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Mexicomarker, in the second article of its Constitution, is defined as a "pluricultural" nation in recognition of the diverse ethnic groups that constitute it, and in which the indigenous peoples are the original foundation. According to the National Commission for the Development of the Indigenous Peoples (Comisión Nacional para el Desarrollo de los Pueblos Indígenas or CDI in Spanish), there are ca. 12 million indigenous people in Mexico, of many different ethnic groups, which constitute about 11% - 13% of the population in the country.

The indigenous peoples in Mexico have the right of free determination under the second article of the constitution. According to this article the indigenous peoples are granted:
  • the right to decide the internal forms of social, economic, political and cultural organization;
  • the right to apply their own normative systems of regulation as long as human rights and gender equality are respected;
  • the right to preserve and enrich their languages and cultures;
  • the right to elect representatives before the municipal council in which their territories are located;

amongst other rights. Also, the Law of Linguistic Rights of the Indigenous Languages recognizes 62 indigenous languages as "national languages" which have the same validity as Spanish in all territories in which they are spoken. According to the National Institute of Statistics, Geography and Data Processing (INEGI), approximately 6.7% of the population speaks an indigenous language that is, approximately half of those identified as indigenous. The recognition of indigenous languages and the protection of indigenous cultures is granted not only to the ethnic groups indigenous to modern-day Mexican territory, but also to other North American indigenous groups that migrated to Mexico from the United Statesmarker in the nineteenth century and those who immigrated from Guatemalamarker in the 1980s.

History of the indigenous peoples

Pre-Columbian Civilizations

The pre-Columbian civilizations of what now is known as Mexico are usually divided in two regions: Mesoamerica, in reference to the cultural area in which several complex civilizations developed before the arrival of the Spanish in the sixteenth century, and Aridoamerica (or simply "The North") in reference to the arid region north of the Tropic of Cancermarker in which few civilizations developed and was mostly inhabited by nomadic or semi-nomadic groups . Mesoamerica was densely populated by diverse indigenous ethnic groups which, although sharing common cultural characteristics, spoke different languages and developed unique civilizations.

One of the most influential civilizations that developed in Mesoamerica was the Olmec civilization, sometimes referred to as the "Mother Culture of Mesomaerica". The later civilization in Teotihuacánmarker reached its peak around 600 AD, when the city became the sixth largest city in the world, whose cultural and theological systems influenced the Toltec and Aztec civilizations in later centuries. Evidence has been found on the existence of multiracial communities or neighborhoods in Teotihuacan (and other large urban areas like Tenochtitlan). The Maya civilization, though also influenced by other Mesoamerican civilizations, developed a vast cultural region in south-east Mexico and northern Central America, while the Zapotec and Mixtec culture dominated the valley of Oaxaca, and the Purepecha in western Mexico.

Colonial Era

By the time of the arrival of the Spanish in Mesoamerica, many of the diverse ethnic civilizations (with the notable exception of the Tlaxcaltecs and the Tarascan Kingdom of Michoacánmarker) were loosely joined under the Aztec empire, the last Nahua civilization to flourish in Central Mexico. The capital of the empire, Tenochtitlan, became one of the largest urban centers in the world, with an estimated population of 350,000 inhabitants. During the conquest of the Aztec Empire, the conquistadores, only a handful compared to the millions of indigenous peoples, used the ethnic diversity of the country and exploited the discontentment of the subjugated groups, making important alliances with rivals of the Aztecs. While the alliances were decisive to their victory, the indigenous peoples were soon subjugated by an equally impressive empire. Wars and forced labor were accompanied by the spread of European diseases previously unknown in the New World. Pandemics wrought havoc, killing between 90% and 95% of the pre-contact population according to some estimates.

At first, the colonial system imposed a system of castes, in which the indigenous peoples were marginalized. Nevertheless, a cultural symbiosis took place: the indigenous peoples adopted and syncretized Roman Catholicism, and a new ethnic group was born: the mestizo, of mixed European and indigenous ancestry.

