In recent years, Native activists have challenged national mythologies long associated with the Thanksgiving holiday. Rejecting the caricatured version of the peaceful origins of the celebration, activists and historians have highlighted European settlers’ often violent interactions with the Native peoples of what would eventually become the United States.
These developments are an important step toward fully reckoning with the history of conquest in this country and how it shapes our present. Yet that conquest was not only a national process but also a hemispheric one. The settlers who founded what would become the United States were just one piece of a wave of European colonization of the western hemisphere. With Thanksgiving upon us, it is worth reckoning with that history beyond the borders of the United States as well.
Our neighbor to the south, Mexico, is grappling with its own relationship to conquest. While the country has long celebrated its ancient Mesoamerican civilizations and invoked mestizaje, racial and cultural mixture, as central to national identity, it too has marginalized and denigrated Indigenous voices that advocated for full equality and liberation.
This past August marked the 500th anniversary of the military defeat of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan by Spanish forces. In 1521, Tenochtitlan, the ruins of which now lay under Mexico City, was an impressive urban metropolis with a population of between 200,000 and 300,000 inhabitants. The Aztecs, whose influence and tribute networks covered much of what is now southern Mexico and Central America, were a powerful imperial force at the time of European arrival.
To mark the anniversary, the Mexico City government organized a series of events, including a replica of the Aztec Templo Mayor pyramid in the capital’s zócalo, or central plaza. Crowds gathered to watch dances and colorful replicas of Aztec gods, such as Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent. And Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has asked the Spanish crown as well as Pope Francis for an official apology for their institutions’ respective roles in European conquest of the Americas.
But the government’s commemoration, officially dubbed “500 Years of Indigenous Resistance,” has sparked debate among historians and Indigenous intellectuals in Mexico. Authorities have situated contemporary Mexico as the inheritor of the Aztecs, but that obscures the uncomfortable fact that the Mexican state is both a product and perpetuator of colonial exploitation. And as the Mixe writer Yásnaya Aguilar argues, the inequalities and racism unleashed by the conquest are ongoing.
Yet the relationship between Native peoples and modern nation states is not a simple dichotomy of oppressor and victim. Native people in Mexico and throughout the Americas have shaped the politics and policies of the countries in which they find themselves. Often, they have done so by rejecting the national divisions produced by conquest and imagining a politics beyond them. We would do well to listen to those voices.
The Mexican state has a long history of speaking in the name of Native peoples. In contrast to the United States, 19th-century Mexican elites invoked pre-conquest Indigenous civilizations as a way to distinguish themselves from their former colonial masters. Indeed, López Obrador’s rhetoric forms part of this long-standing nationalist tradition that tends to paper over the fact that Mexico’s history, like that of the United States, involved the dispossession of Native land.
Indigenous peoples in what became Mexico have never been silent in confronting colonial power. During the early days of colonialism, as the Spanish Crown’s agents divided up Native land to distribute among conquistadors, Native peoples assembled along the proposed property lines and stated for the official record: “venimos a contradecir,” or “we come to object.” And during the struggle for Mexican independence (1810-1821), Native peoples waged a two-pronged fight, to liberate their country from Spanish rule and defend their communal lands against Creole elites’ efforts to privatize them. That opposition and advocacy, voiced in some of the darkest days of conquest and civil war, continues to the present.
The Mexican Revolution of 1910, which involved mass mobilizations of rural society, including Native peoples, marked another shift in official rhetoric. The struggle against the unpopular dictator Porfirio Díaz struck a blow against the explicit and official racism of the Díaz regime. The postrevolutionary state that emerged in the aftermath sponsored public art projects that celebrated indigenous culture and history, commissioning Diego Rivera’s murals in the National Palace and Ministry of Education. And the government’s policies went beyond artistic portrayals of the Aztec capital and Indigenous peasant revolutionaries. In 1948, Mexico created a new federal agency, the Instituto Nacional Indigenista, charged with the material uplift of the Native population.
Again, Native peoples actively participated in and challenged government policy. While their communities were targeted for public health, education and agricultural initiatives, Indigenous individuals worked within the federal agency, from low-level functionaries and anthropologists to bilingual teachers. Many, such as the Mixtec (Ñuu Savi) teacher Ramón Hernández López, defied the paternalism of federal policy by seeking to defend Native communities against economic exploitation and advocate for the equal value of Native languages to the national language, Spanish.
In the early 1970s, Indigenous youths in Mexico, like their counterparts throughout the hemisphere, seized on new theories of anti-colonialism and revolution to advocate for themselves and their communities. On a national level, they fought for positions as bilingual teachers and challenged the repression of social movements in rural Mexico. In the southern state of Oaxaca, a diverse array of Indigenous peoples had persisted for centuries. A group of radical youths there put these global theories of revolution in dialogue with local traditions of communal self-government and mutual aid. Activists such as Floriberto Díaz and Jaime Martinez Luna articulated a theory they termed “comunalidad” or “communality.” They called for a politics of liberation that drew on Indigenous traditions, not as a way of looking backward, but as a way of imagining alternative futures based on equality and reciprocity.
Oaxaca remained a place of Indigenous self-governance in the second half of the century. Yet the way Oaxaca was incorporated into the global economy was primarily through low-wage, seasonal work outside the state. A Oaxacan diaspora spread north to Mexico City, and beyond to the fields of Baja California and the Pacific Northwest of the United States.
These Oaxacans brought with them traditions of community support and self-reliance. They built relationships of solidarity with Native communities in the United States. Back in Oaxaca itself, Indigenous teachers remained a powerful political force and in 2006 led a social movement to oust a corrupt and violent governor. That movement, cut down by government repression and political compromise, offered an alternative to what would soon engulf Mexico, a brutally violent drug war.
As we reflect on Thanksgiving and the history of conquest and violence against Indigenous people of the Americas, we would do well to listen to Native voices. Mexico, like the United States, has begun a renewed conversation regarding institutions and economies built on colonial violence. Reckoning with this past is a way to imagine a better future. Native history is central to our modern political dilemmas of marginalization and racism. And as Oaxacan radical traditions demonstrate, they are also central to their solutions.