The Immigration Issue

Immigration from Mexico to the United States has gone through four main periods in the 20th Century – after the initial influx during the California gold rush and the railroad expansion in the mid-1800’s.

The first wave, occurring prior to World War II, consisted of agricultural workers recruited by private labor contractors, with the number of Mexican immigrants rising from 105,200 in 1900 to 624,400 in 1930. The Bracero program, from 1942 to 1964, ushered in the second wave, also consisting mostly of agricultural guest workers under specific contracts. The third, largely unauthorized wave, began after the Bracero program was terminated and after 1965 changes to U.S. immigration law ended national-origin quotas and imposed the first numerical limits on Mexico and other Latin American countries.

The majority of Mexican immigrants in this third wave were male, seasonal farm laborers who regularly traveled back and forth across the border. The passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) and subsequent investments in border security were a turning point, initiating the fourth wave of Mexican migration. IRCA legalized close to 3 million unauthorized migrants, including 2.3 million Mexicans, in return for tougher border enforcement and penalties for American employers who hired unauthorized workers.

As crossing the border became more difficult, and as economic changes in the United States opened additional jobs to low-skilled foreign workers, immigrants began to settle permanently, bringing their families to live in the United States. Between 1990 and 2010 more than 7.5 million Mexican immigrants – most of whom were unauthorized – arrived.

Since 1980, Mexicans have been the largest immigrant group in the United States. As of 2013, approximately 11.6 million Mexican immigrants resided in the United States – up from 2.2 million in 1980 – and Mexicans accounted for 28 percent of the country’s 41.3 million foreign born.”

“As with all mass immigrations to America, be it Irish, German, Italian, Eastern European, Chinese, Japanese or Latin American, in order to think about ethnicity, we also have to talk about ideas of race. From the biological point of view, races simply do not exist – we are all members of the human race. From the cultural and political point of view, however, the concept of “race” is extremely important.

Within this context, “Mexican national identity has been constructed in terms of the idea that Mexicans are the product of a creative mixing of aboriginals and Europeans. In theory this is an argument about a fusing together of cultures but in practice it gets conflated with the idea of mixing of races, mestizaje in Spanish. This is an official doctrine of the state, formulated after the Mexican Revolution of 1910. It is expressed in official rhetoric, mythology and the public ceremonial.

Although Mexico is formally a democracy and has been ruled by civilians since the revolution, a single party has remained in power throughout most of the last 80 years. Far from delivering social justice to the ‘Indians”, the Mexican state has failed them utterly. Since 1994, its disastrous neoliberal economic policies have created mass unemployment and impoverished large sectors of the population, a situation which is producing a rapid unraveling of the regime and a mounting tide of violence in both town and countryside.

What the elites of the region have done over the centuries is manipulate ideas about “ethnic” difference to divide lower class people and pit them against each other: to encourage them to feel they are intrinsically “different” and have nothing in common. It is readily apparent that looking at how ethnic distinctions are constructed is not just an academic issue, it has very important political implications, especially given that national elites tend to be seen by ordinary people as different from themselves and essentially “more European”.

Some have called on their countrymen to abandon the vision of an “imaginary Mexico” that modernizers had produced through their celebration of Western ideals. They have called on them to look instead at the “deep Mexico” embodied in the lives, world views and social practices of most ordinary Mexicans. They don’t simply hope to foster public attitudes towards indigenous peoples that would be the basis for a multi-cultural society based on mutual respect; they hope that seeing the ideology of mestizaje for what it is; [and that] would enable all Mexicans to build a less authoritarian, more democratic society and a new kind of [less European] nationalism.

The idea of “Deep Mexico “must begin with the Spanish Crown, beginning in the 15th Century, which had intended to take the lion’s share of the fruits of plundering the New World for itself, rather than let them go to Spanish landlords. “Indians” became wards of the Crown, and were to pay tribute to it. To this end, the Crown created a legal category “indigenous town”, which had its own forms of political and religious organization.

If you lived in an indigenous town, you were an indigenous tribute payer. Being indigenous was therefore something that depended on where you lived and what you chose to do. There were no legal restrictions of the mobility of indigenous people in the province of New Spain (Central Mexico). You could cease to be “an Indian” by ceasing to reside in an Indian town, choosing to speak Spanish and wear European dress. This is, in fact, what large numbers of indigenous people actually did.

What happened in Central Mexico and the Bajío suggests that ethnic identity was a social and political strategy. In Central Mexico, some indigenous towns did survive as going concerns, because native elites had their own reasons for wanting to retain control of village resources and a degree of separate political control. These reasons were often linked not to “tradition” but to the fact that powerful people in the indigenous villages had become participants in the Spanish-dominated market economy. They could use communal village institutions to defend their private economic interests. But they often used “traditional” institutions and forms of authority to keep control over the poorer Indian peasants.

Even in the 18th Century, communities still kept parallel legal records – in Nahuatl – of the boundaries of their territories, at the same time as their bilingual elites defended community interests in the Spanish courts. These territories corresponded to pre-Hispanic local units called altepetls, communities organized on a mixture of kinship and territorial principles which defined themselves in terms of the cosmic spaces surrounding the central temple. Indian village leaders thus attempted to defend their interests by [religious] ritual as well as secular legal measures. Indian communities also adapted Spanish religious institutions to the ends of marking the boundaries between Indian and Spanish society, as was the case with the confraternity (cofradía) system.

It is more useful to look at cultural change as a process through which indigenous people  used old and new cultural practices to adapt themselves to living in a new colonial world, an adaptation that involved both accommodation andresistance. And it is important to recognize that “Indian” communities were not socially and politically homogeneous: they had leaderships and competing factions who struggled for power. The different ways in which indigenous communities were organized and the ways they related to the rest of colonial society reflected the outcomes of these internal struggles over leadership, power and authority.

In many areas, European-owned estates and plantations were not significant before the 19th Century, and most villagers kept their own land. In the case of Ocosingo, the estates were owned by the Dominican religious order, not by secular landlords. It is important to be aware that the Catholic Church was often as interested in exploiting “Indians” as the colonial state and Spanish landlord class, [but to different ends]. [Therefore], in most of the Maya and Mixtec areas, the Church’s relationship with the Indians was of a different kind: the religious orders allowed indigenous people to practice their religion on lines that they found acceptable.

The principle [secular] burdens upon the communities were economic, in the form of what were known as repartimientos. “Indians” were either forced to produce commodities that Spaniards could sell to the world or to buy commodities that Spaniards sold at inflated prices. In either case the burdens of exploitation could and did provoke protest. By the 18th Century, the repartimiento system in Yucatan was so oppressive that it was threatening subsistence crops. And the reason it was so oppressive was that both secular and religious authorities lined their own pockets. Nevertheless, disputes over land or economic exploitation were not frequent causes of peasant revolts in the South in colonial times in Mexico.

Eighteenth Century native rebellions were mainly related to the removal of the religious orders and the introduction of “secular” priests,  [quasi-] clergy who made their living out of the parish. These new priests tended to interfere more in community religious life as well as demand more in the way of fees and tithes. “Indian” communities lost the fight to preserve their lands, or they changed internally, so that land became increasingly concentrated in a few hands and was used for commercial production.


The period 1810-1821, ended with Mexico becoming an independent nation. In 1810, the Bajío region revolted against its elites, and peasants and urban artisan workers attacked land properties. Many “Indian” communities to the West of the Bajío joined this insurgency for reasons of their own, usually to do with merchants and other outsiders grabbing community lands. Although the Basin of Mexico remained relatively quiet, considerable numbers of “Indian” villages disappeared in the violent repression that followed the insurgency and their people moved to other communities if they did not die in the fighting.

The second major watershed was the legal abolition of “Indian” communal land tenure by liberal reformers in the second half of the 19th Century. This eventually led to the division of communal land into individual plots and the loss of land by many people: the liberal reform had the most sweeping impact in Central Mexico. Many communities “de-inidianized” after it, and although some recovered their lands after the Revolution of 1910, they often did so as mestizoclaimants to land under the land reform program and had ceased to identify themselves as “Indians”. The result of these processes was the creation of a Mexican nation in which “Indians” were pushed into a peripheral and minority status

Mestizoization or de-indianization has nothing intrinsically to do with intermarriage between Spaniards and Indians. In the colonial period, as we have seen, it was basically a matter of language and place of residence. And non-Indians could often just as easily become “Indians” as the reverse. It is true, as suggested by an anthropological model called “closed corporate Indian community” that, in some times and in some places, Indians [in Mexico] kept non-Indians out or at least prevented them from acquiring land. But only in some times and in some places: some indigenous communities contained the descendants of immigrants from Spain, mestizos born of unions between indigenous mothers and men from other ethnic groups, and even people of African origin.

There are, in fact, cases where groups of freed African slaves dominated the populations of communities which were officially recognized as “Indian towns”. It is quite common in Michoacán to meet Purépecha speakers who are fair-skinned and blue-eyed. By the same logic, what were once indigenous communities mostly containing “Indian tribute payers” converted themselves into communities of mestizos, even though the ancestors of the current residents were mostly the “Indian tribute payers” of the past. Being an Indian was largely a question of how one chose to live,

Indian communities were organizations for defending what the people had rescued in the way of resources and social and religious autonomy from the wreck of colonization: ceasing to be an Indian by moving to a non-Indian town and speaking Spanish offered no advantage in terms of economic or social status. In others, like the Bajío, remaining an Indian offered less than becoming a mestizo, because there were better opportunities outside the indigenous community and discrimination against people who looked “Indian” was less acute than somewhere like the ladino towns of Chiapas, where Indians were still being publicly beaten for walking on urban pavements – only thirty years ago.

But to fully understand why indigenous communities fought to maintain their identities, we generally have to understand a lot more about the local political and economic context of Indian/non-Indian relations, including the relations between Indian community authorities and non-Indian authorities. No one could entirely escape the shadows cast by the racial ideologies of colonial society [- a cautionary tale about collecting and using racial statistics].

In the colonial period, Indians were distinguished from Spanish people as naturales, as opposed to gente de razón: the distinction is in terms of ability to reason and behave rationally, a quality which is assumed [to be] European. However, Indians were seen as lacking it because they “are like children”, and ignorance can literally be bred out of them. In the logic of the racial classification, Indian blood is redeemable: people with Indian blood somewhere back in their line can eventually become white if their ancestors have persisted in breeding with Spaniards.

Black blood, however, was not redeemable: or to put it another way, people with African blood could never “whiten themselves”. What post-colonial ideologies took from this colonial view of race was the association of social as well as personal progress with whitening.

To understand post-colonial developments, we also need to consider the group called Creoles (criollos) in Mesoamerica. Creoles were basically people who saw themselves as of Spanish origin but were born in the colonies. Spaniards born in Spain tended to look down on Creoles on the [illogical] grounds that merely being born in the New World produced a kind of racial degeneration. After independence, the tables were turned, and peninsular Spaniards who wanted to live and prosper in Guatemala and Mexico had to be respectful of the Creole elite. After independence, Mexico was run by conservative creoles who wanted to keep the colonial social order intact.

Liberal politics in Mexico became increasingly associated with the aspirations of a mestizo provincial urban professional class which felt that the Creole oligarchy that ran the country blocked its opportunities for social mobility. So Mexico’s political history after 1856 is the history of the rise of a new mestizoelite. It is, however, an elite which is extremely authoritarian as far as Indians are concerned; it is an elite which has fully internalized the old Creole ideology of whitening as progress and sees itself as a progressive force in history because it is leaving the backward Indian past behind. It therefore offers social justice to the Indians, providing they agree to come on board the same project, that is, they cease to preserve their distinct identities and assimilate into the mestizo elite’s model of what “national culture” should be like.

This project might conceivably have succeeded in Mexico, if the post-revolutionary state had actually delivered social justice to its citizens. In practice, the wealthy elites that lie behind the Mexican state have failed to deliver what the regime promised to the entire Mexican people, [and] the situation of contemporary indigenous peoples today is outstandingly bad on every front.

The majority of Indians are not merely poorer and have shorter life expectancy and higher rates of infant mortality, they are also more likely to be in prison without due process and more liable to be victims of other forms of human rights abuse. [Keep this in mind when we discuss La Raza in the United States.] Nevertheless, they have been able to join the global wave of indigenous rights politics and draw the world’s attention to their demands. The assimilationist strategy has failed, and produced new forms of ethnic mobilization and ethnic identity which are arguably more powerful than the old forms.

One impetus towards the mobilization of indigenous communities in Latin America has come from the Liberation Theology wing of the Catholic Church. The Vatican II Council ordered the Latin American Church to re-evangelize the peasantry and get rid of fused forms of religion that mixed aboriginal religious beliefs and practices with orthodox Christianity. This religious program was inspired by the Vatican’s fears about the likely effects of socio-economic change and continuing social injustice in the region. The hierarchy saw the Church’s control over the rural masses as threatened by both Protestant evangelism and revolutionary socialist movements.

Re-evangelization was therefore first and foremost a bid to restore Church authority. But the strategy the Vatican adopted had unintended effects. Although the Church’s aims were initially conservative, the methods they used to achieve them created a new generation of community leaders who subsequently embraced radical or even revolutionary politics. Even some bishops embraced a more radical position because they were won over by the emerging arguments of Liberation Theology; they felt that it was the Church’s duty not just to [religiously] minister to the souls of the poor and oppressed but to [secularly and politically] support them in their social and political struggles for a better life in this world.”

