Teach-Out Review: Indigenous Politics and Revolutionary Movements in Latin America

Written by Anna Nicol.

In solidarity with the UCU strikes, there have been a number of organised Teach-outs which aim to create new spaces for learning and to explore alternative subject matters. In doing so they deconstruct traditional formats of learning and show that learning can take place at any time, in any format. On Tuesday 3 March, Dr Emile Chabal, the Director of the Centre for the Study of Modern and Contemporary History, organised a Teach-out led by Dr Julie Gibbings (University of Edinburgh) and Dr Nathaniel Morris (University College London). Focusing on Mexico, Guatemala and Nicaragua, Dr Gibbings and Dr Morris aimed to provide a short overview of indigenous participation in these revolutions over the twentieth century, highlighting various similarities and differences across borders and dissecting indigenous identity and affiliation within each. 

Having decided to discuss the revolutions chronologically, Dr Morris began with the Mexican Revolution which spanned from 1910 to 1920. Here, Dr Morris highlighted an important element of discussing indigenous history: historians come into contact with differing, and occasionally competing, definitions of “indigeneity”. While 80%-90% of the population in Mexico had indigenous ancestry, only 40-50% continued engaging with indigenous social structures, histories, languages, and interrogating their position in the world; therefore, focussing on indigenous revolutionary participation already presents obstacles in how we engage with and define indigenous identity itself. He argued that indigenous groups initially supported the revolution, in part as a result from pressure from landowners and the desire to reclaim their lands as well as with the aim to increase power and respect for their communities. However, Dr Morris noted that the leaders of the revolution perpetuated similar ideas and values of the old state in that they did not factor indigenous people into the “new Mexico”; instead, they aimed to solidify a population of mestizos (an individual with both Hispanic and indigenous heritage) which created fertile ground for indigenous uprisings against mestizo national versions of the revolution until 1940, when the revolution became less radical. Throughout the revolutionary transformation of Mexico, the concept of “indigeneity” closely followed the values of indigenismo, which prioritised maintaining the “traditional” and performative aspects of indigenous identity, such as native dress, while eradicating cultural values and practices which defined their “otherness” within Mexican society.

Dr Gibbings continued on from Dr Morris by describing how there were frequent intellectual exchanges across the Guatemala-Mexico border; for example, Miguel A. Asturias noted Mexico’s process of mestizaje after his visit in the 1920s but did not believe it could be applied to Guatemalan society, instead encouraging European immigration to Europeanise Guatemalan society. She then explained that after becoming independent in the nineteenth century, the western part of Guatemala became the political and economic heart of the country because of the growth of the coffee economy in the highlands. The growing economy resulted in widespread migration into indigenous highlands and mobilised indigenous communities as a labour force for coffee planting. Similarly to Mexico, the 1944 to 1954 revolution was largely led by the middle class and urban students which aimed to go to the countryside and “civilise” indigenous groups through education indicating, Dr Gibbings argued, that it was a revolution from above. The contentious issue in Guatemala was the unequal distribution of land – such as these coffee-plantations, which moderates believed could be tackled by redistribution amongst the campesinos. This process would be headed by the elites as top-down agrarian reform; this change provoked revolution from below as it encouraged indigenous labourers to petition for land. Dr Gibbings argued that these petitions became a vehicle for historic restitution, because completing the required sections of the petitions allowed for indigenous groups to write about how the land had historically belonged to them before it was stolen and colonised. These petitions posed a threat to the landed elite and companies like the United Fruit Company thereby leading to a CIA-supported military coup in 1954 to overthrow the revolution. 

