BIOGRAPHIES:   Manuel Gamio

“Father of Mexican Anthropology”

Manuel Gamio (1883-1960)

by Mintzi Martinez-Rivera

March 2, 2007


Gamio and Archaeology

Gamio and Indigenismo

Debates Surrounding Gamio

Final words

Principal Works

Bibliography Cited


Manuel Gamio is considered the father of Mexican Anthropology.  He has been bestowed this epithet because he began the relationship between the growth of the nation-state and nationalism, and the professionalization of anthropology in Mexico. Manuel Gamio was born in Mexico City on March 2nd 1883.  He obtained his bachelor’s degree in the National Preparatory School of San Ildefonso and he was later enrolled in the School of Mines. At the beginning of 1906 he began studies in the National Museum in Mexico City, where the first anthropology classes in Mexico where taught by Dr. Nicolás León and Dr. Jesús Galindo y Villa.  From 1909 to 1911 he studied archeology in Colombia University under the tutelage of Dr. Franz Boas. He received his Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1921.  His dissertation covered his archaeological research in the Valley of Mexico, mainly in the archaeological area of Teotihuacán. 

During his lifetime, Gamio occupied numerous political/academic positions: Director of the Escuela Internacional de Antropología y Etnografía Americana (1916-1920); Director of Anthropology of the Secretaria de Agricultura de México (1917-24); Sub-secretary of Public Education (1924-1925); General Director of Población Rural y Colonización (1934); Chief of the Departamento Demográfico of the Secretaría de Gobernación (1938-1942); and Director of the Instituto Indigenista Interamericano (1942-1960). He passed away on July 16, 1960 in Mexico City.

Manuel Gamio lived during one of the most important periods in Mexican history. During the first century as an independent country indigenous communities were seen as the principal problem of the Mexican state, something that had to be either civilized (Liberals) or eliminated (Conservatives). During the Porfiriato era (1876-1911) the government systematically worked to eliminate the indigenous population in the country.  The Revolution of 1910 aimed to counteract the ideology established by the Porfiriato and there was an increase idealization of the Indian—as embodied by the magnificent Aztec empire—, which became the emblem of the new-founded nationalistic movement.  Gamio was part of this movement, and helped in the re-construction of Mexico’s pre-Hispanic glorious past.  Gamio’s academic production was very prolific.  He conducted research in Guatemala, Ecuador, United States and Mexico, and has an extensive publication record (bibliography see León Portilla, 1962).  However he is most remembered for his archaeological work in the Valley of Mexico and his conceptualization of the politics of indigenismo.  


Gamio and Archaeology

Gamio’s achievement with regards to his work on the valley of Mexico is two-fold: practical and ideological. In 1911 Gamio and Boas began to excavate in San Miguel Amantla in Azapotzalco and introduced the stratigraphic method to Mexican Archeology. This method “enabled archaeologists to trace the sequence of cultures through successively deeper and older levels of deposited shards” (Brading, 1988:77). From 1918 to 1920 Gamio with a team of archeologists and a couple of hundred workers surveyed and uncovered the temples and the city of Teotihuacán. In 1922 he published a two-volume survey of the work done in the archeological site under the title The Population of the Valley of Teotihuacán.  Gamio transformed the valley of Teotihuacán into “the greatest public monument in Mexico… and effectively re-instated Indian civilization as the foundation of Mexican history” (Brading, 1988:78).  For the state this site became the physical emblem of the grand Mexican pre-Hispanic past.  

Gamio and Indigenismo

Before the Revolution historical accounts described the pre-Hispanic civilizations as barbarous and sanguinary.  After the Revolution, and during the period of nation building, the Indian (meaning the pre-Hispanic Aztec) was reimagined as the cradle of the Mexican nation. But the living Indian became a problem for the achievement of economic prosperity and the modernization that government officials and intellectuals wished for the country. There was an interest in understanding indigenous peoples with the emphasis on learning their ways so that the government could educate them and incorporate them into the “new” Mexico, a “México mestizo” (mestizo is a colonial category created to describe the offspring of mixed racial parents, but specifically the combination of European and Indian). Gamio thought indigenous culture, religious traditions and language had to be changed so that they could assimilate to the wider Mexican nation.  The only thing worth preserving of their culture was their material culture, their architecture, artistic patrimony, and folk-crafts  (Brading, 1988:87).  Folk art became an “important source of national identity and pride” (Doremus, 2001: 383).

Gamio, in his canonical work Forjando Patria portrayed the living Indian as problematic, backwards, uneducated and poor (Gamio, 1982 [1916]:93-96). Gamio thought indigenous people could not modernize and become part of the Mexican nation because of their culture, religious traditions (Catholicism and its folk variants), and their lack of knowledge of Spanish.  He endorsed stronger education programs, with an emphasis on Spanish education and sciences.  Departing from Boas’ work, Gamio also argued that culture was not tied to race (or biological factors).  The Indian was not Indian necessarily by birth but by the culture they where born into. Gamio did not encourage racial mixing, but cultural mixing.  A person could be biologically Indian, but if he had some cultural mixing he was considered mestizo.  Following this ideology the state was able to “decrease the number of Mexicans previously classified as Indian, and increase those classified as mestizo” (Doremus: 2001: 381).

