Main languages: Spanish (official), numerous indigenous languages
Main religions: Roman Catholicism, indigenous religions
The overwhelming majority of the Mexican population is of mixed ancestry, with most people identifying as mestizo (mixed indigenous and Spanish ancestry). Official statistics had traditionally defined the indigenous population using criteria based on language, which many have argued greatly underestimates the increasingly urban population. However, indigenous peoples’ organizations were successful in pressuring the Mexican Statistics Bureau to include a broader set of criteria in the 2000 Census, including a question based on self-identification.
CONADI, the National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples, estimated that Mexico currently has 68 indigenous communities. In July 2017 the Comisión Nacional para el Desarrollo de los Pueblos Indígenas reported that – based on 2015 figures – there were 25.7 million Mexicans who self-identified as indigenous, equivalent to 21.5 per cent of the national population at the time, with another 1.6 per cent identifying as part-indigenous. Over 12 million of these (more than 10 per cent of the national population) lived in indigenous households and some 7.4 million spoke indigenous languages. The most common indigenous language was Najuatl (23.4 per cent of indigenous language speakers), followed by Maya 11.7 per cent), Tzeltal (7.5 per cent), Mixteco (6.9 per cent), Tzotzil (6.6 per cent), Zapoteco (6.3 per cent), Otomi (4.2 per cent), Totonaca (3.6 per cent), Chol (3.4 per cent) and Mazateco (3.2 per cent).
The 2015 survey – a preliminary to a planned 2020 census – also revealed that 1.38 million Mexicans described themselves as being of African descent. The majority of Afro-Mexicans live in the state of Veracruz or along the Pacific coastal region of the southern states of Oaxaca and Guerrero, otherwise known as the Costa Chica.
Updated June 2019
Soaring violence in Mexico, with almost 16,000 homicides in the first half of 2018 – the highest levels in two decades – has left the country struggling to maintain the rule of law in the face of corruption, trafficking and powerful criminal cartels. The situation has been exacerbated by an increasingly militarized approach by authorities, with security forces themselves implicated in a range of human rights abuses. The deteriorating situation, while affecting all civilians, has impacted profoundly on journalists, lawyers and activists, particularly those championing minority and indigenous peoples’ rights.
The long roll call of civilians caught in the crossfire between armed groups or kidnapped, executed and forcibly disappeared includes numerous indigenous rights activists such as Isidro Baldenegro López and Juan Ontiveros Ramos, environmentalists and leaders from Chihuahua state’s Rarámuri (Tarahumara) indigenous people, killed in separate incidents in Guadalupe y Calvo municipality in early 2017. In May 2017, indigenous Tzotzil leader Guadalupe Huet Gómez was murdered in Chiapas state, just a few days after indigenous Huichol (Wixárika) land rights activists Miguel and Agostín Vázquez Torres – who had been fighting encroachment on their community’s lands by cattle ranchers – were killed in Jalisco state. The next day, at least 80 indigenous day workers at a ranch in Chihuahua also ‘disappeared’ after protesting labour exploitation by their employer. In another incident in February 2018, three activists of indigenous rights group CODEDI (Comité por la Defensa de los Derechos Indígenas) were killed in an ambush after a meeting with government officials in Oaxaca.
In addition, whole communities have been forcibly displaced by armed groups, political violence, land conflict and mining projects. In May 2018, the Mexican Commission on Defence and Promotion of Human Rights reported 25 such incidents in 2017, reportedly affecting over 20,000 people. Sixty per cent of the displaced were from indigenous communities: in some cases – such as that of the Mixe community of San Juan Juquila Mixes, Oaxaca state and the Tzotzil communities of Chalchihuitán and Chenalhó, Chiapas state – they were forced from their homes in the context of unresolved territorial or political disputes aggravated by the presence of armed groups. In all, members of at least six indigenous groups – Nahua, Tzotzil, Mixe, Rarámuris (Tarahumaras), Purépechas and Tepehuanes (Ódami) – were forcibly displaced in 2017.
In a broader context of impunity, weak governance and discrimination, those responsible for human rights violations and abuses – particularly against indigenous people – are rarely held to account. One exception was the conviction in June 2018 of two soldiers for the rape and torture of an indigenous woman, Valentina Rosendo Cantú, in 2002. The Inter–American Court of Human Rights found against the Mexican government in the case in 2010. The two soldiers were sentenced to 19 years in prison.
Hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans, Hondurans (including Afro-Hondurans) and Guatemalans (some of the latter indigenous) have fled north into Mexico in recent years, despite concerted efforts by Mexico to tighten control of its southern border and the corridors north. They enter Mexico in the knowledge that the path ahead is largely controlled by criminal networks in place to extort, exploit, terrorize, traffic or kidnap them for ransom. Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission estimated that in 2013 alone, 11,000 migrants were kidnapped: criminal investigations were opened in only a few dozen cases. Others were detained and returned by immigration officials, at times without due access to asylum procedures.
Many of those fleeing are children and youth seeking to escape persecution by the gangs that control the areas where they live. Given the increasingly hostile and restrictive US policy towards refugees, which has grown out of the Trump administration’s isolationism and rejection of international law, a small but growing proportion are seeking asylum in Mexico, with around 60 per cent of Central American applicants being granted refugee status or complementary protection. One key issue though is that the asylum procedure is characterised by long delays, leading to significant numbers – over 16 per cent in 2017 – abandoning or withdrawing their claims.
In response to pressure from families whose loved ones have gone missing while migrating through Mexico, new cross-border mechanisms for reporting and investigating enforced disappearance and other crimes against migrants have been set up. However, particularly in southern Mexico, they are being met by increasing anti-migrant prejudice in communities ill-equipped to cope with the number of new arrivals and influenced by some media and local officials’ negative portrayals of migrants.
Updated June 2019
Mexico is bordered by the United States to the north and Guatemala and Belize to the south. Although it is the largest and northernmost country of the Central American isthmus, it is today widely considered part of North America. The geography of Mexico is diverse, with a tropical southern region and coastal lowlands, more temperate central highlands, and an arid desert of the north and west. Mexico City is the largest metropolitan area in the world and has increasingly been the site of migration for many indigenous and rural workers in search of better opportunities.
Mexico has been inhabited for at least 11,000 years. Beginning centuries before the European conquest, a sequence of major indigenous civilizations flourished in the region, culminating with the militarily powerful Aztec empire, which arose in the early fifteenth century. Spanish colonization began in 1519 with the explorations and campaigns of Hernán Cortés. The Spanish conquerors quickly ascertained that the Aztec empire was not a monolithic entity and that some subjugated nations could be turned to the Spanish side. Large numbers of indigenous troops supported his decisive attack on the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán. Cortés brought a number of enslaved Africans among his servants and military. They became the first of approximately 200,000 slaves from Africa to arrive in Mexico during the colonial period. Veracruz was arguably the most important slave port in the Americas throughout sixteenth century.
Spanish colonialism had many different impacts on the pre-existing societies after the conquest. Forcible conversion to Christianity was the rule. Diseases previously unknown in the Americas, against which the indigenous population had no immunity, resulted in millions of deaths. The Spanish colonial authorities relocated indigenous communities into fewer, larger towns where they could be more effectively controlled, and on to the least fertile lands. The Europeans themselves took possession of the rich soils that had provided bountiful and reliable harvests of maize, beans and squash for the indigenous communities.
With the participation of creolized Africans and indigenous people, Mexico achieved independence from Spain in 1821. The establishment of a republic in 1824 was followed by a period of political instability, and war with Britain, France and the US. Mexico ceded much of its territory to the US after the war of 1846. Stability was regained in 1876 under the dictator Porfirio Díaz. The following decades witnessed significant growth in Mexico’s economy and the consolidation of landownership in the form of huge haciendas (estates) in the hands of a small and wealthy Spanish-descended elite. Tricked into debt-bondage, large numbers of indigenous Mexicans worked on the haciendas as virtual slaves. Severe poverty was rampant among the indigenous peoples, African descendants and the majority of the mestizo population.
The exploitation and impoverishment of the rural and urban masses, combined with a lack of democracy, led to the revolution of 1910–20. Among other reforms, the subsequent constitution of 1917 revised landownership and drafted a labour code. Indigenous peoples’ rights were ignored. Established in the wake of these events, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) maintained until very recently a monopoly on political power, despite accusations of electoral irregularities.
A concerted effort to industrialize and modernize Mexico’s infrastructure took place from the later 1940s onwards. The establishment of ejidos – communal peasant farms on state-owned land – through the expropriation of large capitalist farms was a central project of the government of President Lázaro Cárdenas (1934–40). However, subsequent administrations favoured capital-intensive export agriculture and neglected the ejido sector, where most of the country’s corn producers, including the majority of indigenous farmers, were concentrated. This led to a loss of self-sufficiency in basic grains and greater reliance on imports in the 1970s.
