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Mexico's Indigenous Peoples United by Shared History

MEXICO CITY -- In Mexico's urban slums and poor villages, in its southern jungles and harsh central mountains, a vast indigenous Indian population clings to cultures and languages from another millennium.

Mexico's 12 million indigenous people speak more than 60 languages and live scattered throughout the country's 31 states and Mexico City.

What unites them, besides a shared history, is a position at the bottom of society that they have occupied since the Spanish Conquest.

"Ours is a poverty that's been built over 500 years,'' said Antonio Hernandez, a Tojolabal Maya activist and member of the federal Congress.

When the Spanish arrived in the early 16th century, Mexico was ruled by the Aztecs, who built their temples on the lake-filled plateau that is now Mexico City. The Aztecs dominated dozens of indigenous communities. Believing gods were pacified by human blood, they killed thousands in human sacrifice.

The Spaniards subdued the Aztecs and other indigenous communities in a bloody conquest that left millions dead -- some in battle but most from disease spread by the newcomers from the Old World.

They forcibly converted the indigenous people to Roman Catholicism, creating a hybrid Catholic-Indian religion that exists today. Many indigenous groups worship God, Christ and traditional deities.

In the aftermath of the Conquest, Mexican society organized itself into castes. To this day, mixed-blood "mestizos'' hold power in business and government. The Indians have languished, driven onto poor land after losing their land to mining, logging and bigger farmers.

The Yaquis, who once flourished on the river banks of the Yaqui river in the northern state of Sonora, watched their land dry after a dam diverted water away from them.

The Tzeltal and Tojolabal in Chiapas were driven into the rocky highlands after their lush flatlands were taken over by wealthy landowners.

Indigenous culture has diminished as Indians have married mestizos or abandoned their language and tradition because they invite discrimination.

The percentage of Mexicans who call themselves indigenous has shrunk from about 45 percent of the population at the start of the century to about 13 percent of the country's 90 million people today.

The cultural survivors, often bilingual in their own language and Spanish, are varied -- some isolated, others adapted to modernity.

In Chiapas, a few thousand Lacandons live by choice in the deepest jungle. The men wear their hair to the shoulders and women dress in tunics. They still hunt with bows and arrows.

In the northern state of Chihuahua, the Tarahumaras live on the plateaus of the Sierra Madre mountains accessible only by narrow dirt roads. In a blend of Catholicism and indigenous worship, they celebrate Easter with ritual dances, wearing headdresses and with their bodies painted in white spots.

But even there, modernity has encroached. Last year, a Tarahumaras dancer, his body painted and wearing a headdress, got into the front seat of a journalist's car. "Do you have any Kenny Rogers?'' he asked, glancing at the tape player.

In Mexico City 25,000 Nahuatl and 16,000 Otomi, who once dominated the lake-filled region, now dominate the slums. They work as maids and drivers or in factories -- or they beg.

Periodically the government has tried to improve conditions for the Indians by giving out land titles and increasing spending in rural zones.

The government today is trying to combine preservation of indigenous cultures with economic development.

But while development eases poverty, it also brings radios, television and Spanish and English communication that can erode indigenous culture.

"The more assistance they get the less autonomy they get,'' said Ricardo Romo, who teaches Mexican-American history at the University of Texas in Austin.

Mexico's Indigenous Peoples Expanding Drive for Greater Autonomy

RANCHO NUEVO, Mexico -- The smoke of an open fire and the lilting notes of Mixteco wafted into the black sky as women, barefoot and silent, boiled coffee and listened to men talk of rebellion.

They spoke of the biggest act of defiance in their lives -- a seven-month armed occupation of the municipal hall last year by the region's indigenous people.

"Our eyes are opening,'' Ignacio de la Cruz said, staring into the dancing flames. "Look at this place.''

He swept a hand toward Rancho Nuevo, a remote village of 700 Mixteco Indians that lacks electricity, running water and working telephones. "We don't have anything.''

The defiance in Rancho Nuevo in the Pacific state of Guerrero reflects a growing assertiveness among Mexico's 12 million indigenous people. All over Mexico, indigenous villages -- for centuries among the country's most backward and downtrodden -- are demanding greater rights.

"Each day we're closer to lifting up our faces, to recovering our dignity,'' said Margarita Gutierrez, 33, a H'nahnu activist from the central state of Hidalgo.

The drive for greater Indian rights, a passive movement for decades, gained momentum following the uprising by Mayan guerrillas in southern Chiapas state in 1994 that focused attention on the poverty of Mexico's native peoples. Although the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas has faded, local Indian rebellions continue to break out.

-- Hundreds of Huastecos went on hunger strikes in the central state of San Luis Potosi last month, demanding the reversal of a constitutional amendment that ended agrarian reform several years ago. After the Huastecos' 72-hour fast, the government opened talks aimed at trying to satisfy their demands.

-- In the southern state of Puebla, a Nahua community has been protesting against logging in the Sierra Negra mountains where they live. The region's municipal president retaliated in April by burning 49 acres of forest the community used for wood, according to Mexican media reports.