This chaotic cultural and societal landscape was ripe for widespread unrest. “The Chiapas rebellion of 1994 was the result of a combination of circumstances. The bishop of Chiapas was an early convert to Liberation Theology. The catechists his diocese recruited in the area where the Zapatista rebellion broke out clearly sympathized with the emerging armed revolutionary movement. But to understand the Chiapas revolt, we have to understand what was peculiar about the region where it broke out, the Las Cañadas region of the Lacandón jungle at the southern end of the Yucatan peninsula. This was an area colonized by peasants moving in from the Central Highlands of Chiapas.

These peasants came from a variety of different ethnic groups, but what they had in common was a past history of semi-slavery on ladino-owned plantations. This helped to promote solidarity among people of diverse ethnic origins as they settled down together in the new communities in the jungle: the plantation owners were the common enemy, and their migration was seen as a kind of “exodus” in the biblical sense: the catechists worked on this metaphor as they taught them the ideas of Liberation Theology.

This group of indigenous people with a strong sense of historical grievance were subjected to the influence of Liberation Theology and an incoming group of guerilla organizers whose origins date back to the urban student movement of the late 1960s. When the uprising happened, government spokesmen were quick to blame outsiders for stirring up the peasants and claim that they had been misled by Marxist militants – an unholy alliance of radical priests and 60s student leftists [called Zapatistas – inspired by radical-inspired events in the United States].

The rebellion took place on the day the NAFTA treaty was ratified [December 17, 1992 – during the presidency of Republican George H.W.Bush]: a day which had significance for all Mexicans who had suffered from neo-liberal economic policies and were worried about what further suffering the NAFTA would bring – as opposed to the rosy scenario presented by the government parties to the treaty – and rightly so, as it has turned out.

It was a day which raised issues about national sovereignty and democracy – the NAFTA had been pushed through with little consultation – even of Mexican business interests, and it represented a U-turn for a country which had always pursued a policy of protecting the national economy. The original Zapatista proclamation did not just speak to the specific rights of indigenous people: it spoke to the rights of working class people and women in general and, [as is always the case with revolutionaries,] called for democracy and clean elections.

In this sense, it corresponded to an older tradition that was found in the radical agrarianism of Michoacán in the 1920s. The great agrarian radical leader of the Michoacán village of Naranja, Primo Tapia, had been a migrant worker in the United States, where he had joined the famous anarcho-syndicalis-socialist-communist movement known as the “Wobblies” (Workers of the World). The 1920s agrarian program stressed the need to attend to women’s issues as well as issues of land and wages.

Its agenda replicated the international socialist platform of the Second International – an organization of socialist and labor parties formed in Paris on July 14, 1889 – the one-hundredth anniversary of the “storming of the Bastille” prison in Paris by French revolutionaries [in order to free its seven prisoners]. It continued the work of the dissolved First International, though excluding the still-powerful anarcho-syndicalist movement and unions. It did not include any emphasis on ethnicity and indigenous rights, even though Tapia and his successors were Indians.

The EZLN manifesto differed from this earlier tradition in having a specific focus on indigenous issues, in reflection of the failure of assimilationist policies, but it was not a narrow focus. The way the Zapatistas addressed the question of women’s rights was also evidently more “modern” and less patriarchal in tone, reflecting the new role of women as both political organizers and guerilla fighters. The EZLN approach to indigenous rights issues is not one which seeks to isolate indigenous people from non-indigenous people. This is most evident in their proposals for indigenous autonomy.

What the Zapatistas were demanding was that indigenous communities be freed from domination by non-indian elites: that they be free to choose their political representatives in whatever way they see fit, and that those representatives should have an equal voice to the representatives of other groups in regional society. In other words, this is a demand for pure democratization of Mexican political life from the bottom-up, linked to earlier demands for municipal democracy. Such demands are, in fact, widespread in Chiapas.

After the Zapatista rebellion, many communities seized the opportunity to try to kick out long established local bosses, and alliances were formed to democratize municipal life between groups affiliated to rival political parties and peasant organizations. In Chiapas, the principle division is between rich landowners and poorer peasants: the agrarian reform was never fully implemented in this state because the regional elite was able to limit the interventions of the national state in its affairs.  But the current situation is very different in many ways to even the recent past.

Historically, migration was, to some extent, a safety-valve that reduced pressures on land and reduced rural poverty. But today, migrants are playing a more political role, building new organizations that span national boundaries – creating a whole new set of [sovereignty issues and] problems for the destination country: they form community associations in Mexico, which have sometimes challenged local bosses, and they also work to improve the rights of migrant workers in the United States.