Economic crisis was temporarily overcome in the second half of the 1970s, when large oilfields were discovered and high world prices for oil allowed the government to increase revenue and attract massive foreign loans. The oil-debt boom came to an abrupt end in 1982 as a result of the simultaneous fall in oil prices and rising interest rates of international creditor banks. A period of austerity and economic restructuring followed, culminating in 1994 with Mexico’s decision to approve the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). In direct opposition to this agreement, in January 1994, the National Zapatista Liberation Army (EZLN or Zapatistas) staged an armed rebellion. This pan-indigenous and rural peoples’ movement, which gained international attention and support, demanded land reform, autonomy and collective rights for indigenous peoples. Since then, the EZLN have refrained from further military action, but it remains a strong presence in a large part of Chiapas province. The legacy of the conflict also persists in the continued uprooting of many civilians by the violence: according to a 2015 report by the International Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), some 25,000 people remained displaced in Chiapas as a result of the 1994-95 Zapatista conflict.
In more recent years, Mexico has continued to be plagued by corruption, political violence and the increasing entrenchment of a brutal network of criminal cartels sustained by drugs, arms and human trafficking. The steady rise in homicide levels, reaching a two-decade peak in 2018, has particularly affected many indigenous and minority communities targeted by armed groups.
Democracy and the rule of law in Mexico have been increasingly undermined by chronic levels of political violence, reflected in the most recent 2018 elections. Between the beginning of campaigning for local, regional and national elections in September 2017 and the end of polling day in July 2018, 48 candidates had reportedly been killed. Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the Juntos Haremos Historia (Together We’ll Make History) coalition was elected President with 53 per cent of the vote. Running on an anti-corruption platform and promising to replace the militarised approach of previous governments to public security with alternative peace-building measures, he won in all but one state. The historically dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) of incumbent president Peña Nieto won just 16.4 per cent of the vote, its worst result in decades. Obrador’s election was seen as potentially positive for indigenous peoples’ rights in Mexico: his campaign pledges had included, for instance, establishing bilingual schools in areas with a majority indigenous population.
Mexico’s justice system continues to be defined by widespread impunity for military forces and inadequate protection for victims of abuses from state and non-state actors, including human rights activists. Judicial reforms dating back to 2008 have still only been implemented in a fraction of the country’s 32 states, with many pieces of recent human rights legislation still largely unimplemented due to a lack of political will or resources.
In an effort to protect citizens against human rights abuses, in 1990 the Mexican government established the National Commission of Human Rights, which receives complaints of abuses at the federal and state levels. However, since then this agency has been criticized for failing to take on cases of grievous rights violations, leading many indigenous leaders and rights activists to question its credibility. Nevertheless, the Commission produces reports and publications drawing attention to Mexico’s human rights record. The government also ratified International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention No. 169 of 1989 on the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples, although it is argued that constitutional reforms have undermined land rights guaranteed under the Convention.
The Law for the Prevention and Elimination of Discrimination was enacted in 2003. It prohibited racially offensive messages and images in mass media, and discriminatory practices in general. It also mandated the creation of the National Council for the Prevention of Discrimination as a federal agency in charge of preventing and eliminating discrimination, as well as formulating and promoting public policies for equal access to opportunities for all. At the local level, the majority of provinces in Mexico now have specific laws and institutions to address discrimination. These played a major role in combating discrimination and placing the issue on the public agenda. Mexico adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007.
Officially, Mexico’s indigenous communities are protected by human rights legislation. The government’s National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples (CONADI) – replacing the National Indigenous Institute in 2003 – has offices throughout the country to facilitate consultation with indigenous communities, and government statements are careful to recognize the principle of cultural diversity.
Updated June 2019
Mexico has one of the largest and most diverse indigenous populations in Latin America. Although the country had recognized the existence of and contributions made by indigenous peoples in the construction of the country, it was only with the 1992 Constitution that the nation was deemed pluri-cultural. CONADI, the National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples, estimates that Mexico has 68 indigenous communities. In July 2017 the Comisión Nacional para el Desarrollo de los Pueblos Indígenas reported that – based on 2015 figures – there were 25.7 million Mexicans who self-identified as indigenous, equivalent to 21.5 per cent of the national population at the time, with another 1.6 per cent identifying as part-indigenous.
Official statistics had traditionally defined the indigenous population using criteria based on language, which many have argued largely underestimated this increasingly urbanised population: for example, an estimated 1.2 million indigenous people live in the capital Mexico City.
