Dispute Over the Past and Internal Colonialism

by Luis Hernández Navarro

In Memories, published for the first time in 1955, Jaime Torres Bodet bemoans how the historical interpretation of the conquest and the colonial past of México have painfully and pointlessly divided the country. 

Secretary of Public education for the first time during the government of Miguel Alemán, Torres Bodet laments: “One of the biggest difficulties that the director of education of the people confronts is the essential lack of unity in the thinking of Mexicans. I am not referring to immediate political differences. I refer, more so, to their obscure and irreducible divergences about the very concept of the Mexican nation.” 

These sobering differences have to do — according to the writer — with the fact that, between us, Cuauhtémoc and Hernán Cortés continue fighting incessantly (…) Our entire history is a consequence of these two partial interpretations of our story. Under different names and with very different pretexts, the intrepid native is exalted in opposition to the cruel and cunning conqueror. O the brave conqueror is praised opposed to the mysterious and impervious native… The indigenous and Spanish still have not completely made peace in the hearts of all Mexicans.”

With the winds of Cardenism1 still blowing at his back, impatient to eliminate the vestiges of socialist education that survived even outside of the dead letter of the Third Constitutional2, the secretary invites the professors to annul that wh, according to him, was hatred in the historical narrative of our country. Concerned about the danger of the conflicting currents, he wants a history that, without lying to the people, is capable of reconciling them. 

“It is no longer a matter — he writes— of choosing between indigenism and Hispanism. It is about understanding, with valor, all that we are: a complex and original people, in large part mestizo, that officially expresses itself in Spanish and who feel —at times— in Tarascan, or Mayan, or Otomí.”

As so many times in the past, the commemoration on August 13th of the 500 years since the fall of Tenochtitlan has once again placed at the center of public debate the re-reading of the history promoted by Torres Bodet. Not that his fantasy of reconciliation has ever come to fruition. It did not even happen in 1992, in the context of the quincentennial of the discovery of America, when he wanted to disguise the colonial adventure with an aseptic concept of an encounter between two worlds. But the most recent presidential declarations, preceded by the request that the King of Spain and the Pope ask the forgiveness of the indigenous people for the violations of what are now known as human rights, have blown up the possibility of that reconciliation with our roots, as  sought by the former Secretary of Public Education.

To the irritation of the most reactionary sectors of the country, President Andres Manuel López Obrador commemorated the date with a grand celebration in the capital’s Zocalo, apologizing to the victims of the catastrophe caused by the Spanish military occupation of Mesoamerica. 

Before a crowd and without Adelfo Regino, the head of the National Institute of Indigenous Peoples (INPI), having a significant role in the ceremony, the President stated: “Let’s put an end to those anachronisms, to those atrocities, and let us say ‘never again an invasion, an occupation or a conquista,’ even if it is undertaken in the name of faith, of peace, of civilization, of democracy, or freedom.”

It is not the first time that the President incorporates indigenous peoples into his discourse and acts of government. Frequently he has made reference to their legacy and to what they represent as a moral reserve for the nation. With unorthodox rituals, sometimes closer to new age than indigenous traditions, in moments as distinct as his taking possession of the Zócalo (for the inauguration), or the launching of the work on the Mayan Train, or recently, in the request for forgiveness for the terrible abuses committed against the Mayans since the Spanish conquest in Chan Santa Cruz, the President has placed his vision of how to settle the historical debt with the ethnic groups at the center of his agenda.

However, beyond the public apologies, the actions of the 4T are closer to the indigenism of the traditional Mexican State, understood as a policy of the non-indians toward the indigenous, with the objective of assimilating them and trying to lift them out of poverty, than they are to demands for autonomy and for the rights of the indigenous peoples that proliferate in the country.

The new indigenous movement demands the exercise of self-determination and rights, not assistance. It is opposed to macro- projects, like the Mayan Train and the Trans-Isthmic Corredor. It condemns the fact that in their implementation (of the projects), they have not been consulted in accordance with Convention 169 of the International Organization of Labor (OIT). And it has elaborated its own vision of history, no longer as the vanquished but as peoples who resist, who struggle for life, and against capitalism and who have a distinct future outside of the current party system. That dispute of the past is also a struggle for another future.

Different as they are, the reflections of Torres Bodet and those of the 4T, both omit a central theme: the exploitation, discrimination, racism, opression, and internal colonialism that the indigenous peoples suffer are in part a product of history, but also of the actions of  the modern State, and the forces of capital against them. They are not merely issues of the past but of the present. This is why it is not enough to call for national unity, denounce the colonial atrocities, or offer apologies. It is time to put an end to internal colonial relations.

This article was published in La Jornada on August 24th, 2021. https://www.jornada.com.mx/2021/08/24/opinion/015a1pol
This English interpretation has been re-published by Schools for Chiapas.

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  1. Cardenismo refers to support of progressive policies like that under Lázaro Cardenas, of agrarian reform and labor rights, as well as nationalization of the oil industry. His administration marked major educational reforms to schools run by the state, which removed them from the influence of the Church and declared them to  be “socialist.” Many of these reforms were seen as the institutionalization of the demands of the Revolution.
  2. This refers to Article Three of the Constitution, having to do with education, and the modifications to it in 1934, under Cardenas.
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