Background: Conquest, national independence and indigenous emancipation [On internal colonialism]

Diego Rivera mural in Mexico City/Tenochtitlan depicting a battle between invading Spanish conquistadores and indigenous warriors

By Francisco López Bárcenas

This year marks 500 years since the fall of Tenochtitlan to the power of the Spanish invaders. That event initiated the conquest and subsequent colonization of all of Anahuac, the part of the continent known as Central America and Aridoamerica, the territory that now makes up the Mexican State. Maybe it was thinking of this that two days before 2020 ended, the Diario Oficial de la Federación [The Federation’s Official Daily] published a decree made by the Congress of the Union declaring this current year the Year of Independence. Because these events are bound together, various academic institutions announced plans to analyze the impact that the conquest, colonization and struggles for independence continue to have on the life of its inhabitants, but most of all, on the indigenous peoples that live in the country.

This issue is important, most of all given new interpretations that we have of these events, which are the product of historical findings and because of the structures that maintain exploitation in recent years. Since the mid 20th century, studies began to appear that contradicted the way that the history of the conquest was officially told and that question the way in which the war of independence unfolded, but most of all, they question the outcomes of that war. This was how we knew that the conquest was made possible by the superiority of Spanish weapons, but also by the cooperation of some Indigenous groups who thought that they would be liberated from their rivals, which they were, but only to fall into a much more profound subordination, which was not only economic, political and military, but also cultural, religious, and epistemic. Spanish domination was both spiritual and material.

And more has been discovered about independence: The new interpretations discuss how national independence didn’t represent an independence for indigenous peoples, who in those times made up the majority population. These studies explain that the State that emerged when New Spain separated from the Spanish crown maintained the same colonial structures that were built over 300 years. The only difference was that now the colonizers were Criollos [Spanish people born in Mexico], and the colonized were the indigenous. They explained the dispossession of Indigenous lands, forests and water over the second half of the 19th century, which led to their armed confrontation with the State to ensure their existence. The studies talk of a second colonization, which persists. Many respected academics referred to the phenomenon as an internal colonization, with different stages and expressions.

Contrary to popular belief, indigenismo [indigenism] was part of these politics of internal colonization and multiculturalism was its neoliberal version. It is important to have this in mind, especially when thinking about the emancipation of peoples fighting for their autonomy. Many indigenous weren’t completely aware of this during the indigenismo movement. This led them to accept positions in the colonizing government, thinking that in this way they were contributing to the emancipation of their people, when, to the contrary, they attained personal prestige and a better financial and social position for themselves. In exchange they helped construct a discourse that concealed the dispossession of their people and concealed the repression of anyone who was in opposition. Those who buy into the “Fourth Transformation” do the same: They are silent when the rights of Indigenous people are violated, or worse, they say that their rights are respected.

To shed light and find the horizon on the road to emancipation that we are to walk moving forward, it is good to enter the debate taking in mind the perspective and conditions of the people. There are issues that require explanation: What are the specific characteristics of internal colonialism in a government that said it was about transformation, but at the heart maintains the same politics as its predecessors?  What effect does intercultural education have on either maintaining or rising above the colonization of knowledge? Do the paths to political participation created by the Mexican government lead towards emancipation or to the continuation of internal colonization? Do the forms of community production serve as emancipatory processes on the regional or national level, or do they just function in some localities? And, most importantly, are we building roads towards emancipation, or just towards resistance?


Originally appeared in Spanish, published by La Jornada, as “Conquista, independencia nacional y emancipación indigena.” Translated to English by the Chiapas Support Committee. Read the original here:

In the above mentioned decree from the Congress, declaring 2021 the Year of Independence, the executive powers are instructed to create a program with activities to commemorate it. The organizations of indigenous people and their allies could do the same from their specific perspective: searching for concrete solutions to real problems. The ideological struggle is also important in the creation of the road to emancipation.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: