities were not socially and politically homogeneous: they had leaderships and competing factions who struggled for power. The different ways in which indigenous communities were organised and the ways they related to the rest of colonial society reflected the outcomes of these internal struggles over leadership, power and authority.

This is equally clear in the case of Oaxaca and the Maya area, but the difference between these regions and the Centre of Mexico is that relations between Indians and Spaniards were, in most places, much less intense. There were fewer Spaniards and they tended to exploit Indians in different ways to Central Mexico. In a few places, like the Ocosingo region of Chiapas, big landed estates expanded at the expense of Indian villages, and the Indians were turned into estate workers or peons. But in many areas, European-owned estates and plantations were not significant before the 19th century, and most villagers kept their own land. In the case of Ocosingo, the estates were owned by the Dominican religious order, not by secular landlords; it is important to be aware that the Church was often as interested in exploiting Indians as the colonial state and Spanish landlord class. However, in most of the Maya and Mixtec areas, the Church’s relationship with the Indians was of a different kind: the religious orders allowed indigenous people to practice their religion on lines that they found acceptable. The principle burdens upon the communities were economic, in the form of what were known as repartimientos. Indians were either forced to produce commodities that Spaniards could sell on the world or to buy commodities that Spaniards sold at inflated prices. In either case the burdens of exploitation could and did provoke protest. By the 18th century, the repartimiento system in Yucatan was so oppressive that it was threatening subsistence crops. And the reason it was so oppressive was that both secular and religious authorities lined their own pockets. Nevertheless, disputes over land or economic exploitation were not frequent causes of peasant revolts in the South in colonial times in Mexico. 18th century native rebellions were mainly related to the removal of the religious orders and the introduction of secular priests—clergy who made their living out of the parish. These new priests tended to interfere more in community religious life as well as demand more in the way of fees and tithes. In general, indigenous revolts were less significant and much smaller and more sporadic in Mesoamerica in general than in the Andes right through the colonial period. This reflects the differences in the way the colonisers interacted with the colonised.

In the Andes there has been a sustained cleavage between "Indians" concentrated in the interior and a "white" population located on the coast:  Florencia Mallon has argued that the cleavage was so sharp that mestizos still tend to be identified by Indians with the "white" pole. In what became Mexico, the patterns were much more complex, and the cleavages less sharp, especially in Central Mexico, which was, after all, where the greatest number of people lived. Although indigenous communities did not disappear in Central Mexico, there was a substantial process of what Bonfil calls "deindianisation" as communities became Spanish speaking and times changed in ways which made defending the community’s interests as an Indian community less attractive as a strategy. Some of these changes were economic: Indian communities lost the fight to preserve their lands, or they changed internally, so that land became increasingly concentrated in a few hands and was used for commercial production. There are two historical watersheds which are particularly important in this respect.

The first was the period 1810-1821, which ended with Mexico becoming an independent nation. In 1810, the Bajío region revolted against its elites, and peasants and urban artisan workers attacked land properties. Many Indian communities to the West of the Bajío joined this insurgency for reasons of their own, usually to do with merchants and other outsiders grabbing community lands. Although the Basin of Mexico remained relatively quiet, considerable numbers of Indian villages disappeared in the violent repression that followed the insurgency and their people moved to other communities if they did not die in the fighting. The second major watershed was the legal abolition of Indian communal land tenure by liberal reformers in the second half of the 19th century. This eventually led to the division of communal land into individual plots and the loss of land by many people: the liberal reform had the most sweeping impact in Central Mexico. Many communities "deinidianised" after it, and although some recovered their lands after the Revolution of 1910, they often did so as mestizo claimants to land under the land reform programme and had ceased to identify themselves as Indians. The result of these processes was the creation of a Mexican nation in which Indians were pushed into a peripheral and minority status: there are more Indian communities to the South and East than in the Centre, North and West of Mexico; elsewhere communities which still asserted their cultural identity, spoke indigenous languages and presented themselves to the State as "indigenous communities" tended to be located in more marginal regions within states where most of the population now saw themselves as "non-indian" mestizo peasants.