These transnational indigenous organizations tend to be ethnically inclusive. These new transnational indigenous organizations are capable of putting considerable pressure on governments and exploiting the media effectively, plus they have the backing of NGOs such as the human rights organizations and aid agencies. On the [other side], however, one must recognize that the national state in Mexico and the regional state governments are still controlled by non-Indian elites which have vested interests to defend [and that the United States is a separate sovereignty entity].

This brings us back to the problem of mestizaje. The government has made great efforts to foster a non-Indian “backlash” against demands for indigenous rights. This backlash effect is premised on the idea that most Mexicans are not Indians and that it is unjust to give some poor people special benefits because they can claim that they are indigenous. [As always, they are merely the most recent “indigenous” people in the area.]

Today, there are about 20 million indigenous people in Mexico, of many different ethnic groups, which constitute about 15% of the population in the country. The number of indigenous Mexicans is judged using the political criteria found in the 2nd Article of the Mexican Constitution. The Mexican census does not report racial-ethnicity but only the cultural-ethnicity of indigenous communities that preserve their indigenous languages, traditions, beliefs, and cultures.

In 2011, a large scale mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) sequencing of Mexican-Americans revealed 85 to 90% of mtDNA lineages of Aboriginal-American (continent-wide) origin, with the remainder having European (5–7%) or African ancestry (3–5%). In short, the Mexicans and Chicanos possess far greater continuity with their native past than do the Spaniards, and yet the Spanish are categorized as “unified” people (in spite of great regional variations), while the Mexicans and Chicanos must perpetually carry the burden of genuflecting before the idol of mestizaje.

If Mexico is to become a multi-cultural nation in which “Indians” can assert their cultural traditions without being discriminated against, then the old idea of “whitening as progress” must be abandoned. What is needed to secure social justice and fight crime is the idea that people have something in common beyond their differences and that all have an equal dignity in society and the nation.

Unfortunately, according to an OECD study in 2012, 15% of Mexicans report having been a victim of crime in the past year, a figure which among OECD countries is only higher in South Africa. In 2010, Mexico’s homicide rate  was 18 per 100,000 inhabitants; the world average is 6.9 per 100,000 inhabitants.

So, despite the apparent efforts of the authorities to fight crime and fraud, few Mexicans have strong confidence in the police or the judicial system, and therefore, few crimes are actually reported by the citizens. The Global Integrity Index which measures the existence and effectiveness of national anti-corruption mechanisms rated Mexico 31st, behind Kenya, Thailand, and Russia. Put another way, official Mexico is one of the most corrupt systems in the world!

Drug-traffic and narco-related activities are a major concern. Mexico’s drug war has left over 70,000 dead and perhaps another 30,000 missing. The Mexican drug cartels  have more than 100,000 members. The Mexican government’s National Geography and Statistics Institute estimated that there were 41,563 crimes per 100,000 residents in 2012. Large sections of the country have descended into lawlessness, with criminal gangs – drug cartels with international reach as well as local groups of bandits – literally taking the place of governmental authority.

The breakdown of the social order has provoked a response from Mexicans who want to live in peace: the vigilante movement, which has sprung up in the poor hardscrabble towns of the southern Pacific coast, and spread throughout the country. Vigilantes have taken back their towns from the corrupt police and elected officials, arresting the former and driving the latter away. They’ve armed themselves, set up checkpoints, and appealed to the national government to take action – but have come under attack from Mexico City authorities, who see in them a rival for power.

Mexico’s problems are systemic, and wouldn’t even be touched by the ending of the “drug war,” which is routinely blamed for all the country’s problems. The average Mexican lives on less than $13 per day. Less than half of Mexico’s students graduate from high school. And while Mexico is a poor country, that’s not its biggest problem: what’s significant is that the bonds of trust that go to make up a society are frayed to the breaking point. The country’s future is either ongoing slow disintegration or else some traumatic event such as a civil war.”

It is important to point out that we are not speaking here of just corruption, which exists in all governments everywhere – although it is much more blatant in Mexico than in most other countries. Instead, we are talking about a systematic breakdown of the state, in which government is not simply influenced by criminals, but becomes an instrument of criminals – either simply an arena for battling among groups or under the control of a particular group. The state no longer can carry out its primary function of imposing peace, and it becomes helpless, or itself a direct perpetrator of crime.

It is also important to remember that Mexico has a tradition of failed governments, particularly in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. In those periods, Mexico City became an arena for struggle among army officers and regional groups straddling the line between criminal and political. The Mexican army became an instrument in this struggle and, its control, a prize. The one thing missing was the the vast amount of money at stake. So there is a tradition of state failure in Mexico, and there are higher stakes today than ever before.

Next time: Mexico: A Failed State!


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