Indigenous peoples’ organizations were successful in pressuring the government to include a question based on self-identification in the 2000 Census. In that year, only half of those who identified as indigenous actually spoke an indigenous language and of those who did, 84 per cent also spoke Spanish. Data from 2005 also showed that only a small fraction of indigenous peoples remained monolingual.
The majority of the indigenous population is concentrated in the southern and south-central region of Mexico. Over two fifths (42.6 per cent) of those who speak an indigenous language live in three of Mexico’s 31 states: Oaxaca, Yucatán and Chiapas. The most predominant language spoken by indigenous people is Náhuatl, followed by Maya, Tzeltal, Mixteco, Tzotzil, Zapoteco and Otomí. More recent data, from 2015, found that of the 25.7 million self-identifying as indigenous, only a minority (around 7.4 million) spoke indigenous languages. The most common indigenous language was Náhuatl (23.4 per cent of indigenous language speakers), followed by Maya 11.7 per cent), Tzeltal (7.5 per cent), Mixteco (6.9 per cent), Tzotzil (6.6 per cent), Zapoteco (6.3 per cent), Otomi (4.2 per cent), Totonaca (3.6 per cent), Chol (3.4 per cent) and Mazateco (3.2 per cent).
Mexico’s indigenous communities, like indigenous populations elsewhere in the Americas, still contend with the violent legacy of colonialism and their decimation by disease, conflict and exploitation after the territory of present-day Mexico, then largely dominated by the Aztec Empire, was brought under Spanish rule in the early 16th century. In the ensuing years, continuing long after Mexico’s independence in 1810, discrimination and abuse of the country’s indigenous peoples by the dominant white elite persisted. While their situation has improved, with greater formal recognition of their rights, many underlying inequalities remain in place to this day.
Nevertheless, indigenous culture is considered to be at the heart of Mexican society. Mexico is proud of its ancient Maya and Aztec monuments, and its indigenous dances, crafts and markets, which contribute significantly to the country’s appeal to tourists. Since the revolution of 1910–20, successive governments have professed a desire to integrate indigenous peoples into Mexican society. The Independent Department of Native Affairs, set up in 1946 under the Ministry of Education, began a programme of teaching Spanish to indigenous children. However, the negative result of such programmes has been a promotion of an assimilatory model for indigenous peoples, which has devalued indigenous languages, cultures and autonomy.
Despite legislative reforms and the signing of treaties and accords, indigenous peoples in Mexico experienced a double form of discrimination – both because of their low economic standing and poor levels of formal education, and also on grounds of language, dress and other cultural manifestations. What little land they owned was generally insufficient to support them, so many sought waged work from mestizo employers, who generally treated them disrespectfully.
Generally, indigenous peoples retained local forms of organization to defend their culture and livelihoods. Others witnessed the collapse of their traditions under the burden of poverty and believed that they must reject their ethnic identity and integrate into mestizo society if they were to improve their living conditions.
By 1990, the majority of the indigenous population were still living in small peasant communities where they made up most of the population, typically located in the poorest, least developed parts of the country. Although conditions varied considerably, many communities lacked electricity and running water. Housing was often substandard and overcrowded.
The situation of Mexico’s indigenous communities gained worldwide attention in January 1994 when indigenous peasants representing a number of different ethnic groups, taking the name of Emiliano Zapata, a popular leader murdered by the military in 1919, launched an armed uprising on the day that the North American Free Trade Agreement came into effect. Occupying four towns in Chiapas – where the situation of indigenous people has long been worse than in other states – the National Zapatista Liberation Army (EZLN) stated its opposition to indignities faced by indigenous peoples and others in Mexico. They called for better conditions for indigenous peoples, protection of communal lands and an end to government corruption and human rights abuses. After the initial fighting, the government declared a ceasefire, promised to address rebel concerns and released prisoners. Negotiations were started between a government-appointed mediator and the rebels but broke down when the government proved unwilling to accept most of the rebel demands.
The EZLN and indigenous organizations represented by the National Plural Indigenous Assembly for Autonomy had been demanding constitutional reforms to allow for the creation of pluri-ethnic autonomous regions in areas of significant indigenous population. In effect, this would have established a fourth level of government at a regional level, which would coexist with the existing municipal, state and federal government authorities. Regional autonomy would also have allowed indigenous peoples greater control over their land and resources in accordance with ILO Convention No. 169. In 1996 the EZLN and Mexican government officials negotiated and signed the San Andres Accords, which guarantee land rights, regional autonomy and cultural rights for indigenous peoples. The Mexican government later refused to implement these agreements.
