Cover image for Folkloric Poverty: Neoliberal Multiculturalism in Mexico By Rebecca Overmyer-Velázquez

Folkloric Poverty

Neoliberal Multiculturalism in Mexico

Rebecca Overmyer-Velázquez


$66.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-03657-1

$33.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-03658-8

224 pages
6" × 9"
13 b&w illustrations/2 maps

Folkloric Poverty

Neoliberal Multiculturalism in Mexico

Rebecca Overmyer-Velázquez

“In this historically grounded work, Overmyer-Velázquez ably demonstrates the ways in which both the state and indigenous organizations in Guerrero used the figure of the folkloric Indian to frame, motivate, and pursue their goals over time. Drawing on extensive fieldwork in the region, she narrates the evolution of a regional indigenous movement as it interacts with state agencies and officials and attempts to build alliances and strengthen its base of support. Not enough attention has been paid to indigenous organizations in Guerrero, which is surprising given their importance to larger Indian organizations on the national level in Mexico. This engaging and eminently readable book will be of great interest to scholars and students in a range of fields, including anthropology, sociology, political science, and public policy.”


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
The “technocratic revolution” that ushered in the age of neoliberalism in Mexico under the presidency of Carlos Salinas (1988–1994) helped create the conditions for, and the constraints on, a resurgence of activism among the indigenous communities of Mexico. This resurgence was given further impetus by the protests in 1992 against the official celebration of the five hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s landing in America and by the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas in 1994. Local, regional, and national indigenous organizations formed to pursue a variety of causes—cultural, economic, legal, political, and social—to benefit Indian peoples in all regions of the country.

Folkloric Poverty analyzes the crisis these indigenous political groups faced in Mexico at the turn of the twenty-first century. It tells the story of an indigenous peoples’ movement in the state of Guerrero, the Consejo Guerrerense 500 Años de Resistencia Indígena, that gained unprecedented national and international prominence in the 1990s and yet was defunct by 2002. The fate of the Consejo points to the ways that Mexican multiculturalism‚ indigenismo, combined with neoliberal reforms to keep Indians in a political quarantine, effectively limiting their actions and safely isolating their demands on the state.

“In this historically grounded work, Overmyer-Velázquez ably demonstrates the ways in which both the state and indigenous organizations in Guerrero used the figure of the folkloric Indian to frame, motivate, and pursue their goals over time. Drawing on extensive fieldwork in the region, she narrates the evolution of a regional indigenous movement as it interacts with state agencies and officials and attempts to build alliances and strengthen its base of support. Not enough attention has been paid to indigenous organizations in Guerrero, which is surprising given their importance to larger Indian organizations on the national level in Mexico. This engaging and eminently readable book will be of great interest to scholars and students in a range of fields, including anthropology, sociology, political science, and public policy.”
“Rebecca Overmyer-Velázquez has written a highly readable and lucid account of the rise of one regional indigenous movement organization, the Guerrero Council 500 Years of Resistance, and its subsequent decline, mirroring the general fortunes of Mexico’s Indian movement more broadly.”

Rebecca Overmyer-Velázquez is Associate Professor of Sociology at Whittier College.


List of Illustrations


List of Abbreviations

Introduction: The Nationalist Indian in a Neoliberal Age

1 The Anti-Quincentenary Campaign in Guerrero, Mexico: Indigenous Identity and the Dismantling of the Myth of the Revolution

2 Indigenista Dreams of the Mexican Indian

3 Indian Populists: The Indigenous Movement and theGuerrero Council, 1991–2000

4 Opportunities and Obstacles: Contextualizing the Guerrero Council’s Work in the 1990s

Conclusion: The Exhaustion of the Indigenous Movement: What Comes Next?




The Nationalist Indian in a Neoliberal Age

At 10 A.M. on 22 October 1999, the directors of one of Mexico’s most prominent national indigenous organizations were scheduled to meet in a conference room at the Legislative Palace in Mexico City to discuss the group’s political strategy. With the presidential campaign season about to begin, the directors of the Plural National Indigenous Assembly for Autonomy (Asamblea Nacional Indígena Plural por la Autonomía, or ANIPA) were gathering to debate how the ANIPA could provide Mexico’s indigenous peoples with a voice in national policy making. It was not going to be easy.

