In some of my articles on Latin America I have used the word “indigenism”.

Last April, I received a courteous e-mail from my editor. I cannot resist quoting an excerpt:

As an ordinary American, I don’t know very well what it [‘indigenism’] means or connotes. It’s apparently a term that has come to have a lot of connotations in Latin America. To a native English-speaking reader like myself trying to make sense of it, the word ‘indigenous’ suggests native peoples—that is, the people who inhabited Latin America before the Spanish explorers ever arrived there. A word like ‘indigenism’ might suggest that they—the people who lived there before the Spanish ever arrived—should have greater influence in modern politics. But obviously the fact that there is a new word also suggests that maybe the word means something more complex and modern—for example, that there is a modern culture, perhaps intertwined, involving both the originally-indigenous peoples and whatever influences have occurred since.

I looked the word up in several English dictionaries and all I could find was “indigenous”, “indigenizing” or even “indigenization”. Obviously, “indigenism”, at least as I have used it in my past columns, is an ambiguous cognate meaning something complex and modern, as my editor suggests. Something that has many connotations in our region, too. And something that runs deep in the minds of millions of ordinary Latin Americans in many countries like Mexico, Brazil, Paraguay and the Andean countries of Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia.

All together, they have a population of more than 300 million people. And in each one of these countries various forms of indigenism thrive with disparate consequences for their economies.

Instead of a single paragraph, I decided to write a full article on indigenismo. I thought that it might help me get a better grasp of one of the most perplexing Spanish words currently used throughout Latin America by politicians, scholars, journalists, talk-show hosts and, at times, even by truly indigenous persons. I shall try to delve as best as I can into what indigenismo entails when it comes down to Latin American economic matters.

The VOX General Dictionary of Spanish defines indigenismo as

    1. 1. The study and extolling of the ancient cultural traits of autochthonous peoples of [Latin] America that have become part of the local European civilization,
    2. 2. Political doctrine aimed at vindicating both indigenous and mestizo people’s rights
    3. 3. Any Spanish American idiomatic expression that appropriates any indigenous word’s common usage.

All three entries are essentially correct, but I would also point out that indigenism was primarily an opinion current favorable to the autochthonous peoples that attained great influence as far back as the 16th century. Thus, it is not a modern concept.

Yet, this ancient humanist-inspired current, however diffuse, has been permanent ever since the first contacts between Europeans and the indigenous peoples of South America to this day. Columbus’ first idealized depictions of the population he had just met this side of the Atlantic clearly deserve to be held as the earliest products of Latin American indigenism.

First conceived and nurtured by Catholic priests during the colonial era, indigenism has survived through all the stages of Latin American history. It was kept alive after the Independence by countless associations dedicated to protect the indios and it cannot distinctly be identified with any particular social class.

Of course, indigenism drags the burden of the conquistadores’s bad conscience as well as that of the criollos—white settlers of Spanish descent—and mestizos in face of the aboriginal populations’ backwardness and sufferings. Indigenism, however, has seldom placated that everlasting bad conscience.

Furthernore, indigenism is also a literary, artistic and political movement that began developing itself during the second half of the 19th century in many of our newly-born “republics”. It those times it was clear to many intellectuals and politicians that, even after independence, segregation of the indios from the mainstream society hindered the foundation of true nations.

One of the paradoxes involved in Latin American indigenism lies in the fact that, more often than not, it has been a white meditation on the indio, usually written in the conqueror’s language, Spanish.

Subcomandante Marcos, the witty and masked leader of the zapatista guerilla in Chiapas, Mexico, is an apt example of this paradox: he is a sociologist of white upper middle-class origins and a prolific indigenista essayist, too. From another point of view, Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa affirms in his book Archaic Utopia (1996) that current Latin American indigenism, such as the one represented by Marcos, is still mostly a “European mythologizing” of Rousseau’s “good savage”. Still, ever since independence from Spain was attained, indigenism has posed some very difficult questions to our societies.

How to eliminate ethnic and cultural differences that kept the various constituents of the population apart—the indios, the white creole elite, and the mestizo—so that they could merge in a society that could truly be called a nation? How to absorb the aboriginal otherness into the fabric of a nationality? At the same time, how to assert any common national identity based exclusively on aboriginal values and mores?

These are just a few of the contradictions indigenism tried to solve during the 19th and 20th centuries. But if there is something that remains clear it is that the 21st century’s Latin American indigenism is tightly connected with all forms of nationalist radical populism. Henri Favre, a respected French expert on the subject, goes as far as saying that “indigenism is the most privileged form of nationalism in Latin America”.1

In a sense, Latin American ongoing indigenism is the flip side of globalization. In terms of its application to history, it attempts to invent an aboriginal “collectivist tradition” and retain it as something essentially different from other cultures and societies, to build a estate-oriented, populist ideology on such a tradition.