At the height of the uprising government forces shot, execution-style, eight suspected members of the EZLN, and, according to human rights observers, dozens of critics of the regime were killed or ‘disappeared’, reportedly at the hands of death squads organized by government forces working in collusion with private interests. The brutal torture and rape of indigenous women in Chiapas is also documented; perpetrators are rarely brought to trial.
In the elections of August 1994 the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) candidate, Eduardo Robledo Rincón, officially won the governor’s race in Chiapas, but the EZLN and opposition leaders insisted that progressive candidate Amado Avendado was the rightful winner. They created a parallel government, seized government offices, took over radio stations, mounted roadblocks and the EZLN eventually took over 38 towns in the state. The parallel authority permitted peasants to expropriate large estates, liquidated existing state structures and instituted new laws favouring indigenous people and the poor. Large demonstrations were held in cities across Mexico in support of the rebels.
The Mexican government was forced to devalue the peso by 50 per cent in the last two weeks of December 1994, precipitating a loss of business confidence in the new administration of President Ernesto Zedillo. In an attempt to regain investors’ support, Zedillo implemented harsh austerity measures designed to control government spending and inflation. In February 1995 he also ordered a military offensive against the EZLN bases, forcing the rebels to retreat into the mountains.
After the 2000 election, the dismantling the 71-year reign of the PRI presented a political opportunity in which EZLN leaders demanded that the new Fox administration implement the San Andres Accords and withdraw troops from Chiapas. On 11 March 2000, over 250,000 people gathered in Mexico City in what was the largest ever march of indigenous people in Mexico, to pressure the Fox administration to comply with the San Andres Accords. Although Fox did dismantle a number of military encampments in Chiapas, the government’s 2001 constitutional reforms fell short of what the EZLN and other indigenous groups wanted. The demands for autonomy, the right to territory, access to natural resources and the election of municipal authorities were all ignored, leading the EZLN and other important indigenous groups to refuse to recognize the new constitution.
Although the EZLN by no means represents Mexico’s diverse indigenous population, this pan-indigenous movement has been considered the voice of indigenous peoples since the uprisings of 1994. The tenth anniversary of the Zapatista uprising highlighted some of the gains of the movement, including the effective governing of a number of autonomous indigenous communities. Throughout the late 1990s the EZLN mobilized large numbers of indigenous people and sympathizers in a series of marches and other actions that were met by hostility and sometimes violent repression by Mexican authorities. In an attack in Chiapas by the Peace and Justice paramilitary group, 45 people were killed. Although the Zedillo administration denied the existence of such paramilitary groups, these massacres led to an increase in the number of foreign human rights observers in Chiapas. Many of these observers were later expelled by the Zedillo government.
Many of the issues that had driven the uprising remained unresolved. Indigenous farmers continued to be harassed or attacked by paramilitary groups as they work their land. Police brutality and mistreatment by the justice system were commonly reported. Some indigenous communities were prevented from electing their customary representatives. Attempts by communities to defend their lands against illegal loggers or to campaign for their rights met with violence on the part of armed groups who appeared to operate with impunity. Leaders who spoke out for political change were singled out for persecution by powerful landowners who wielded inordinate influence over the local police, political and judicial systems. The repression ranged from incarceration and expulsion from communities to torture and murder. ‘Disappearances’ and massacres of unarmed peasants were reported.
Indigenous people were also over-represented in the country’s prison system, languishing in jail as proceedings stagnate and often spending more time behind bars than a sentence would require were they actually convicted and sentenced. In many cases, they were not provided with interpreters, even though a considerable percentage of indigenous people do not speak Spanish and despite guarantees of such basic protection under the law. Courts often accepted confessions extracted under duress as the main evidence for sentencing.
Indigenous women were particularly marginalized in many communities. This pattern could be seen across a broad range of socio-economic indicators, including education, employment, earnings and income. In addition to persistent poverty and lack of access to health services, which more markedly affected indigenous women, they also suffered domestic violence. Alcoholism, child abuse and incest were also reported as significant problems affecting indigenous families. Women were also more vulnerable to exploitation by their employers, government officials and the judicial system. According to the 2005 National Household Survey, indigenous women had about half as much education and were less likely to speak Spanish than indigenous men.
Conditions were exacerbated by a structural economic crisis that has left indigenous people, who had traditionally sustained themselves mainly in the agricultural sector, subject to increasing privation. The government moved to erode the rights of indigenous peoples to communal lands, further exacerbated by the implementation of NAFTA. This, together with failing agriculture and the impact of climate change, also contributed to increased migration by indigenous peoples to Mexico’s urban centres. This often resulted in new forms of deprivation as indigenous residents of cities found themselves pushed to the social margins, often in very poor living conditions: a 2010 study by UN-Habitat found that in Mexico City, while 16.4 per cent of all houses had only one room, 34.3 per cent of indigenous households fell into this category. Although indigenous women were increasingly migrating themselves, males who migrated to cities in search of work sometimes left women abandoned and with increased economic hardship.
