Mexico's Indigenous Population Continues to Face High Rates of Poverty

June 15, 2016

Speaking to a crowd in the southern state of Chiapas in February, a region with the largest indigenous population in Mexico, Pope Francis condemned what he called “the systemic and organized way your people have been misunderstood and excluded from society” (Puella and Bernstein, 2016). These misunderstandings and exclusion have created in Mexico a situation in which indigenous communities face significantly higher rates of poverty, a problem that impacts their overall quality of life and access to basic resources for 12.6 percent of the population.

Chiapas is an important state for understanding indigenous history in Mexico. Since 1400 BCE, Chiapas has housed a sizable indigenous population. Today, one can still find the Mayan ruins of Palenque, Yaxchilán, Bonampak, and Chinkultic in the state. Chiapas was the state that produced Emiliano Zapata, a famous revolt by the Zapatista army in 1994, as well as the occasional indigenous rebellion. Currently, “the state has one of the largest and most diverse indigenous populations in Mexico, with approximately 959,000 native language speakers over the age of five, which represents one quarter of the state’s population” (History Channel).

Yet, despite a rich history, Chiapas, as compared to the rest of Mexico, has historically faced higher levels of poverty and economic insecurity. This poverty and insecurity has roots in what Pope Francis labeled the “systemic and organized” exclusion of the indigenous communities from Mexican society. Chiapas is not the only state with a rich history of indigenous communities, and as such, it is not the only state with a troubled history of the marginalization of the indigenous. Indigenous communities in Mexico live on the margins of Mexican society, living in communities with higher levels of poverty, poorer health outcomes, lower life expectancies, and poor academic performance (Sevran-Mori et al, 2014).

Levels of Poverty: According to the United Nations’ 2015 report on the status of the world’s indigenous peoples, 80.6 percent of Mexico’s indigenous population lives in extreme poverty (United Nations, 2015). These high rates of poverty correlate with high rates of food insecurity among children. In the three states with the most concentrated indigenous populations, the vast majority of children live under the poverty line on less than two dollars a day. In Chiapas, 81.7 percent of children live below the poverty line; 77.1 percent in Guerrero; and 66.9 percent in Oaxaca. This means that the majority of children in these indigenous communities go to bed hungry (Yucatan Times, 2014). Furthermore, these high rates of poverty equate to low levels of adequate infrastructure, with indigenous communities lacking widespread access to durable flooring material, clean water and sanitation, schools, health clinics, or medical insurance. All of these factors of poverty combine together to create a situation of poor health, lowered life expectancy, and decreased education rates in these indigenous communities.

Health Indicators: Due to extreme poverty, the indigenous population of Mexico faces poorer health indicators compared to the non-indigenous population.  In the states of Guerrero, Chiapas, and Oaxaca, where indigenous populations are concentrated, maternal mortality rates are significantly higher than the national rate. The maternal mortality rate of Guerrero is 103.2; Chiapas is 82.7; and Oaxaca is 80.6, compared to a national rate of 38 deaths per 100,000 live births. Additionally, the prevalence of preventable diseases in considerably higher in the rural areas where the indigenous communities are concentrated. In these states, the probability of death due to preventable death is 181 percent higher in rural areas with concentrated indigenous populations than it is in the urban centers of the same states with low numbers of indigenous peoples (United Nations, 2015). The infant mortality rate is 50 percent higher among indigenous children than it is among the non-indigenous. Children who survive this increased infant mortality rate have higher levels of malnutrition. Notably, 44 percent of indigenous children are malnourished, compared to only 17 percent of non-indigenous children (Sevran-Mori et al, 2014). Due to these decreased health indicators, the indigenous population in Mexico has a lower life expectancy than the non-indigenous, with a 5 year gap in life expectancy (United Nations, 2015).

Academic Performance: As of 2014, in Mexico’s indigenous communities, only 27 percent of children graduated from high school. While the national illiteracy rate in Mexico is 8.4 percent, among the indigenous populations the illiteracy rate is raised to 44 percent (PressTV News, 2014). Higher education attendance is extremely low, with only 3 percent of indigenous peoples attending institutions of higher education, compared to 15 percent of the national population. These lower rates of education can be equated to a lack of schools in rural areas; lower quality teachers in indigenous areas; and poorer test scores and academic achievement due to language barriers, as Spanish is a second language for most indigenous children.

Oportunidades, a social cash transfer program in Mexico, has been instrumental in helping poor communities in Mexico. Despite this, many rural indigenous communities in Mexico have been excluded from the program. These communities do not meet the basic requirement for inclusion in the program, as they do not have a school or health center that would be necessary for the inclusion in the program. The result of these requirements is that those most need of aid are excluded, perpetuating a cycle of marginalization and poverty. While Mexico has written the protection of indigenous rights into their constitution, and has signed international treaties on the issue, the continued marginalization and exclusion of these groups has created widespread poverty and chronic health and education problems, problems that the Mexican government has largely failed to address.


“Chiapas.” History Channel.

“Mexico.” CIA World Factbook. Central Intelligence Agency.

“More than 20 Million Mexican Children and Adolescents Live in Poverty (More than 4 Million in Extreme Poverty).” Yucatan Times. May 26, 2014.

“Only 27 Percent of Indigenous Mexicans Finish High School.” PressTV News Videos. Jun. 28, 2014.

Pullella, Phillip and Joanna Zuckerman Bernstein. “Pope Courts Indigenous Mexicans as Catholic Fervor Fades.” Reuters. Feb. 15, 2016.;_ylt=A0LEVvDWR8NW7h0AYlQnnIlQ;_ylu=X3oDMTEyaHRvazA2BGNvbG8DYmYxBHBvcwMzBHZ0aWQDQjE2MzhfMQRzZWMDc3I-

Servan-Mori, E., Torres-Pereda, P., Orozco, E., & Sosa-Rubí, S. G. (2014). “An Explanatory Analysis of Economic and Health Inequality Changes Among Mexican Indigenous People.” 2000-2010. International Journal for Equity in Health, 13(1), 21-21.

“State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.” 2nd Volume. United Nations. 2015.


About Author(s)

Hilary Heath's picture
Hilary Heath
Hilary Heath is a second year candidate for a Master of International Development at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at Pitt where she is studying Human Security. She currently works as a graduate student intern for Panoramas and is obtaining a certificate at the Center for Latin American Studies.