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Mexico Ethnicity and Language
Sources: The Library of Congress Country Studies; CIA World Factbook
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    The eleventh annual census, conducted in 1990, reported a total Mexican population of 81,250,000. This figure represented a 2.3 percent per annum growth rate from the 1980 census and indicated successful government efforts at slowing down the level of population increase. The government reported that the population stood at 91,158,000 at the end of 1995, a 1.8 percent increase over the previous year. Assuming that this most recent level of growth were maintained through the rest of the 1990s, Mexico's population would stand at approximately 100 million persons in the year 2000. A return to the higher 1980 to 1990 growth rate, however, would result in a population total of approximately 102 million persons by the year 2000.

    The pace of migration to the United States increased markedly during the 1980s. One analyst, Rodolfo Corona Vázquez, estimated that 4.4 million Mexicans resided outside the country (almost all in the United States) in 1990, roughly double the estimated number in 1980. Corona Vázquez also noted a changing pattern of emigration since the 1960s. Seven contiguous states in north central Mexico--Jalisco, Michoacán, Guanajuato, Zacatecas, Durango, San Luis Potosí, and Aguasca-lientes--accounted for approximately 70 percent of all emigrants in 1960, but only 42 percent in 1990. New important sources of emigration included Chihuahua in the northeast, the Federal District (the administrative unit that includes Mexico City), and the southernmost state of Oaxaca.

    Notable variations exist in the country's population density (see fig. 4). Four states, three of them in the arid northwest, had fewer than ten persons per square kilometer in 1990, and another thirteen states, mostly in the north, had density levels between ten and fifty persons per square kilometer. By contrast, two states clustered near the capital had densities in excess of 200 persons per square kilometer. The rate in Mexico City itself was approximately 5,500 persons per square kilometer (see table 2, Appendix).

    The state of Mexico and the Federal District accounted for over 22 percent of the national population in 1990. The state of Mexico's spectacular population growth (the state alone accounted for more than 12 percent of national totals) reflected the expansion of the Mexico City metropolitan area. Almost 69 percent of the state of Mexico's population resided in the twenty-seven municipalities that, together with the Federal District, comprise the Mexico City metropolitan area. More than 40 percent of state residents lived in four working-class municipalities--Nezahualcóyotl, Ecatepec, Naucalpán, and Tlalnepantla--that serve as bedroom communities for Mexico City.

    During the course of its history, Mexico has experienced dramatic shifts in population. Demographers estimate that the country's population at the time of the Spanish conquest in the early 1500s was approximately 20 million. By 1600, however, barely 1 million remained--the result of deadly European diseases and brutal treatment of the indigenous inhabitants by the Spanish colonizers (see New Spain, ch. 1). At the onset of the Mexican Revolution in 1910, Mexico's population stood at approximately 15 million persons. Not until 1940 did Mexico reach the population level it had in 1519.

    Although the population growth between 1910 and 1940 appeared relatively modest in absolute numbers, the seeds were sown for a spectacular increase over the next thirty years. Because of advances in preventive medicine and the gradual control of diseases such as yellow fever, the crude death rate declined from 33.2 per 1,000 inhabitants in the period 1905 to 1910 to 23.4 in 1940 (see table 3, Appendix). As sanitation conditions improved in post-World War II Mexico, the crude death rate dropped sharply to 10.1 by 1970. At the same time, however, fertility rates (the number of children the average woman would bear from fifteen to forty-nine years of age) remained relatively stable. Because of the stable fertility rate and declining death rate, the population increased by 2.7 percent per annum between 1940 and 1950, by 3.1 percent per annum between 1950 and 1960, and by 3.4 percent per annum between 1960 and 1970. By 1970 Mexico's population stood at approximately 48.2 million persons, almost two and one-half times its pre-World War II number. Demographers in 1970 ominously forecast that the population would reach 125 million persons by the year 2000.

    Shortly after assuming the presidency in 1976, José López Portillo y Pacheco (1976-82) adopted an aggressive national family planning program. This effort paid immediate dividends by reducing Mexico's fertility rate from 5.4 in 1976 to 4.6 in 1979. The family planning initiative produced a fundamental change in attitudes that continued and accelerated into the 1990s. Indeed, the government reported that the fertility rate had declined to 2.9 in 1993. This lower fertility rate produced a slightly older average population in 1990, compared with two decades earlier. In 1970, 46.2 percent of all Mexicans were younger than fifteen years of age, and 56.7 percent were under twenty years of age. By 1990, these numbers had dropped to 38.3 and 50.6 percent, respectively (see fig. 5).

    Ethnicity and Language

    Ethnicity is an important yet highly imprecise concept in contemporary Mexico. Students of Mexican society, as well as Mexicans themselves, identify two broad ethnic groups based on cultural rather than racial differences: mestizos and Indians. Each group has a distinct cultural viewpoint and perceives itself as different from the other. At the same time, however, group allegiances may change, making measurement of ethnic composition problematic at best.

