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Mexico: Ethnicity and Language
Country Study > Chapter 2 > The Society and Its Environment > Ethnicity and Language


Ethnicity is an important yet highly imprecise concept in contemporary Mexico. Students of Mexican society, as well as Mexicans themselves, identify two broad ethnic groups based on cultural rather than racial differences: mestizos and Indians. Each group has a distinct cultural viewpoint and perceives itself as different from the other. At the same time, however, group allegiances may change, making measurement of ethnic composition problematic at best.

Originally racial designators, the terms mestizo and Indian have lost almost all of their previous racial connotation and are now used entirely to designate cultural groups. Historically, the term mestizo described someone with mixed European and indigenous heritage. Mestizos occupied a middle social stratum between whites and pure-blooded indigenous people mestizos if they have the dominant Hispanic societal cultural values.

If an indigenous person can become a mestizo, who, then, is an Indian? Anthropologist Alan Sandstorm lists minimum criteria that compose a definition of Indian ethnicity. According to Sandstorm, an Indian is someone who identifies himself as such; chooses to use an indigenous language in daily speech; remains actively involved in village communal affairs; participates in religious ceremonies rooted in native American traditions; and attempts to achieve a harmony with, rather than control over, the social and natural worlds. Should one or more criteria become absent over time, the individual probably has begun the transition to becoming a mestizo.

Although mestizos and Indians may both reside in rural areas and have relatively comparable levels of income, they maintain different lives. Such differences can lead to highly negative perceptions about each other. Mestizos often contend that Indians are too unmotivated and constrained by tradition to deal appropriately with the demands of modern society. Indians, in turn, frequently complain that mestizos are aggressive, impatient, and disrespectful toward nature.

Given the cultural use of the terms, it would be unrealistic to expect Mexican census officials to count the number of mestizos and Indians based on racial criteria. However, in measuring how many people speak an indigenous language, the census at least serves to identify a minimum number of racially unmixed Indians. In 1990, 7.5 percent of the Mexican population, or approximately 5.3 million people five years of age and over, spoke an Indian language. Of that total, approximately 79 percent knew Spanish as well and thus were at least potential cultural converts to the mestizo world.

Enormous statewide differences exist in familiarity with indigenous languages. Roughly speaking, familiarity with indigenous languages increases from north to south. The latest census showed that almost no native speakers lived in a band of eight contiguous states stretching from Coahuila in the northeast to Jalisco and Colima along the north-central Pacific coast. Speakers of indigenous languages constituted less than 5 percent of the population in states in the far northwest and along a central belt of states from Michoacán in the west to Tlaxcala in the east. The percentage climbed to between 10 and 20 percent in another contiguous grouping of states from San Luis Potosí to Guerrero, to 26 percent in Oaxaca, to 32 and 39 percent, respectively, in Quintana Roo and Chiapas, and to 44 percent in Yucatán. Only 63 percent of users of indigenous languages in Chiapas also knew Spanish.

Specialists have identified twelve distinct Mexican linguistic families, more than forty subgroups, and more than ninety individual languages. Nearly 23 percent of all native speakers speak Náhuatl, the language of the Aztec people and the only indigenous language found in fifteen states. Other major indigenous languages include Maya (spoken by approximately 14 percent of all Indians and primarily used in the southeast from the Yucatan Peninsula to Chiapas); Zapotec (spoken by approximately 7 percent of all Indians and largely used in the eastern part of Oaxaca); Mixtec (also spoken by approximately 7 percent of all Indians and primarily found in Oaxaca and Guerrero); Otomí (spoken by approximately 5 percent of all Indians and used in central Mexico, especially the states of México, Hidalgo, and Querétaro); Tzeltal (spoken by nearly 5 percent of all Indians and used in Chiapas); and Tzotzil (spoken by roughly 4 percent of the Indian population and also used in Chiapas). With twelve different Indian languages, Oaxaca has the nation's most diverse linguistic pattern.

Census data reveal that Indians remain the most marginalized sector of Mexican society. More than 40 percent of the Indian population fifteen years of age and older was illiterate in 1990, roughly three times the national rate. Thirty percent of Indian children between six and fourteen years of age did not attend school. Indians also had significantly higher morbidity and mortality rates associated with infectious and parasitic illness, higher levels of nutritional deficiencies, and less access to such basic services as indoor plumbing, piped water, and electricity.

Data as of June 1996

Last Updated: June 1996

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Mexico was first published in 1996. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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