1881-1941 · Educator, Anthropologist, and Indigenista
Born in a small village near Monterrey, Nuevo León, he was educated in Mexico, Europe, and the United States during the violent years of the Mexican Revolution. He received a Ph.D. in education during the 1910s from New York's Columbia University, where he wrote a thesis on John Dewey's "action school" and rural social problems. He then returned to Mexico to become the director of education in the state of Guanajuato and by 1925 became subsecretary of public education in Mexico, charged with the integrated program of rural development.
While at the Ministry of Public Education, he spearheaded numerous programs designed to improve the living standards of indigenous Mexicans. He was involved in efforts such as the Casa del Estudiante Indigena (which sought to create an Indian elite), cultural missions, rural schools, and Indian boarding schools. Like Manuel Gamio, during the 1920s Sáenz was a strong advocate of incorporating Mexican Indians into a mestizo nation. His programs were informed by the belief that cultural isolation was the principal cause of "Indian backwardness," and that education would help solve this problem. Besides attempting to create a new Indian elite, he sought to implement educational programs for community development, in which rural schools would become laboratories of experimentation in socioeconomic change. He also employed groups of experts to travel throughout the countryside, teaching Indian communities about hygiene, proper nutrition, economic development, and other features of modern life.
Although his early career was typified by his ideological compatibility with writers such as Manuel Gamio and José Vasconcelos, Sáenz's view of the "Indian problem" was substantially altered by certain key experiences during the early 1930s. After traveling extensively in Mexico and in the indigenous regions of South America —detailed in Sobre el indio ecuatoriano y su incorporacion at medio nacional ( 1933), and Sobre el indio peruano y su incorporacion al medio nacional ( 1933) —Sáenz began to question his assimilationist educational policies. The key experience that changed his perspective was his six-month residence in the Tarascan village of Carapan in 1932. In Carapan, he established the Estación Experimental de Incorporación del Indio as a way of studying educational programs in an indigenous setting. Here he became convinced that the rural schools founded during the 1920s had failed and saw that cultural changes imposed by the government had been rejected completely by local villages. This experience made him doubt the soundness of uniform approaches to community development, and it initiated his search for new methods of improving the conditions found in rural settings.
The project in Carapan ultimately was a failure (Sáenz blamed this on the difficulty of harmonizing scientific speculation and social action, as well as a lack of perseverance), but it served as the basis for Sáenzs most important intellectual work. Sáenz explained the lessons he learned from the project in a study entitled Carapan:Bosquejo de una experiencia, published in 1936. In the book he called for a change from the focus on cultural isolation to a focus on material and socioeconomic problems. Carapan also demonstrated that anthropologists and educators needed to tailor their programs carefully to the specific needs of individual communities. The arguments developed in this study favored the view that the "Indian problem" in Mexico was not the result of cultural isolation, but rather the result of centuries of oppression and exploitation.
These ideas, which Sienz developed more extensively in a collection of essays he published in 1939 entitled México Integro, became the most distinctive feature of Sienz's version of indigenismo. By the late 1930s he no longer advocated incorporation, but rather a type of social integration that would validate Indian societies and facilitate the maintenance of indigenous traditions. Sáenz also came to advocate "applied social anthropology." This new social scientific method was derived both from his experiences at Carapan and his understanding of the methods developed in British anthropology. He drew on these principles in his proposal for the creation of the Autonomous Department of Indian Affairs (founded 1936), which combined scientific practice and intimate knowledge of local conditions in resolving health, literacy, and productivity problems. Sáenz continued to develop these ideas while working in the diplomatic service during the late 1930s, and in his role as secretary general of the First Inter-American Congress on Indian Life in Pátzcuaro, Michoacán, during the spring of 1940.
Like Gamio and Vasconcelos, Moises Sienz has come under heavy criticism in recent years in Mexico from Marxist anthropologists. In their reassessment of indigenismo, these scholars argued that the advocacy for mestizaje (ideologies of race mixing) by Sáenz and his colleagues translated into the negation of Indian identities and the insertion of Indians into a Europeanized Mexican nation. Many of these criticisms are valid, but in some important ways Sáenz was substantially different from other indigenistas, particularly in his later work, which favored a form of pluralism. Sáenz