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Mexico's indigenous peoples

Stan Gotlieb and Diana Ricci


These kids are Tarahumara indians who live in the Copper Canyon area. The Tarahumara are among the most marginalized of Mexico's indigenous peoples, and suffer from severe drought in the summer and near-zero temperatures in the winter. Fiercely independent and insular, they do not benefit much from the tourist boom that is hitting their area.

Poverty, brutality, hopelessness and despair exist just about everywhere, so it will no doubt not surprise you that they can also be found in Mexico. Over half the population here currently lives below the poverty line, and over 20% cannot read or write (over 50% among the indigenous population of Chiapas). The social services system, operating on drastically lowered government funding, has been forced into drastic cutbacks. Unemployment as a percentage of the population has increased, particularly among the unskilled and semiskilled workers that constitute the majority of the Mexican work force. Inflation, far outstripping the compensation package for those that do have jobs, has resulted in a 20% drop in real wages in the last four years (since NAFTA). The Autonomous National University of Mexico (UNAM) can accept only 1 out of every 8 qualified applicants for admission to the 1998/99 school year.

Higher costs and lower margins for farmers, suffering from "austerity measures" that took back needed subsidies for fertilizer and seed grains, and subsequent failures among the small businesses dependent on farmers for their income, have resulted in hundreds of thousands of new arrivals every year, to further swell the already overcrowded, polluted and drug-ridden slums of Mexico City, and, to a lesser extent, every state capital.

All this has resulted in a population that is more impoverished, more needy of help than it has been in recent times. More disease, and fewer drugs and lab reagents in the National Health (IMSS) clinics; more students and fewer books in the schools; more gangs and drugs and fewer opportunities for legitimate income in the inner cities; more abandoned and abused children.

If this situation doesn't sound familiar to you, it should. The conditions I have described can be found on virtually all Reservations and poor barrios in the U.S.A., the legacy of race prejudice, "free market" transnational globalization of national economies, and boom-and-bust cycles created by swift movements of capital in and out.

Charity will not solve the problem, although it certainly will help some people momentarily. It may make you feel better about yourself (not an invalid reason for doing something), but it will not affect the basic conditions from which the problem arises. Only political movements aimed at fundamentally changing the system can make a lasting difference.

Not all of us are suited for politics. Politics is a tricky business, requiring constant vigilance and some analytic tools that not all of us have. It is often filled with meaningless rhetoric, unrevealed ambition, and hidden agendas. Unsuited by temperament or training for a political life, many of us still have the urge to "do something useful".

The impulse to be charitable, springing as it does from the principles we learn in our places of worship, our schools, and our homes, is a good impulse. It makes us feel good, and it keeps the spirit of community alive. Clearly for those of us who cannot act politically, it is preferable to not acting at all. I would never try to suppress this impulse in anyone. I would only ask them to exercise it closer to home.

Taking your charitable impulse (or feelings of guilt or inadequacy, or whatever motivates you) to a foreign country is at best a cop-out and at worst a form of colonialism. To understand this better, let me give you an example. Jean lives in a northern city in the U.S., and works as a professional. She earns a good salary, and has bought a condo downtown near her place of employment. She chose a building with very good security, including a guard at night, because there have been a great many break-ins in her neighborhood. She is uncomfortable with locking her car doors when she leaves her underground garage, but is forced to do so, due to an escalation of car-jackings in the last few months. She votes Democrat and sometimes for an "independent", and hopes for the best. She longs to leave the dangerous and confusing milieu in which she lives, and sometimes fantasizes moving to Mexico. "Why," she asks herself in the words of Rodney King, "can't we all get along?"

She spends her vacation time in Mexico, and she is planning to take a sabbatical so she can really get to know the people and the area. She has gotten involved, in a superficial way (mostly giving money) with a local charity that dedicates itself to helping poor indigenous folks improve their lot in life. When she sees the rickets, the preventable diseases, the nearly unimaginable poverty of the people she supports, it breaks her heart - as well it should. When she goes home, she takes pictures, literature, and personal tales to share with her friends and relatives, hoping that they will also get involved in this worthy endeavor. Meanwhile, in her neighborhood, the incidences of teenage pregnancy, fetal alcohol syndrome, crack addiction, gang drive-by shootings, school dropout, and incarceration of young men of color are all escalating.

In the U.S., our "needy" are not nearly as seemingly greatful for our white middle class largesse as are the more polite Mexicans. They seem to expect and demand help, and when they don't get it they cause trouble. It just seems that throwing money at the social problems at home doesn't accomplish much, and it's pretty thankless.

Mexican society is more stratified, with European blood and features more prized than indigenous ones. The undereducated and overwhelmed peasant and Indian populations (often the same) grow up in a society that places more value on politeness, patience, and knowing one's place. It's more rewarding for many of us to give in Mexico, where it seems that they need it - and appreciate it -- so much more.

Am I saying that we want the most feelgood for our bucks? I think so. Am I saying this is bad? Absolutely not. Do-gooders who come down here, on the whole, do more good than harm. What I am saying is that in terms of making the world a better place to live, they are spinning their wheels. I think it's HARDER to deal with the problems we have at home, but that that is where we should be doing it. I think that charitable imperialism is just another side of the economic imperialism which we practice against the other peoples of the world.

If you still choose to invest your time and energy in charitable work down here, check out the organization. If it is headed by U.S. citizens, and mostly uses temporary volunteers who come down for a little while and then leave again, then, no matter how well intentioned, it will look like a put-down to the people whom it is designed to help, and they will eventually treat it as another way to hustle the tourists. Try instead to find a truly grass-roots organization, whose leadership comes from the local people.

Often, such organizations are hard to join. The leaders may insist that you make a long-term commitment to stay and work. They may tell you that you must learn Spanish first. They may require you to become familiar with local customs and practices before you participate. They may act as if they don't want foreigners participating at all, although they are glad to accept donations of goods or money.

I would suggest to you that such organizations are more worthy of your assistance. They share with similar organizations in the U.S. reservations and ghettos, a pride and a focus on the problem that is often discomforting to outsiders, but more likely to be effective. And effective is what it's all about.

All this is just to say, if you want to dispense charity, try doing it at home, where the people speak your language and share your customs to some degree. To give is divine, but to give effectively is also to receive. The person you help may not grow up to be the one who tries to jack your car.

Photography by Diana Ricci

Published or Updated on: September 1, 2000 by Stan Gotlieb and Diana Ricci © 2008
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