• 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 2022: Mexico

Mexico is home to 68 Indigenous Peoples, each speaking their own native language and together comprising 364 different variants. According to the 2020 Census, 6.1% of the population aged over three was recorded as speaking an Indigenous language, or some 7.36 million people. The equivalent figure in the 2010 Census was 6.6%. The 2020 Census furthermore indicated that 11.8 million people were living in Indigenous households, 5.7 million of them men and 6.1 million of them women.

In terms of Indigenous languages, Nahuatl continues to be the most widely spoken, accounting for 22.5% of Indigenous language speakers or 1.65 million people, followed by Mayan with 774,000 speakers (10.6%).[i] In addition, 2.0% of the national population indicate that they belong to an Afro-descendant people, of which 7.4% confirm speaking an Indigenous language.[ii] It is, however, important to note that issues of under-reporting of the Indigenous population were exacerbated by the early suspension of census data collection due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to the census data, the National Institute of Indigenous Languages suggests that 25 million people identify as belonging to an Indigenous people.[iii]

Due to factors such as marginalisation, discrimination, violence, land grabbing and lack of access to decent housing and public health services, the Indigenous population in Mexico has been particularly vulnerable to the pandemic. To respond to this, Indigenous communities decided to design and implement their own methods and protocols to combat COVID-19, such as disseminating information through their community communication channels and in their native languages, restricting people from entering or leaving their territories, and strengthening their sense of solidarity and community, among other things.

Indigenous women in Mexico

According to data from the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI), there were 3,783,447 women speakers of an Indigenous language in Mexico in 2020. This figure increases if we take into account all those women who self-identify as belonging to an Indigenous people, as they number 11,949,189, or 51.4% of this population.

The current situation of Indigenous women in Mexico is blighted by the most serious forms of discrimination, racialisation and structural violence. They suffer from educational, health and economic difficulties that result in real barriers to their development and well-being. Despite this, however, they play a fundamental role as key agents in the production, dissemination and reproduction of their peoples’ and communities’ culture, promoting actions aimed at addressing the problems they face. Zapotec women, for example, are promoting “resilience, self-care, collective health, and strengthened community identity and roots”.[iv] The Oaxaca State Institute of Public Education has also highlighted their role as poets, writers, academics, researchers, singer-songwriters, traditional midwives, healers, cooks, artisans and athletes.[v]

Alongside this, however, statistics show that they have the poorest rates of education in relation to men in terms of illiteracy (64.6%)[vi] and lesser school attendance between the ages of 12 and 14.[vii] This has an impact on their employment opportunities as well as their employment rate, which is even lower than that of non-Indigenous women (17.7% vs. 22.9%).[viii] They also frequently suffer domestic violence: 59% have experienced emotional, physical, sexual, economic or asset-related violence.[ix] Risks during pregnancy have resulted in a maternal death rate of 11.2% among this population.[x] This is coupled with a high level of fertility that is reflected globally: an average of 2.85 children per woman was recorded in 2019.[xi] The National Institute of Public Health has emphasised in this regard that: “Living conditions (...) make it difficult for them to enjoy good food or timely access to health services, (...) frequent pregnancies and heavy workloads result in a series of illnesses and diseases”.[xii]

In addition to the above, some Indigenous women have experienced obstetric violence in health centres where they suffer “disrespectful, abusive, neglectful treatment or denial thereof [...] during the pregnancy, childbirth or postpartum period”.[xiii] These situations are aggravated by the fact that they are not provided with an interculturally-appropriate service so the attention they receive is limited by: “lack of qualified interpreters; lack of adequate infrastructure and access to information”.[xiv] Social stigma has meant that some women are subjected to discrimination and mistreatment because of their culture: “When they do attend to us, they mistreat us for practising our traditional medicine and discriminate against us because of our mother tongue and traditional dress,” explains Esperanza Pérez Ruiz, representative of the group Nosotras no olvidamos nuestras tradiciones (“We’ll never forget our traditions”).[xv] Their vulnerable health status can also be seen in the greater prevalence of problems affecting their sexual and reproductive rights such as cases of forced sterilisation,[xvi] rape and sexual exploitation,[xvii] unwanted pregnancies, sexually-transmitted infections, including HIV/AIDS, and prostitution “as a means of labour integration or death”.[xviii]

The problems they experience are exacerbated yet further when they migrate and have also tended to be complicated by the pandemic. Their economy has been undermined due to the impossibility of working: “The production and sale of handicrafts, which accounts for more than a third of the sector's jobs, is practically paralyzed”. They are also employed on insecure terms: “part-time and contract workers or services, [...] have no access [...] to social protection and public health mechanisms”.[xix] These are nonetheless the sources of livelihood they have to rely on.

