Last Updated: Friday, 27 May 2016, 08:49 GMT

State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2011 - Mexico

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 6 July 2011
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2011 - Mexico, 6 July 2011, available at: [accessed 29 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Mexico is a federal republic composed of 31 states and a federal district, with a population of approximately 108 million.

Afro-Mexicans and the 2010 Census

In May 2010, Mexico conducted a national census, gathering information on age, gender, education, religion and birthplace from about 25 million households in 2,456 municipalities. Disappointingly, despite efforts on the part of organizations like the Alliance for the Empowerment of Indigenous Regions and Afro-Mexican Communities, this census failed to include questions on Afro-Mexican identity, ignoring their presence as an identifiable group. The census carried ethnic references related only to language and self-identification of people of indigenous origin, and, further, defined municipalities as indigenous only if the local population preserved native languages, traditions, beliefs and cultures. Officials of the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI) cited limited time and resources as reasons for being unable to modify the document to include questions relevant to Afro-Mexicans.

The official government stance as promoted by agencies such as the National Council on Population is that the majority of Mexicans are mestizo (of mixed Spanish European and indigenous ancestry), with no acknowledgement of any historical or contemporary African presence. However, according to US anthropologist Bobby Vaughn, blacks far outnumbered the Spanish in early colonial times. The black population was three times that of the Spanish in 1570 and 2.5 times in 1646; not until the early nineteenth century did the Spanish outnumber the African heritage population. Mexico is quite likely the last country in the Americas to continue excluding the African descendant category in its census, thereby implicitly ignoring the historical and contemporary significance of people of African descent within its overall population.

With marginalized Afro-Mexicans languishing at the bottom of the socio-economic scale, inclusive and fully disaggregated census data is particularly important in terms of meeting MDG targets for them. This is because census data is used to create a demographic and socio-economic profile of each area of the country, including information necessary to develop suitable public policies and infrastructure that would benefit the poorest populations.

Poverty among Mexico's indigenous peoples

According to indigenous organizations, at least a third of Mexico's 108 million people are of native descent; however, there are only about 14 million Mexicans who are classified by the census as indigenous and as belonging to one of the country's 62 native groups. The majority of indigenous people live in the southern states of Guerrero, Oaxaca and Chiapas, which are the poorest in the country. It should also be noted that the insecurity and violence so prevalent today in many parts of Mexico is particularly notable in states with significant numbers of indigenous peoples and/or African descendant populations. These include Sinaloa and Chihuahua in the north, Tamaulipas in the east, Michoacán in the west, and Guerrero in the south. In these areas during 2010, large drug trafficking enterprises battled with impunity over control of distribution routes to the US market. Corruption is rife, and uncooperative functionaries are regular targets of assassination. This seriously compromises the effectiveness of municipal and state structures and their ability to meet MDG targets, especially for the indigenous and African descendant populations.

The relationship between violence, poverty and lack of development of Mexico's indigenous peoples. is very evident in a report issued in October 2010 by the UNDP human development research office in Mexico City. It indicated that Mexico continued be a long way from meeting MDG goals for the country's indigenous population. For the first time, the UN study compares the living conditions in Mexico's 156 indigenous municipalities, 393 non-indigenous municipalities and 1,905 municipalities inhabited by people of mixed-race descent. It indicates that although overall poverty in Mexico has been reduced, inequality persists. The National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples in 2010 also admitted that social spending in indigenous areas was lower than in non-indigenous zones.

Of particular concern with respect to women's rights is that the least progress has been made in the area of cutting maternal mortality among indigenous women. In the indigenous areas of Mexico – places where the local population retains indigenous languages, traditions, beliefs and cultures – the maternal mortality rate stands at 300 per 100,000 live births. This is among the highest in the world and is in stark contrast to the national average of 60 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births. And according to the government's National Population Council (CONAPO), during 2010 the infant mortality rate among indigenous people of 22.8 per 1,000 live births was also significantly higher than the 14.2 per 1,000 for the population at large.

Issues like poverty, nutrition, health and education, as well as marginalization lie behind these figures. According to the UN report, 38 per cent of Mexico's indigenous people live in poverty, and Ministry of Social Development data indicates that 3.3 million indigenous people are unable to satisfy their basic nutritional needs.

In the area of education, 50 per cent of indigenous women have not completed primary school, versus 42 per cent of indigenous men. Indigenous girls tend to marry between the ages of 13 and 16 in arrangements that sometimes involve the exchange of cash. Also, from childhood indigenous girls are expected to help their mothers: their 'normal' workday can last 18 hours leaving little time for education, which in many cases is unaffordable.


There is one state in Mexico that has taken steps to address indigenous population issues. The state of Chiapas, located near the border with Guatemala, is very likely the only state in the world where the MDGs have been written in to the State Constitution. This translates into a legal mandate to comply with the MDGs, especially as they relate to indigenous peoples.

Nevertheless, in the 2010 UNDP report the Human Development Index (HDI) value for indigenous people of Chiapas was rated at 0.61, compared to 0.76 for Mexico's non-indigenous population. This is the worst HDI figure of any of Mexico's 31 states or federal district; however, it represents a significant improvement compared to previous years, in a state that was long characterized by little social investment, and violent confrontations between the indigenous Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) and government forces.

During an International Parliamentary Conference hosted by the State of Chiapas in October-November 2010, the Chiapas State Governor explained how the publication of an earlier UNDP Human Development Report on Mexico had served to motivate a change in approach. This had prompted the Chiapas government to address the needs of the state's indigenous communities directly, and to implement the MDGs with a particular focus on indigenous peoples. A third of the Chiapas state budget is now allocated to the 28 municipalities with the lowest indices, all of which are indigenous. So although CONAPO reported that the infant mortality rate for 2010 in Chiapas stood at 24.2 per 1,000 live births – one of the highest in Mexico – in fact this represents the result of three years of sustained reduction at the fastest rate in the country.

Of significant importance was the orientation of state policies and structures towards greater indigenous inclusion. This allowed the local indigenous representatives at the Inter-Parliamentary Union conference – including some high-level female municipal officials – to state that indigenous voices were increasingly being heard. Consultation in both formal and informal settings has become official state practice at many different levels, and this has resulted in more opportunities to address problems and adapt solutions based on the needs and aspirations of the large indigenous population.

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