• Indigenous peoples in Mexico

    Indigenous peoples in Mexico

    There are 16,933,283 indigenous persons in Mexico, representing 15.1 per cent of the total Mexicans. Mexico has adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and is a declared pluricultural nation since 1992. Yet, the country’s indigenous population are still facing a number of challenges.

The Indigenous World 2021: Mexico

Mexico is home to 68 Indigenous Peoples, each speaking their own native language and together accounting for 364 variants. The 2020 Census, produced by the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI), indicated that 6.1% of the national population aged three years and over was registered as speaking an Indigenous language, being some 7.36 million people. This proportion was 6.6% in the 2010 Census. In addition, the 2020 Census noted that 11.8 million people live in Indigenous households in Mexico, 5.7 million of them men and 6.1 million women. In terms of native languages, Nahuatl continues to be the most widely spoken, with 22.5% of Indigenous language speakers, or 1.65 million people, followed by Mayan with 774,000 speakers (10.6%).[1] Two percent (2.0%) of the national population also reported being of African descent, of whom 7.4% confirmed speaking an Indigenous language.[2] It is, however, important to note that problems of under-reporting of the Indigenous population were exacerbated by the early suspension of census data collection due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Outside of census data, the National Institute of Indigenous Languages indicates that 25 million people identify as belonging to an Indigenous people.[3]

Due to marginalisation, discrimination, violence, land dispossession and a lack of access to decent housing and public health services, among other factors, Mexico’s Indigenous population has become one of the most vulnerable sectors to the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Indigenous communities decided to respond by designing and implementing their own methods and protocols to combat the pandemic, such as disseminating information through their community communication systems and in their native languages, restricting movements in and out of their territories, and ensuring a strengthened sense of solidarity and communality. The virus has, nonetheless, reached most of their regions.

Declaration of Los Pinos (Chapoltepek)

In Mexico City towards the end of February 2020, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the Mexican government published the “Declaration of Los Pinos (Chapoltepek). Building a Decade of Action for Indigenous Languages”, which set out the foundations on which the International Decade of Indigenous Languages (2022-2032) would be developed, with the aim of, among other things:

incorporating linguistic diversity and multilingualism into global frameworks for sustainable development, ensuring that Indigenous language users are recognised in the economic, political, social and cultural spheres through inclusive and equitable educational and learning environments, with the presence of mother-tongue languages in the provision of justice and public services, digital empowerment, and equal job opportunities in Indigenous languages.[4]

The pandemic has, however, demonstrated that those who speak an Indigenous language are precisely among the most vulnerable because they are excluded from health, education, employment, justice and food services.

Mexico’s Indigenous Peoples in the face of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic

The social and economic inequality prevalent in Mexico, which disproportionately affects the most vulnerable sectors of society, including the Indigenous population, is a determining factor in the way in which the population is suffering the pandemic today. Economic, social and health development indicators show that Indigenous Peoples present the lowest social development indicators in the country. They live in areas with the highest socioeconomic lag as a consequence, among other things, of unemployment (in 2018, 30.5% of this population were not in work).[5] Their inequality in comparison to other sectors of the population is also confirmed by a lack of basic infrastructure, including clean water and drainage services. According to INEGI[6] and data from the National Institute of Indigenous Peoples, 12.8% of the population does not have piped water in their homes, and 26.9% lacks a sewage system, making it more likely that they will suffer from health problems and making it even more difficult to face up to a pandemic situation. As UNESCO notes: “Water is of great value [in] the current health crisis”,[7] as is drainage.

In this context, the pandemic caught the Indigenous Peoples of Mexico by surprise, suffering as they were with various problems in their territories: deterioration of natural resources, political, interethnic and religious conflicts, and insufficient educational opportunities. In short, Indigenous Peoples’ asymmetric incorporation into the economy and the free market generally means they are disproportionately vulnerable and exposed to the pandemic. The following statistical estimates, based on data available from the Ministry of Health from January to December 2020, provide an overview of the impact of the pandemic on the Indigenous population.