Independent from Spain

As the New Spain got independent from Spain, its citizens decided to name the new country after its capital city, Mexico Citymarker. Mexico declared the abolition of slavery and the equality of all citizens under the law. Some indigenous individuals integrated into the Mexican society, like Benito Juárez of Zapotec ethnicity, the first indigenous president of a country in the New World.

The greatest change, however, came about as a result of the Mexican Revolution, a violent social and cultural movement that defined 20th century Mexico. The Revolution produced a national sentiment that the indigenous peoples were the foundation of Mexican society. Several prominent artists promoted the "Indigenous Sentiment" (sentimiento indigenista) of the country, including Frida Kahlo, and Diego Rivera. Throughout the twentieth century, the government established bilingual education in certain indigenous communities and published free bilingual textbooks. Some states of the federation appropriated an indigenous inheritance in order to reinforce their identity.

In spite of the official recognition of the indigenous peoples, the economic underdevelopment of the communities, accentuated by the crises of the 1980s and 1990s, has not allowed for the social and cultural development of most indigenous communities. Thousands of indigenous Mexicans have emigrated to urban centers in Mexico as well as in the United Statesmarker. In Los Angelesmarker, for example, the Mexican government has established electronic access to some of the consular services provided in Spanish as well as Zapotec and Mixe. Some of the Maya peoples of Chiapasmarker have revolted, demanding better social and economic opportunities, requests voiced by the EZLN .

The government has made certain legislative changes to promote the development of the rural and indigenous communities and the preservation and promotion of their languages. The second article of the Constitution was modified to grant them the right of self-determination and requires state governments to promote and ensure the economic development of the indigenous communities as well as the preservation of their languages and traditions.


The CDI identifies 62 indigenous groups in Mexico, each with a unique language, although certain languages have multiple dialects which may be mutually unintelligible. In 2005, the indigenous population was estimated at 32 million, some 30% of the national population. The majority of the indigenous population is concentrated in the central and south-eastern states. According to the CDI, the states with the greatest percentage of indigenous population are:

Indigenous groups with a population of more than 100,000

Indigenous peoples of Mexico
Group Population Speakers¹
Nahuatl (Nawatlaka) 2,445,969 1,659,029
Maya (Maya’wiinik) 2,475,575 892,723
Zapotec (Binizaa) 777,253 505,992
Mixtec (Tu'un savi) 726,601 510,801
Otomí (Hñähñü) 646,875 327,319
Totonac (Tachiwin) 411,266 271,847
Tzotzil (Batzil k'op) 406,962 356,349
Tzeltal (K'op o winik atel) 384,074 336,448
Mazahua (Hñatho) 326,660 151,897
Mazateco (Ha shuta enima) 305,836 246,198
Huastec (Téenek) 296,447 173,233
Ch'ol (Winik) 220,978 189,599
Chinantec (Tsa jujmí) 201,201 152,711
Purépecha (P'urhépecha) 202,884 136,388
Mixe (Ayüükjä'äy) 168,935 135,316
Tlapanec (Me'phaa) 140,254 119,497
Tarahumara (Rarámuri) 121,835 87,721
Source: CDI (2000) [244001]

Indigenous groups and languages of Mexico, only including groups with more than 100,000 speakers of a Native language.

¹Number of indigenous peoples that still speak their Indigenous language

Indigenous groups with a population of more than 20,000 and less than 100,000

Llengües indígenes de Mèxic
Group Population Speakers1
Mayo (Yoreme) 91,261 60,093
Zoque (O'de püt) 86,589 34,770
Chontal Maya (Yokot) 79,438 43,850
Popoluca (Tuncápxe) 62,306 44,237
Chatino (Cha'cña) 60,003 47,762
Amuzgo (Tzañcue) 57,666 48,843
Tojolabal (Tojolwinik) 54,505 44,531
Huichol (Wixárika) 43,929 36,856
Tepehuan (O'dami) 37,548 30,339
Triqui (Tinujéi) 29,018 24,491
Popoloca 26,249 18,926
Cora (Nayeeri) 24,390 19,512
Mame (Qyool) 23,812 8,739
Yaqui (Yoeme) 23,411 15,053
Cuicateco (Nduudu yu) 22,984 15,078
Huave (Ikoods) 20,528 16,135
Source: CDI (2000) [244002]

Indigenous groups and languages of Mexico.
Displaying groups with more than 20,000 and less than 100,000 speakers of a Native language.