In light of these challenges, there were signs that indigenous peoples were reorganizing themselves. Possible fraud in the 2006 presidential election led to something of a resurgence of the Zapatistas as well as other indigenous and rural movements in Mexico. Despite immense support by the indigenous population, leftist candidate Andrés López Obrador lost to conservative candidate Felipe Calderón by less than 1 per cent of the vote. The day after the election, Sub-Commandant Marcos, leader of the EZLN, gave an interview on a community-based radio station denouncing the election results as fraudulent; however, the interview was censured by the Mexican government. Following the election, the Popular Assembly of Oaxacan Communities invited Obrador and Sub-Commandant Marcos to join an alternative government symbolized by the creation of the Popular Assembly of Mexican Communities (APPOM). After the election of Calderón, the EZLN issued public statements asserting that the government was on the offensive and that paramilitary groups were encroaching on Zapatista territory.
However, many indigenous organizations, ranging from small community-based groups to national bodies, also formed to fight for better living conditions for this population. They have campaigned for access to education, health services, potable water, credits, fair wages, political representation, consultation, the protection of local environments, and official recognition of their languages and traditional skills as healers. Some of these groups worked in collaboration with other local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and human rights bodies and others have partnered with local governments.
Many community activists were vulnerable to intimidation and targeted killings. In July 2013, the body of Heron Luciano Sixto López, an indigenous rights activist, was found after he was abducted from his office. In May 2013, eight members of the indigenous rights group Unidad Popular were kidnapped: three of them were tortured and executed, while the rest escaped and went into hiding. Both crimes highlighted the real challenges that indigenous peoples face in advocating for their rights.
In addition to inadequate implementation of laws protecting victims of crime, indigenous rights and human rights defenders, indigenous peoples remained hampered in their search for access to justice by language barriers and limited translation services. They faced ongoing violations of their land and consultation rights by large-scale development or resource exploitation projects in their territories. This included continued resistance to the aborted (in 2012) La Parota hydroelectric dam project in Guerrero State which would have, if implemented, resulted in land expropriation and the displacement of indigenous communities. Other indigenous protests included the opposition of Nahua and Totonaca indigenous groups in Zautla, Puebla to a mining project and the movement of Yaqui against the construction of an aqueduct in Sonora without prior consultation that could threaten their water access.
Indigenous peoples’ right to land continues to be a major issue. In May 2018 the Mexican Commission on Defence and Promotion of Human Rights reported 25 incidents of forcible displacement of communities in 2017, affecting over 20,000 people. Sixty per cent of the displaced were from indigenous peoples: in some cases – such as that of the Mixe community of San Juan Juquila Mixes, Oaxaca state and the Tzotzil communities of Chalchihuitán and Chenalhó, Chiapas state – they were forced from their homes in the context of unresolved territorial or political disputes aggravated by the presence of armed groups. In all, members of at least six indigenous groups – Nahua, Tzotzil, Mixe, Rarámuri (Tarahumaras), Purépechas and Tepehuanes (Ódami) – were forcibly displaced in 2017.
In the case in Chalchihuitán, Chiapas, around 5,000 members of the Tzotzil ethnic group were forcibly displaced in October 2017 after one of their community members was killed; the violence was linked to an ongoing territorial dispute over land and forest resources with a neighbouring community, Chenalhó. In April 2018 an armed attack against some of the displaced Tzotzil resulted in several deaths, and a number of additional Tzotzil families were forcibly displaced from their ancestral lands in Aldama, Chiapas.
A number of land and environmental rights activists have been targeted and killed in recent years. Indigenous rights activists Isidro Baldenegro López and Juan Ontiveros Ramos, environmentalists and leaders amongst northern Chihuahua state’s Sierra Madre Rarámuri (Tarahumara) indigenous people, were killed in separate incidents in early 2017. The group’s mountainous lands had long been targeted by illegal loggers.
Other indigenous activists targeted and killed in recent years included Huichol (Wixárika) brothers Miguel and Agostín Vázquez Torres, killed in Jalisco state in May 2017 after fighting encroachment on their community’s lands by cattle ranchers. In Nayarit state, a number of legal decisions in favour of Huichol rights to land exacerbated conflict with local ranchers: the authorities reportedly denied Huichol requests that they reimburse ranchers with federal funds to help prevent land conflicts.
