Based on documents housed in Mexico City and Chiapas, this essay describes how Mexico's National Indigenist Institute (INI) managed to establish its pilot Coordinating Center in highland Chiapas in 1951. Facing opposition from the state government, the state alcohol monopoly, and many Tzeltal and Tzotzil indigenous communities, the INI employed bilingual indigenous “cultural promoters” to negotiate its programs in education, road construction, and public health. As it turns out, the INI's most innovative negotiating tool was a bilingual hand-puppet troupe, the Teatro Petul, which promoted the INI's unpopular public health campaigns. By 1954, the INI and its cultural promoters had built dozens of bilingual schools and a road network in the highlands and were challenging the abuses of local non-Indians, especially those associated with the alcohol monopoly.
Paradoxically, the INI's initial success in Chiapas also contained the seeds for its eventual failure. In its bids to overcome opposition to its programs, the INI relied heavily on its indigenous brokers. Many of these men later used their relatively privileged positions to control access to government resources and secure political positions within their communities. The INI's negotiations with the state government and the alcohol monopoly taught indigenistas that it was easier to induce change on Indians than it was to challenge the overarching political and economic systems that exploited them. Mexican indigenistas crafted a development model that focused inward, on the indigenous themselves, and avoided clashes with powerful interests. This strategy allowed the INI to perpetuate itself and survive politically for five decades in Chiapas and the rest of Mexico, but it greatly limited the extent to which Mexican indigenismo could effect real change.