Latin American Indigenismo

Latin American Indigenismo
Latin American Indigenismo

Indigenismo refers to an artistic, literary, and political movement in Latin America that began in the late 19th century but reached its height during the nationalist period of the 1920s and 1930s.

It coincided with the rise of nationalism as Latin Americans rejected European cultural superiority in favor of seeking out a unique Latin American identity that corresponded with the region's cultural and racial diversity. Indigenismo functioned as a rallying point for nationalism, especially in Mexico and Peru, nations home to large and diverse Indian populations.

It glorified aspects of indigenous culture considered positive as symbols of national roots while simultaneously working to assimilate native peoples into a cultural mainstream often centered on a mestizaje identity, a social and biological designation meaning mixed race.

Latin America's colonial legacy lumped indigenous peoples together as a monolithic primitive group distinctly separate from mestizo culture. Spanish colonizers literally divided the population into two, creating a republic of Spaniards and a republic of Indians.

The broad movement of indigenismo hoped to erase this divide to create homogenized social bodies. However, the movement suffered from the racist paradigm set by the colonizers by continuing to view indigenous peoples as an undifferentiated mass.

Many indigenistas were elite white and mestizo individuals, and they imposed the ideology of indigenismo on Indian peoples without any prompting by such groups to do so. As a result, indigenismo was unable to escape Latin America's colonial legacy of social hierarchies predicated on race, and consequently indigenismo policies functioned with unintended paternalism and racism.

Mexico embraced indigenismo and thus serves as an important case study. The Mexican constitution of 1917 enshrined indigenismo as an official ideology by demanding an end to the exploitation of Indians by landowners and priests while encouraging their assimilation into the social body.

The post-revolutionary Mexican state sought to create a new national identity, and indigenous groups would have to be united with the rest of Mexican society to achieve that goal. José Vasconcelos, the first minister of culture after the revolution, initiated the government effort to form a Mexican national culture by bringing the Indian and the mestizo together.

During the 1920s, Vasconcelos hired artists such as Diego Rivera to paint murals in public areas and on government buildings that glorified Mexico's indigenous roots and depicted the darker side of European conquest and colonization. Elements of indigenous culture, such as music, dance, folk art, and myth became celebrated aspects of Mexican nationalism.

Vasconcelos believed that Mexico's future lay in the creation of a "cosmic race," a fusion of racial and ethic groups. The cosmic race combined positive elements of different cultures to create a unique "Mexican" identity. Indigenismo and the idea of a cosmic race represent early attempts in Mexico to overcome the deep racial divides of the nation.

The post-revolutionary government believed Mexico could not move forward without a unified social body and that if Indian peoples remained separate from the rest of society, the entire country would be negatively affected. Separate Indian nations or enclaves like the Native American reservations in the United States would work against unifying the Mexican nation, and as such, Indians were encouraged to become mestizo.

"The Indian Question"

The post-revolutionary Mexican state implemented a range of policies influenced by indigenismo. Although policy makers held a wide range of opinions on the "Indian question," they agreed that Mexico's indigenous populations needed to be integrated into the national mainstream respectfully and without coercion.

The Instituto Nacional Indigenista was a government ministry created specifically to implement indigenista policies aimed at assimilation. Rural schools functioned as one of the key elements in bringing Indian peoples into mestizo culture. These schools trained bilingual Indian teachers and served as sites to indoctrinate post-revolutionary nationalism.

Despite the declarations of a noncoercive and respectful approach to assimilation, subtle racism pervaded indigenismo policies. Indigenismo tended to invert the very racist paradigms the movement sought to eradicate.

In attempting to break away from colonial models that degraded everything Indian, indigenismo instead glorified indigenous cultures to a point that bordered on exoticism. Indigenismo often characterized Mexico's pre-Columbian past as a simpler, more pure way of life.

This racism disseminated the idea that Indian cultures were innately superior to European and mestizo civilization. Such thinking depended on ideologies about race that attributed innate qualities to different races rather than breaking away from deterministic models as the movement hoped to do.

Furthermore, indigenismo as an artistic, literary, and political movement lay in stark contrast to the social reality of Mexico's (and other Latin American) indigenous groups. Racism and prejudice against Indians in daily life continued, and the "whitening" of Latin America persists to the modern day as evidenced by Latin American film, television, and advertising.

In Peru, a stark division exists between the country's indigenous groups in the highlands and the white, black, and mestizo population of the coastal region. Peruvian Indians literally existed outside the national community. The middle-class indigenismo movement of Peru advanced national solidarity by calling for the integration of these two distinct populations.

Men such as Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre took the ideas of indigenismo and created a political movement based on the belief that true national values came from Peru's indigenous cultures. Haya de la Torre and others rejected European culture in favor of building a national identity from the cultural heritage of Peru's Indian peoples.

In addition, Peru's constitution, promulgated on January 18, 1920, recognized the legal existence of Indian communities and protected these groups through special laws aimed at indigenous development and culture. The creation of the Indian Affairs Department in the Ministry of Development was charged with supervising the implementation of the constitutional measures designed to protect the rights of Indian peoples.

Despite such seeming advances in Indian legal rights, reality painted a different picture. Change was very slow, and many of the constitution's laws designed to protect Indians were delayed or only partially enforced.

Although the adherents of indigenismo likely felt they acted with the best intentions, indigenismo in Latin America existed as a construction of the white and mestizo elite, an ideology imposed on indigenous groups tinged with subtle racism. By envisioning Latin America's Indian peoples as monolithic groups with homogenized experiences, indigenismo followed a philosophy that certain Indian traits were good and others bad.

However, the state's institution of these values would later provide Indian peoples with the tools to appropriate the movement for themselves. By the 1970s neo-indigenismo became the new creed, with indigenous peoples at the helm rather than a white and mestizo elite.