To be true, today there are as many indigenist currents in Latin American as there are countries where the indigenous population is significantly large.

The Mexican revolution (1910-1920) was the great period of intellectual and artistic indigenism in Latin America. The Mexican muralist movement, embodied in the works of José Clemente Orozco or Diego Rivera, became, in the eyes of many other Latin American artists, something worthy of imitation. The same can be said of the various literary indigenista trends—in essays, novels and poetry—that spread out in Latin America during the first half of the 20th century. But it was radical politics what cleared the way to transform indigenism in a major political force throughout the region.

1927 was a good year for both the New York Yankees and political indigenism in Latin America. José Carlos Mariátegui, a brilliant Peruvian Marxist writer, began publishing a series of essays asserting, for the first time in Latin American intellectual history, that indigenism should be inseparable from socialism.

According to Mariátegui, only a Marxist-oriented collectivism could successfully replace feudal and capitalist societies in the Andean countries —Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia—and bring justice and welfare to the descendants of the ancient Incan Empire.

Neither [European] civilizaton nor the white man’s alphabet—he wrote—will upbring the indigenous soul. The myth, the idea of a socialist revolution will. The indio’s only hope must be revolutionary.

The Marxist perspective that Latin American indigenism acquired ever since misrepresents pre-Hispanic indigenous communities as collective and philanthropic “good savage” societies. Furthermore, it posits the impossibility of founding democratic and liberal institutions on “feudal and neocolonial economies”.

To deny Spanish atrocities during the Conquest period would be as loathsome as denying the Holocaust. But it is just as deceitful to describe pre-Hispanic societies as egalitarian Utopias.

Yet, more than eighty years after Mariátegui’s book was first published, a diversity of indigenisms thrives throughout the continent. Certainly, it is more nuanced in those countries where mestizaje—a Spanish word that refers to peoples of mixed race—is a distinctive trait of their societies, such as Colombia or Venezuela. Miscegenation, it would seem, attenuates segregationism and scolds racist attitudes.

Though there have been Mayan Indians guerrillas in Guatemala, especially active during the 1980s, the end of the Cold War extinguished them the same way as it put an end to all Central American civil wars. The Zapatista irregulars in Chiapas, Mexico, might still attract scores of radical U.S. and European tourists, but it never posed a credible threat to Mexican democratic institutions.

Today, indigenism is a major political force only in the Andean countries, a 3 million square-Km region once called Tahuantinsuyo, the greatest and oldest empire ever developed in pre-Hispanic America.

This Incan Empire, as it was also known, was headquartered in the now Peruvian city of Cuzco. Its Pacific coastline stretched for more that 5000 km. When the Spaniards first arrived during the early 15th century, the Incan Empire extended over what now is Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. At the height of its might, during the 13th century, it comprised large expanses of what now are Colombia and Northern Chile and Argentina. This only fact would explain why indigenism in the Andean countries has morphed into a force that simply will not go away and must be reckoned with.

Nobody can deny that president Evo Morales, who is the first indigenous ruler of after 500 hundred years of Bolivian history, represents a majority of his country’s indigenous population.

According to a 2001 official census, 45 percent out of a total of some 8 million inhabitants consider themselves to be pueblos originarios—native peoples. They all sit on South America’s second-biggest gas reserves. Yet, excepting Haiti, Bolivia is undeniably one of the most unequal countries in Latin America.

Mr. Morales is intent in having a new constitution approved via referendum. His “indigenous constitution”, as it is called, vindicates the same fictional ancient forms of pre-Hispanic collectivism that, according to Mariátegui, chastized personal profit and produced wealth for all.

The irony of it is that a majority of followers of Mr. Morales simply cannot imagine that Tahuantinsuyo was in fact a ruthless theocracy, a tyrannical regime with an economy based on slave work. Furthermore, they reject the idea that integrating into a globalized world economy should not necessarily imply bowing to any foreign imperialism.

Should Mr. Morales go his way, his constitution would only strengthen presidential powers and embed a state-led socialist economy.

For all its philanthropic ideals, indigenism has only made it more difficult to attain true economic growth and it has done so just when the Andean countries should be going through the best of its times.


Henri Favre, L’Indigenisme, Presses Universitaires de France, Col. Que sais-je?, Paris, 1996.


*Ibsen Martinez is a columnist, journalist, and award-winning playwright from Caracas, Venezuela. His writings have appeared in El Nuevo Herald, Miami, Letras Libres, Madrid, and El Pais in Madrid. Since 1995, he has written a weekly column for El Nacional.

For more articles by Ibsen Martinez, see the Archive.