The Plight of the Indigenous People of the Americas

A Peruvian lady and her llama friends
A Peruvian lady and her llama friends

In most of the New World, starting from Mexico and going all the way down to Argentina*, there is an almost invisible form of slavery and segregation aimed towards the own citizens of each country.

Who am I talking about? I’m talking about the Indigenous people of the Americas. This is their story. Warning: The following paragraphs will contain a very harsh and heartbreaking truth; please proceed with caution and remember to always have an open-mind.

“They took our gold and they gave us bibles.”

As most of you already know, the Spaniard conquest of the American continent was a military and religious operation aimed to not only destroy the morale and temples of the indigenous people but also to slave them to the European way of thinking.  Sadly, it worked.

If you ask a Mayan person today about Kukulcán and the temple at Chichén Itzá, he/she will tell you that it’s all a fable and that his/her ancestors were clearly insane to worship said deity since the only true savior is none other than Jesus. No, I’m not trying to be witty here; those are exactly the direct words I heard from a local tour guide at the Mayan Ruins of Palenque.

How sad is that?

Can you imagine a Muslim saying that about Allah? Can you picture an Hindu saying the same about Vishnu? How about a Buddhist completely dismissing the mere existence of Siddhartha Gautama?

Why are the Mesoamerican religions dismissed as myths and fables while the European/Asian ones treated with respect and veneration?

When 2012 was coming to an end and the sensationalist news featured the Mayan Calendar (and of course, 8 out of 10 newscasts featured instead a picture of the Aztec “Calendar”, which isn’t really a calendar at all…) and the prophecy about the end of the world, one of the main features was segments about “What would the Mayans say if they existed today…” while completing ignoring that the Mayans still exist in modern-day Mexico/Guatemala/Belize/Honduras.

And yet…do they really exist today or are they just an empty-shell of their former selves? Did the Spaniards kill the true cultural heritage of our ancestors? When did all of this begin?

Understanding the causes of racism against the Indigenous People

Once the Spaniards settled in the New World, they began to have extramarital affairs with the indigenous females, giving birth to a new mixed race of people, whom we call Mestizos. Today, it is extremely rare (if not outright impossible) to find a pureblooded Spaniard descendent of the original settlers since all of us are of mixed race, something that sets us apart from the modern day citizens of the USA and Canada.

Only the sons of Spaniards had access to education so it was only natural that the Indigenous people fell far behind in the politics and society of the New World, their roles of proud warriors and bright astronomers was now reduced to cheap labor on the agricultural fields and the production of textiles.

Mestizos were taught to completely obliterate all traces of their indigenous roots and embrace instead the European mold in order to be true Spaniards and enjoy a limited share of privileges. Even after the Independence Wars of the 19th century, this way of thinking prevailed.

Today, in Mexico, it is extremely common for phrases such as “Eres un Indio” to be used as an insult against uneducated people, regardless of their ethnicity. In fact, the only Indigenous President of the history of Mexico, Benito Juarez, was actually raised and educated in the city (under the patronage of a Franciscan layman) ever since he was 12 years old.

He never related to the plight of the Indigenous people since he could never identify with the average one. It’s not that different than USA President Barack Obama and the fact that he simply cannot relate at all to the average African Americans since his background is extremely different from theirs.

The Indigenous people today

Governments came and went and the Indigenous people remained segregated from the main society. Of course, in theory they have the same opportunities as everybody else. They can go to school (after walking for 4 hours in order to reach it!), apply for a scholarship at any college (no affirmative action in Latin America!) and obtain any skilled job they want (as long as they have a name that can be easily pronounced!) and yet…they have to integrate in order to be fully accepted by the main society.

Last year I read in the news about the case of an Indigenous university student at Mexico who entered a coffee shop after classes and was told by the barista “No street sellers allowed here, get out immediately!” Just because she was proudly wearing her traditional clothes she was deemed unworthy of taking a seat while drinking a coffee she was willingly to pay for!

What kind of world are we living in? In Peru, the average city-dweller citizen tries its best to distance himself/herself from his/her Indigenous roots. If you go to a dinner with a Peruvian family, all you will hear is how they have a German relative, how their great-great-grand-father was from France and things like that. It’s as if they were ashamed of their origins.

