Stephen E. Lewis. Rethinking Mexican Indigenismo: The INI's Coordinating Center in Highland Chiapas and the Fate of a Utopian Project. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2018. 360 pp. $75.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8263-5902-5.
Reviewed by Joshua C. Walker (Bard High School Early College Cleveland)
Published on H-LatAm (March, 2019)
Commissioned by Casey M. Lurtz (Johns Hopkins University)
In Rethinking Mexican Indigenismo, Stephen E. Lewis investigates the efforts of Mexico’s National Indigenist Institute (INI), a federal agency tasked with delivering education, health care, and economic opportunities to Mexico’s indigenous people. (“Indigenismo” is a term to describe projects like these aimed at indigenous people). The goal, in the words of the agency’s first director, Alfonso Caso, was to “make these millions of indigenous Mexicans feel like Mexicans; to integrate them” (p. 7). In the aftermath of ten-plus years of fighting and destruction during the Mexican Revolution (1910 to 1920), indigenismo offered a way to rebuild a more inclusive nation and reverse the exploitation of indigenous people that had helped ignite the conflict. As Mexico urbanized in the 1950s and 1960s, officials also hoped that indigenismo would convert Indians into consumers of manufactured goods and efficient producers of low-priced food. Lewis tracks the successes and failures of this project in the highlands of central Chiapas, site of the INI’s flagship Coordinating Center. The study is loosely bounded by the founding of this Coordinating Center in 1951 and the end of the administration of Mexican president and INI supporter Luis Echeverría in 1976.
Lewis argues that the INI was not a monolithic organization and that it changed over time. It started out as a prestigious institution led by Mexico’s top anthropologists. Their goals were ambitious: they chose to begin their project in Chiapas precisely because it was one of the country’s most isolated states. INI officials commissioned studies to understand and eventually reverse decades-long abuses of indigenous people by ladinos (non-indigenous people). It was a grand effort meant to restructure the economy of highland Chiapas on more equal terms, and Lewis calls it the INI’s “utopian” project. Results included new schools and Spanish-language programs for indigenous children (detailed in chapter 2), road-building programs (chapter 3), initiatives to eradicate diseases like typhus and whooping cough (chapters 3 and 7), attempts to help indigenous people form consumer cooperatives (chapters 3 and 5), and agricultural assistance and livestock improvement programs (chapter 5). Like other scholars in the post-revisionist school of twentieth-century Mexican history, Lewis shows how these programs came about only after intense negotiations and cooperation with members of the indigenous communities they were meant to help. Indigenous “promoters,” young people trained at the Coordinating Center, helped with this process by introducing new programs to their home communities (chapter 2). A traveling puppet troop whose characters dressed in local garb and spoke local languages also delivered the INI’s message (chapter 6). The programs did not always take hold in the ways that INI officials envisioned, and they were most successful when INI personnel respected and participated in local customs.
Lewis shows how the dreams of officials for this indigenous utopia faded into something more modest over time. A critical event was a confrontation in 1953 and 1954 with a Chiapas alcohol manufacturer backed by the state government (chapter 4). The company had a monopoly on alcohol production in the state and was notorious for selling Indians overpriced alcohol sometimes laced with toxic chemicals. INI officials sided with indigenous villagers in their bloody battles against state police who confiscated villagers’ unauthorized distilleries. Negotiations with state officials on this issue gave the INI what Lewis deems a “pyrrhic victory” (p. 112). The alcohol company lost their monopoly, but INI officials were forced to give up their utopian goal of restructuring the entire economy of highland Chiapas. Instead, INI officials began focusing more on delivering programs to individual communities and their residents. The INI’s utopian mission was also hampered by inadequate federal funding starting around 1955 (chapter 8) and a resultant “brain drain” of talented anthropologists and social scientists to other organizations (p. 178). As more Mexicans moved to cities that lacked transportation infrastructure, housing, and other services, the ruling party (the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, or the PRI) focused more attention and funding on urban areas. Indigenismo became less urgent.
Lewis claims that the INI was also surprisingly conservative in its approach to politics within villages. Former INI promoters often became wealthy and powerful as a result of their training with the INI, and this gave them access to leadership positions in their communities. As the INI’s relevance in Chiapas faded along with its budget, these former promoters used violence and intimidation to drive out younger, more radical people and organizations. INI officials largely tolerated this so long as these new leaders were delivering votes for the PRI (chapters 9 and 11).
Lewis’s conclusion stresses the INI’s mixed record. It failed in its stated mission to integrate Indians, and it failed to eradicate crippling poverty in Chiapas and other states. However, it provided important medical help and education for thousands of indigenous people, and its focus on indigenous dignity and uplift laid the groundwork for political movements of indigenous people premised on the same ideas, including (but not limited to) the 1994 Zapatista rebellion.
My overall evaluation of the book is positive. As “the first book-length history in English of Mexico’s INI and its emblematic Coordinating Center in Chiapas,” the book provides much-needed historical context (p. 13). Lewis’s deployment of sources is also superb. The book is largely based on archival files from Chiapas and Mexico City. Government publications provide crucial details, as do quotes from interviews with top INI officials. Lewis works with a formerly classified report about the alcohol monopoly in Chiapas to back up much of the fourth chapter. In that chapter, Lewis also does a great job of reading the context surrounding his sources. He uses the unfinished condition of economist Alejandro Marroquín’s survey of ladinos in the highlands as evidence that the INI terminated Marroquín’s cutting-edge research when political pressure became too intense. Archival files are often incomplete or unfinished, and Lewis reminds us that this too is evidence.
The book is fun to read, in part because Lewis has a great eye for surprising stories. Chapter 10 focuses on what must have been a deliciously awkward conference in 1971 between the president of Mexico, the INI’s highest officials, and three anthropologists who had published scathing critiques of the INI. I wanted to keep reading just to see how these three parties would get along. Chapter 6 tells of villagers’ interactions with the puppets who came to teach them the government’s lessons. Some indigenous people attributed religious powers to the puppets, a shocking reversal when one considers that the puppeteers were in many ways trying to teach them to think beyond religion and tradition. Lewis’s poetic narration of these and other surprising situations kept me turning the pages. Descriptive subheadings in each chapter helped me to organize my thoughts, as did the map, historical background, and list of actors in the first chapter.
On the other hand, I would have appreciated more explanation of the research question guiding this book. Relatedly, the word “rethinking” in the title seems to indicate an intervention in the existing literature, but the average reader may very well miss Lewis’s glancing critiques of authors like Estelle Tarica, Analisa Taylor, R. Aída Hernandez Castillo, Emiko Saldívar Tanaka, and, to a lesser extent, Jan Rus and Alexander S. Dawson. Digging through footnotes is a must to understand historiographical context, a surprise in a book that asks us to rethink.
Nevertheless, Lewis succeeds in showing how INI officials, often remembered only by their failures, took big risks and made some progress toward improving indigenous people’s lives. Rethinking Mexican Indigenismo is a comprehensive and nuanced investigation of an organization that looms large in the history of twentieth-century Mexico. It is a great read for anyone who wants to understand the INI, highland Chiapas, or indigenous development projects in the Western Hemisphere.
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Joshua C. Walker. Review of Lewis, Stephen E., Rethinking Mexican Indigenismo: The INI's Coordinating Center in Highland Chiapas and the Fate of a Utopian Project.
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