Mexican Ethnic Groups: Percentages & Demographics

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Mexico has a large population, and a diverse one. In this lesson, we are going to explore ethnic identity in Mexico and see how the demographics of the nation reflects its history.

Mexican Ethnicities

What does it mean to be Mexican? Just as people in the United States call themselves Americans, the term Mexican implies a national identity. It's not an ethnic one, not really. Still, the concept of ethnicity is important in Mexico, a nation with the third highest population in the Western Hemisphere and the most populous city in North America (Mexico City). So, these issues of identity impact a lot of people, all seeking to define what it means to be Mexican.

Ethnicity in Mexico

Mexico, like most modern nations, conducts a national census. It does not, however, include questions about ethnicity on that census. This is partly because the Mexican government has a long history of trying to erase ethnic division within its society. As a colony of the Spanish Empire, ethnic boundaries defined colonial society so when the Mexican people fought for independence, one of their agendas was to eliminate ethnic distinctions. For many people, this is seen as a way to foster a stronger, unified Mexican identity without racial tension. For others, however, it is seen as a threat to local identities, especially Amerindian ones that don't fit perfectly within the Mexican national narrative.

For much of the 20th century, the Mexican promoted a national, not ethnic, Mexican identity

Mestizo Ethnicity

Even though Mexico does not collect census data on ethnicity, we still have a pretty good idea about the nation's demographics. The largest ethnic group in Mexico are the mestizos, who, according to the CIA, make up about 62% of the total population. Mestizo identity is mixed identity, implying European, Amerindian, and possibly African heritage. When the Mexican government pushed for a unified national identity, this is what they had in mind: one ethnic category that can encompass all Mexican people.

Let's look at the components of this identity a little bit more. A mestizo is assumed to have European ancestry. This basically means Spanish heritage. The legacies of Spanish culture run deep in Mexico, but barely any Mexicans would describe themselves as ethnically Spanish. The Spanish were the oppressive colonizers who mestizos fought against for independence.

The next part of this ethnic identity is Amerindian ancestry. The official version of mestizo identity that the government really pushed for in the early 20th century focused largely on Mexica (Aztec) heritage as the national heritage of Mexico, so many Mexicans claim Mexica heritage. However, others identify more with one of the nation's other dozens of Amerindian groups.

The third part of this heritage is African ancestry. This is strongest along the coasts. Mestizo identity is really focused on the balance of Spanish and Amerindian ethnic heritage, so while many Mexicans may have some African ancestry, it is often ignored or shuffled aside.

The eclectic Mexican cuisine is a perfect symbol of mestizo identity

The mixed mestizo identity is interesting because it is often a matter of choice, as much as genetics. In some instances, people rely strongly on Spanish customs, at other times they display pride in their Amerindian heritage or African roots. Mestizo identity is, by its nature, flexible and fluid. It can be negotiated and adjusted depending on the situation, which makes it an interesting part of daily life.

Amerindian Ethnicity

After the 62% of Mexicans who primarily identify as mestizo come another 30% who identify more substantially with an Amerindian ethnicity. One of the strongest Amerindian identities, which has been very resistant to adopting a mestizo banner, is that of the Maya in the south. The Maya were the other major settled civilization of Mexico prior to the arrival of Europeans, but unlike the Aztecs, they were not included in early versions of Mexican national heritage. In fact, the Maya attempted to rebel at multiple points in Mexican history and establish an independent state in the Yucatán. Today, they are working to gain more political autonomy and recognition of rights as an ancestrally indigenous group.

The Maya and the Aztecs dominate international imaginations about Mexico's Amerindian populations, but they are far from the only groups. In fact, Mexico has 65 distinct Amerindian ethnicities within its borders. What has surprised geneticists is not only the amount of diversity in Mexico, but its scale. According to researchers, some of Mexico's Amerindian groups are as genetically distinct from each other as Europeans and East Asians.

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