When the Spanish invader Hernán Cortes arrived in 1519, Mesoamerica - the region stretching from present day Nicaragua to what is now the southern U.S. - was home to 25 million people. To talk of Colombus, Cortes or others 'discovering' the continent is ridiculous. Some 4000 years ago the Olmec people were founding a civilisation which, like the Mayan, Zapotec, Mixtec, Toltec and Aztec societies, became a highly sophisticated culture. The advances made in mathematics, astronomy and other sciences, particularly by the Mayans and Aztecs, and their art and architecture, are still recognised today.
The Spanish invasion brought incredible destruction to these people. War and disease killed vast numbers, and both the military colonists and the Catholic missionaries sought to smash their societies. Great change has taken place, but even now, 504 years after Colombus first landed on the continent, Mexico is still home to 56 different indigenous peoples, each speaking their own language.
The most significant groups are the Tarahumaras, Nahuas, Huicholes, Purépechas, Mixtecos, Zapotecas, Otomís, Totonacas and Mayas. They still form the major population group in some regions of the country, but as in other parts of the world, indigenous peoples in Mexico are treated as worth-less, second class citizens by 'pure European' Mexicans and mixed race mestizos (like Travellers in Ireland). High levels of migration to the cities - where they often end up as the cheapest of the cheap labour - and to the U.S. has been one consequence of the loss of traditional lands.
The attacks, spearheaded by recent governments, on the ejido system (common lands administered by the community), for example, is a big threat to indigenous culture. As Tom Barry writes in his Mexico, a Country Guide , In many areas, caciques or rural bosses not only control land but also monopolise the marketing of nearly all regional production and the local food supply. In Chiapas, for example, the Tzeltales, Tzoltiles, Tojolabales, Chamulas and others have been pushed off their land and are now forced to provide cheap labor on large cotton and coffee plantations.
The 504 years of colonisation have also, however, been five hundred and four years of resistance. Indigenous peoples' organisations are now beginning to make a big impact, at least on the consciousness of Mexican society. Resistance to the destruction of the environment, defence of indigenous peoples' livliehoods and cultures, demands for development programmes and the protesting of human rights abuses are making the news. But, as the EZLN argued in their Declaration of War on the government, the mestizo establishment has not wanted to listen until it was forced to. Racism is a fact of life in Mexico (too): one that costs lives. But the struggle goes on, for the dead are only dead if they are forgotten.
I break this egg and the woman is born and the man is born. And they will live and die together. But they will be born again. They will be born and they will die once more and be born another time. And they will never stop being born, because death is a lie. Eduardo Galeano, 'Myths of the Makiritare Indians'
No morirá la flor de la palabra. Podrá morir el rostro oculto de quien la nombra hoy, pero la palabra que vino desde el fondo de la historia y de la tierra ya no podría ser arrancada por la soberbia del poder. (The flower of the word will not die. The hidden face of whoever names it today may die, but the word which came from the depths of history and of the land cannot now be torn out by the contempt of the power.) Comité Clandestino Revolucionario Indígena - Comandancia General del EZLN, México, 1996.