In the context of his 2017 visit to Mexico, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders Michel Forst drew particular attention to the situation of indigenous land and environmental activists in the context of extractive, energy and infrastructure megaprojects, calling them ‘one of the most criminalized groups of defenders, facing most court proceedings and arbitrary detentions in Mexico’ and expressing dismay at ‘the number of on-going conflicts that are the direct consequences of the lack or misuse of consultations processes with indigenous communities’. In one example in Cuetzalán, Puebla state, members of the local Maseual people carried out peaceful protests from November 2016 to October 2017 against the failure of authorities to obtain their free, prior and informed consent to the planned construction of electric infrastructure. Criminal investigations were subsequently opened against eight indigenous environmental activists following a public smear campaign; one of the group, Manuel Gaspar Rodríguez, was killed in May 2018.
Indigenous Tlahuica activist Ildefonso Zamora Baldomero was arrested in November 2015 in San Juan Atzingo on charges of participating in a burglary over a decade earlier. Amnesty International declared him to be a prisoner of conscience, imprisoned solely for peaceful exercise of his fundamental freedoms in the context of his campaigning against illegal logging. A federal judge dismissed the charges against him and he was released in August 2016. Mixtec and other indigenous migrant workers in Chiapas and Oaxaca are at risk of trafficking and forced labour – for instance in tomato, cucumber and chilli pepper farms and maize and potato harvesting – according to the National Human Rights Commission.
In May 2017, the National Indigenous Congress nominated María de Jesús Patricio as an independent candidate for the presidency, but she did not manage to gather the number of signatures necessary to register officially. Despite the fact that some indigenous communities of Michoacán, Chiapas and Guerrero states, advocating for self-rule, did not take part in the 2018 polls, the election of Andrés Manuel López Obrador as President in July 2018 was seen as a potentially positive development for indigenous peoples’ rights. In his youth he worked for the National Indigenous Institute in his home state of Tabasco, and he campaigned on promises including the establishment of bilingual schools in regions with an indigenous majority.
There have been no official figures on the numbers of Mexicans of African descent since 1810, when a census found that black people made up 10 per cent of the total population. In more recent years, estimates put them at between 0.5 and 4.7 million. The 2015 preliminary survey to the 2020 census allowed Afro-Mexicans to self-identify for the first time and recorded a total of 1.4 million (1.2 per cent of the population). Though the term used in the survey, negro or ‘black’, is not widely used by Afro-Mexicans who prefer moreno or ‘dark’.
Although Veracruz is thought to have the largest black population in Mexico due to its history as an important slave port, this is no longer the case. The majority of Mexico’s contemporary African descendant population lives in the Costa Chica region, which includes the Caribbean coastal regions of the southern states of Oaxaca and Guerrero.
During the three centuries of Spanish conquest and rule, Spanish authorities were responsible for the forced migration of an estimated 200,000 or more enslaved Africans to Mexico. Many died en route in the ships’ holds, while many others perished in the dire conditions of slave labour. By the early 1600s, Mexico had a larger African slave population than any other country in the Americas. In Mexico, Africans outnumbered the Spanish population throughout the colonial period until 1810, the last year data was collected on the African descendant population. Although there was a general decline in the number of slaves Mexico imported starting in the eighteenth century, Spanish authorities continued to import slaves from Cuba throughout much of the colonial period. Mexico’s slave population was distributed and worked in a number of industries throughout the country, and thus many people of African descent mixed with the Spanish and indigenous populations.
Since the beginning of colonization, enslaved Africans resisted captivity by establishing Palenques or escaped slave communities in the mountains and other remote locations in Mexico. The most important of these communities was established in the state of Veracruz in 1570 by former slave Gaspar Yanga and withstood almost 40 years of existence without Spanish invasion. This community, originally known as San Lorenzo de los Negros, was renamed in honour of Yanga in 1932. Afro-Mexican soldiers also helped overthrow Spanish rule in the War of Independence. The Ejército Moreno (Dark Army) of Father Hidalgo is said to have initiated the independence struggle. One of these black revolutionaries, General Vicente Guerrero, became the country’s second President after independence.
People of African descent were also vital to the early economic growth of Mexico, working in urban professions, developing and cultivating farmland, providing skilled labour in the silver mines, and working on cattle ranches and sugar plantations. African influence in Mexico can also be seen in the many cultural traditions of that country. The syncopation of much of traditional Mexican music has been attributed to a mixture of the country’s Spanish, indigenous and African elements. Mexico’s well-known Jarocho music, made famous through the song ‘La Bamba’, is African in origin.