It should now be obvious that mestizoisation or deindianisation has nothing instrinsically to do with intermarriage between Spaniards and Indians. In the colonial period, it was basically a matter of language and place of residence. And non-Indians could often just as easily become Indians as the reverse. It is true, as suggested by the famous anthropological model of the "closed corporate Indian community" that in some times and in some places Indians kept non-Indians out or at least prevented them acquiring land. But only in some times and in some places: some indigenous communities contained the descendants of immigrants from Spain, mestizos born of unions between indigenous mothers and men from other ethnic groups, and even people of African origin. There are, in fact, cases where groups of freed African slaves dominated the populations of communities which were officially recognised as "Indian towns". It is quite common in Michoacán to meet Purépecha speakers who are fair-skinned and blue-eyed. By the same logic, what were once indigenous communities mostly containing "Indian tribute payers" convert themselves into communities which now see themselves as communities of mestizos, even though the ancestors of the current residents were mostly the "Indian tribute payers" of the past. Being an Indian was largely a question of how one chose to live, in the sense that it was generally quite easy to become a mestizo by simply migrating to another community. The interesting questions are therefore about why some people chose to retain Indian identity and why some communities retained their identity as Indian communities and some didn’t. In some regions, like most of Chiapas, the answer to both questions seems to be the same: Indian communities were organisations for defending what the people had rescued in the way of resources and social and religious autonomy from the wreck of colonisation: ceasing to be an Indian by moving to a non-Indian town and speaking Spanish offered no advantage in terms of economic or social status. In others, like the Bajío, remaining an Indian offered less than becoming a mestizo, because there were better opportunities outside the indigenous community and discrimination against people who looked "Indian" was less acute than somewhere like the ladino towns of Chiapas, where Indians were still being publicly beaten for walking on urban pavements only thirty years ago. But to fully understand why indigenous communities fought to maintain their identities, we generally have to understand a lot more about the local political and economic context of Indian/non-Indian relations, including the relations between Indian community authorities and non-Indian authorities. It is not, in fact, the case, as many anthropologists once assumed, that the most "traditional" communities are those that are most isolated, or that capitalist development necessarily produces a loss of Indian cultural identity: local Indian elites that are quite strongly commercial in orientation may, in fact, be quite strong upholders of "tradition" in matters cultural or religious.

We can, however, at least make the generalisation that no one could entirely escape the shadows cast by the racial ideologies of colonial society. Claudio Lomnitz-Adler has pointed out that colonial society had an extraordinarily large number of categories for classifying people of mixed race: although the three basic categories were African, Spanish and Indian, there were special names to refer, for example, to the grandchild of someone who was part Black. Most people had dismissed the complexities of this classification as of no consequence, but Lomnitz-Adler uses a structuralist analysis to reveal that its underlying logic is both consistent and very important. Indians were distinguished from Spanish people as naturales opposed to gente de razón: the distinction is in terms of ability to reason and behave rationally, a quality which is assumed European. However, Indians are seen as lacking it because they are like children, and ignorance can literally be bred out of them. In the logic of the racial classification, Indian blood is redeemable: people with Indian blood somewhere back in their line can eventually become white if their ancestors have persisted in breeding with Spaniards. Black blood, however, is not redeemable: or to put it another way, people with African blood can never "whiten themselves". What post-colonial ideologies took from this colonial view of race was the association of social as well as personal progress with whitening.

So far I have talked only about Indians and Mestizos. To understand post-colonial developments we also need to consider the group called Creoles (criollos) in Mesoamerica. Creoles were basically people who saw themselves as of Spanish origin but were born in the colonies. Spaniards born in Spain tended to look down on Creoles on the grounds that merely being born in the New World produced a kind of racial degeneration. After Independence, the tables were turned, and peninsular Spaniards who wanted to live and prosper in Guatemala and Mexico had to be respectful of the Creole elite. After Independence, Mexico was run by conservative creoles who wanted to keep the colonial social order intact; Guatamala became a separate country largely because liberals got the upper hand their at first, and were only subsequently replaced by a conservative group which held power until the 1870s. The conservatives came back to power in Guatemala largely because the indigenous population did not like the new liberal regime and mounted endless revolts against it. To cut a long story short, liberal politics in Mexico became increasingly associated with the aspirations of a mestizo provincial urban professional class which felt that the Creole oligarchy that ran the country blocked its opportunities for social mobility. So Mexico’s political history after 1856 is the history of the rise of a new mestizo elite. It is, however, an elite which is extremely authoritarian as far as Indians are concerned; it is an elite which has fully internalised the old Creole ideology of whitening as progress and sees itself as a progressive force in history because it is leaving the backward Indian past behind. It therefore offers social justice to the Indians providing they agree to come on board the same project, that is, they cease to preserve their distinct identities and assimilate into the mestizo elite’s model of what "national culture" should be like.