    Originally racial designators, the terms mestizo and Indian have lost almost all of their previous racial connotation and are now used entirely to designate cultural groups. Historically, the term mestizo described someone with mixed European and indigenous heritage. Mestizos occupied a middle social stratum between whites and pure-blooded indigenous people (see Socieconomic Structures, ch. 1). Whites themselves were divided into criollo (those born in the New World) and peninsular (those born in Spain) subgroups. In contemporary usage, however, the word mestizo refers to anyone who has adopted Mexican Hispanic culture. Seen in this cultural context, both those with a solely European background and those with a mixed European-indigenous background are automatically referred to as mestizos. Mestizo , then, has become a synonym for culturally Mexican, much as ladino is used in many Latin American countries for those who are culturally Hispanic. Members of indigenous groups also may be called (and may call themselves) mestizos if they have the dominant Hispanic societal cultural values.

    If an indigenous person can become a mestizo, who, then, is an Indian? Anthropologist Alan Sandstorm lists minimum criteria that compose a definition of Indian ethnicity. According to Sandstorm, an Indian is someone who identifies himself as such; chooses to use an indigenous language in daily speech; remains actively involved in village communal affairs; participates in religious ceremonies rooted in native American traditions; and attempts to achieve a harmony with, rather than control over, the social and natural worlds. Should one or more criteria become absent over time, the individual probably has begun the transition to becoming a mestizo.

    Although mestizos and Indians may both reside in rural areas and have relatively comparable levels of income, they maintain different lives. Such differences can lead to highly negative perceptions about each other. Mestizos often contend that Indians are too unmotivated and constrained by tradition to deal appropriately with the demands of modern society. Indians, in turn, frequently complain that mestizos are aggressive, impatient, and disrespectful toward nature.

    Given the cultural use of the terms, it would be unrealistic to expect Mexican census officials to count the number of mestizos and Indians based on racial criteria. However, in measuring how many people speak an indigenous language, the census at least serves to identify a minimum number of racially unmixed Indians. In 1990, 7.5 percent of the Mexican population, or approximately 5.3 million people five years of age and over, spoke an Indian language. Of that total, approximately 79 percent knew Spanish as well and thus were at least potential cultural converts to the mestizo world.

    Enormous statewide differences exist in familiarity with indigenous languages (see fig. 6). Roughly speaking, familiarity with indigenous languages increases from north to south. The latest census showed that almost no native speakers lived in a band of eight contiguous states stretching from Coahuila in the northeast to Jalisco and Colima along the north-central Pacific coast. Speakers of indigenous languages constituted less than 5 percent of the population in states in the far northwest and along a central belt of states from Michoacán in the west to Tlaxcala in the east. The percentage climbed to between 10 and 20 percent in another contiguous grouping of states from San Luis Potosí to Guerrero, to 26 percent in Oaxaca, to 32 and 39 percent, respectively, in Quintana Roo and Chiapas, and to 44 percent in Yucatán. Only 63 percent of users of indigenous languages in Chiapas also knew Spanish.

    Specialists have identified twelve distinct Mexican linguistic families, more than forty subgroups, and more than ninety individual languages. Nearly 23 percent of all native speakers speak Náhuatl, the language of the Aztec people and the only indigenous language found in fifteen states. Other major indigenous languages include Maya (spoken by approximately 14 percent of all Indians and primarily used in the southeast from the Yucatan Peninsula to Chiapas); Zapotec (spoken by approximately 7 percent of all Indians and largely used in the eastern part of Oaxaca); Mixtec (also spoken by approximately 7 percent of all Indians and primarily found in Oaxaca and Guerrero); Otomí (spoken by approximately 5 percent of all Indians and used in central Mexico, especially the states of México, Hidalgo, and Querétaro); Tzeltal (spoken by nearly 5 percent of all Indians and used in Chiapas); and Tzotzil (spoken by roughly 4 percent of the Indian population and also used in Chiapas). With twelve different Indian languages, Oaxaca has the nation's most diverse linguistic pattern.

    Census data reveal that Indians remain the most marginalized sector of Mexican society. More than 40 percent of the Indian population fifteen years of age and older was illiterate in 1990, roughly three times the national rate. Thirty percent of Indian children between six and fourteen years of age did not attend school. Indians also had significantly higher morbidity and mortality rates associated with infectious and parasitic illness, higher levels of nutritional deficiencies, and less access to such basic services as indoor plumbing, piped water, and electricity.

    Data as of June 1996

    NOTE: The information regarding Mexico on this page is re-published from The Library of Congress Country Studies and the CIA World Factbook. No claims are made regarding the accuracy of Mexico Ethnicity and Language information contained here. All suggestions for corrections of any errors about Mexico Ethnicity and Language should be addressed to the Library of Congress and the CIA.

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Revised 10-Nov-04
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