Ministry of Health data[8] had recorded 9,439 negative, 719 suspected and 9,179 positive cases as of 24 September 2020, the latter figure more than doubling from the July figure of 4,140 cases. Of the positive cases recorded, as of 24 September 2020, 57% were male and 43% were female. The age groups currently most affected correspond to people of productive age, the highest proportion being between 45 and 49 years of age with 907 cases. Most of the Indigenous population (72%) who have become ill with COVID-19 are treated by the Ministry of Health and Welfare given that most of them do not have social security (83%), as noted in the National Household Income and Expenditure Survey 2018.[9]

As the pandemic progressed, 9,837 cumulative confirmed cases had been recorded by December 2020, 398 more than the number as of 24 September 2020. As for cumulative deaths, 1,661 were recorded up to December 2020, of which 1,092 were male and 569 female.[10] The pandemic affected the country's Indigenous regions differently, with the Maya and Huasteca regions having the highest number of cases, with 2,635 cases infected in the former and 858 people in the latter. This is followed by Montaña de Guerrero, one of the poorest and most marginalised regions in the country, with 359 cases. The Director of the Tlachinollan Human Rights Centre pointed out, in this regard, the lack of medical infrastructure and the effect this has on the death rate among those infected: “The difficulty in accessing COVID-19 tests for Indigenous Peoples and communities results in a higher death rate than among the general population”.[11] Other complications affecting Indigenous Peoples have been detected and are a result of the health situation in the country. A widespread strategy on the part of various peoples has been to close off access to their lands and territories as a protective measure in the face of deficient health coverage. Some aspects recorded by UNESCO’s Mexico office are as follows:

  • Food: when schools are closed, the school-age population on the Full-Time School Programme are unable to receive the meals on which they depend.
  • Education: limited access to technology (Internet and open TV signal, computers, tablets and mobile phones) restricts their educational training under the Mexican Ministry of Public Education’s “Learn at home” programme. This situation also affects their access to information related to the pandemic.
  • Domestic violence: due to the lockdown, violence against women has increased.[12]

These aspects bring into focus the inequalities that deeply affect Mexico’s Indigenous Peoples and exacerbate their living conditions in the face of the health crisis the world is currently experiencing. These adverse conditions have also been highlighted by various civil society organisations, which recommend several lines of action: information, health, economy and food, Indigenous migrant population, prevention of human rights violations and prevention of intra-community conflicts.8

In terms of education and access to information alone, the social distancing and suspension of activities implemented by the authorities requires computer equipment or mobile telephony and Internet access to be available, highlighting the unequal distribution of access to new information and communication technologies (ICTs). According to the National Survey on the Availability and Use of Information Technologies in Households, seven out of 10 Mexicans aged six years or above are Internet users (70.1%) but only 56.4% of households are connected to the Internet. Furthermore, in rural areas, the percentage of the population with Internet access is 47.7%[13] but only 19% of households in rural areas have an Internet connection; 19.3% own a computer or tablet, and 77.3% own a mobile phone. The states of Chiapas, Oaxaca and Guerrero have the lowest levels nationally on the ICT Development Index and these are, in turn, the states with the highest levels of poverty and Indigenous population.[14]

At the end of 2020, the National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy estimated that coronavirus cases had been recorded in 430 Indigenous municipalities (84.6%).[15] This is shocking if we consider that, according to official figures, in the month of July alone, the COVID-19 mortality rate among the Indigenous population was 18.8%, while in the rest of the national population it was 11.8%.[16]

There is fierce discussion around how official data on the impact of the pandemic in the country is being recorded. There have been virtually no cases of official recording that have taken the voice of Indigenous Peoples and their communities into account. For this reason, the Mapa de pueblos indígenas y negros de América Latina impactados por COVID-19 [Map of Indigenous and black peoples in Latin America affected by COVID-19], prepared by the University Programme for the Study of Cultural Diversity and Interculturality, represents an important effort to systematise the impact based on documentation produced by various Indigenous and black organisations and movements in Latin America, and this reveals that, by 31 August, there had been 568 peoples infected across 17 Latin American countries.[17]

