Mexico is rich and exotic, spicy and alive. The land, its fauna and flora is every bit as varied as it’s population of one hundred million. Active or recently active volcanoes are soon thickly forested with flowering trees or cacti, or at lower altitudes dense tropical jungle. Color is everywhere, the reds, greens, blues, and yellows of the native parrots and toucans reflect the vibrant landscapes they inhabit. Multi-cultural, multi-lingual and multi-tribal, the land though strange and exotic is curiously familiar. Not to disparage the vitality of the Iberian culture, Mexico’s spice owes little to its Castilian heritage. Much of it stems from Mexico’s pre-Colonial past, from the peoples that brought the world chocolate, chilies, tobacco, rubber, and maize.
To history of a country is in the lives of its peoples. Mexico’s people are primarily of indigenous or Spanish origin, the majority being Mestizo (those possessing both Spanish and native blood lines). This article concentrates on the tribal groups that predate the Spanish invasion but that is not to say that the other minor groups are not important. Consider the small but influential German population which brought good beer and bad music, the French, mostly sent by Napoleon to support the ill-fated Austrian Emperor Maximilian, leaving tasty pastries and pretty parks, the few ex-Slaves of Afro-Caribbean origin who mostly settled in the state of Guerrero, recent refugees from US incursions into Central America and a significant current population of retirees from the US and Canada.
The first Westerners to visit Mexico had yet to discover the Pacific so they simply referred to the savages they encountered as ‘Indians’. Nowadays the rest of the Mexican population uses the more politically correct ‘indigenous’, or in the more remote areas they use names the tribes use for themselves. Mexico still has many tribes each with their own distinctive dress, crafts and languages, some having homelands smaller than the states of Luxembourg or Rhode Island. In general the larger and more powerful the tribe the more ‘integrated’ their people are into mainstream Mexican society. It has been 500 years since Cortez and little is left of those tribes that offered him resistance. During the 1500’s most of the larger and more powerful tribes were in Central Mexico and they were almost entirely annihilated.
When the Spanish arrived the land of Mexico was known by the Méxica as “The One World”. The Méxica’s world view stretched from the ferocious Yaqui’s of Chihuahua to the remnants of the great Mayan civilization on the Guatemalan border. Imagine their consternation on encountering the Spaniards.
The Méxica were the largest and most ferocious tribes of the ruling triple alliance in the early 1500’s. Their traders and armies extended their influence over most of Mexico. Historians often refer to the triple alliance as the Aztecs but the reality was more complex. The three people’s of the alliance were closely related and spoke various dialects of the Nahuatl language. To this day may indigenous in Central Mexico still speak Nahatl. They are mainly the remnants of the smaller and less influential northern Chichimeca tribes. They are still to be found in the colonial cities of Central Mexico their donkey’s laden down with bundles of firewood for sale.
The Spanish were thorough in their annihilation of their primary tribal adversaries. Within a few decades had ruthlessly expunged the Méxica raising their capital its ruins buried under downtown Mexico City. They then turned their attention to the other powerful tribes of New Spain. They quickly vanquished the invincible Tlaxcalans and the Purépecha of Michoácan. The Tlaxcalans chose to fight the Spaniards then later allied with them against their common enemy: the alliance. Their support was decisive in that war. In Michoácan the ruling elite of the proud Purépecha had heard tales of the ruthless Spanish conquest and decided it prudent not to offer resistance. They peacefully welcomed their new Spanish lords much to the conquerors consternation. Recovering quickly the Spaniards requested to speak only to the ruling class. The Purépecha lords and ladies came with their families dressed in their finest jewelry and textiles and were slaughtered on the spot.The pattern was familiar: eliminate the educated ruling classes, enlist their armies to defeat each other, suppress their languages, cultures and Gods enlisting the relentless Jesuits to inculcate Christianity and the Spanish language. That done it was down to the serious business of Colonization and for that they needed millions of workers. Having divided the plunder, the land, minerals, slaves and ‘free’ lower classes. They soon put the natives to work to create new wealth in the huge Hacienda’s and the Silver mines of central Mexico. The plan worked like a charm recovering the cost of war many times over.
Later the Spanish turned their attentions to the jungles of the South. In the lands surrounding the current state of Chiapas the great empire of the Maya had disintegrated some six hundred years previous. The fragmented Maya tribes offered little resistance but the geography of the southern isthmus and the Guatemalan border was difficult and merited less attention. As a result of benign neglect there are still many tribes living much as they have had for centuries. In Chiapas alone there are 11 mainly in the inaccessible mountain regions surrounding the city of San Cristobal De Las Casas. These peoples call themselves the Tzotzil, Tzeltal, Chol, Mam, Laconda, Kakchikel, Tojolabal, Mochó, Chuj, Kanjobal and Jacalteca. They still speak mutually incomprehensible Mayan dialects resisting even the use of Spanish.
Their treatment under the Spanish and the Mexican governments is reminiscent of that of ‘The Traveling People’ in Britain and Ireland, or the Romany Gypsies in central Europe but unlike their European counterparts they are fighting back. Just ten years back on the day the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into effect they considered that the situation become intolerable. They rose in violent revolution under the charismatic leadership of Sub-Commandante Marcos. They sought recognition, economic change and justice and were willing to fight for it. Thus began one of the first true media wars and the first war to use the Internet as its mouthpiece. Its not over yet.
When President Fox came to power three years ago he boasted that he could fix the Chiapas problem “in 15 minutes”. Since then 100,000 Zapatistas have marched to Mexico City to bring their grievances to the centers of power. As it turns out Fox’s boast was somewhat hollow and the Zapatista army (the EZLN) still finds itself in a ‘low intensity’ war with the Mexican army. As it turns out the sophisticated but highly complex EZLN economy might find it difficult to integrate into modern Mexico. Like their brothers in Bolivia it may prove that it is the Mexican government that needs to bend its own governmental structure to take in the realities of its ancient peoples and not vice versa. As it turns out there may be hope yet for the surviving Indians of the Americas. In fact they may have much to teach the rest of us in this the age of post-nationalism?