By 11 A.M., thirty or so men and women (far more men than women) had seated themselves at several tables set up around the room and were visiting with one another. No one seemed in a hurry to start. Once the meeting finally got under way, however, electoral politics Margarito Ruiz Hernández, a former federal congressman from Chiapas and executive director of the ANIPA, rose to say that both the country and the indigenous movement were in crisis. “We lack the will to make decisions and we haven’t been able to create a large national force for change in the country,” he lamented. Although the ANIPA was culturally diverse and politically pluralist, there was no place for it in the national dialogue. Julio Atenco Vidal from Veracruz, an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience in 1997, added that the indigenous movement was divided ideologically: whereas some rejected institutional politics and focused only on Chiapas and the Zapatista National Liberation Army (Ejéricito Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, or EZLN), others, like those in the ANIPA, embraced politics as a way to bring the indigenous problem to a larger arena.

In addressing the challenge that free trade, especially the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), posed to all Mexicans now that they had to compete directly with transnational corporations, a few participants argued that it was not enough to emerge from the crisis in the movement. They had to go beyond indigenous issues. “We have to enlarge our struggle against the capitalist system,” said a participant. In general, however, the economy took second place to issues internal to the indigenous movement and its leadership. For one director, the central problem was a lack of professionalization, coordination, institutionalization, and commitment; for another, it was precisely the professionalization and urbanization of leaders who had minimal contact with their pueblos, their home communities. For Pedro de Jesús Alejandro, a founder of the Guerrero Council 500 Years of Indigenous Resistance (Consejo Guerrerense 500 Años de Resistencia Indígena; hereafter shortened to “council”) and other assembly directors, there were clearly differences that mattered within the ANIPA. “Don’t think we will all agree. But we can respect and accept these differences,” he said hopefully. “Our participation in electoral politics through alliances and coalitions is one way to fight. That doesn’t mean we will abandon other forms of struggle.” It did mean, however, that they would have to go beyond the ANIPA’s traditional focus on regional indigenous autonomy to include issues not specific to Indians. These were all long-standing issues that would not be resolved at this meeting.

The differences within the ANIPA leadership are reflected in the thousands of different indigenous communities that form the heterogeneous basis for the indigenous movement in Mexico. In a meeting held in Oaxaca in late August 2000, academics and indigenous leaders frankly discussed the status of the movement, its relationship to communities, and its future under a new presidential regime (see Sarmiento Silva 2000). The “movement,” though present in the communities, in community discussions and relations, was not always visible to outsiders. It continued to be fragmented into regional groups that were largely isolated from one another. Indeed, argued Francisco López Bárcenas of the Center for Human Rights and Indigenous Culture, the movement’s “strong community identity . . . favors community autonomy and creates problems for the creation of municipal autonomy and regional autonomy.” Conflicts between communities over land posed another serious problem. Whereas in Chiapas, because of the special circumstances there, indigenous people talk about regional autonomy, in a state like Oaxaca, where “there are many agrarian problems, intercommunity conflicts, and difficulties with political parties” have divided community loyalties. Reynaldo Miguel García of the University Human Rights Workshop of Oaxaca insisted with others that “it will have to be the communities themselves that provide the solution to the problems [indigenous people face].”

Raúl Gatica of the Popular Indigenous Council of Oaxaca was hopeful that the new political situation—with the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, or PRI) having lost the presidency in July 2000—would make it possible “to transcend local politics” and “to build power that is more regional, statewide” (Sarmiento Silva 2000). All agreeing that there was a lack of indigenous leadership at the state and national levels, they asked how they could join forces to arrive at a national dialogue where distinct positions would be voiced and respected, with the idea to conquer this space for indigenous peoples. For some, the hope lay in strengthening the community base; for others, it lay in the organizations that acted as the vanguard of the movement, providing its leadership and many of its best strategies. Although the movement faced acknowledged risks involved at both the community and the extracommunity level, it was crucial that both levels be strengthened to advance indigenous demands. In sum, even in August 2000, the “indigenous movement” was not yet a national political force.

The sentiments expressed at these two different meetings of indigenous leaders are striking, if not surprising. It is to be expected that in a country with as varied an indigenous population as Mexico’s—where up to seventy-two different indigenous languages are spoken in a geographically diverse territory and where political party and religious affiliation increasingly matters in even the smallest rural hamlets—there will be important differences among groups representing Indian interests. What is striking is that, in 2000, after almost a decade of unprecedented political, social, and cultural activity by indigenous peoples all over Mexico, its leaders could nevertheless assert that this movement was in “crisis.” There was a “bitter feeling about the negligible political movement toward the recognition of indigenous peoples” (Hernández Castillo, Paz, and Sierra 2004, 23). What had happened? Why had the political movement been so limited? Folkloric Poverty offers one explanation for the crisis faced by indigenous political groups in Mexico at the turn of the new century.