This situation reflects the multiple forms of discrimination that affect Indigenous women both inside Mexico on the basis of gender, generation, ethnicity and social class, and outside of the country where they are undocumented migrants. It does not reflect the progress made in the human rights of Indigenous Peoples (and, in particular, of women) as enshrined in various legal instruments.[xx] In fact, the Council for the Prevention and Elimination of Discrimination in Mexico City has recognised that women's access to their rights is limited by the gender gap.[xxi]

Despite the above, women are using different means to seek access to their rights, economic, political and educational, and receiving support from organisations such as the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, the Technological Institute of Oaxaca, the Centre for Scientific and Higher Research of Ensenada, and so on. Their participation in the leadership of multiple organisations such as the Alliance of Indigenous Women of Central America and Mexico, the Network of Indigenous Women for Peace, Indigenous Women, Migrants and Day Labourers (Sinaloa), the Assembly of Indigenous Women of Oaxaca, the Tatei yurianaka Wixaritari Women Artisans Collective, among others, is likewise noteworthy.

They are also seeking greater political participation: “118 women were registered in recent electoral processes [in Mexico City], 7.98% of whom were Indigenous”.[xxii] This is still limited, however, and needs further encouragement, as pointed out by the president of the Human Rights Commission of Mexico City, “so that their political proposals can permeate the legislative agenda”.[xxiii] This has, in fact, been one of their demands, as stated by the National Coordinating Committee of Indigenous Women, which “called upon the National Electoral Institute to guarantee [...] [their] free and non-violent participation in the political life of the country”.[xxiv] It is worth noting that 13 Indigenous candidates were nominated for a place in the Congress of the Union in 2018, only three of these being women.[xxv] By 2021 this had increased to 13.[xxvi]

In sum, Indigenous women’s access to justice and exercise of their rights has not yet been achieved in Mexico due to major barriers. In addition to those mentioned above, women also face other cultural problems: “Their lack of knowledge of the judicial system and of their own rights, institutional discrimination and insufficient public policies aimed at addressing their particular problems”.[xxvii] The State and society therefore need to establish a new relationship with Indigenous women in order to guarantee gender equity and access to and exercise of their rights.

The EZLN's Journey for Life

To mark the 20th anniversary of their historic tour through Mexico called “The March of the Colour of the Earth” (2001), in 2021 a delegation of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), Squadron 421, crossed the Atlantic aboard the boat La montaña, to commence their tour known as “Journey for Life”. They visited several European cities[xxviii] in Germany, Belgium, Denmark, Spain, Finland, France, Greece, Holland, Italy, Norway, the United Kingdom and Russia, among others, with the aim of reaching out to other movements, groups and collectives involved in the continent’s anti-capitalist struggle. This was seen as a reverse journey to that taken 500 years ago by the Conquistadors, and one aimed at challenging the European movements to wake up and organise together to struggle for life.

We Zapatista communities have named the one thing that is responsible for all these evils and it is ‘capitalism’. And only with the total destruction of this system will it be possible for everyone, each in their own way, with their own calendar and their own geography, to create something new. Not perfect, but better. And whatever is built, these new relationships between humans and between humanity and nature, will be given whatever name we want to give it.[xxix]

During the Zapatista delegation’s travels around Europe, different press releases were published aimed at providing information about the organisation and the objectives of the trip, pointing out a number of specific problems with the capitalist system, and highlighting the importance of resistance and rebellion, striving across the world to fight these problems (summarised in the phrase “a struggle for life”), and the Zapatistas’ intention to seek and listen to other voices that share their same concerns.[xxx]

The press releases followed the journey of Squadron 421 (composed of four women, two men and unoa otroa [“another”], which is the name given to a non-binary person) from its departure from Mexican ports on 2 May 2021 through to its arrival on European soil on 21 June. They also followed the organisation of La Extemporánea, the Zapatista group that arrived in Europe by air comprising 28 teams that would cover 28 European countries at the same time, a group composed of Zapatista girls and boys and a coordinator, up to and including the return of all EZLN delegations to their respective towns and places of origin in December 2021.[xxxi]

Forgiveness asked of the Yaqui people for State crimes

On behalf of the Mexican State, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador apologised to the Yaqui people for the marginalisation, abuses and injustices committed during the Porfiriato era (1876 - 1910).[xxxii] He maintained that this regime was now behind us and that reparations would as far as possible be provided for the harm caused, on the basis of a comprehensive programme that includes the return of up to 20,000 hectares, a guaranteed right to water and a social welfare plan. The ceremony took place on 28 September 2021 in the town of Vícam, Sonora.

