The Accords of San Andrés, Autonomy vs. Neo-Indigenism

by Luis Hernández Navarro

This February 16th marks the 25th anniversary of the signing of the San Andrés accords on indigenous rights and culture. Much has changed since then, but one thing remains: indigenism as a State policy. 

Indigenism is the name given to institutional policy aimed at serving the indigenous population. Simultaneously, it is an anthropological theory, an ideology of the State, and a governmental practice. Its central objective is to protect the indigenous communities, integrating them with the rest of national society, diluting their character as a people and as a historical subject. It is policy of the non-indigenous towards the indigenous, although its architects might belong to some ethnic group. 

One of its primary promoters, Alfonso Caso predicted that within 50 years, there would be no more indians: all would be Mexicans. He wasn’t alone in this enterprise. Many thinkers, before and after him, have seen the inexorable destiny of the indigenous peoples, in the integration of the mestizo national society.

Despite the fact that the Mexican nation has had a pluri-ethnic and multicultural make-up since its founding, its constitutions have not reflected this reality. Erasing the Indian from the country’s geography, making them Mexican, forcing them to abandon their identity and culture, and folklorizing them, has been an obsession of the ruling classes since the Constitution of 1824. The intention of building a Nation-state, of casting off the colonial heritage, of resisting the dangers of foreign intervention, of combatting ecclesiastical and military jurisdiction, and of modernizing came to prioritize a vision of national unity that excluded the plurinational reality. 

The Accords of San Andés were intended to celebrate the funeral of indigenism and resolve this historical debt. Its central point consisted in the recognition of the Indian peoples as social and historical subjects and the right to exercise their autonomy. 

Autonomy is one of the ways of exercising self determination. Its practice implies the real transfer to the indigenous peoples of the abilities, functions and competencies that today are the responsibility of government entities. 

The Zapatistas invited writer Fernando Benítez, who had dedicated 20 years of his life to defending and studying the native peoples and was the author of five monumental books on them, to the San Andrés dialogues as an advisor. The journalist gladly accepted the proposal.

His motivations were genuine. What did  the Indians teach me?, Benítez asked himself at the end of his life. They taught me to not believe I was special, to behave impeccably, to consider the animals, plants, oceans and skies, to know what democracy and respect for human dignity consist of. And also to go from the everyday to the sacred. ( La Jornada, 5/7/95).

Although many of the problems that they faced were the same, the perspective of struggle of the Indians that participated in the dialogues was completely different than those described by Benítez since 1960. The author of The Indians of México perceived the people as being most miserable, the poorest campesinos, those that live on the worst lands in a country of bad land, the ones being invaded. He anticipated the inevitable doom of disappearance of their cultures and their replacement by the debris of industrialism. And he proposed to rescue what was left of the indigenous cultures, before the end of the process.  (

But they didn’t disappear. On the contrary. They became more present than ever. Certainly the indigenous convened by the EZLN, first to the dialogues and later to the formation of the National Indigenous Congress, suffered the effects of internal colonialism, and therefore came from regions beset by dispossession, oppression, exploitation and discrimination, similar to those described by Benítez. However, far from representing cultures on the border of disappearance, these leaders were a living expression of a formidable capacity for resistance and of reinvention of the traditions of their peoples. 

San Andrés was attended by indigenous leaders that emerged during the 1970’s and stepped into public light as a result of the Zapatista insurrection, together with traditional community authorities. Also participating were prominent indigenous intellectuals, who had elaborated a rich reflection about how to reconstitute their people.

Twenty-five years after the signing of the agreements and the founding of the CNI, some of the indigenous people who participated passed away. Others have incorporated themselves into the ranks of the government in office, from the PAN to the 4T. However, the movement born of this process, oriented toward the construction of autonomy and the struggle against capitalism, is more vigorous and solid than two and a half decades ago. Hundreds of new leaders and dozens or intellectuals (including many women) have taken the generational baton. 

Two and a half decades after the accords of San Andrés were signed, the Mexican state continues its failure to comply. In addition, the autonomous indigenous movement suffers the murder of its leaders, and the federal government’s promotion of neoindigenist welfare programs that go hand in hand with the promotion of megaprojects on their territories.   (

This article was published in Spanish in La Jornada on February 9, 2021. This English interpretation has been re-published by Schools for Chiapas. *Photo by Regeneración.

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