Indigenous Prospects in Mexico

American University professor Todd Eisenstadt has turned the conventional story about indigenous peoples in Mexico upside-down.  In Politics, Identity and Mexico’s Indigenous Rights Movement,* Eisenstadt presents evidence that Mexico’s indigenous peoples are at present not best characterized exclusively by the pursuit of communitarian ethnic goals and the defense of their collective rights and autonomy.  Rather, he shows that indigenous people are often preoccupied with their socio-economic conditions and struggles over land tenure and ownership, more than with ethnicity, and in ways largely comparable to non-indigenous Mexicans.

For at least a decade after the Zapatista revolt exploded onto the world stage in 1994, indigenous concerns and critiques of the state helped shape national Mexican politics and public debate.  The 1996 San Andrés Accords underscored the Zapatistas’ analysis of the limits of liberal citizenship and of the negative consequences of neoliberal state policies.  Now, in late 2012, indigenous political possibilities in Mexico appear very different.  The government has still not ratified the Accords; Mexico’s center-left has failed to capture the presidency; and the neoliberal policies of the Calderón administration promise to continue with the PRI’s return to power.  Indigenous social mobilization has been fragmented since the early 2000s.  Localized conflicts have flared up over government efforts to privatize land for outside investment and development, but these have not led to larger-scale indigenous mobilization.  The Zapatistas’ “Other Campaign” has had little impact, and they did not participate in the recent presidential elections.  As regular teacher strikes and the attention generated by the spectacle of the “#YoSoy132” anti-electoral fraud student movement have made clear, the national center of gravity of social protest no longer turns on an indigenous axis.

Eisenstadt’s book sounds a skeptical note about the possibilities for ethnically-based indigenous mobilization in Mexico.  His research underscores that Mexico’s development model does not adequately address the needs of ordinary Mexicans – including of indigenous peoples – at a moment when we should expect more of the same from the Peña Nieto (PRI) administration that takes office on 1 December.  He documents the shift away from primordialist accounts of indigenous identity to friction over control of economic resources – a shift from ethnicity to class – that is seen in some other Latin American countries. While countries such as Bolivia have actively incorporated indigenous nationalisms into state policy and law, Mexico appears headed in the other direction.  This divergence illustrates the elusiveness of the ongoing search for the best balance between collective and individual rights in Latin American countries with large indigenous populations.

* Politics, Identity, and Mexico’s Indigenous Rights Movement
by Todd A. Eisenstadt
Cambridge University Press
ISBN-10: 110700120X
ISBN-13: 978-1107001206

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