This project might conceivably have succeeded in Mexico, if the post-revolutionary state had actually delivered social justice to its citizens. In practice, the wealthy elites that lie behind the Mexican state have failed to deliver what the regime promised to the entire Mexican people, but the situation of contemporary indigenous peoples today is outstandingly bad on every front. The majority of Indians are not merely poorer and have shorter life expectancy and higher rates of infant mortality. They are also more likely to be in gaol without due process and more liable to be victims of other forms of human rights abuse. Nevertheless, they have been able to join the global wave of indigenous rights politics and draw the world’s attention to their demands. The assimilationist strategy has failed, and produced new forms of ethnic mobilisation and ethnic identity which are arguably more powerful than the old forms.

One impetus towards the mobilisation of indigenous communities in Latin America has come from the Liberation Theology wing of the Catholic Church. The Vatican II Council ordered the Latin American Church to re-evangelise the peasantry and get rid of syncretic forms of religion that mixed autochthonous religious beliefs and practices with orthodox Christianity. This religious programme was inspired by the Vatican’s fears about the likely effects of socio-economic change and continuing social injustice in the region. The hierarchy saw the Church’s control over the rural masses as threatened by both Protestant evangelism and revolutionary socialist movements. Re-evangelisation was therefore first and foremost a bid to restore Church authority. But the strategy the Vatican adopted had unintended effects. Although the Church’s aims were initially conservative, the methods they used to achieve them created a new generation of community leaders who subsequently embraced radical or even revolutionary politics. Even some bishops embraced a more radical position because they were won over by the emerging arguments of Liberation Theology; they felt that it was the Church’s duty not just to minister to the souls of the poor and oppressed but to support them in their social and political struggles for a better life in this world.

Although hordes of foreign missionaries were sent to places like Guatemala in the 60s and 70s, they were not capable of doing the work alone. So they recruited lay catechists from within the peasant community, who were used to educate fellow villagers by organising Christian Base Communities. The people who volunteered to become catechists were mostly young men who were frustrated by the gerontocratic systems of indigenous community authority. They thought they would make better leaders than traditional elders and wanted power to change things now. Because the authority of the elders was linked to traditional religion, the catechists became fervent supporters of religious modernisation.

But their rejection of traditional village authorities also led them to question the authority of local elites such as plantation owners and abusive non-Indian political authorities. This helps us to understand the pattern of developments in Chiapas. The bishop of Chiapas, Samuel Ruíz, was an early convert to Liberation Theology. The catechists his diocese recruited in the area where the Zapatista rebellion broke out clearly sympathised with the emerging armed revolutionary movement. But to understand the Chiapas revolt, we have to understand what was peculiar about the region where it broke out, the Las Cañadas region of the Lacandón jungle. This was an area colonised by peasants moving in from the Central Highlands of Chiapas. These peasants came from a variety of different ethnic groups, but what they had in common was a past history of semi-slavery on ladino-owned plantations. This helped to promote solidarity among people of diverse ethnic origins as they settled down together in the new communities in the jungle: the plantation owners were the common enemy, and their migration was seen as a kind of "exodus" in the biblical sense: the catechists worked on this metaphor as they taught them the ideas of Liberation Theology. The people of the Selva were granted ejidos under the land reform legislation, and different ejidos joined together in unions to try to get more help from the government to improve production and increase their access to markets: it’s interesting to note that this case illustrates the principle that indigenous peasant militancy can be spearheaded by peasants who are involved in the market, and is not invariably a reaction to the way capitalist relations undermine "traditional" peasant economies, as envisaged by many classical theories of agrarian revolution. There were, however, serious constraints on long-term rural development in Las Cañadas:

The Chiapas rebellion of 1994 was therefore the result of a combination of circumstances. A group of indigenous people with a strong sense of historical grievance were subjected to the influence of Liberation Theology and an incoming group of guerilla organisers whose origins date back to the urban student movement of the late 1960s. When the rising happened, government spokesmen were quick to blame outsiders for stirring up the peasants and claim that they had been misled by Marxist militants — an unholy alliance of radical priests and 60s student leftists. This is, however, not a sustainable charge: it is quite clear that the top leadership of the movement in the Clandestine Revolutionary Council is indigenous. The charismatic mestizo leader Marcos is used as a spokesperson for the benefit of specific kinds of audiences, but Indian figures are used as symbols when this is more appropriate. The EZLN grew out of a much longer history of development of indigenous peasant organisations.

Nevertheless, it is important to understand the specific character of the EZLN movement as an indigenous movement. The rebellion took place on the day the NAFTA treaty was ratified: a day which had significance for all Mexicans who had suffered from neoliberal economic policies and were worried about what further suffering the NAFTA would bring — rightly as it has turned out. It was a day which raised issues about national sovereignty and democracy — the NAFTA had been pushed through with little consultation even of Mexican business interests, and it represented a U-turn for a country which had always pursued a policy of protecting the national economy. The original Zapatista proclamation did not just speak to the specific rights of indigenous people: it spoke to the rights of working class people and women in general, and called for democracy and clean elections.

In this sense, it corresponded to an older tradition that found in the radical agrarianism of Michoacán in the 1920s, described in Paul Friedrich’s books Agrarian Revolt in a Mexican Village and The Princes of Naranja. The great agrarian radical leader of the Michoacán village of Naranja, Primo Tapia, had been a migrant worker in the United States, where he had joined the famous anarcho-sindicalist movement known as the "Wobblies" (Workers of the World). The 1920s agrarian program stressed the need to attend to women’s issues as well as issues of land and wages. Its agenda replicated the international socialist platform of the Second International. It did not include any emphasis on ethnicity and indigenous rights, even though Tapia and his successors were Indians. The EZLN manifesto differed from this earlier tradition in having a specific focus on indigenous issues, in reflection of the failure of assimilationist policies, but it was not a narrow focus. The way the Zapatistas addressed the question of women’s rights was also evidently more "modern" and less patriarchal in tone, reflecting the new role of women as both political organisers and guerilla fighters. The EZLN approach to indigenous rights issues is not one which seeks to isolate indigenous people from non-indigenous people. This is most evident in their proposals for indigenous autonomy.

After the government’s initial attempt to crush the rebellion with the army failed, the EZLN was invited to enter into a "dialogue" with the state which resulted in a series of proposals to modify the Mexican constitution. The indigenous side demanded that the state recognise the right of indigenous peoples to "self-determination" by allowing them to administer their affairs in their own way. The government side has persistently tried to represent this as a demand for separatism from the national state, the "creation of nations within nations" or even "a regime of reservations". In fact, however, what the Zapatistas were demanding was that indigenous communities be freed from domination by non-indian elites: that they be free to choose their political representatives in whatever way they see fit, and that those representatives should have an equal voice to the representatives of other groups in regional society. In other words, as Lynn Stephen has argued, this is a demand for democratisation of Mexican political life from the bottom-up, linked to earlier demands for municipal democracy. Such demands are, in fact, widespread in Chiapas, not just in the Selva. After the Zapatista rebellion, many communities seized the opportunity to try to kick out long established local bosses, and alliances were formed to democratise municipal life between groups affiliated to rival political parties and peasant organisations.

