Ethnic groups in Ecuador

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There are five major ethnic groups in Ecuador: mestizos, whites, Afroecuadorians, Amerindians, Arabics, Asians and Montubios. While Mestizos constitute more than 70% of the population, the contributions of other groups are comparable.[1]


Ethnic composition of Ecuador[1]
Mestizos Whites Amerindians Montubios Afroecuadorians other/otros
71.9%% 6.1% 7.0% 7.4% 7.2% 0.4%

Ecuador's ethnic groups descend from Spanish colonizers and South American Indians; indeed, the relationship between the two groups has defined Ecuador's subsequent pattern of ethnicity. The mix of these groups created a third category, described variously as mestizos. The fourth element consists of descendants of black slaves who arrived to work on coastal plantations in the sixteenth century. Censuses do not record ethnic affiliation, which in any event remains fluid; thus, estimates of the numbers of each group should be taken only as approximations. In the 1980s, Indians and mestizos represented the bulk of the population, with each group accounting for roughly 40 percent of total population. Whites represented 10 to 15 percent and blacks the remaining 5 percent.[2]

The precise criteria for defining ethnic groups varies considerably. The vocabulary that more prosperous mestizos and whites used in describing ethnic groups mixes social and biological characteristics. Typically, higher-status whites consider their own positions as derived from a superior racial background. Nonetheless, ethnic affiliation remains dynamic; Indians often become mestizos, and prosperous mestizos seek to improve their status sufficiently to be considered whites. Ethnic identity reflects numerous characteristics, only one of which is physical appearance; others include dress, language, community membership, and self-identification.[2]

No pretense to equality or egalitarianism exists in ethnic relations. From the perspective of those in the upper echelons, the ranking of ethnic groups is undisputed: whites, mestizos, blacks, and Indians. As the self-proclaimed standard bearers of civilization, whites contend that only they manifest proper behavior, an appropriate sense of duty to family and kin, and the values integral to the Christian, European culture.[2]

As with much of social life, this particular view of ethnicity has strongly feudal overtones. The conquistadors accepted and lauded hierarchy and rank. Their success in subduing the Inca Empire made them lords of the land and justified holding Indians as serfs, to serve as a cheap source of labor. Although individuals might change their position in the hierarchy, social mobility itself was not positively viewed. The movement of individuals up and down the social scale was regrettable—ideally, a person should be content with, and maintain, his or her assigned role in the social order.[2]

The geography of ethnicity remained well-defined until the surge in migration that began in the 1950s. Whites resided primarily in larger cities. Mestizos lived in small towns scattered throughout the countryside. Indians formed the bulk of the Sierra rural populace, although mestizos filled this role in the areas with few Indians. Most blacks lived in Esmeraldas Province, with small enclaves found in the Carchi and Imbabura provinces. Pressure on Sierra land resources and the dissolution of the traditional hacienda, however, increased the numbers of Indians migrating to the Costa, the Oriente, and the cities. By the 1980s, Sierra Indians—or Indians in the process of switching their ethnic identity to that of mestizos—lived on Costa plantations, in Quito, Guayaquil, and other cities, and in colonization areas in the Oriente and the Costa. Indeed, Sierra Indians residing in the coastal region substantially outnumbered the remaining original Costa inhabitants, the Cayapa and Colorado Indians. In the late 1980s, analysts estimated that there were only about 4,000 Cayapas and Colorados. Some blacks had migrated from the remote region of the Ecuadorian-Colombian border to the towns and cities of Esmeraldas.[2]

Whites and mestizos[edit]

Whites constitute the most influential ethnic group and occupy the top of Ecuador's social pyramid. Whites are mainly descended from Spain, Italy, France, Germany and Lebanon. Although whites share a common cultural background, differences in class and regional loyalties—especially the split between Quito and Guayaquil—remain important.[3]

In general, financially successful whites are employed as high-status professionals, government officials, prosperous merchants, and financiers. In the white ideal, manual labor is viewed as degrading and evidence of an inability to maintain a proper lifestyle. Accordingly, business interests are geared toward maintaining the family's social status rather than the pursuit of economic success for its own sake.[3]

Below the white elite, but merging with it, are mestizos. Mestizos share, to a large extent, a common set of values and a general cultural orientation with whites. Indeed, the boundary between the two groups remains fluid. Geography also plays a role. In the smaller towns of the Sierra, those of mixed ancestry would call themselves whites, but they would be considered as mestizos by whites of larger cities or by those with more clearly superior social status. Income and lifestyle also constitute important factors; a wealthy mestizo might be called a white, whereas a poorer one would be classified as a mestizo. Those in rural areas sometimes distinguish between "whites" and "legitimate whites." The latter could demonstrate to the satisfaction of the local community that their parents were considered white. Differing views of ethnicity partially reflect status differences between those involved in a given exchange. Hacienda foremen, for example, typically think of themselves as whites. Although Indians would agree with that classification, hacendados regard foremen as mestizos.[3]

