- Folkloric Poverty: Neoliberal Multiculturalism in Mexico by Rebecca Overmyer-Velásquez
The 1990s was a good decade for the organizations of Mexico’s indigenous movement. The 1992 Anti-Quincentenario brought indigenous peoples and their allies together from across the country to organize counter-mobilizations. The 1994 Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) uprising focused the nation’s attention on the political and socioeconomic marginalization of indigenous peoples in a historically unprecedented [End Page 763] show of force and mobilization. Oaxaca state passed a constitutional reform bill in 1995 that allowed indigenous peoples to use their ‘traditional’ practices to elect local officials and adjudicate minor crimes. To many national and international observers, it looked like Mexico’s many local and regional indigenous organizations would come together to form a strong national-level umbrella organization. Yet, by the turn of the century, those hopes had largely been dashed.
Rebecca Overmyer-Velásquez has written a highly readable and lucid account of the rise of one regional indigenous movement organization, the Guerrero Council 500 Years of Resistance, and its subsequent decline, mirroring the general fortunes of Mexico’s Indian movement more broadly. The Guerrero council played a key role in jump-starting the indigenous mobilization of the 1990s, but relative to the EZLN uprising it has received little scholarly attention. The story of the council’s rise and fall is one that needs to be told. Unlike the EZLN, which has rejected most governmental assistance and has largely withdrawn into the communities it controls, the council’s story is similar to that of the many other regional indigenous organizations throughout Mexico. It claims a common citizenship closely tied to Mexican revolutionary nationalism and affirms the legitimacy of the Mexican state. An important part of Overmyer-Veláquez’s story is her description of council leadership as “Indian populists,” mobilizing its members to press the government to fulfill its obligations to them, as opposed to rejecting the state’s clientelist practices, as did the EZLN. Overmyer-Velásquez argues that both Mexican state officials and Guerrero council leaders framed their understanding of indigenous peoples and their demands as “folkloric poverty:” “the widespread notion that Indians are, by tradition, poor, isolated, and community-bound” (p. 7).
Overmyer-Velásquez’s explanation for the weakness of Mexico’s indigenous political movement after a decade of effervescence centers on the relationship between indigenous peoples and the Mexican state. In chapter one she describes the emergence of the anti-Quincentenary campaign in Guerrero and the rise of the council, and in chapter two she focuses on the history of the state’s indigenist institutions. While the story of Mexico’s National Indigenist Institute (INI) is well known, Overmyer-Velásquez usefully situates the INI within the context of Guerrero state. Chapter three examines the intersections between national-level indigenous movement organizations and the Guerrero council, highlighting the extensive fieldwork done by the author in several local communities.
In chapter three, Overmyer-Velásquez describes multiple attempts by the council to expand the scope of its action and to act outside of the narrow confines of populism and clientelism. However, she observes time after time how “the immediacy of local concerns sabotaged the leadership’s efforts” (p. 133). While she is sympathetic to communities’ focus on their local needs over broader regional or national strategy, she is critical of the populist framework used by the council, arguing that its “peasant populist strategy only strengthened the clientelist webs that ensnared it in its relationship to the state and federal governments, making real autonomy impossible” (p. 132). Her [End Page 764] strongest criticisms, however, are directed at the Mexican state: she argues that both the absence and the presence of the government in Guerrero contribute to “a pervasive structural violence that affects every aspect of daily life” (p. 129).
A key element of her argument regarding neoliberal multiculturalism is focused on the national policy-making context, detailed in chapter four. State-sponsored neoliberal policies in the 1990s emphasized self...