In the case of Chiapas, few indigenous people want to create separate enclaves for people from different ethnic groups. The fact that the population of Las Cañadas is itself ethnically mixed has already broken down many of the barriers between different Maya groups and between Mayas and poor mestizos. So the idea is to create multi-ethnic regions with more power devolved to local government. However, as Stephen points out, the way the idea of "indigenous autonomy" is likely to be realised does depend on regional circumstances. In Chiapas, the principle division is between rich landowners and poorer peasants: the agrarian reform was never fully implemented in this state because the regional elite was able to limit the interventions of the national state in its affairs. The government of Lázaro Cárdenas did attempt to reduce the power of the regional elite by promoting a new generation of indigenous peasant leaders. These were bilingual Indians, often school teachers, who were once again a generation of youth eager to contest the authority of elders. But as Jan Rus has shown, the problem was that these new leaders converted themselves into a new generation of village bosses or caciques, very like Cárdenas’s allies the Caso clan in Naranja. They used their control of village politics to enrich themselves and violently repressed political rivals. They also developed new alliances with the non-Indian state elite. So the reforming thrust of the Cárdenas administration was short-lived and the Chiapaneco elite continued to defy the national state. The unity among peasants promoted by the persistent agrarian problems of Chiapas and the opposition between big landowners and peasants has therefore been strengthened by a continuous popular struggle against arbitrary boss rule.

Lynn Stephen has contrasted the situation in Oaxaca with that in Chiapas. In Oaxaca, agrarian conflicts between different indigenous communities were generally sharper than conflicts between villagers and big landlords. This has created a pattern of ethnic exclusivity. Modern indigenous rights politics has been orientated towards winning greater autonomy for specific groups, and, indeed, goes back a long way into the past. The Mixe district was recognised by the Cárdenas government in the 1930s. The most famous modern ethnic movement in Oaxaca, the COCEI of Juchitán, has achieved control over a municipio by combining left-wing politics with a strong Zapotec Indian cultural politics. The COCEI has been able to govern Juchitán as an opposition political party because it proved adept at negotiating with the national government, which had not, in fact, been able to establish control over the non-Indian elite of Juchitán in an earlier period. As a result, it has been able to maintain its popular support by being able to deliver material benefits in the form of land, jobs and public works paid for by federal funds. It has also invested heavily in the revival of Zapotec culture, sponsoring the development of innovative art and music in a tradition that is partly invented and partly tied to the real Zapotec past. But the Juchitecos have been encouraged by the COCEI to think of themselves as a very superior kind of Zapotec, and the movement is actually quite disparaging of other indigenous groups in Oaxaca. This kind of process obviously does not lend itself to the creation of a broader democratic movement that can include all poor people and unite people across ethnic boundaries. On the contrary, it tends to fix such boundaries and treats them as "natural" rather than historical constructions. In other words, the danger of the kind of ethnic politics that has developed in Juchitán is that it can slip over into racism.

The issue of ethnic exclusivity also arises in Friedrich’s case study of Naranja in the period 1926 to 1960. Friedrich charts the violent struggles between different village factions. All are Indian, but one, the Ocampos, adopts the position that the benefits of land reform should be exclusively for Indians, whereas the other, the Casos, builds up its power by giving land to the poor mestizo peons who had worked on the old haciendas of the region. The people of Naranja had suffered greatly at the hands of mestizos: their livelihoods had been destroyed when a neighbouring hacienda took over and drained the marshes which they had previously used to make baskets and mats for sale; and the village lost much of its land when mestizos who lived in the village took over control of the local government and acted as agents for the landlords. There were, however, also many very poor mestizos who had simply been rural labourers and sharecroppers, and the Casos used their support to defeat their rivals. This was a quite cynical move on their part, and is partly explicable by the fact that they were the group mostly closely tied to Lázaro Cárdenas, who favoured giving land to estate workers. Cárdenas’s personal support was important for their victory, and the establishment of the long and bloody domination of Elias Scarface Caso, who not only became very rich, but also a political figure of importance far beyond his own village. In this earlier period, then, ethnic issues were mainly about how the spoils of the land reform should be distributed: at the level of the national state, the land reform was a means of assimilating Indians, and in the region of Zapacapu, where Naranja is, Indian leaderships had come out on top, so they could dedicate themselves to pursuing struggles to capture the economic and political resources it provided. There are, however, some wider lessons to be learned from this experience.