The pandemic among Mexico City's Indigenous Peoples

One of the regions with the highest concentration of Indigenous population in the country is Mexico City, and the pandemic has particularly affected the Indigenous people living there, both migrant and native. One of the highest peaks of active COVID-19 cases was recorded during the first wave of infections in May, and one of the most affected communities was the town of San Gregorio Atlapulco, in the municipality of Xochimilco.[18] The Indigenous Peoples of Iztapalapa, Tláhuac, Contreras, Álvaro Obregón and other municipalities were also severely affected. On 12 July 2020, a list of settlements, towns and neighbourhoods that would receive priority attention due to the increase in infections was published, which gave 12 communities from six municipalities with 357 active cases of COVID-19 out of a total of 34 settlements and towns with 896 infections registered up to that point. Two months later, on 6 September 2020, the city government issued bulletin 519, which reported infections in 53 Indigenous communities in 10 of the city's municipalities.[19] Priority attention measures, such as the installation of rapid testing kiosks and mobile health centres near to the most affected neighbourhoods and towns, did not succeed in stopping the spread of infection. Although many villages and community organisations suspended their celebrations and invited people to follow ritual activities through social media, the intense collective activity that normally marks the daily lives of the communities was a disadvantage. Another factor that has hindered the control of the pandemic in these communities is their economic activities, such as agriculture or trade, which require transportation to large commercial distribution points such as the Central Market in Iztapalapa and travelling markets that move around the various neighbourhoods and towns throughout the week. While aimed at alleviating the economic devastation caused by the pandemic, the support planned by the government institutions does not take into account the dynamics of community life, in all its various facets, that take place throughout the length and breadth of the city.

 Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN)

In a press statement issued in March, the EZLN decreed a red alert in its territories due to the pandemic, considering it a “real, scientifically-proven threat” and criticising government institutions for their lack of gravity in dealing with it. They also pointed out the lack of accurate and timely information on the severity of the virus, as well as the absence of any real plan to “face up to the threat”. For this reason, they decided to close the Good Government Councils and the rebel autonomous municipalities, urging them not to cease their work to combat violence against women.[20]

In October, the EZLN issued the press statement “A mountain on the high seas” in which, along with various statements against gender violence, environmental depredation, and management of the pandemic by government bodies, they announced a tour of several European countries during 2021, with a delegation composed largely of women, in the context of the “500 years of the alleged conquest of what is now Mexico”. This will conclude on 13 August (day of the fall of the emblematic city of Tenochtitlan) in Madrid, Spain, with the statement: "We were not conquered. We continue in resistance and rebellion.”[21]


José del Val, Director of the University Programme for the Study of Cultural Diversity and Interculturality (PUIC-UNAM); Juan Mario Pérez Martínez, Technical Secretary of PUIC-UNAM; Carolina Sánchez García, Academic Secretary of PUIC-UNAM and María Teresa Romero Tovar, Coordinator of Education and Teaching, PUIC-UNAM.

This article is part of the 35th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced.  Find The Indigenous World 2021 in full here


Notes and references 

[1] INEGI, “Population and Housing Census 2020”. Mexico, INEGI, 2021. Available at https://www.inegi.org.mx/contenidos/programas/ccpv/2020/doc/Censo2020_Principales_resultados_EUM.pdf


2 “En el país, 25 millones de personas se reconocen como indígenas: INALI” [INALI states that 25 million people self-identify as Indigenous in the country]. INALI, 8 February 2019. Available at https://www.inali.gob.mx/es/comunicados/701-2019-02-08-15-22-50.html

3 INEGI, “Population and Housing Census 2020”. Op. Cit.

[4] UNESCO: “Los Pinos Declaration [Chapoltepek] lays foundations for global planning for the International Decade of Indigenous Languages”. UNESCO, 21 July 2020. Available at https://en.unesco.org/news/pinos-declaration-chapoltepek-lays-foundations-global-planning-international-decade-indigenous

[5] INEGI, “Household Income and Expenditure Survey, ENIGH”. Mexico, INEGI, 2018.

Sánchez C. “La migración indígena mexicana interna e internacional”. In Remesas y migración en comunidades indígenas de México, Roldán G. and Sánchez, C. Mexico, UNAM, 2015.

[6] INEGI. “Intercensal Population and Housing Survey, 2015”. Mexico, INEGI, 2015.

[7] UNESCO. “Indigenous Peoples and COVID-19: The view from Mexico”. UNESCO, 4 August 2020. Available at https://en.unesco.org/news/indigenous-peoples-and-covid-19-view-mexico accessed on 26 January 2021.

[8] Ministry of Health (SSA). “COVID-19 México: panorama en población que se reconoce como indígena”. Mexico, SSA, 24 September 2020.

[9] INEGI, “Household Income and Expenditure Survey, ENIGH”. Op. cit.

[10] Gómez Mena, Carolina. “Llega a 12 mil 526 la cifra de indígenas contagiados” [The number of infected Indigenous people comes to 12,526]. La Jornada, 24 December 2020.

[11] Aura Investigación Estratégica, Tlachinolla. Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Human Rights Center, A.C., et al. “Los pueblos y comunidades indígenas frente al COVID-19 en México”. 2020. Available at http://docplayer.es/192941368-Los-pueblos-y-comunidades-indigenas-frente-al-covid-19-en-mexico.html

[12] INEGI. “Intercensal Population and Housing Survey, 2015”. Op. cit.

[13] INEGI, “Statistics for World Internet Day (17 May). National data”. Mexico, INEGI, 14 May 2020. Available at https://www.inegi.org.mx/contenidos/saladeprensa/aproposito/2020/eap_internet20.pdf

[14] Gómez Navarro, Dulce Angélica and Martínez Domínguez, Marlen, (n/d). “Brechas digitales indígenas en tiempos de COVID-19”. Mexico, Ichan Tecolotl CIESAS. Available at: https://ichan.ciesas.edu.mx/brechas-digitales-indigenas-en-tiempos-de-covid-19-2/

[15] García, Ana Karen. “El COVID-19 alcanzó a 8 de cada 10 comunidades indígenas en México” [COVID-19 reached 8 out of 10 Indigenous communities in Mexico]. El Economista, 9 January 2021. Available at https://www.eleconomista.com.mx/politica/El-Covid-19-alcanzo-a-8-de-cada-10-comunidades-indigenas-en-Mexico-20210109-0001.html

[16] FILAC. “COVID tiene letalidad de 18.8% en pueblos indígenas: UNAM” [COVID fatality rate 18.8% among Indigenous Peoples]. FILAC, 6 July 2020. Available at https://www.filac.org/wp/comunicacion/actualidad-indigena/covid-tiene-letalidad-de-18-8-en-pueblos-indigenas-unam/

[17] PUIC-UNAM, “Pueblos Indígenas y Negros de América Latina Impactados por COVID-19” [Indigenous and Black peoples of Latin America affected by COVID-19]. Mexico, PUIC-UNAM. Available at http://www.nacionmulticultural.unam.mx/pueblos-covid19/

[18] “Si vives en CDMX consulta este mapa y conoce cuántos casos activos de COVID hay en tu colonia” [If you live in Mexico City, check this map to find out how many active cases of COVID there are in your neighbourhood]. Animal Político, 29 June 2020. Available at https://www.animalpolitico.com/2020/06/mapa-cdmx-casos-activos-covid-colonia/

[19] Mexico City Government. “Fortalece gobierno capitalino programa de colonias, pueblos y barrios de atención prioritaria por COVID-19 para atender más casos” [Capital's government strengthens programme of priority attention neighborhoods, towns and districts to address more cases of COVID-19]. Mexico City Government, 6 September 2020.

[20] “EZLN decreta ‘alerta roja’ por coronavirus y cierra sus centros de autogobierno en Chiapas” [EZLN decrees 'red alert' for coronavirus and closes its self-government centres in Chiapas]. Aristegui Noticias, 17 March 2020. Available at https://aristeguinoticias.com/1703/mexico/ezln-decreta-alerta-roja-por-coronavirus-y-cierra-sus-centros-de-autogobierno-en-chiapas/

[21] Press statement from the Clandestine Revolutionary Indigenous Committee. “Sexta parte: Una montaña en alta mar” [Sixth part: a mountain on the high seas]. Mexico, Enlace Zapatista. 5 October 2020. Available at http://enlacezapatista.ezln.org.mx/2020/10/05/sexta-parte-una-montana-en-alta-mar/

Romero, María Teresa. “Sentido de comunidad y política en Los Reyes, Coyoacán”. Doctoral thesis in Anthropology, UNAM, Mexico, 2015.

Sánchez, Carolina, “La migración indígena mexicana interna e internacional”. In Remesas y migración en comunidades indígenas de México, Roldán G. and Sánchez, C. UNAM, Mexico, 2015.



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