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World Scholar: Latin America & the Caribbean, 2011

Indigenismo refers to the intellectual and political constructions of Indigenous peoples by outsiders motivated either by paternalistic notions of acting on the behalf of others or a desire to exploit Indigenous issues to advance their own political agendas. Rather than a movement advocating for the liberation of Indigenous peoples, indigenismo is best understood as a counterpart to the ideology of mestizaje, which celebrated the emergence of mestizo identities. Although indigenismo has deep roots in Latin America, the ideology reached its zenith during the middle of the twentieth century, when it emerged as a strong political force in Mexico and Peru. Many different groups of people engaged in indigenista discourse, including archaeologists, anthropologists, theologians, novelists, artists, philosophers, politicians, and political activists. Indigenous and leftist critics condemned indigenismo for its individualistic and assimilationist approaches to persistent problems of inequality and marginalization. These critics viewed indigenismo as a mechanism of the oligarchy to repress Indigenous liberation movements that threatened to mount structural challenges to the power base of the ruling elites.

Bartolomé de las Casas

The administration of the aboriginal population of the Americas was a concern of governing authorities from the beginnings of the European conquest of the continent. In 1511 the Dominican priest Antonio de Montesino publicly condemned Spanish settlers in the Caribbean for their abuse of Indigenous communities. His denunciations influenced Bartolomé de las Casas (1484–1566), who as a Dominican bishop became the most notorious and controversial defender of Indigenous rights. His exposé of Spanish abuses influenced the passage in 1542 of the New Laws of the Indies, which outlawed Indigenous slavery. In 1550 in the Spanish city of Valladolid, Las Casas debated the humanist Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, who argued that the Indians were natural slaves and their engagement in idolatrous behavior justified the military conquest. In contrast, Las Casas argued for a peaceful colonization. While Las Casas led the fight to end the abuse, exploitation, and slavery of Indians, he also retained his loyalty to the Catholic Church and to the Spanish crown. Ultimately, the purpose of his efforts was the conversion of Indigenous peoples to Christianity and assimilation into the Spanish kingdom.

Similar to Las Casas, El Inca Garcilaso de la Vega (1439–1616), the illegitimate son of a Spanish conquistador and Inca noblewoman, praised the value of the Inca empire through writings intended to influence colonial policies. When Túpac Amaru II (1742–1781), born José Gabriel Condorcanqui, led a pan-Andean revolt in 1780 against colonial oppression, King Charles III banned the publication of his writings in Peru because of their subversive content.

After the Jesuits were expelled from Latin America in 1767, the Jesuit priest Juan de Velasco (1727–1792) wrote Historia del Reyno de Quito (History of the Kingdom of Quito), in which he opposed the idea that European civilizations were superior to American ones. His purpose, however, in emphasizing the value of the Americas was not to return the continent to Indigenous control but to create a myth of Creole nationalism that would contribute to incipient independence movements. Once again, the aim of addressing Indigenous issues was not to liberate a subaltern population but to advance the interests of the dominant culture.

Nineteenth-century Indigenismo

The literature of the postindependence period—later described by scholars as indianista—for the most part presented romanticized depictions of Indigenous peoples as noble savages. Typical of works from this period were the Ecuadorian author Juan León Mera's 1879 novel Cumandá, a love story set among the Shuar in the Amazon. In contrast, the 1889 novel by the Peruvian Clorinda Matto de Turner, Aves sin nido (Birds without a nest) laments Indigenous poverty and points to a growing tendency to use literature as a venue for social protest. Essays by the Peruvian anarchist Manuel González Prada (1848–1918) on landholder abuses strongly influenced subsequent critiques of Indigenous realities. Intellectuals influenced by the positivist thought of the English philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) came to dominate much of the late nineteenth-century indigenista discourse; these thinkers sought the assimilation of the remaining Indigenous communities into a dominant westernized culture.

Classical Indigenismo

Twentieth-century indigenismo emphasized social protest against the injustices that Indigenous communities faced. However, while addressing specific instances of oppression and exploitation, it did not question or seek to change structural oppression. Critics complained that indigenistas would trumpet the accomplishments of past civilizations while leaving their contemporary descendants languishing in an impoverished and disempowered state. Government officials, for example, would build a statue of Cuauhtémoc in Mexico City instead of properly funding schools in rural communities.

This period of classical indigenismo reached its height in the 1930s and 1940s and lasted until the 1960s and 1970s. In addition to flourishing in Peru and Mexico, it was institutionalized in the Guatemalan and Bolivian revolutions. During the period known as the Guatemalan Spring of 1944–1954, Indigenous communities gained unprecedented social, economic, and political rights. The 1945 constitution established a National Indigenous Institute, and mandated that the government work for the inclusion of Indigenous peoples into the country. Similarly, when the Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (MNR; Nationalist Revolutionary Movement) took power in Bolivia in 1952, rural communities gained citizenship and land rights. Nevertheless, the leaders of this movement were elite mestizo intellectuals and political leaders who often used it only to advance their own political agendas.


