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MEXICO: Films on Indigenous People – But Who Will See Them?

Diego Cevallos

MEXICO CITY, Jan 8 2009 (IPS) - Half a century of films about indigenous peoples have been removed from forgotten corners of store rooms, recorded on compact discs and launched on the Mexican market, in order to bring to light views and realities that are seldom shown on commercial television and in movies.

State bookshops and offices of the government’s National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples (CDI) have been selling the DVD-format series titled “El cine indigenista” (roughly, films on indigenous people) since early December. Nearly 20 films, the earliest of which was made in 1958, are included.

The attempt to rescue from oblivion films in which indigenous people are not portrayed as backwards or deserving of mockery or pity is praiseworthy, but it is unfortunate that they have not been sufficiently publicised, Homero Santacruz, a young anthropologist who works to spread culture in art galleries and other spaces, told IPS.

The series, mainly made up of documentaries, was assembled by the CDI from its extensive film and video collection with the goal of giving the public access to films that will increase their knowledge of original peoples.

Among the selected films are “Todos somos mexicanos” (We Are All Mexicans) (1958), which shows governmental social programmes in action in the southern state of Chiapas, and “En clave de sol” (In the Key of G) (1981), about how a Mixe indigenous community preserves its traditions through music.

Other films include “Tejiendo mar y viento” (Weaving the Wind and the Sea) (1987), which documents the first film workshop for indigenous women in Mexico, and a 1983 film titled “Raramuri ra’itsaara” (The Tarahumara Speak) about deforestation in an indigenous territory.

IPS asked about the availability of the DVD series in several bookshops selling state publications, but was told that it had not yet arrived.

“The state’s DVD productions of this kind are presented as important milestones in spreading different ideas or realities, and in this case for appreciating and getting to know our indigenous peoples, but they don’t reach the general public; they are limited to very small circles,” Santacruz said.

Unless it gets publicity and is advertised in the media, the film series will go unnoticed by the market, even though it is interesting, timely and necessary, he said.

Commercial movies have generally portrayed Mexican indigenous people as savages, as well as characters evoking pity, mockery or laughter, for example in several successful Mexican comedy films in the 1970s and 1980s starring “la india María” (Indian Mary), a character played by actress María Elena Velasco.

Mexico is the Latin American country with the largest indigenous population, which is variously estimated to make up between 12 and 30 percent of the country’s 104 million people (the smaller, official, estimate is based on the number of people who actually speak an indigenous language).

The overwhelming majority of the Mexican population is of mixed indigenous and Spanish ancestry.

The CDI said parts of the series indicate the nature of state policies towards indigenous peoples over the past 50 years. These have changed from paternalism and the concept of assimilation to the present-day approach, which extols diversity and respect for indigenous cultures and their autonomy.

Museums, schoolbooks and the official discourse all exalt the country’s indigenous cultures. But studies show that indigenous people have lower incomes than the rest of the population and suffer from social rejection and discrimination.

According to nearly every development indicator, indigenous Mexicans are underprivileged in relation to the rest of the population.

The illiteracy rate among indigenous people is 31.1 percent, compared to the national figure of 9.2 percent. As many as 53.5 percent of indigenous people live in houses with dirt floors, and 13 percent lack drinking water, sanitation and electricity.

Mexican schools teach children to take pride in the country’s indigenous roots and in the peoples who built great cities and developed advanced knowledge before the arrival of the Spaniards, but many present-day indigenous people can be seen begging for coins on the streets.

According to official statistics, 86.1 percent of the indigenous population lack guaranteed access to health care, and nearly 30 percent have not completed primary school.

Infant mortality among indigenous people is 48.3 per 1,000 live births, compared to 28.2 per 1,000 for the country as a whole.

Juan Urrusti, who has directed films about indigenous issues, praised the CDI’s efforts to reach wider audiences through film, in an interview with the local newspaper Reforma. He said such initiatives were necessary to raise indigenous people’s self-esteem, as they hardly ever see themselves reflected in the media.

Santacruz concurred, but repeated that it was a pity that “El cine indigenista” should be launched on the market without adequate promotion. He added that the product was unlikely to be seen by indigenous people in Mexico.

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