Monitor archives:
Copyrighted material

Native Mexicans Face Harassment, Ridicule In Cities

by Diego Cevallos

Native Language On Rise In Mexico (2003)

(IPS) MEXICO CITY -- Faustina, a nine-year-old Native girl, stopped going to school in Mexico City in 2003 to escape the teasing she suffered because of her difficulty in speaking Spanish and the traditional ethnic clothing worn by her mother.

Now she hides behind her father's legs while he plays the accordion on the city streets for spare change.

"I don't go to school anymore, because people are mean and laugh at you, so it's better not to go," said Faustina. Her father told IPS about how the family came to the capitol in 2001 from the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, in search of work and a better life.

"Can you spare some change for something to eat?" he repeats hundreds of times a day while improvising tunes on his accordion. Clinging to his trouser legs, his daughter, whose small size makes her look much younger than her nine years, smiles nervously.

Faustina and her father are just two of the roughly one million Native Mexicans -- members of the Nahuatl, Mixtec, Zapotec, Mazahua and other ethnic groups -- living in this city of 20 million inhabitants. Around 340,000 still speak their native languages.

The majority are poor, badly paid and discriminated against in a city where the word "Indian" is used as an insult.

An estimated 4,500 Native boys and girls between the ages of six and 12 who were raised speaking their native languages do not attend school, according to a study conducted by the Assembly of Indigenous Migrants in Mexico City, a non-governmental group devoted to defending the rights of native Mexicans living in the capital.

"There are many of us (Native people) here, but we don't all live off of charity, and we aren't all cut off from our communities and culture," Assembly spokesperson Larisa Ortiz told IPS.

Ortiz, the daughter of Native migrants, explained that many Native people live in communities created within the city itself.

Official studies confirm that there are neighborhoods and housing complexes inhabited exclusively by native Mexicans who have migrated to the capital or were born there, and who have managed to keep many of their customs and traditions alive.

The Assembly supports this cultural preservation, while pressuring the authorities to respect the right of Native migrants to maintain their traditional forms of organization and culture. The group also lobbies for multilingual and multicultural education, Native-run media, and a "voice and vote" for Native Mexicans on measures that affect them.

But Faustina does not even realise that such rights exist. She lives far from any other members of her ethnic group, in a room that her parents rent in the historic center of Mexico City.

"I don't go to school now, but maybe I'll go back someday," she says. In her limited Spanish, she describes the teasing she suffered because her mother still dresses "like in the countryside where we used to live."

"They laughed and said things when my mother went to see me, so it was better to just stay away," she said.

There are hundreds of cases like these, Ortiz noted. Native people are treated with contempt, obliged to do "the dirtiest and hardest work," and typically live in poverty, she said.

Roughly 90 percent of the women employed as domestic workers in Mexico City are Native. The same is true for the majority of men working in construction or as garbage-pickers.

According to the latest available statistics from the National Population Council, roughly 10 million Mexicans out of a total population of 105.3 million are Native, and 60 percent of them speak their Native languages.

The Native influence is much more marked, however, given that an estimated 60 percent of Mexicans are "mestizos" of mixed Native and European descent.

Official sources estimate that 75 percent of Native Mexicans have not completed primary school, which is double the national average, while over 30 percent -- three times the national average -- are illiterate.

While 25 percent of fourth-grade students in Mexico have mastered basic reading and writing skills, the proportion drops to eight percent among Native students.

In the meantime, 73.2 percent of Native children -- 22.7 percent more than the national average -- are undersized for their age, and almost 60 percent of those under the age of five suffer from malnutrition.

Average life expectancy for Native Mexicans is 73.2 years, as compared to 76.2 for the rest of the population.

A report from the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) points out that Native children suffer the highest degree of disparity and vulnerability of any other group in Mexico. The majority live in poverty, and show high rates of malnutrition, it adds.

For girls like Faustina, the situation is even worse.

In some of the poorest regions of Mexico, the illiteracy rate among Native women over the age of 15 reaches 87.2 percent.

Only 8.9 percent of Native women have had any education above the primary school level, as opposed to 15.8 percent of their male counterparts.

In September 2000, Mexico joined the rest of the international community in signing the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly, the MDGs establish precise targets to combat inequality and close the development gap between the rich and poor.

One of the basic goals is to achieve universal primary education, and ensure equal access to schooling for both girls and boys by the year 2015.

Faustina hopes to return to school at some point in the future. For the time being, however, her father believes the best thing for her is to accompany him while he panhandles on the city streets.

Comments? Send a letter to the editor.

Albion Monitor March 9, 2005 (

All Rights Reserved.

Contact for permission to use in any format.