The request for forgiveness was made in the context of violence against members of the group when, on 21 July 2021, the location of a mass grave was reported containing the bodies of five people who had been missing since 15 July 2021. In May 2021, the disappearance and murder of activist Tomás Rojo Valencia, one of the driving forces behind the defence of the water of the Yaqui River, was also reported.[xxxiii] This context has highlighted the problems faced by the Yaqui peoples, ranging from the presence of organised crime on their lands and territories to changing water use and exploitation policies on the part of local and federal governments, who have handed over water for industrial use to various corporations and thus exacerbated the situation of these communities.[xxxiv]

José del Val is director of the University Programme for the Study of Cultural Diversity and Interculturality (PUIC-UNAM); Carolina Sánchez García is academic secretary of PUIC-UNAM; and Juan Mario Pérez Martínez is technical secretary of PUIC-UNAM.


This article is part of the 36th 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 2022 in full here


Notes and references 

[i] 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

[ii] INALI. “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. https://www.inali.gob.mx/es/comunicados/701-2019-02-08-15-22-50.html

[iii] INEGI. Population and Housing Census 2020. Op. Cit.

[iv] United Nations: “Una mano para Oaxaca, dos mujeres decididas a continuar la cultura de su pueblo” [A hand for Oaxaca, two women determined to continue the culture of their people]. UN News, 5 December 2021. https://news.un.org/es/story/2021/12/1500902

[v] Communication. General Coordination for Social Communication and State Government Spokesperson, “Destacando desempeño de las mujeres indígenas para la educación: IEEPO” [Highlighting Indigenous women's performance in education: IEEPO]. 7 September 2021. https://www.oaxaca.gob.mx/comunicacion/destacado-desempeno-de-las-mujeres-indigenas-para-la-educacion-ieepo/

[vi] For every 10 illiterate Indigenous men, there are 18 illiterate women. See Narro, J., & Moctezuma, D. “Analfabetismo en México: una deuda social” [Illiteracy in Mexico: a social debt]. México Social, 1 September 2014. https://www.mexicosocial.org/analfabetismo-en-mexico-una-deuda-social/.

[vii] Robles Vásquez, H., & Pérez Miranda, M. Panorama educativo de la población indígena y afrodescendiente [Educational outlook for the Indigenous and Afrodescendant population]. Mexico: National Institute for the Evaluation of Education and the United Nations Children's Fund, 2018.

[viii] Idem.

[ix] National Institute of Indigenous Peoples, “Datos e indicadores sobre violencia contra las mujeres indígenas [Data and indicators on violence against Indigenous women]. Government of Mexico, 25 November 2017. https://www.gob.mx/inpi/articulos/datos-e-indicadores-sobre-violencia-contra-las-mujeres-indigenas

[x] Gender Observatory and COVID-19. “Mujeres con discapacidad. Observatorio Género y Covid-19” [Women with disabilities. Gender Observatory and Covid-19”. https://genero-covid19.gire.org.mx/tema/mujeres-con-discapacidad/

[xi] INEGI. Estadísticas a propósito del día de la madre [Statistics for Mother’s Day]. INEGI, 7 May 2021. https://www.inegi.org.mx/contenidos/saladeprensa/aproposito/2021/EAP_MAMAS21. pdf

[xii]National Institute of Public Health. https://www.insp.mx/lineas-de-investigacion/salud-y-grupos-vulnerables/investigacion/situacion-social-de-los-pueblos-indigenas.html

[xiii] Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Brochure: Indigenous Women. OAS-IWGIA, 2017. http://iachr.org/IndigenousWomen/

[xiv] Idem.

[xv] University of Guadalajara, “Evidencian mujeres indígenas del AMG discriminación y obstáculos para acceder a los servicios de salud” [Indigenous women in the Guadalajara Metropolitan Area report discrimination and barriers to accessing health services]. University of Guadalajara, 15 December 2021. https://www.sems.udg.mx/noticias/evidencian-mujeres-indigenas-del-amg-discriminacion-y-obstaculos-para-acceder-los-servicios

[xvi] Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Brochure: Indigenous Women. OAS-IWGIA, 2017. http://iachr.org/IndigenousWomen/

[xvii] Castañeda de la Mora, C., n.d. Vulnerabilidad y los derechos humanos de las mujeres indígenas migrantes. [Vulnerability and the human rights of Indigenous migrant women]. Programme Officer - Human Rights, Unesco Mexico, p.11

[xviii] Mora, Luis. Las fronteras de la vulnerabilidad: género, migración y derechos sexuales reproductivos [The frontiers of vulnerability: gender, migration and sexual and reproductive rights] p. 3, November 2003.

[xix] UNESCO. “Indigenous Peoples and COVID-19: The view from Mexico UNESCO, 4 August 2020. https://es.unesco.org/news/pueblos-indigenas-y-covid-19-mirada-mexico

[xx] Some examples are: the Political Constitution of the United Mexican States; the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women; the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence against Women (Belém do Pará); Convention 169 of the International Labour Organization; the Law of the National Women's Institute; the Federal Law to Prevent and Eliminate Discrimination; the General Law for Equality between Women and Men; the General Law on Women's Access to a Life Free from Violence; the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, as well as state laws that protect the rights of women and Indigenous Peoples.

