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  • Indigenismo Occupied:Indigenous Youth and Mexico’s Democratic Opening (1968–1975)
  • A. S. Dillingham (bio)

In April 1975, indigenous youth in Mexico occupied regional development centers throughout the southern state of Oaxaca. From the Sierra Sur town of Miahuatlán, to the arid highlands of the Mixteca Alta, to the valley of the Papaloapan Dam project, these youth took control of Instituto Nacional Indigenista (INI) coordinating centers and held them for more than a month. Trained as promotores bilingües (bilingual agents of education and development projects) by a separate regional development agency (the Instituto de Investigación y Integración Social del Estado de Oaxaca, or IIISEO), they demanded professional training and the creation of positions for themselves as federal teachers. Their banners accused the Mexican government of ethnocide against native peoples, denouncing the government’s celebration of indigenous culture as a mask for continued exploitation.1

As such, the promotores formed part of a transnational phenomenon of youth protest, one of whose most iconic expressions included the 1968 Mexico City student protests, a denunciation of Mexico’s government that met with violent repression.2 After six years of struggle and politicization, the promotores eventually won a central component of their demands, gaining positions as bilingual teachers within the Ministry of Education (SEP). This article analyzes the nature of 1968-era youth protest in the Americas through a case [End Page 549] study of the experience of indigenous youth trained as promotores bilingües.3 In so doing, it reveals how the political radicalization associated with the Global Sixties involved not only the university students and other middle-class elements typically associated with protests of the era, but also new generations of indigenous youth. By focusing on the radical formation and subsequent mobilization of indigenous youth in provincial (non-urban) Mexico, the article decenters the narrative of youth radicalization from both the iconic Mexico City student protests and the turn toward guerrilla struggle in countryside.4

In addition, the article contributes to an ongoing debate regarding the nature of power and political culture in post-1968 Mexico. The experiences recounted here demonstrate how local actors contested power within an institutional framework characterized by both negotiation and state repression. That federal power in particular opted for pluralist reforms in this period was both a concession to popular demands and an attempt to get ahead of them. This case study demonstrates the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s (PRI) skills, honed over decades, in accommodating opposition, but also the power of a new generation of indigenous youth to negotiate the terms of their integration into state structures.

Little scholarly consensus exists on the Mexican government’s response to 1968-era dissent, in which President Luis Echeverría (1970–1976) oversaw a series of liberalizing reforms officially termed the apertura democrática (democratic opening). The period from 1938 to 1968 has been considered the golden age of the PRI, which had ruled Mexico since 1929. During that period, the government oversaw impressive macroeconomic growth and urbanization.5 Indeed, Mexico’s hosting of the 1968 Summer Olympic Games aimed to be the crowning achievement of the so-called Mexican miracle. In collective memory, that year, 1968, and the subsequent repression of youth protest have become a parteaguas (watershed) in Mexican history. Yet scholars are now analyzing 1968 less as a detonator of change than as emblematic of changes that had come into play during the 30 years preceding.6 [End Page 550]

Many of those who took to the streets against the government in 1968 and its aftermath rejected the democratic opening as a sham, nothing more than a new mask for the same ugly monster. Youth who had witnessed friends massacred or jailed understandably rejected President Echeverría’s rhetoric of dialogue. A handful of these same figures went on to become public intellectuals who continued to frame the democratic opening as little more than cooptation.7 This in part explains the staying power of a narrative of successful government cooptation for the post-1968 period. Indeed, it cannot be denied that certain federal officials did explicitly aim to incorporate and therefore neutralize opposition.8 Yet, as historical analysis, this narrative blinds us to...


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