1Number of indigenous peoples that still speak their Indigenous language

Indigenous groups with a population of less than 20,000

Llengües indígenes de Mèxic
Group Population Speakers1
Tepehua (Hamasipini) 16,051 10,625
Kanjobal (K'anjobal) 12,974 10,833
Chontal de Oaxaca (Slijuala sihanuk) 12,663 5,534
Pame (Xigüe) 12,572 9,768
Chichimeca Jonaz (Uza) 3,169 1,987
Guarijío (Makurawe) 2,844 1,905
Chuj 2,719 2,143
Chocho (Runixa ngiigua) 2,592 1,078
Tacuate 2,379 2,067
Ocuiltec (Tlahuica) 1,759 522
Pima Bajo 1,540 836
Jacaltec (Abxubal) 1,478 584
Kekchí (K'ekchí) 987 835
Lacandon (Hach t'an) 896 731
Ixcatec 816 406
Seri (Comcáac) 716 518
K'iche' (Quiché, Q'iché) 524 286
Motocintleco (Qatok) 692 186
Kaqchikel (K'akchikel) 675 230
Paipai (Akwa'ala) 418 221
Tohono O'odham (Papago) 363 153
Cucapá (Es péi) 344 206
Kumiai (Ti'pai) 328 185
Kikapú (Kikapooa) 251 144
Cochimi (Laymón, mti'pá) 226 96
Ixil 224 108
Kiliwa (Ko'lew) 107 55
Aguacatec 59 27
Other groups² 728 337
² Includes Opata, Soltec and Papabuco
Source: CDI (2000) [244003]

Indigenous groups and languages of Mexico.
Displaying groups with less than 20,000 speakers of a Native language.

1Number of indigenous peoples that still speak their Indigenous language


  1. "Indigenous peoples" is the preferred term in Mexico to refer to the Amerindian ethnic groups in North America
  2. Constitución Política de los Estados Unidos Mexicanos Art. 2
  3. Los pueblos indígenas de México, Comisión Nacional para el Desarrollo de los Pueblos Indígenas
  4. Ley General de Derechos Lingüísticos de los Pueblos Indígenas
  5. Indicadores seleccionados sobre la población hablante de lengua indígena, 1950 a 2005
  6. Kikapú
  7. Aguacatecos, cakchiqueles, ixiles, kekchíes, tecos, quichés. (Chiapas)
  8. Hamnett, B (1999), A Concise History of MEXICO, Cambridge University Press; Cambridge, UK
  9. Hamnett, Brian (1999) A Concise History of Mexico, Cambridge University Press, UK
  10. Manuel Aguilar-Moreno (2004) A Handbook to Life in the Aztec World Facts of Life, Inc., USA
  11. The Quest for Aztlan
  12. New Tomb at Teotihuacan
  13. Pyramid of the Sun, Moon, "...There is archaeological evidence that Teotihuacan had been a multi-ethnic place, with distinct Zapotec, Mixtec, Maya and what seems to be Nahua quarters.
  14. Colonialismo y modernidad: la enseñanza del español en la Nueva España, "...El racismo y la estratificación de la población de la Nueva España fueron las características de la organización social del Virreinato..."
  15. Seminario sobre Participación y políticas públicas para pueblos indígenas.
  16. Programa Nacional para el Desarrollo de los Pueblos Indígenas 2001-2006
  17. Hamnett, Brian (1999) A Concise History of Mexico, Cambridge University Press, UK, p. 3, "... the Maya inheritance has been appropriated by the national states to reinforce their historical identity and legitimacy."
  18. Pobreza y patrones de exclusión social en México
  19. Oaxaca se moderniza, p. 56, "Se trata de una terminal de cómputo, parecida a un cajero automático, que en español, mixe y zapoteco ofrece el servicio de..."
  20. Diversidad etnolingüística
  21. Tables with population composition for each individual state and the percentage of indigenous population can be downloaded at: [1]


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