To do this, it examines the relationship between indigenous peoples and the Mexican state, with a focus on an indigenous peoples movement in the state of Guerrero—the Guerrero Council 500 Years of Indigenous Resistance—during the 1990s. The first decade of the Guerrero Council, from 1990 to 2000, witnessed the rise of a national indigenous movement coincident with the rapid acceleration of free market and political reforms in Mexico. Folkloric Poverty assesses the life of this group, defunct since 2002, as representative of an important moment in the political mobilization of indigenous peoples. More broadly, it analyzes the impacts of neoliberal reforms—still very much in effect—on indigenous movements in Mexico today.

The end of the twentieth century was notable for the cultural and political florescence of indigenous peoples in Mexico. The historical conjuncture of the 1992 anti-quincentenary protests against official celebrations of “the encounter of two worlds” and the 1994 neo-Zapatista uprising in Chiapas acted to propel the grievances of indigenous peoples into national consciousness as never before. Local, regional, and national indigenous organizations formed to pursue a variety of causes—legal, economic, cultural, social, and political—to benefit indigenous peoples in all of the country’s regions. But these movements emerged within economic and political contexts that shaped not only their character but also their ability to effect the changes they sought. More specifically, I argue that Mexico’s neoliberal economic restructuring and a complementary revamped national populism were the necessary economic and political conditions for the emergence of an indigenous movement in Guerrero in the early 1990s. On the one hand, these were enabling conditions for the council, granting the group a legitimacy and authority it would not otherwise have had, especially since the neoliberal emphasis on autonomy and self-reliance (“rights”) also coincided with emerging indigenous demands for economic and political self-determination. On the other, these conditions placed real material and ideological limits on who indigenous peoples could be and what they could do. In short, the neoliberal moment facilitated the emergence of an “indigenous peoples” movement at the beginning of the decade while contributing significantly to the crisis this movement faced at the end.

Like other indigenous rights movements in Mexico, the Guerrero Council claimed a common citizenship intimately associated with Mexican revolutionary nationalism and affirmed the legitimacy of the Mexican state. This last position clearly distinguished it from the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) in Chiapas, which has rejected all official government authority in the regions where the EZLN has a strong presence, even though the EZLN remains highly nationalistic. Strong claims to nationalism persist among Mexico’s indigenous peoples despite the expansion of international human rights—including uniquely indigenous rights—and a global laissez-faire political economy that together provided the opportunity for the council and other indigenous groups to claim indigenous self-determination. But this opportunity came with significant costs, which included the withdrawal of government programs to promote rural development and small agricultural production, leaving peasant producers unprotected in an increasingly competitive market. In effect, the movement toward new collective or cultural rights for indigenous peoples recognized under international law came at the expense of older social and economic rights.

This was not coincidental. The reduction of social rights in Mexico as a result of free market reforms was in part made possible by the government’s conspicuous acknowledgment of international human rights, and indigenous peoples were seen as key beneficiaries of this acknowledgment. As Jane Hindley (1996, 230) points out, “The issue of indigenous rights was effectively harnessed to the . . . project of modernizing the Mexican state and the broader political context of ensuring neoliberal economic restructuring and regime maintenance.” Mexico’s formal acknowledgment of international human rights in the early 1990s included the creation of the National Human Rights Commission (Comisión Nacional de Derechos Humanos, or CNDH), with official Human Rights Commissions in each state, a new Federal Electoral Institute to monitor elections, the ratification of International Labor Organization Convention 169 on the Rights of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, and the amendment of Article 4 of the Mexican constitution to recognize the country’s “pluricultural” composition. These reforms made a positive international impression and gave the U.S. government a politically defensible reason to sign onto the market reforms initiated by Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari in the North American Free Trade Agreement. The 1993 U.S. State Department Human Rights Report on Mexico, for example, presented a picture of the Mexican government doing all it could to protect human rights despite considerable obstacles; it praised the efforts of the CNDH and noted a decline in rights abuses thanks to “the work of government and nongovernmental human rights agencies and a commitment by the Salinas Administration to prosecute offenders.” Indeed, the Mexican government tended to escape any blame for violations of human rights. In the section on discrimination based on race, the report asserted that indigenous groups “remain largely outside the country’s political and economic mainstream, a result not of overt governmental discrimination but rather of long-standing patterns of economic and social development.” Soon after the Chiapas uprising on 1 January 1994, U.S. State Department officials were quick to defend the Salinas government from charges that it had violated the rights of Maya Indians. “Mexico is a rapidly evolving democracy,” asserted Alexander F. Watson, assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs. “It’s pretty clear that what happened in Chiapas has energized this process” (Abrams 1994).

Meanwhile, and to much acclaim, Mexican state populism privileged indigenous peasants and constructed them as independent entrepreneurs. New centralized rural development programs like the Regional Solidarity Funds (Fondos Regionales de Solidaridad) initiated by President Salinas at the beginning of the 1990s specifically targeted these peasants and received the vast majority of government funding for the countryside. This was, as Denise Dresser (1991) notes, a neopopulist solution for neoliberal problems since the government was removing its global social programs and replacing them with targeted programs of reduced scope such as the Regional Solidarity Funds. But the privileged beneficiaries of these new programs were not at all new and had a long history in the populist imaginary of the Mexican state. The peasantry was a key figure in this imaginary but more importantly in the 1990s it was “Indian” as imagined by the dominant national Indian policy, indigenismo. The council’s leadership was similarly populist in this more specific—and very Mexican revolutionary—form, emphasizing always a particular kind of Indian who was the legitimate bearer of citizenship rights. It is this Indian who represents what I call “folkloric poverty,” a widespread notion that Indians are, by tradition, poor, isolated, and community bound.

Organization of the Book

Chapter 1 begins by asking how and why the Guerrero Council was able to form in 1991 out of several different peasant ethnic groups. The answer to this question is found in the crisis of the federal government’s declining support for the peasantry over half a century, and in the opportunity presented to peasants of a new “indigenous” identity in the “500 Years” movement, which opposed official celebrations of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas. The chapter shows how much the state and its various agents facilitated the development of an indigenous identity that indigenous peasant groups appropriated to demand new kinds of rights.

Chapter 2 examines the ideological basis for national Indian policy, indigenismo, through an analysis of the first anthropological study of Guerrero’s Montaña region (out of which the council formed), which was written in 1955 but never published. Indigenismo was the revolutionary nationalist ideology and praxis that guided the Mexican government’s Indian policy in the twentieth century. In its heyday in the 1950s, indigenismo was internationally recognized and respected. Indigenistas—the anthropologists charged with implementing Indian policy at the National Indigenous Institute (INI)—were much concerned with the definition of a populist subject, the Mexican Indian, because who and what “the Indian” was determined what actions were to be taken on the subject’s behalf. They were committed to a modern nation-state project of homogeneous integration that defined “authentic” Indians as physically and culturally distant from Mexican society, mired in poverty, community-bound, and in dire need of economic integration with national markets; in short, as poor peasants. The Indigenistas insisted on this definition despite their own good evidence that it was mostly false; it has persisted in both national policy and the indigenous movement.

Chapter 3 provides the national political context for an indigenous movement in the 1990s, with a focus on the troubled revision of the national constitution to include new rights for indigenous peoples. It then examines at length the council’s political strategies, presenting the voices and experiences of local community members that detail the context of extreme neglect and abuse within which the council worked. It discusses how the Guerrero Council embraced a particular kind of Indian populism when engaging the state and federal governments. It was a strategy strongly embraced by the council’s leaders, despite its inherent limitations. Populist appeals appeared to legitimate the council’s claims on the government. But these claims also legitimated the government’s capricious power. The construction of an identity between the nation-state and citizens is precisely the work of national populism. Populism in turn provides the ideological framework within which citizens consent to the hegemony of the government in power, which simultaneously coerces them to ally with its projects.

Chapter 4 places the council’s work in the context of national development policy in the 1990s. President Salinas de Gortari’s “Solidarity” program was the inheritor of indigenismo and its “authentic Indian.” The integrationist and modernizing imperatives discussed in chapter 2 did not go away by the 1990s, but they were now joined by language that openly favored a new, participatory relationship between indigenous peoples and the state. The proliferation of this discourse gave the council a legitimacy that it would not otherwise have had, though at a price: the “participation of indigenous peoples” was defined in a way that legitimated only a particular kind of indigenousness—one necessarily tied to the local, peasant community. This populist definition of the Indian suited the federal government’s need for legitimation during rapid and profound economic restructuring. As Rosalva Aída Hernández Castillo (2001, 299) notes, “During the transition from a mestizo Mexico to a multicultural Mexico, the state again assigned itself the right to legitimate certain indigenous identities and to deny others.” The council’s use of populist imagery meant that, inevitably, the group also accepted this discourse and the limits it placed on indigenous politics.

The book’s conclusion presents an update on the council and on the Mexican indigenous movement after 2000 more generally. Indigenous peoples, it asserts, have exhausted the opportunities provided them in the 1990s and are at an impasse in Mexico; the movement appears to be entering a second phase, complicated and enriched by the emergence of more indigenous women leaders, government officials, and political party operators with competing agendas for the present and future. As before, however, the political and economic context within which indigenous peoples struggle will continue to limit the possibilities for real change in those places most in need of change. This is the fundamental challenge the new leaders face as they map out a strategy for the twenty-first century.

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