Historical Dispossession and Community Agency: Contemporary Indigenous Rights in Mexico

By: Diana Cuevas, Rebecca Fraley-Gonzalez, Ryan Chima, Bertha Cazarez


Loxicha street scene by Dalí Nelio

In the field of human rights, it is often the case for victims of human rights violations to carry the burden of knowing their rights and defending themselves. This has been the case for indigenous groups in Mexico since Spanish arrival and subsequent colonization over the course of many centuries. Although indigenous peoples comprise 12% of Mexico’s population today, they continue to face marginalization and oppression despite the Mexican government’s attempts to integrate them under a singular Mexican identity (United Nations Economic and Social Council, 2). Because the lifeways and customs of indigenous peoples are deeply rooted in long-established traditions and cultural ties, they do not fit the mold of the typical Mexican identity, which furthers their state of marginalization and neglect.

While there is no doubt that the Mexican Constitution and associated treaties explicitly mention the rights of indigenous peoples, these rights are nullified without proper enforcement and consistent interpretations. To explain, the Constitution is written in Spanish, a colonial language, and is largely inaccessible to indigenous groups that are not fluent, thus hindering them from being informed about their rights as humans and citizens of Mexico. Using policy and law to rectify the injustices wrought on indigenous peoples by the Mexican government has proven to be counterproductive, as the incentives to continue exploiting indigenous peoples outweigh the pursuit of justice and can result in an even worse quality of life. More specifically, the promulgation of neoliberalism in Mexico has led to the exploitation of indigenous lands, resources, and human capital for the sake of economic development (Nieto, 12).

Indigenous groups in Mexico have long fought for political recognition within local and state policy that validates the legitimacy of their lifeways and traditional practices. They often get as far as proposing potential reform in legislation; however, more often than not, their proposals are dismissed and overlooked when not aligned with Mexican constitutional laws and the nationalist “self”. Indigenous peoples are granted minute forms of political independence (i.e. the ability to appoint judges to their courts) but they are quickly interfered with by state and national governments. Sovereignty is extremely difficult for indigenous groups to achieve because of the inconsistent and often contradictory interpretations of constitutional law and policies that suit the interests of bureaucrats and developers, rather than the indigenous peoples facing chronic poverty because of these damaging policies and laws.  


Woman in Oaxaca, Mexico by Dalí Nelio


In 2014 the Mexican government began taking steps towards improving the country’s well-being as a singular Mexican identity through educational reforms and literacy goals. What the government does not take into consideration is the diversity of the indigenous population and the historically-appointed economical situations which burden their ability to attend school at all. Furthermore, more than just an ability to read and write, a literacy of self agency- of knowing their own history and their human rights- is of utmost importance. This idea of literacy is rather then taught as a means to speak up to express themselves, to speak against violations of their human rights for resistance of oppression, and to speak with others in dialogue across multicultural differences (Flower 2008).

Access to translators, interpreters and the right to a fair hearing in a judicial setting is a basic human right scarcely found in the courtrooms of Mexican states today. In 2016, over 66% of indigenous defendants in Chihuahua were not assigned an interpreter (Blanco). There are organizations run by indigenous peoples (http://nikuurami.org/) to provide legal translation assistance to defendants without the ability to comprehend Spanish orders given by the judge, but there still remains a great disparity between defendants and presence/availability of proper interpreters. There is a lack of communication and basic understanding between indigenous peoples and other communities due to language barriers and stereotypes inflicted upon the indigenous groups by the Mexican, and international, population.

The different words and ideas used to define growth, happiness and freedom in varying communities impact the effectiveness of the government’s ability to enforce change for indigenous peoples. An attempt to bridge the gap of intercultural understanding must be met, as well as a reform of current political, economic and social practices that work to keep the indigenous population in the seat of the abused and exploited.

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