Melesio Nolasco, J. M. Derechos humanos de las mujeres indígenas [Indigenous women’s human rights]. National Human Rights Commission of Mexico, October 2015. ] https://www.cndh.org.mx/sites/default/files/documentos/2019-05/Cuaderno_Var_34.pdf

[xxi] COPRED (Council for the Prevention and Elimination of Discrimination in Mexico City). “COPRED llama a visibilizar las brechas de género persistentes en el Día Internacional de la Mujer Indígena” [COPRED shines light on persistent gender gaps on International Day of Indigenous Women]. COPRED, 3 September 2021. https://www.copred.cdmx.gob.mx/comunicacion/nota/copred-llama-visibilizar-las-brechas-de-genero-persistentes-en-el-dia-internacional-de-la-mujer-indigena

[xxii]CDHCH (Human Rights Commission of Mexico City) “Necesario fomentar la participación de las mujeres indígenas en la Ciudad de México [Indigenous women’s participation needs encouraging in Mexico City]. CDHCH Bulletin, 102/2021, 7 June 2021. https://cdhcm.org.mx/2021/06/necesario-fomentar-la-participacion-de-las-mujeres-indigenas-en-la-ciudad-de-mexico/

[xxiii] Idem.

[xxiv] “The political participation of resident Indigenous communities is aimed more at demanding their rights to housing and work, while in the native communities it is aimed [...] [at ] raising awareness of themselves and their demands,” see CDHCH.

[xxv] “Las mujeres en las elecciones de 2021, las más grandes en la historia de México” [Women in the 2021 elections, the most in Mexico's history]. Boletín Desigualdad en cifras, Inmujeres, Year 7 No. 6, 6 June 2021.


[xxvi] National Women’s Institute, “Mujeres indígenas y afromexicanas frente al proceso electoral de 2021: pendientes en la garantía de sus derechos políticos” [Indigenous and Afro-Mexican women in the 2021 electoral process: guaranteed political rights still pending]. Government of Mexico, 19 May 2021. https://www.gob.mx/inmujeres/articulos/mujeres-indigenas-y-afromexicanas-frente-el-proceso-electoral-2021-pendientes-en-la-garantia-de-sus-derechos-politicos

[xxvii] Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Brochure: Indigenous Women. OAS-IWGIA, 2017. https://www.oas.org/es/cidh/indigenas/docs/pdf/Brochure-MujeresIndigenas.pdf

[xxviii] Caminos, Mauricio. “El zapatismo ‘invade’ Europa con la Gira por la vida” [Zapatismo ‘invades’ Europe with the Journey for Life]. La Tinta, 14 June 2021. https://latinta.com.ar/2021/06/el-zapatismo-invade-europa-con-la-gira-por-la-vida/.

[xxix] “Apenas 500 años después | El Escuadrón Marítimo Zapatista, llamado 'Escuadrón 421'” [Just 500 years later | the Zapatista Maritime Squadron, known as ‘Squadron 421’]. Radio Zapatista, 13 August 2021. At: https://radiozapatista.org/?p=38909

[xxx] “Escuadrón 421 (la delegación marítima zapatista)” [Squadron 421 (the Zapatista Maritime Delegation)]. Enlace zapatista, 17 April 2021. http://enlacezapatista.ezln.org.mx/2021/04/17/escuadron-421/.

[xxxi] Comisión Sexta Zapatista. “Gracias” [Sixth Zapatista Commission. “Thank you”]. Enlace zapatista, 15 December 2021. https://enlacezapatista.ezln.org.mx/2021/12/15/gracias/

[xxxii] Martínez, Fabiola y Néstor Jiménez. “Pide AMLO perdón a pueblos yaquis por injusticias durante el porfiriato” [AMLO asks forgiveness from Yaqui people for injustices during the Porfiriato regime]. La Jornada, 28 September 2021.


[xxxiii] Santos Cid, Alejandro y David Marcial Pérez. “Ganaderos, agricultores y obreros: las víctimas del último golpe del narco al pueblo yaqui” [Livestock and agricultural farmers and workers: victims of the latest narco hit on the Yaqui people]. El País, 28 September 2021. https://elpais.com/mexico/2021-09-29/ganaderos-agricultores-y-obreros-las-victimas-del-ultimo-golpe-del-narco-al-pueblo-yaqui.html#?prm=copy_link

[xxxiv] García Bermejo, Carmen. “México: la permanente batalla de los Yaquis contra el despojo” [Mexico: Yaquis’ constant battle against eviction]. Mongabay, 5 August 2021 https://es.mongabay.com/2021/08/mexico-yaquis-despojo-desapariciones-pueblos-indigenas/.



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