Modern indigenismo first gained strength in Mexico in the midst of intellectual currents swirling around the 1910 revolution. Manuel Gamio (1883–1960), an anthropologist who led the movement, reconstructed the archaeological site of Teotihuacan in 1909 as a tourist attraction even as the descendants of that great civilization languished in grinding poverty. The Mexican Revolution resulted in legislation that sought to address the historic problems of Mexico's Indigenous and peasant peoples such as underdevelopment, limits on access to land, and exploitation. When the Mexican writer and politician José Vasconcelos (1882–1959) wrote in 1925 of a cosmic race, he envisioned the assimilation of the rural Indigenous masses into a unified mestizo nation.

Official Mexican indigenista policy entered its most advanced phase under the government of Lázaro Cárdenas (1934–1940). Cárdenas was a strong nationalist, and his policies retained an integrationist theme that advocated "Mexicanizing" the Indians rather than "indigenizing" Mexico. Cárdenas' most enduring contribution to indigenismo, and the one that gave Mexico the reputation as the home of official indigenista policies, was his sponsorship of the First Inter-American Indigenist Congress in 1940. Often referred to as the Pátzcuaro Congress because of its location in the town of Pátzcuaro, in Cárdenas' home state of Michoacán, this congress raised awareness of the need to address Indigenous issues across the hemisphere. As was common in the indigenista movement, the congress was not a gathering of Indigenous peoples or their organizations, but of non-Indians who were often motivated by a paternalistic interest in improving the lives of their countries' Indigenous populations. The delegates included anthropologists, sociologists, missionaries, and government officials, one of whom was John Collier, the architect of Franklin D. Roosevelt's Indian policy in the United States. Although the conference turned away from evolutionist and colonialist thinking, its tone was still integrationist. The final proclamations called for the acculturation and assimilation of Indians into the national population.

The Instituto Indigenista Interamericano (III; Inter-American Indigenist Institute) emerged out of the Pátzcuaro Congress and in 1953 gained status as an official organ of the Organization of American States (OAS). Its base was in Mexico City, and Gamio served as its director until his death in 1960. Most of the American republics formed branches of the III, and subsequent congresses were held in Cuzco, Peru (1949); La Paz, Bolivia (1954); Guatemala City (1959); Quito, Ecuador (1964); Pátzcuaro, Mexico (1968); Brasilia, Brazil (1972); Merida, Mexico (1980); Santa Fe, New Mexico (1985); and Buenos Aires, Argentina (1992). In addition, the III disseminated its ideas through its journals, América Indigenista (later renamed Anuario Indigenista) and Boletín Indigenista.


The Peruvian Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre (1895–1979) founded the Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana (APRA; American Popular Revolutionary Alliance) in Mexico City in 1924 with hopes that it would become a continent-wide party. The APRA emphasized the region's Indigenous heritage, commonly calling the continent "Indo-America." In the 1920s the Comité Pro-Derecho Indígena Tawantinsuyu (Pro-Indigenous Rights Committee Tawantinsuyu) represented a radical wing of indigenismo that rejected assimilationist ideologies and agitated for Indigenous empowerment, even as it continued to embrace culturalist notions of race. Indigenismo played a particularly important role in Cuzco, the former capital of Tawantinsuyu (the Quechua word for the Inca empire) nestled high in the Andean mountains. Peruvian intellectuals such as the anthropologist Luis Valcárcel (1891–1987) challenged assumptions of Indian inferiority and maintained that a tempest was passing through the Andes that would result in their liberation. In 1944 Cuzco officials recreated an Inca tradition of celebrating the June solstice as Inti Raymi, the sun festival. In typical indigenista fashion, they did not permit Indigenous peoples to perform at the festival and imposed a language requirement of a variant of Quechua that only the Cuzco elite spoke.

José Carlos Mariátegui (1894–1930), the Peruvian activist and journalist, is commonly credited with invigorating indigenista discourse. In Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality (1928), he criticized various strategies that others had employed to improve the status of Indigenous peoples, including humanitarian campaigns, administrative policies, and legal reforms. The solution to Indigenous impoverishment, he argued, could not be based in an ethnic analysis that assumed their racial inferiority, nor through moral appeals to conscience, nor through education, which served only the interests of the dominant culture. Indigenous people were not powerless victims in need of outsiders to intervene on their behalf—especially missionaries looking for a way to redeem a "backward" race. He concluded that the solution to Indigenous impoverishment could not be found in individual actions, contending that the root of Indigenous problems was the land-tenure system. Only fundamental economic change would effect social change. Mariátegui envisioned the establishment of an "Indo-American" socialism based on the communal values of the Inca empire.