It’s not an issue of being white versus being brown anymore. After all, the average Latin American citizen is all shades of brown. No… the issue seems to be about trying to be as European as possible while diminishing the rich cultural roots that we all share with the Indigenous people.

Before being a Mexican, I was an Aztec. There’s no denying that. I don’t want to pretend to be European. I don’t want to follow a religion that was imposed by blood. I don’t want to conform to the racism that we are implementing against our own brothers and sisters. I want to make a change. I want people of Latin America to read this and understand that the Indigenous people ARE our ancestors. Will you help me spread the message?

*Disclaimer: Why are the USA and Canada excluded from this essay? I made the choice of doing so because the average citizen of those countries has no relation via blood or culture to the indigenous people that inhabited the land before him/her.

Also because they both have programs meant to “benefit” the indigenous people of their country by excluding them from the main society in order to “protect” their unique heritage while also giving them special legal “privileges”.

Yes, the quotation marks are done on purpose.

A Peruvian lady and her llama friends
A Peruvian lady and her llama friends

29 Comments

  • It is a much bigger problem than this article can express. I think that for me as a person who is European will be difficult to understand what other people may feel, what complexes they may have or what social interactions may push for in those societies but I always say: For a sake of…. who ever said that Europe is ‘the better place”? Look how many Europeans come to your countries, fall in love with people, cultures and never want to go back!

    • It’s funny now that you mention it. Still, the average Latin America mentality is to view everything that comes from the Old World (plus USA, Canada, NZ, Australia and Japan) as inherently superior to what is locally produced. Chocolate was invented at Mexico and yet, Mexicans prefer to buy Swiss and French chocolate! Not because of the taste or quality but rather because of the country of origin itself :o

      • The most satirical part of the equation is that local Mexican companies are now starting to use European/American sounding names in order to fool Mexicans into buying their products!!! Vittorio Forti, Men’s Factory, Aldo Conti…all designed, produced and marketed ONLY in Mexico by Mexicans.

  • Thank you for sharing…thought-provoking. I noticed some of these patterns in Argentina, for instance the sharp contrast between northern provinces which kept strong records of their mesoamerican roots, on the one hand, and the center/southern provinces where the emphasis is more on the European roots, almost at the expense of not reflecting the history of populations before the arrival of spaniards and later on, Spanish and Italian immigrant communities.

    • A writer once said “Humans came from the monkey while Argentinians came from a boat”. Of course, he was only referring to the people of Buenos Aires, where it is almost impossible to find an indigenous person. Whenever travelers say that Uruguay and Argentina are almost-European countries, I always tell them to go to the provinces and find the real inhabitants.

  • I guess where I came from, the Philippines, and Mexico, have the same history. The Spaniards colonized the Philippines ( 1521 ) for almost 400 years, and yes, the pure Spaniards and mestizos dominated the country. ( and though I’m half breed too, my dad’s grandfather was pure Spaniard, I consider myself native Filipino )

      • “I believe that it is the duty of us Mestizos to bridge the gap that the oppressors once created against the oppressed.”

        Were the Mestizos ever oppressors? Or can you honestly and truthfully answer this question?

        I do enjoy this website. I am somebody who had no choice about my ethnicity or heritage, so I don’t take pride in either. I work toward greater peace for all people everywhere.

  • The conquerors and the conquered; such a horrific historic legacy humans leave in their wake. The article was very well done. Your photos were excellent as well.

  • Very interesting article. Sometime it’s unbelievable how something that happened so long ago can still have an effect on the present. I’ve seen this prejudice you speak about in some of my hispanic friends. It truly is sad how some things become so ingrained in a society that it almost becomes normal and acceptable. It’s difficult to eradicate. Difficult but not impossible of course!

    • I agree with your optimism! I dream of the day when the Indigenous people will start to get the recognition they proudly deserve. The most astonishing accomplishments in terms of architecture and astronomy of the complete continent were made way before the Spaniards and British even arrived!

  • Incredible that this is still going on. I’m part Irish-American and am always amazed when I see signs in Antique stores here reading, “No Irish Need Apply”, because my immigrant relatives were considered “dirty”. Yet, time has changed all of that…as it should! Strange that, instead, as the commenter above me stated, things became so ingrained in the Indigenous people of the Americas that it became normal and acceptable to be ashamed.Terrible!