Dr Morris concluded the presentation by describing the Nicaraguan Revolution of the 1980s. Similar to Guatemala, the Somoza dictatorship was backed by the United States and oversaw the unequal division of land, of which a small elite owned 90% that was frequently leased to American companies in industries such as mining, fishing etcetera. A guerrilla movement emerged during the 1970s and successfully overthrew the Somosa dynasty in 1979. The revolution was seen as a “beacon of hope” by many who hoped it would be an anti-imperialist, left-wing (but not authoritarian) revolution that would end socioeconomic and political disparities and institute social reform. In order to understand the reception of the revolution, Dr Morris took time to note the geographical divides within Nicaragua, outlining htat the Caribbean coast was never fully conquered by the Spanish, and so the coastline became known as the Miskitu territories, where the Miskitu and Mayangna communities lived. While the Miskitu and Mayangna were not entirely opposed to the revolution when it initially reached the Caribbean coast, they soon believed that the dictatorship, although oppressive, had generally allowed for their ethnic and cultural differences to continue undisturbed. Therefore, as the revolutionaries attempted to assimilate Miskitu groups into the “new nation” through education, similar to policies in Mexico at the beginning of the century, the Miskitu found their cultural autonomy challenged and attempted to resist. The disturbance led to rumours that the Miskitu were separatists and wanted to break away to form their own state. The tension between the revolutionaries and indigenous population culminated in the former forcing the latter to leave their villages and into camps in the jungle, further alienating the communities. As indigenous people escaped these camps, they often fled to Honduras where the Contra army was organised and supported by the CIA, who were providing arms to counterrevolutionaries – the Sandinistas did not see a difference between distinct indigenous groups and so everyone was treated as pro-American counterrevolutionary subversives. The civil war continued through the 1980s into the early 1990s when the Sandinistas were defeated at the ballot box by centrist-right wing liberals. 

Having provided a brief yet comprehensive overview of the three revolutionary countries, the floor was open to a discussion which cannot be justly reproduced here. The discussion allowed for the speakers to further develop earlier points and for other members of the Teach-out to ask questions. Themes covered included the failure of left-wing revolutionaries to successfully incorporate indigenous movements into their cause, without they themselves denying indigenous rights to autonomy, and also explored the gendered dimension of the revolutions, which saw the inclusion of women but no substantial launch of a women’s liberation movement. However, for me the most interesting part of the discussion was circling back to the concept of “indigeneity.” Dr Chabal asked how the development of indigenous identity has challenged neoliberal ideas, such as multiculturalism. In response to this question Dr Gibbings referenced Charles Hale’s argument on the indio permitido, or “permissible Indian”. Indio permitido is a term borrowed from Bolivian sociologist Silvia River Cusicanqui who argued that society needs a way to discuss and challenge governments that use cultural rights to divide and domesticate indigenous movements. Hale therefore concluded that indigenous communities are allowed to build rights and establish platforms of culture so long as they do not hinder or challenge government schemes. Indigenous communities thereby become “permissible” if they act within the economic framework that the government establishes, but are then discredited if they disagree or attempt to act outside of those state frameworks. He writes “governance now takes place instead through distinction…between good ethnicity, which builds social capital, and dysfunctional ethnicity, which incited conflict.” Understanding “permissible” and “impermissible” notions of indigeneity can therefore help us to better understand indigenous participation within these revolutions: indigenous groups were accounted for within the “new nations” when they adapted to the values of the forming nation-state, be it conforming to the national education system, learning Spanish or allowing for a top-down redistribution of land. If indigenous communities resisted or attempted to construct a communal identity outside these values they were then deemed counterrevolutionary or “subversive”. Dr Morris closed by connecting neoliberal ideas of indigeneity at the end of the twentieth century to the perception of indigeneity at the beginning of the century; he argued that neo-liberal recognition of indigenous groups is not that dissimilar to indigenismo in that indigenous “traditional” practices, such as dress, dances etc. are seen as acceptable but there is no space made for linguistic difference or political representation. 

Grappling with the notion of “indigeneity” and representation left me challenging my own perceptions of indigenous identity. Discussing indigenous narratives within history and competing perceptions of indigeneity urges us to interrogate our own approach to talking and writing about indigenous history, and understanding how we incorporate an indigenous perspective into the narrative of revolution. Perhaps this final thought is the most productive part of a Teach-out: to have individuals leave examining their own approach to research and education with the hope that new spaces will continue to form to re-evaluate and develop multiple narratives and perspectives.

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