The autonomy of Mexico's indigenous peoples today

One of the primary demands of indigenous peoples today is the acknowledgment of their right to self-determination. As their claim of colonial oppression lasting over 500 years has been verified, it is reasonable for them to make this demand.

The autonomy of Mexico's indigenous peoples today
The colonial treatment of indigenous populations in Mexico. Photo by Bernardo Ramonfaur / Unsplash

At the moment, one of the most important things indigenous people want is to have their right to autonomy recognized. This request makes sense since it has been proven that they have been colonized for over 500 years.

Indigenous peoples and their colonial situation

Before the Spaniards came to Anahuac and Arid America, there were large societies with many different cultures and a high level of development. These societies became "indigenous peoples" after the Spaniards arrived. The word "indigenous" was made up to control and take advantage of the original people. Guillermo Bonfil Batalla said it unequivocally:

The term "indio" is a supra-ethnic term that doesn't mean anything specific about the groups it includes. Instead, it means that these groups have a certain relationship with other parts of the global social system, of which they are a part. The term "indio" stands for "colonized" and makes it clear that there was a relationship of colonization.

The colonial situation of the native people did not change because of the war of independence. The states that grew out of the ruins of the old colonies were built on the idea of a single sovereign power and a society where everyone has the same rights. The Creoles used the idea of legal equality to justify denying and breaking the rights of indigenous peoples as a group as their right to live on their land and keep their governments running.

In the first case, it was thought that the indigenous peoples' shared ownership of their lands violated their right to private property, so laws were made to divide them up. This was part of a policy of colonization. When it came to indigenous governments, a false argument was made that recognizing them was the same as giving them a special benefit and that this went against the human right to equality. The damage was so bad that people who study this kind of thing have talked about a second conquest that was even worse than the one the invaders started.

The Mexican Revolution and the political constitution that came out of it did not change the situation, even though a lot of people took part in the Revolution and the Constitution had a strong social conscience. The only thing the Constituent Congress of 1917 did was make sure that people who had lost their land got it back and that people who didn't have land got it. It also got rid of any government between the municipalities and the state governments. Colonialism didn't stop, it just changed. Pablo González Casanova said it was because:

The indigenous problem is essentially a problem of internal colonialism. The indigenous communities are our internal colonies. The indigenous community is a colony within the national boundaries. The indigenous community has the characteristics of a colonized society.

To solve the problem, the Mexican government made sure that indigenous people had their institutions and policies. This was the start of what became known as indigenism. Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrán, who was the main force behind these policies, said:

Indigenism is not a policy formulated by native peoples to solve their own problems, but that of non-indigenous people with respect to the heterogeneous ethnic groups that receive the general designation of indigenous.

The issue was clear: the native people were seen as a burden and a roadblock to the country's growth, so they had to be brought into the country and to do that, they had to give up their culture. Indigenism took many forms over the years, but it failed in the end because the native people did not go away.

The struggle for indigenous autonomy in Mexico

In 1992, when protests were held to mark the 500th anniversary of the European invasion, indigenous movements changed the way they showed their political power and what they wanted.

In the first case, they became political subjects. In the second, they used indigenism as a strategy to hide the fact that they were colonized and demanded the right to decide for themselves. Since then, indigenous movements have been about resistance and freedom: resistance so that people don't stop being people and freedom so that colonies don't stay colonies.

The Mexican government dealt with this request by making it so narrow that it was no longer valid. It started by changing Article 4 of the Political Constitution of the United Mexican States to include the peoples as an important part of the country's multiculturalism, even though they could only be seen indirectly as subjects of the law.

We were in this situation when the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) showed up in Chiapas on January 1, 1994, and demanded that the rights of indigenous people be recognized. After several months of talks, the San Andres Accords were signed on February 16. They laid the groundwork for a new relationship between the Mexican State and the indigenous peoples and changed the law to recognize them as people who are subject to the law and can use their autonomy and anything else that comes from it.