    On a side track, and from an entirely American point of view, we have done something similar with Native American peoples (my ancestry is also part Mic Mac) and are, today, still labeling immigrants as “illegal aliens” though most of our ancestors were once “illegal aliens”. I remember hearing about a map created in 1562 in The Library of Congress: http://www.loc.gov/resource/g3290.ct000342/ that, some think, proves that the Aztecs were actually in America before any of us. Wouldn’t that be ironic to the “Americans” who don’t want other cultures “intruding” upon us. Not sure if there’s any truth to it but it certainly is an interesting theory.

    I hope that change does come to this, once strong, culture. Wonderful post, Raphael! Extremely thought-provoking.

    • I agree, most travelers will only interact with the indigenous people that are selling souvenirs and food, as well as the ones performing cultural shows (shows that normally hire athletic mixed race people since they are taller). And, while other cultures actively discourage their citizens from buying stuff from kids, in some cases, this is the only option available for them to earn money since studying is not an option for many. At least it is a better option than being locked away in a factory producing Chinese goods.

  • Do you know the film ‘even the rain’? It is a brilliant film from 2010 about a Spanish film crew who is filming a film about Colombus and the conquistadores. The director and cast are all shocked by the story and the exploitation, but in reality the director himself exploits indigenous people from Bolivia by only paying them $2 a day as film extras. It is a really clever film and I can’t describe it very well at all, but if you haven’t watched it is really worth watching.

  • This is a great article and glad you could express yourself and thoughts. I see the problem in Costa Rica as well – to be called indigenous or “indian” is an insult and I’ve heard girls who get mad if people think they’re “indians” because their skin color is dark like theirs. And then there is the other side, I know Costa Ricans who are descendants of Mestizos and deny having any Spanish blood. Honestly there are so many mixed races out there but be proud of who you are, is what I think and stay true to your roots.

    • Yes, it is very bad that there’s a social stigma associated with the I-word. I’m sure that those mixed race girls who deny being indigenous don’t realize the irony of their way of thinking. On the other hand, I’m very proud to have Aztec, Mayan, Inca and Spanish blood in my veins!

  • I’d like to think that attitudes are changing. It’s very slow, to be sure, but it is happening. At least in some places. I spent nearly seven months in South America last year – the places that were most interesting politically, Ecuador and Bolivia, were also the two countries that seemed to take Indigenous issues most seriously.

    • Bolivia is a very interesting case since a huge majority of the population is 100% indigenous (even their President) and yet, the wealth of the country lies at the hand of the White/Mestizo population.

  • interesting views..
    I agree, history and current situations of certain countries are generally overlooked by most “modern day” travellers, they don’t want to see the day to day life, they just want to see the tourist things – nothing wrong with that but hard to appreciate a country and its culture and history.,

    • One hour in a museum can teach me more about the country’s culture than spending one week living with an indigenous local family. But spending one week with an indigenous local family can teach me something very important that is overlooked at all museums: Values.

  • Really interesting post! I’m in South America right now, and I’ve been learning in a few free city tours about the ways that the Spanish conquistadors got the Indigenous people to convert to their religion – things like mixing their deities with the Catholic churches, and putting mirrors into churches so that the Inca people thought the Catholic god had their soles. However, I have noticed that many people here are very proud of their Indiginous heritage, and especially in the Andes a number of pre-catholic deities and rituals are surviving – in Arequipa for example many farmers still sacrifice the best lama for Pachamama every year. Very interesting post – got me thinking even more about the situation!

  • Dear Raphael, I am touched by the article. I share the same feelings when it comes to India. I didn’t know how deep the situation was in South America. I once asked my Brazilian friend about native tribes of Brazil (I did that on purpose). He didn’t know of any and casually said – “There might be some living in forests out there”. I believe that everyones identity and culture should be respected and accepted as it is. Not that we try to impose our own on them by doing things like mixing statues of gods with their places of worship or by giving special preference to kids born in spanish families. The “tactics” to do conversions are same in India. “Take away a persons pride in his own self and show yourself as superior so that the other person starts following you”. However, as a traveller, this thing gets clearly visible to me. Good that the new government is inculcating a sense of pride among Indians for homemade goods and for their own culture.
    I like your blog. I am going to follow you on facebook :) Hope we could have talked at TBEX :) Maybe Costa Brava.

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