Indigenismo is a term that refers to a broad grouping of discourses—in politics, the social sciences, literature, and the arts—concerned with the status of “the Indian” in Latin American societies. The term derives from the word “indígena,” often the preferred term over “indio” because of the pejorative connotations that have accrued to the latter in some contexts, and is not to be confused with the English word “indigenism.” The origins of modern indigenismo date to the 16th century and to the humanist work of Bartolomé de las Casas, dubbed “Defender of the Indians” for his efforts to expose the violence committed against native populations by Spanish colonizers. Indeed indigenismo generally connotes a stance of defense of Indians against abuse by non-Indians, such as criollos and mestizos, and although this defense can take a variety of often-contradictory forms, it stems from a recognition that indigenous peoples in colonial and modern Latin America have suffered injustice. Another important precursor to modern indigenismo is 19th-century “Indianismo.” In the wake of Independence, creole elites made the figure of “the Indian” a recurring feature of Latin American republican and nationalist thought as the region sought to secure an identity distinct from the colonial powers.
The period 1910–1970 marks the heyday of modern indigenismo. Marked by Las Casas’s stance of defense toward indigenous people and by creole nationalists’ “Indianization” of national identity, the modernizing indigenismo of the 20th century contains three important additional dimensions: it places the so-called “problem of the Indian” at the center of national modernization efforts and of national revolution and renewal; it is, or seeks to become, a matter of state policy; and it draws on contemporary social theories—positivist, eugenicist, relativist, Marxist—to make its claims about how best to solve the “Indian problem.” Though its presence can be found in many Latin American countries, indigenismo reached its most substantive and influential forms in Mexico and Peru; Bolivia and Brazil also saw significant indigenista activity. Anthropologists played a central role in the development of modern indigenismo, and indigenismo flourished in literature and the performing and visual arts. In the late 20th century, indigenous social movements as well as scholars from across the disciplines criticized indigenismo for its paternalist attitude toward Indians and for promoting Indians’ cultural assimilation; the state-centric integrationist ideology of indigenismo has largely given way to pluri-culturalism.
Both Ecuador and Bolivia have gained a reputation for powerful social movements that have repeatedly challenged entrenched political and economic interests that have controlled the countries since their independence from Spain almost two hundred years ago. A wealthy and powerful minority of European descendant landowners ruled the countries to the exclusion of the majority population of impoverished Indigenous farm workers. Repeated well-organized challenges to exclusionary rule in the late 20th century shifted policies and opened political spaces for previously marginalized people. Social movement organizations also altered their language to meet new realities, including incorporating identities as ethnic groups and Indigenous nationalities to advance their agenda. Their efforts contributed to a significant leftward shift in political discourse that led to the election of presidents Evo Morales and Rafael Correa.