Still, despite documentation on the African roots of many aspects of Mexican culture and Yanga’s official recognition as a national hero, Afro-Mexicans and their contributions have largely remained invisible. As elsewhere in the Americas, African descendants in Mexico were not conceived of or included in the contemporary nation or politics. As Afro-Mexicans increasingly migrated from the Costa Chica, where they are highly concentrated, to other parts of Mexico, they were often mistaken for immigrants from Belize or Cuba.
In 2005, the Mexican government commissioned the first ever national survey on discrimination in Mexico, which included questions on discrimination against eight different groups. However, this study failed to mention the existence of or discrimination against Afro-Mexicans. Similarly, where government initiatives acknowledged the African influence in the country, it has been through a historical lens, which made invisible the contemporary situation of people of African descent.
The African presence in Mexico was still often denied or trivialized, and where popular culture depicts black people they tend to be caricatured and ridiculed. Mexico produces a large percentage of Spanish-language television programmes in the Americas, which continue to present limiting and one-dimensional stereotypical and sexualized images of black women. In 2005, the release of the commemorative stamps of the central character of the 1940s Mexican comic book Memín Pinguín incited criticism by various US civil rights groups. The character is a stereotypical black image with exaggerated ‘black’ facial features resembling some of racist sambo images once popular in the United States.
Responding to this controversy, the Mexican government, including the president of the newly formed National Council to Prevent Discrimination (CONAPRED), argued that North Americans had simply misunderstood Mexican culture and that Memín Pinguín was an important part of that culture. In the international coverage of this issue, there was little reference to Mexico’s own black populations along the Pacific coast. In Mexico, the media used interviews with Afro-Mexicans to claim that the caricature and stamp was not offensive. Some community leaders did, however, call for the withdrawal of the stamp.
Mexico’s African heritage has slowly emerged as an important issue. In 2003, the federal government of Mexico initiated the Third Root Program, which developed educational television programs and promoted scholarship on the African heritage of Mexico. Moreover, an important anti-discrimination law approved in 2005, although it does not acknowledge Afro-Mexicans explicitly, was designed also to deal with discrimination against that group. The state of Oaxaca subsequently became the first government entity officially to recognize Afro-Mexicans as an ethnic group.
Several organizations also emerged to reclaim Afro-Mexican traditions, for example the annual Encounter of Black Populations, and Black Mexico, an organization dedicated to fighting for the cultural and political rights of people of African descent in Mexico. These organizations entered into increased dialogue with other Afro-Latin Americans throughout the region. Since then, there have been a number of photography exhibits, film series and forums on Afro-Mexicans in Mexico and the United States. In Veracruz there was a resurgence of African-influenced Son Jarocho music, which has also helped to bring visibility to these issues. Although in many parts of Mexico, many people of African ancestry still do not identify themselves as such, the increased migration of Afro-Mexicans to other parts of the country and to the United States has significantly impacted on this population’s consciousness of its African roots.
Most Afro-Mexicans still live in poverty, often in isolated rural communities with negligible sanitation, health or education services. The lack of roads in Costa Chica continues to hinder much of the economic activity of the region. This lack of infrastructure, paired with the declaration of the Pinotepa region as a national reserve with logging strictly prohibited, has made it difficult for Afro-Mexicans to sustain themselves economically or even build their own shelter. Today, their primary sources of income are fishing, agriculture (mostly for their own consumption) and domestic work. Because the majority of Afro-Mexicans live in the poorest regions of Mexico, they lack adequate primary and secondary education and are largely absent from institutions of higher education. In July 2018 the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women expressed concern at ongoing discrimination and stereotyping against groups including Afro-Mexican women, as well as at practices such as forced evictions affecting them.
In the context of large-scale migration of Afro-descendant communities in other parts of Central America, driven by discrimination and exclusion in their countries of origin – Afro-Hondurans, for instance, who have been identified as particularly most vulnerable to discrimination and abuse – some Afro-Mexicans have been apprehended by immigration officials and threatened with deportation as, due to their appearance, they were not taken for Mexicans.
Updated June 2019
Asociación México Negro
Centro de Derechos Humanos ‘Fray Francisco de Vitoria OP’
Comisión Mexicana de Defensa y Promoción de los Derechos Humanos
Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos (CNDH)
Comisión Nacional Para el Desarrollo de los Pueblos Indígenas
Updated June 2019