Indigenismo as an intellectual movement became popular throughout Latin America in the 1920s and 1930s and has continued to inform many intellectual currents into the present day. Especially in nations with large indigenous populations such as Peru, Guatemala, and Mexico, Latin American thinkers were grappling with the dual problem of defining national identities and addressing the continued presence of distinctly "other" indigenous populations within their national borders. Indigenismo addressed this problem by tracing the roots of the nation into the indigenous past. "The ostensible goals of the movement [were] the consolidation of the national essence, by the physical integration of a territorial area and a nonparticipant mass of population, and the obtainment of a genuine national identity through the appropriation of the symbols and native values". Just as the Spaniards had built their churches on top of the ruins of indigenous temples, the indigenistas conceived of their nations as having been built on top of pre-Columbian civilizations, the remains of which were still visible in the landscape.
The indigenista project was a radical departure from the past in terms of the way that it engaged the Indian question. Previously, "Spanish American pensadores and statesmen promoted exclusionary, elite nationalisms founded on identification with Britain, France and/or the United States in the case of liberals, and Golden Age Spain in the case of conservatives. They argued that the Indians within their borders should be regarded (and regard themselves) as members of 'a nation parallel to the Spanish-Creole one'". With the rise of indigenismo, the objective shifted toward the integration and acculturation of indigenous peoples into the state. This was accompanied by an appropriation of indigenous culture as a sort of national treasure and the celebration of what were seen as the nobler qualities of the Indian.
The first Inter-American Indian Conference was held in Patzcuaro, Mexico in 1940. The conference was sponsored by Lázaro Cárdenas, who gave a speech during the opening session and ushered in an era of expanded official indigenismo. Rodolfo Stavenhagen identifies the basic principles around which the conference was organized and around which the movement took shape:
- Respect for indigenous culture and personality
- Rejection of legislation and practices originating in concepts of racial differences which are unfavorable to indigenous groups
- Equality of rights and opportunities for all population groups of the Americas
- Respect for the positive values of indigenous culture
- Facilitate the economic elevation and assimilation of the indigenous groups and access to modern technology and universal culture
- Every action on indigenous communities should count with the acceptance of the community
As Stavenhagen points out, few governments adhered to these principles very closely, but they were widely adopted and may be easily identified in the work of anthropologists and the speeches of politicians from around Latin America. In practice, respect and celebration of indigenous culture was mostly symbolic while assimilation was taken much more seriously. Indigenismo "included indigenous people in the nation-state at a symbolic level at the same time as it advanced their eventual disappearance."
- Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrán. 1971. El Pensamiento Indigena de Lázaro Cárdenas. América Indígena 31(4): 1007-1019. Pp. 1009.
- Nicola Miller. 1999. In the Shadow of the State: Intellectuals and the Quest for National Identity in Twentieth-Century Spanish America. New York: Verso. Pp. 137.
- Rodolfo Stavenhagen. 2002. Indigenous Peoples and the State in Latin America: An Ongoing Debate. In Multiculturalism in Latin America: Indigenous Rights, Diversity and Democracy. Rachel Sieder, ed. Pp. 24-44. New York: Institute of Latin American Studies. Pp. 27.
- Rachel Sieder. 2002. Recognising Indigenous Law and the Politics of State Formation in Mesoamerica. In Multiculturalism in Latin America: Indigenous Rights, Diversity and Democracy. Rachel Sieder, ed. Pp. 184-207. New York: Institute of Latin American Studies. Pp. 191.