There was an interesting commentary in yesterday's Herald which reflected on a rather alarming Secretaria de Educacion Publica plan to eliminate pre-Hispanic history from Mexican middle school textbooks. Apparently, they're presentaing the plan as part of a program to re-orient the history curriculum away from rote memorization of facts to more analysis-based learning. That's fine, but it's hard to understand why that change in approach couldn't be applied to the study of what to many is the most fascinating part of Mexican history.
One supporter of the plan, a history graduate student at UNAM, was quoted in the article as saying that Mexicans spend too much time blaming the pre-Hispanic period for the problems of today. He thinks that the "we are conquered people" mentality cripples modern Mexico and so it's best to de-emphasize that part of the country's history. Personally, I see this proposal as a manifestation of a widespread attitude in mainstream Mexican culture toward indigenous culture in general. What I've noticed is that a fair number of Mexicans seem to view their indigenous countrymen as backwards and therefore prefer to downplay or even ignore their own indigenous heritage.
When I was teaching up in Queretaro, one day soon after Dia de la Raza ("Day of the Race," a holiday that commemorates the birth of the Mexican mestizo race), I though I might be able to get a good discussion going on the students' mixed racial heritage. So I presented them with discussion questions like: Was it a good thing that the Spanish came here? How would Mexico be different today if the Spanish had never come? and so forth. The general answer to the first question was Duh, of course it was! and that was about as far into discussion as we got. It sure didn't seem like these were topics that they had considered much before and they certainly weren't interested in considering them at that time in any depth.I also noticed while I was living in that part of the country that when I asked people if they knew anything about which indigenous group they had descended from, they often just shrugged their shoulders.
I had one friend in Guanajuato who went on in great length to tell me the history of each of her family names and what region of Spain each came from, but when I asked her what she knew about her indigenous ancestry, she said "I have none - I'm of 100% European descent." Her physical characteristics, however, strongly suggested otherwise. In Oaxaca, it's a slightly different situation since most people have grandparents or parents who speak an indigenous dialect, so they're quite aware of their heritage. When I met a friend, one of the very first things I remember her saying was: "You want to know something interesting about me? I'm 100% Zapotec!" I was pretty impressed. But unfortunately, I've also met a number of other young Oaxacans who seemed less eager to show off their indigenous roots. And who can blame them? In a country where the mainsteam culture uses the word Indio (Indian) as an insult word and where the national Secretary of Education wants to eliminate pre-Hispanic history from the textbooks, why would people feel especially proud of their indigenous roots? Well, they should, darn it, and Mexican culture and government should be doing everything to make that possible.