by Lynn Stephen and Laura Velasco-Ortiz, guest editors of the special issue

In a special issue of Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos, called “Mesoamerican Indigenous Mobilities in Mexico and the United States,” we look at how Indigenous people from Mesoamerica move in modern times. We study how neoliberal capitalism and colonialisms affect their mobility, vulnerabilities, and collective responses to a variety of challenges. Indigenous people have been moving for a long time, even before colonization. Nevertheless, forced movement under Spanish rule and after independence was part of the colonial slavery and servitude system. This issue challenges the usual ideas about marginalized Indigenous people in cities and rural areas. Instead, we explore multiple and overlapping reasons why Indigenous people are displaced—such as a combination of seeking work, fleeing violence, and climate change. We also consider how different Indigenous generations view mobility in different ways. We want to redefine and analyze the relationship between cultural differences and social inequalities in the context of mobility and colonization. We look at critical indigeneity, internal colonialism, and settler colonialism theories to help us understand these issues. We also focus on non-Western thinking, communal models, and how Indigenous people resist the capitalist system.

A multifaceted approach to Indigenous mobility in Mesoamerica

The displacement of Indigenous people in Mesoamerica due to globalization has been analyzed using different theories such as labor migration, transnationalism, and diaspora studies. In the past, researchers primarily focused on Indigenous people moving for work and settling in cities without considering the diversity within and across Indigenous groups and Indigenous histories in the places where Indigenous migrants settle. However, in the 1990s, scholars started looking at Indigenous migration from a transnational and critical perspective. They highlighted the political consciousness and ethnic diversity of Mexican migration to the United States. They also discussed the dispersal and persistence of Indigenous communities across borders through the lens of diaspora. However, recent changes like violence, resource extraction, and climate change have brought new challenges to the study of Indigenous displacement. The sociology of mobility helps us understand these complexities, including forced displacements, refugees, and asylum seekers. These changes in perspective also made us more aware of ethnic, class, and racial inequalities in the global geography. Indigenous movements have fought for recognition and self-determination, demanding even the right to stay in their ancestral lands (derecho de no migrar/the right to not migrate) and to be part of the politics and decision-making processes that affect their communities regarding development and migration. Looking at Indigenous mobility from different angles helps us understand its diversity, vulnerabilities, and potential for liberation.

Discussing colonial perspectives

During Spanish colonization, Indigenous people were exploited and converted into a labor force instead of being outright eliminated, but other forms of elimination took place through the politics of assimilation. In the United States, Indigenous people faced genocide, land theft, assimilation, language loss, and discriminatory systems like the blood quantum. In Mexico, Spanish missionaries played a significant role in establishing the ideology and policies of indigenismo, which aimed to control Indigenous groups. The concept of internal colonialism, developed by the Mexican sociologist Pablo González Casanova, shows that domination and exploitation continue to exist between culturally diverse groups. This concept emphasizes the ongoing impact of colonial relations, feudalism, and capitalism in Mexico and Latin America. Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui further expands on this idea by describing internal-external colonialism as a network of power and influence. Settler colonialism is another framework we use to understand how settlers displaced and replaced Indigenous peoples. This framework explains how settler colonial social, economic, and political systems and policies are still in place. 

The articles of this special issue show how colonialism continues to shape social relations, racial hierarchies, and economic systems in Mexico and the United States. The authors’ main contributions in this volume to study Indigenous displacement can be organized around three analytical axes: new ontologies, epistemologies, and models of communalism.

Borders, mapping, space, and time

We reposition our understanding of borders and maps in the context of mobility and movement. Indigenous populations challenge the colonial ideas and geographical boundaries that have historically been imposed on them. We need strategies to reshape unequal and racially divided geographies by acknowledging the Indigenous epistemologies, territories, and legacies. Classifying and labeling Indigenous people using rigid analytical concepts they may not recognize, or use is questionable. Understanding non-Western and Indigenous knowledge about space, time, and motion is also important. Indigenous peoples navigate different borders and periods, living between the concepts of the “past” and “modernity.” They embody multiple temporalities and challenge characterizations that restrict them to the past or deny their existence in the present. We reconsider how Indigenous peoples are represented by reinterpreting physical space and revealing power dynamics and inequalities.

The Politics of Categories and Names

How we categorize and name Indigenous peoples on the move is another crucial aspect discussed in this volume. The authors use various terms to categorize and refer to Indigenous people, reflecting the complexity of their experiences. They suggest critically examining pan-Indigenous labels and highlighting the diversity of communities, languages, and ethnic groups. Organizations that support Indigenous communities in the United States, like FIOB, CIELO, and CBDIO, demonstrate this complexity by using both pan-Indigenous, such as “indigenous communities” or “indigenous front,” along with specific names. The importance of language and the growing resistance to labeling Indigenous peoples as immigrants is also discussed. Such a concept is relatively new (since 1829) and is tied to imposing colonial and national boundaries.

Communal Models of Life and Opposition to Capitalism

Lastly, the articles emphasize communal models of life and resistance to capitalism that emerge from Indigenous people’s social and political practices. They highlight how Indigenous communities resist and survive colonization and colonial policies. Mesoamerican activists promote communalist ideas that go beyond analyzing political subordination. They emphasize new models of communalism in Indigenous communities, such as the idea of convivencia. These communal forms have been especially essential in the challenging context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

 Overall, we thus propose a multifaceted approach and engagement with colonial perspectives to help us better understand contemporary Indigenous mobility and recognize the agency and resilience of Indigenous peoples.

We invite you to read the special issue, “Mesoamerican Indigenous Mobilities in Mexico and the United States” for free online for a limited time.