Forjando Patria, to some degree, is a treaty of how to develop a mestizo nation. Gamio covers education, politics, intellectual developments, history, art, religion, etc. For Gamio a heterogeneous country cannot properly function.  By the end of Forjando Patria Gamio calls for “racial approximation, cultural fusion, linguistic unification and economic equilibrium” (Gamio [1916] quoted in Brading, 1988: 82).  The mestizo is hailed as the true leader of the Mexican nation.  But most importantly in Forjando Patria Gamio discusses the role of the anthropologists in this endeavor.  The task of anthropologists, as postulated by Gamio, was to acquire information of the indigenous population. Gamio also argued that anthropological knowledge should precede social action, and that the knowledge of the population of the country would aid the government in their task (Gamio, 1982 [1916]; 15).

With the inclusion of a strong nationalistic agenda to the already established sense of ethical responsibilities and social action as practiced by Boas, Gamio distinguished a Mexican anthropological school from the United States’ school.  In 1917 the Directorate of Anthropology in the Department of Agriculture was founded with Gamio as the chair.  This institution aimed to promote a better quality of life for indigenous communities, and the basis for applied anthropology was established.

Debates Surrounding Gamio

Mexican scholars since the 1960’s have criticized Gamio’s anthropological approach and development of indigenismo. Even his title as the “father of Mexican Anthropology” is contested.  According to Mechthild Rutsch, one of the leading historians of Mexican Anthropology, Andrés Molina Enriquez, as chair of the Department of Ethnology in the National Museum of Anthropology and History in 1907, promoted the idea of applied ethnology (Rutsch, 2004: 110). Rutsch implies that Gamio’s epithet, as the “founding father of anthropology,” is part of the canon of Mexican official historiography and that his work is not the breakthrough that it’s claimed to be.

Historians of anthropology have also focused on the negative effects that the discipline as endorsed by Gamio has had in indigenous communities.  Rosalva Hernández Castillo (2001) traced the development of anthropology and the impact of nationalism and Indigenismo in Mayan communities in Chiapas.  She shows how in the last 60 years anthropological social action research infused with nationalistic tendencies, or more specifically, Gamio’s school of anthropology, has negatively affected indigenous communities in Chiapas.

Final words

While Gamio’s work on Indigenismo and the excavations in the valley of Teotihuacán are considered his major contribution to Mexico’s intellectual production, in the United States he is also recognized for his research on migrant Mexican communities (Immigration to the United States and The Mexican Immigrant, His Life Story, both published in 1931). And while his work continues to be criticized by new generations of scholars (as exemplified by Warman et al. 1970) this does not diminish Manuel Gamio’s contribution as one of the leading thinkers of the Mexican Revolution and as a leading figure in the early development of Mexican Anthropology.    


Principal Works

Forjando Patria (1916)

La Población del Valle de Teotihuacán (1922)

Mexican Immigration to the United States (1931)

The Mexican Immigrant, His Life Story (1931)

Hacia un México Nuevo, problemas sociales (1935)

Consideraciones sobre el Problema Indígena (1948)    

Bibliography cited

Brading, David A.. 1988. “Manuel Gamio and the Official Indigenismo in Mexico.” In Bulletin of Latin American Research. 7(1): 75-89.


Doremus, Anne. 2001. “Indigenism, Mestizaje, and National Identity in Mexico during the 1940s and the 1950s.” In Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos. 17(2): 375-402.


Gamio, Manuel. 1982 (1916). Forjando Patria. México: Editorial Porrúa.


Hernandez Castillo, Rosalva Aída.  2001.  “La antropolgia aplicada al servicio del estado nación: aculturación e indigenismo en la frontera sur de Mexico.”  In Journal of Latin American Anthropology.  6(2): 20-41.


León Portilla, Miguel. 1961. “El Pensamiento Sociológico de Manuel Gamio” In Revista Mexicana de Sociología. 23(1): 33-44.


------------------ 1962. “Manuel Gamio, 1883-1960.” In American Anthropologists. 64(2): 356-366.


Rutsch, Mechthild. 2004.  “Natural History, national Museum and Anthropology in Mexico. Some reference points in the forging and re-forging of national identity.”  In Perspectivas Latinoamericanas. 1: 89-122.


Sierra Castillo, Dora. 1994.  Cien años de etnografía en el Museo. México: Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia.      


Warman, Arturo, Guillermo Bonfil Batalla, Margarita Nolasco, Mercedes Olivera and Enrique Valencia. 1970. De eso que llaman antropología Mexicana. México: Editorial Nuestro Tiempo. 



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