Indigenous groups across Latin America—and really, the world—have been the victims of oppression for centuries. In Mexico alone, 23.2 million people identify as Indigenous, 7.3 million of whom speak an Indigenous language, according to a census from 2020 . But despite their sizable population and attempts by the government to provide legal recognition, protection, and autonomy, Indigenous peoples still face systemic poverty, lack of access to resources, discrimination, and hate crimes. Last month, 14-year-old Juan Pablo Zamorano was set on fire by his classmates at Josefa Vergara High School in Querétaro, Mexico because of his Indigenous Otomí ancestry. The Otomi are Indigenous to Central Mexico and speak Otomi, which originates from Nahuatl. The perpetrators allegedly poured alcohol on his seat and, when he stood up, used a lighter to set him on fire. Juan had to be sent to the hospital to be treated for second and third-degree burns on the lower half of his body, and was released a month later following four surgeries.
“It was attempted murder,” said Juan ‘s father, according to the Mexican newspaper El Universal.
According to Juan’s family, his teacher failed to intervene, call 911, or notify his parents following the incident. She may have even joined in on the harassment and bullying he had been facing from other students for months simply because he’s Otomí and speaks Spanish with an accent. However, along with the parents of the alleged bullies, she offered to pay part of his medical expenses if the family didn’t file a report. Unsurprisingly, Juan’s father refused.
“She thinks that we’re not her class, we’re not her race,” he said, adding that the family has already filed complaints against the alleged perpetrators and the school in order to protect their son.
The case has attracted national attention in Mexico. Queretaro state prosecutors will be launching a full investigation into the incident and the alleged students involved will be taken to court. Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has said that the case may be taken to the country’s attorney general if necessary.
Jesús Ramirez, a spokesman for the President, took to Twitter in support of the position, writing, “[Juan’s] only crime was to speak Otomi. Eradicating racism in our society is a matter for everyone. Peace is possible only if there is mutual respect.”
No podemos olvidar el caso de Juan Zamorano, niño indígena otomí que fue quemado por sus compañeros de escuela, el pasado 6 de junio. Su único delito era hablar otomí. Erradicar el racismo de nuestra sociedad, es un asunto de todos. La paz solo es posible si hay respeto mutuo.
— Jesús Ramírez Cuevas (@JesusRCuevas) July 10, 2022
It goes to show that even though many in Mexico identify as being of mixed white and Indigenous descent, whether culturally or racially, those who are fully Indigenous will always face more discrimination and oppression simply for being who they are. According to a national survey, 40 percent of the country’s Indigenous population reported incidents of discrimination and almost half said that their rights had barely been respected, if at all. Similar to Native groups in the United States, Indigenous peoples in Mexico face harassment for speaking their native tongue instead of Spanish, for wearing their cultural clothing, or simply being in public. Reports of Indigenous people being turned away from places like restaurants or restrooms are not uncommon. Juan’s case is yet another example of the frustrating realities that Indigenous peoples face every day.
“We can’t say that it was impossible to predict,” said Alexandra Haas, former president of Mexico’s National Council to Prevent Discrimination according to SBS News. “There have been centuries of racial, Indigenous and very structural discrimination.”