-- In February in the southeastern state of Tabasco, Indians took on Mexico's state oil company, Petroleos Mexicanos, joining thousands of farmers in blocking oil wells to demand compensation for environmental damage to their land. Talks with the government continue.

-- Since the Zapatista offensive ended, tens of thousands of Mayans in six Chiapas regions have declared themselves "autonomous,'' meaning they recognize only Indian leaders and not the central or state government.

"It started in Chiapas and one by one other villages are taking up the struggle,'' said Alberto Cruz, a Mixteco who is among Rancho Nuevo's dissident Indians. "It will go on until the government understands.''

Last year, at least 25 Indian movements joined to form a Plural Indigenous National Assembly for Autonomy, a de facto native Mexican parliament that is pressing for Indian self-government rights.

"It's the first attempt to unify all the indigenous people,'' said Nilo Cayuqueo, director of the Abya Yala Fund, a California-based group that aids Latin American indigenous movements.

The government appears to be taking a conciliatory approach to the indigenous unrest.

President Ernesto Zedillo, who took office in December 1995 promising to address Indian concerns and has made several conciliatory speeches since, promised in February to spend at least $300 million this year to help modernize indigenous communities.

Indian "poverty and lack of access to justice ... are problems we need to resolve,'' Zedillo said.

In February, federal government negotiators signed an accord with the Zapatista rebels that calls for expanding indigenous rights. It would grant them greater control over electing their own leaders and over their natural resources and economies. It is the first of several accords that are expected to culminate in a peace treaty to formally end the Chiapas conflict.

In the coming months, the federal Congress is expected to debate measures to allow indigenous communities to elect their own autonomous governments and to earmark more spending on roads, schools, electricity and running water in indigenous regions.

But tensions continue to boil over.

Hundreds of soldiers last month entered the Chiapas village of Oventic, an indigenous community that supports the Zapatista rebels. The army said the soldiers were searching for marijuana fields, but Oventic leaders denounced the move as a provocation aimed at showing military strength.

Rancho Nuevo's Mixtecos allege that since they seized the municipal hall last year, at least nine indigenous peasants in the region have been murdered in unexplained circumstances by unidentified assailants.

Still, the response by state officials to the Mixteco unrest has been to launch negotiations rather than to crack down. They did not deploy security forces to end the municipal hall seizure, for example, but instead sent officials to talk with the Rancho Nuevo Indians.

"The governor's policy is to avert conflict,'' said Rodolfo Martinez, a spokesman for Guerrero Gov. Angel Aguirre Rivero.

It is a pattern that has been followed elsewhere.

The renewed attention from the government to the Indian rights issue has created feverish optimism among Indian communities. "From this moment on, no Indian will walk with his or her head down,'' Gutierrez said.

The dramatic economic and social contrasts between the haves and have nots in Guerrero state help explain the unrest in Rancho Nuevo.

Guerrero is home to Acapulco, where Mexican and foreign tourists with silky tans heap their plates from buffets at five-star hotels while waiters rush to light their cigarettes. But it is also home to dozens of Mixteco villages like Rancho Nuevo, in the mountains 130 miles to the east.

Ragged children run up to approaching cars with delight because motorized vehicles are a rare sight. In the evening, the town's elders offer visitors all that is available -- coffee sipped by a fire that provides the only light.

When townspeople go to sleep, they enter their thatched shacks and lie down on bare cement floors, still wearing their clothes.

Dawn reveals the extent of the destitution -- pigs snort through garbage, a retarded man sits on a dusty path, grinning into space.

Late in the morning, women serve beans and coffee to sun-weathered men, including de la Cruz, a wiry 53-year-old town leader.

"Thirteen villages took part in the takeover,'' he boasted, recalling the uprising last May when hundreds of local Indians walked to Tlacoachistlahuaca, the seat of municipal government, 35 miles away.

About 100 people occupied the town hall from May to December to demand electricity, better roads and other services. "But we never got anything so we just left,'' he said.

Municipal president Armando Ramos said the Indians had at least 20 guns, albeit old and battered. They burned municipal records, leaving the hall charred inside, and walked off with office equipment and three government trucks, which they later returned.

Undeterred by the lack of results from the town hall protest, the local Indians are stepping up their activities. Rancho Nuevo is becoming a dissident camp as Indians from other villages arrive almost daily to help in what they call "the struggle.''

"My people sent me,'' said Mario Espiritu, a 36-year-old Amuzgo whose job is to write protest letters on a typewriter that once belonged to the town hall.

They have changed the village name from Rancho Viejo to Rancho Nuevo de la Democracia and declared it "autonomous.'' They formed a police force and now want the state government to recognize their independent status.

"We want uniforms and guns for our police,'' de la Cruz said. "If we don't get recognition we'll go back to Tlacoachistlahuaca. We'll go to the state capital'' Chilpancingo, about 80 miles east of Acapulco.

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The Indigenous Peoples' Literature pages were researched and organized by Glenn Welker.