Navigating the Diversity of Indigenous Cultures in Mexico

A Personal View

Mexico, a country of extraordinary cultural richness, is a place where ancestral roots intertwine with the present in a unique way. I remember a childhood where even the names of streets evoked history and tradition. In Guadalajara, the neighborhood of Ciudad del Sol was defined by avenues with names like Axayactl or Moctezuma, evoking Tlatoanis or Aztec Emperors. Walking these streets was like strolling through an open-air museum, an experience that immersed me in my country’s history. And while these names may seem difficult to pronounce, even for locals, let alone foreigners, they were already the Hispanized version of more complex names that spoke of a legacy, a history, and roots that the Mexican people recognize as their own. Mexico itself comes from Nahuatl, meaning “the bellybutton of the moon,” offering the most resounding homage to the indigenous origin of this nation.

And not only in language do we maintain this legacy, but also in our palate. This country, which hosts over 67 indigenous languages, is also renowned for the aromas and flavors of its local cuisine. Mexican food is a universe of flavors and scents that awaken the senses. Dishes like mole, corn tortillas, and chili became inseparable companions in my life from childhood. Each bite was a connection to centuries of culinary tradition that had been passed down from generation to generation. Sharing a feast with family and friends was a celebration of our roots, where each dish had a story to tell.

 In my circle of friends, who mostly came from middle-class families, names like Xochitl, Tlacaelel, or Cuauhtémoc were not the most common, but they were occasionally heard, evoking a deep connection to the history and identity of Mexico. These names paid tribute to a history that encompasses the close connection of indigenous cultures with the Western life we live today. Tlacaelel, the intellectual author of what is recognized as the most important religious, ideological, and historical reform in the history of the Mexicas. Or Xochitl, a name often chosen for pre-Hispanic noble princesses, meaning “flower” in Nahuatl. Each friend with an indigenous name somehow embodied the resistance and pride of our indigenous cultures and acknowledged a legacy that continues to be present in Mexico.

Every corner, every name, every aroma or flavor of Mexico is a constant reminder of our cultural roots. This is why I find it interesting to recall this as a prelude to understanding the cause of equity for indigenous or native communities, a cause that has gained global relevance for many years now.

Understanding the Indigenous Perspective in Mexico

To truly understand the complexities of achieving equity for indigenous actors, it is essential to immerse oneself in their unique perspective. Indigenous peoples in Latin America have an unbreakable connection to their ancestral lands, a connection that was severed and marked by colonization but also by centuries after it. Land confiscation, cultural erosion, and the loss of self-determination are some of the enduring scars. However, at the heart of the quest for equity is the imperative to recognize this deep connection and amplify indigenous voices.

In the heart of Mexico, numerous indigenous communities still play a part in the country’s rich culture, often recognized in emblematic states like Chiapas and Oaxaca, but also present in the other 30 states of the country. These communities continue to witness and confront an ongoing struggle for equity within their own communities, as well as for recognition among the mestizo and white majorities. According to the National Institute of Statistics and Geography in Mexico (INEGI), the indigenous population in Mexico exceeded 11.8 million people, accounting for 9.4% of the country’s total population. These people represent a melting pot of diverse indigenous groups, each with their own cultural richness and heritage. Many of them continue to influence the cultural wealth of the country with colors, dishes, lexicons, and many other inalienable features of Mexican culture.

Indigenous communities possess a treasure trove of traditional knowledge spanning a multitude of fields, from sustainable agriculture and biodiversity conservation to the complexities of traditional healing practices. Recognizing and integrating indigenous knowledge systems into decision-making processes can lead to more equitable and sustainable outcomes.

Challenges for Equity in Indigenous Communities

Despite the growing momentum for equity, significant challenges persist not only in the region but worldwide. Resistance from governments, corporations, and non-indigenous populations often stands in the way of indigenous communities seeking to reconnect with their ancestral lands. Government policies prioritizing economic development and corporate interests frequently clash with indigenous demands for land rights recognition. This tension remains a testament to the ongoing struggle for equity and justice, both in Mexico and in any other colonized territory or country. In Chiapas, the San Andrés Accords negotiated between the Mexican government and the Zapatistas several decades ago marked a crucial moment in recognizing indigenous autonomy and land rights. However, the full realization of these agreements remains a work in progress, underscoring the ongoing battle for equity in Chiapas, which has not reached the level of country recognition seen in other nations.

 Systemic racism and discrimination represent additional barriers, casting shadows over indigenous communities’ access to education, healthcare, and economic opportunities. Addressing implicit bias and dismantling stereotypes are crucial steps in dismantling these deeply rooted systems of oppression. Oaxaca, another Mexican state steeped in indigenous heritage, hosts a constant and resilient struggle for equity. A key battleground has been in the realm of education, where indigenous communities have passionately advocated for bilingual education that respects their languages and culture, enabling the preservation of their unique identities. Initiatives like the establishment of indigenous community radio stations have empowered communities to share stories and narratives, celebrate their cultures, and engage in self-determination. However, the path to equitable access to education and resources remains elusive for many of these groups.

Navigating Diversity in a Global Corporate Setting: A Personal View

Despite the recognition of indigenous influence and roots in Mexico, I cannot speak of it firsthand, as I do not find a direct link to any indigenous community. In my quest to understand how to address this issue firsthand, I sought to speak with Iván Quintana, a young professional with Mazahua roots who studied psychology and works for a major American animal health company in Mexico. Quintana shared his experience of blending his cultural heritage with his professional life, addressing issues of identity, challenges, and his commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace.

 Quintana, who lives in Mexico City, identifies as the son of parents who migrated from the State of Mexico and feels a strong connection to Mazahua culture. He told me that he is in constant reflection on diversity issues, particularly regarding indigenous peoples, racism, and inequality.

 When I asked how he feels about representing his community in a global company, Quintana acknowledged that, although he shares cultural roots with his community, his personal experience has diverged from his origins due to his parents’ migration. He regrets that some traditions and dialects of his culture were not passed on to him. Nevertheless, he is becoming aware of his cultural heritage and is committed to reconnecting with his roots.

 Quintana also spoke about the challenges and opportunities he has encountered when integrating his cultural heritage with his work. He highlighted that while opportunities are equal for everyone, attitudes and expectations can vary depending on family background. Iván mentioned the stereotype he sometimes faces and how, over time, he has learned to avoid discussing his origins to prevent biases.

 He told me that he is actively working on promoting diversity and inclusion in the company he works for. He is part of the company’s diversity committee and strives to bring up topics related to indigenous culture in discussions. He recognizes the importance of education and awareness as the first steps toward promoting diversity.

Quintana also shared some advice for other young indigenous people aspiring to work in global corporate environments. He emphasized the importance of mentorship and learning from more experienced individuals. He also stressed the need to maintain and value cultural roots as a foundation for passing them on with pride.

 For me, Quintana’s experience illustrates the challenges and opportunities that young indigenous people face when entering global corporate environments. His story reflects the importance of maintaining a connection with cultural roots and a commitment to promoting diversity and inclusion in the workplace. It also unfortunately reveals how biases and discrimination are still issues to be addressed in many instances.

Reflections and Stories of a Nation in Evolution

In my quest to understand and address diversity and equity in Mexico, I have found that my nation is a melting pot of cultures and traditions, a place where the past intertwines with the present in a unique and inseparable way. As I reflect on my roots, I recognize the importance of listening to and amplifying the voices of indigenous communities, whose connection to the land and cultural heritage remains fundamental. The deeper I delve, the prouder I am to be Mexican.

In my conversations, I have learned that each individual’s personal history is unique, and the connection to cultural roots can vary. Despite the challenges he has faced when integrating his cultural heritage with his professional life, Iván demonstrates a profound commitment to diversity and inclusion in the corporate world. His story teaches us that promoting diversity and inclusion is not only essential but also an opportunity to enrich our society and our businesses.

Carlos Vargas is a Finance Professor at EGADE Business School, Tecnológico de Monterrey, and an Instructor of Sustainable Finance at Harvard DCE.

Article originally published in ReVista: Harvard Review of Latin America.

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