On August 14, 2001, the constitutional reform decree was published to include the rights of indigenous peoples, but the San Andres Accords were not respected. The indigenous peoples and communities have recognized the right to decide their specific (internal) forms of social organization; to apply their normative systems in the regulation and solution of internal conflicts, subject to the general principles of the constitution, respecting individual guarantees and human rights; to elect, by their norms, procedures, and traditional practices, the representative authorities for the exercise of their forms of internal government, guaranteeing the participation of women in conditions of equality with men.

All of this needs to be done in a way that respects the federal pact and the sovereignty of the states, as well as their languages, knowledge, and all the other things that make up their culture and identity. In the sixth section of Article 2, there is an important rule that says, as part of their autonomy, indigenous people have the right to:

Access to the forms and rules of property and land ownership set out in this Constitution and the relevant laws, as well as to the rights acquired by third parties or by members of the community, to the preferential use and enjoyment of the natural resources of the places where the communities live and work, except for those that are strategic areas. For these reasons, the law will allow the communities to work together.

This provision has been very important for protecting their natural resources, even though it doesn't say much. This is because the people were asking for recognition of their land.

Among the rights that indigenous peoples can exercise in their relationship with the rest of society and governmental bodies are the right to elect representatives before the municipal councils; in municipalities with indigenous populations, the right to have their customs and cultural specificities taken into account in all trials and procedures, "respecting the precepts of the Constitution", for which indigenous peoples will have the right to have interpreters and defenders who know their language and culture; to serve their sentences -once sentenced- in the penitentiary centers closest to their homes, to promote their reintegration into the community as a form of social readaptation, and to coordinate and associate within the municipalities to which they belong.

On the other hand, the reform calls for institutions to be set up at all three levels of government to make sure that these rights are upheld and that indigenous people and communities grow. In this way, it sets up a set of rules for public policy that governments have to think about when making their work plans.

These include regional development, which must include women, more schooling, access to health services and public funding, an expansion of the communication network, support for productive projects, protection for migrants, consultation before making development plans, and setting up specific budget allocations. Instead of recognizing the rights of indigenous peoples, these programmatic lines make the welfare policies that are already in place into the law.

The processes of autonomy building

After the government didn't follow the San Andres Accords, indigenous people started to set up their independent projects. Many people across the country said they were independent, and the debate changed from a theoretical discussion to a social construction. Many people are going through this type of process right now.

People who live in the Altos and Cañadas in Chiapas and take part in the political project of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation by forming Caracoles and Good Government Councils are in the first place, but they are not the only ones. People from the Coast and Mountain region in Guerrero who take part in the process of the community police and the Regional Council of Community Authorities (CRAC) are also in the first place.

Along with them, some other indigenous peoples and communities fight for their independence without saying so. They do this by defending their right to run their governments, protecting the integrity of their territories and natural resources, planning their growth, and making sure their communities have good educational systems.

One autonomy process is very different from another because the people who go through it use the resources they have, their level of political organization, and the relationships they can make with other people and organizations that support their fights.

So, some people base their resistance on defending their territory, which includes natural resources and sacred or culturally important places. Others focus on strengthening their governments, which are set up and run according to their norms and institutions. Still, others support specific educational and cultural projects, and still, others recover techniques and knowledge related to food and health.

These are just a few examples of things that, even though they are done in very different ways, are based on the right of peoples to autonomy and try to make them stronger as rights holders.

To get their projects done, these people stay away from government policies, which they think are meant to control them and force them to serve interests that aren't their own. Instead, they look for support from other movements and organizations that share their goals.

But most importantly, they use the resources they've built up over centuries of fighting. In this way, they keep their culture alive and give new life to the political, economic, social, and cultural practices that make them who they are and set them apart from the rest of the world.

So, the process of building autonomy becomes the way for people to put themselves back together, to keep being people, and to get out of their subordinate position to government institutions and the rest of society at the same time. These are long and hard processes, but you can see the first results quickly, even though it will take a lot longer for them to settle down.

Author: Francisco López Bárcenas, Source: Revista de la Universidad