Although numerous Peruvian politicians engaged in indigenista discourses, the policies they advocated were not fully implemented until the progressive military government of Juan Velasco Alvarado (1968–1975). Velasco promulgated an agrarian reform law in 1969 that intended to liberate Indigenous communities through rebranding them as peasant communities. At the same time, he funded extensive linguistic research on Indigenous languages, and in 1975 granted Quechua official status. His populist program relied on Indigenous symbolism and names such as "Plan Inca" and "Plan de Gobierno Tupac Amaru."

Literature and the Visual Arts

In much of the Americas, indigenismo gained its highest expression through the arts. Several well-known novels critiqued the oppression of poor Indigenous agricultural workers at the hands of large landholders: in Bolivia, Raza de bronce (1919; Bronze race), by Alcides Arguedas (1879–1946); in Peru, El mundo es ancho y ajeno (1941; Broad and alien is the world), by Ciro Alegría (1909–1967); in Ecuador, Huasipungo (1934), by Jorge Icaza (1906–1978); and in Mexico, Balún-Canán (1957; The nine guardians), by Rosario Castellanos (1925–1974). Works of social realism, these novels depicted Indigenous peoples not affectionately but rather as primitive and ignorant people who were unable to improve their lives without outside assistance. The only recommended solution, when one was offered, was education, through which Indigenous people might be elevated and assimilated into the dominant culture. Rarely were Indigenous cultures recognized as valuable in themselves and worthy of protection. Ultimately, the literature was not so much about Indigenous peoples as it was about introducing modernity into traditional societies.

Visual artists commonly incorporated Indigenous themes into their paintings. Most notably, Frida Kahlo (1907–1954) and Diego Rivera (1886–1957) used Indigenous imagery to create a shared sense of Mexican identity. The Ecuadorian painter and sculptor Oswaldo Guayasamín (1919–1999) famously used his work to condemn abuses of Indigenous peoples. The Peruvian photographer Martín Chambi (1891–1973) captured stunning images of rural life that gained broad popularity.


A turning point in indigenista discourse came with the Symposium on Inter-Ethnic Conflict in South America, held in Barbados in 1971. Eleven participating anthropologists drafted a "Declaration of Barbados," in which they called for the "liberation" of Indigenous peoples from colonial domination. The declaration specifically called for the defense of Indigenous culture and territory; the establishment of economic, social, educational, and health assistance; and support for native-led pan-Latin-American movements for self-government. Over the next several decades, militant Indigenous rights movements challenged the assimilationist aspects of indigenismo.

Although indigenismo helped inject Indigenous concerns into public dialogues, it commonly reflected paternalistic attitudes that marginalized the very peoples it purported to aid. Indigenistas spoke of Indians as a "problem" and looked for ways to incorporate Indigenous societies into the mainstream culture. Many Indigenous peoples reacted strongly against the idea that it was only by suppressing their ethnic identities that they could rise above their impoverished and exploited status. Rather than let outsiders appropriate Indigenous cultures and concerns for their own purposes, Indigenous leaders insisted that they should represent themselves. This stance led at the end of the twentieth century to a "neo-indigenismo" movement headed by the Indigenous themselves rather than by white outsiders constructing new identities to advance their own political agendas. Evo Morales, who embraced his Aymara heritage to win election in 2005 as the first Indigenous president of Bolivia, was representative of this new development.


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Graham, Richard, ed. The Idea of Race in Latin America, 1870–1940. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990.

Mariátegui, José Carlos. Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality. Translated by Marjory Urquidi. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971.

Marroquín, Alejandro D. Balance del indigenismo: Informe sobre la política indigenista en América (Balance of indigenismo: Report on indigenista policies in America), 2nd ed. Mexico: Instituto Indigenista Interamericano, 1977.

Ramos, Alcida Rita. Indigenism: Ethnic Politics in Brazil. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1998.

Valcárcel, Luis E. Tempestad en los Andes, 2nd ed. Lima: Editorial Universo S.A. [1927], 1975.

Vasconcelos, José. The Cosmic Race: A Bilingual Edition. Translated by Didier T. Jaén. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

Villoro, Luis. Los grandes momentos del indigenismo en México (Great moments of indigenismo in Mexico), 2nd ed. Mexico: Ediciones de La Casa Chata, 1979.

—Marc Becker, Truman State University

Source Citation

Becker, Marc. "Indigenismo." World Scholar: Latin America & the Caribbean. Gale, Cengage Learning, 2011. World Scholar: Latin America & the Caribbean. Web. 26 Feb. 2014.
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Gale Document Number: GALE|ESJKXQ864623634

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