The village factions in Naranja often drew on wider political networks and that wider regional and national conflicts impinged on local conflicts. Nevertheless, once the bosses were in power they had considerable autonomy: if government policies didn’t suit them, they ignored them or made them work in practice in a way that suited their personal interests. The same is true of more recent examples of boss rule in Chiapas. George Collier shows that indigenous community elites in the 1980s became increasingly autonomous, in the sense that they developed new kinds of economic enterprises like trucking that didn’t depend on traditional ways of extracting wealth from the local peasant economy. At the same time, they enjoyed strong political backing from the ruling party at state and national level. Although they began to compete politically with each other more, they lost interest in recruiting followings amongst poorer peasants: old traditions of respectful behaviour and generosity towards peasant clients decayed. These changes did provoke growing resentment, and new political factions emerged, especially in poorer hamlets outside the municipal centres. After 1988, these tended to align to the centre-left opposition party the PRD. The leadership of these new radical movements was in the hands of young men, mostly former migrants. Yet the battles over political control of the communities took place in terms of claims to uphold "community tradition" on both sides, as Collier shows: the radicals were accused of challenging traditional authority and destroying community consensus; they accused the established bosses of ruling by electoral fraud and the gun. The problem here is that political bosses of today generally came to power as supposed reformers. Yesterday’s radicals can become tomorrow’s caciques. This is why it seems essential to tie the politics of indigenous rights and respect for cultural difference to questions of grass roots democratisation. Without fundamental reform of the whole Mexican political system, indigenous rights activists may indeed become a new generation of local bosses.

But the current situation is very different in many ways to even the recent past. One important factor in the case of both Oaxaca and Michoacán is international migration. Historically, migration was to some extent a safety-valve that reduced pressures on land and reduced rural poverty. But today migrants are playing a more political role, building new organisations that span national boundaries: they form community associations in Mexico, which have sometimes challenged local bosses, and they also work to improve the rights of migrant workers in the USA. These transnational indigenous organisations tend to be ethnically inclusive: for example, the Oaxacan Mixtec-Zapotec Binational Indigenous Front not only brings Mixtecs and Zapotecs together, but is also working to bring in other groups like Triques and Mixes, overcoming past divisions. These new transnational indigenous organisations are capable of putting considerable pressure on governments and exploiting the media effectively, plus they have the backing of NGOs such as the Human Rights Organisations and Aid Agencies.

These developments enhance the chances of progress in delivering a new deal for indigenous people and achieving a broader movement for democratisation. On the negative side, however, we must recognise that the national state in Mexico and the regional state governments are still controlled by non-Indian elites which have vested interests to defend. The government side in the Chiapas peace negotiations has paid no serious attention whatsoever to EZLN demands for land redistribution and the expropriation of the state’s many illegal latifundios. Throughout the negotiations, the army has continued to conduct a low-intensity war against the Zapatista base communities, using tactics it has clearly learned from the Guatemalan military and US counter-insurgency experience. For example, water holes were poisoned and crops and houses destroyed to make people dependent on army feeding stations. Peasants who had invaded landed estates outside the Selva in 1994-95 have been being evicted by heavily armed "white guards" supported by state and federal troops. There have been many deaths in these evictions, and an equally large number of assassinations of peasant community activists. In December 1997, a paramilitary death squad  murdered forty-five people, mostly women and children, in the village of Acteal, deepening the crisis. The prospects for a real settlement in Chiapas look increasingly bleak, and although the lack of concrete results has now caused a loss of support for the EZLN, resentment over the role of the government and the military is continuig to grow.

The contemporary indigenous rights struggle could be the basis for a redefined Mexican nationalism, built from the bottom-up rather than by state propaganda and public education. The prospects for such a change depend on whether:

This brings us back to the problem of mestizaje. The government has made great efforts to foster a non-Indian "backlash" against demands for indigenous rights. This backlash effect is premised on the idea that most Mexicans are not Indians and that it is unjust to give some poor people special benefits because they can claim that they are indigenous. If Mexico is to become a multi-cultural nation in which Indians can assert their cultural traditions without being discriminated against, then the old idea of "whitening as progress" must be abandoned. But it is equally important that ethnic divisions are not seen as absolute and that people can feel community with people in other groups. Ethnic separatism and the idea that people are intrinsically different because of their culture are possible outcomes of a struggle for indigenous rights. What is needed to secure social justice is the idea that people have something in common beyond their differences and that all have an equal dignity in society and the nation. The politically-constructed category of mestizaje must lose its centrality to ordinary people's notions of their identity as Mexicans before that can happen.

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