The terminology and categories themselves derive from colonial legal distinctions. Peninsulares (Spanish-born persons residing in the New World) ranked at the top of the social hierarchy. They enjoyed a range of legal privileges and status denied even wealthy criollos born of Spanish parents in the colonies. The pedigree of forbearers defined status at every level. Individuals were ranked by the number of grandparents legally classified as white.[3]

Common usage, however, has modified the categories through the centuries. In the nineteenth century, for example, the term mestizo described a person whose parents were an Indian and a white. In contrast, a cholo was one whose parents were an Indian and a mestizo. By the twentieth century, mestizo and cholo were frequently used interchangeably. On occasion, however, some people used cholo in a derogatory sense to describe an Indian trying to rise above his or her proper station. Other people might use cholo to designate an intermediate category between Indian and mestizo.[3]

As with whites, facility in Spanish, urban orientation, livelihood, manners, and fineness of clothing defines mestizo identity. Traditionally, mestizos fill the intermediate occupations such as clerk, small merchant, hacienda foreman, and low-ranking bureaucrat. Although mestizos are assumed to be of mixed Indian-white ancestry, an Indian might gradually become mestizo by abandoning his or her previous lifestyle.[3]

Usually, individuals desiring to switch ethnic affiliation have to leave their villages, learn Spanish well enough to mask their origin, and acquire a mestizo occupation. They also have to acquire sufficient finesse and confidence in dealing with whites and mestizos not to be marked as Indians. It is virtually impossible for an Indian to change ethnic identity in his or her home community. No improvement in expertise, level of education, or facility in Spanish would cause locals to treat one born an Indian as a mestizo.[3]

In special circumstances, individuals could move from one group to the other without leaving their communities. For example, the Saraguro Indians of southern Ecuador are generally more prosperous than local whites. Indeed, the latter either depend on the Saraguros for their livelihood or live in communities where typically most of the populace was Indian. As a result, a distinctive pattern of ethnic change prevails. Some whites opt to become Indians, usually improving their economic options in the process. A few Indians decide to improve their ethnic status and became white. The switch is made, however, without resort to subterfuge. Indians do not hide their origins, nor leave their home communities.[3]


Approximately one-half million blacks live on the north coast and its riparian hinterlands, the descendants of African slaves who worked on coastal sugar plantations in the sixteenth century. Blacks hold a slightly higher position in the ethnic hierarchy than Indians, manifesting little of the subservience that characterizes Indians in dealing with whites and mestizos. Few readily identifiable elements of African heritage remained, although observers note aspects of dance, music, and magical belief that represent purported vestiges of African influence. Some linguists see evidence of an "Africanized" Spanish in the dialects spoken by those blacks living in the more remote areas.[4]

Most blacks earn their livelihood in subsistence agriculture supplemented by wage labor, fishing, and work on cargo boats. Women on the coast earn income through shellfish gathering. Before the onslaught of Sierra to Costa migration in the 1960s and 1970s, some black males earned their living running small stores and cantinas and others served as intermediaries between black laborers and white and mestizo employers. White and mestizo migrants, however, took over virtually all small-scale commerce and marketing efforts and increasingly serve as employment brokers. The switch made skin color more important as an ethnic marker, with light-skinned blacks enjoying greater opportunities for mobility than those with darker skin.[4]

Sierra Indians[edit]

Sierra Indians had an estimated population of 1.5 to 2 million in the early 1980s and live in the intermontane valleys of the Andes. Prolonged contact with Hispanic culture, which dates back to the conquest, has had a homogenizing effect, reducing the variation among the indigenous Sierra tribes.[5]

The Indians of the Sierra are separated from whites and mestizos by a castelike gulf. They are marked as a disadvantaged group; to be an Indian or indígena in Ecuador is to be stigmatized. Indians are usually poor and frequently illiterate, they enjoy limited participation in national institutions, and they command access to few of the social and economic opportunities available to more privileged groups.[5]

Visible markers of ethnic affiliation, especially hairstyle, dress, and language, separate Indians from the rest of the populace. Indians wore more manufactured items by the late 1970s than previously; their clothing, nonetheless, was distinct from that of other rural inhabitants. Indians in communities relying extensively on wage labor sometimes assumed Western-style dress while still maintaining their Indian identity. Indians speak Quichua—a Quechua dialect—although most are bilingual, speaking Spanish as a second language with varying degrees of facility. By the late 1980s, some younger Indians no longer learned Quichua.[5]

Most whites and mestizos view Indians as inherently inferior. Some regard indígenas as little better than a subspecies. A more benign perspective condescendingly considers the Indian as an intellectual inferior, an emotional child in need of direction. Such views underlie the elaborate public etiquette required in Indian-white/mestizo interactions. Common practice allows whites and mestizos to use first names and familiar verb and pronoun forms in addressing Indians.[5]

Although public deference to other ethnic groups supports stereotypes of Indians as intellectually inferior, Indians view deference as a survival strategy. Deference establishes that an individual Indian was properly humble and deserving of the white's or mestizo's aid and intercession. Given the relative powerlessness of Indians, such an approach softens the rules governing interethnic exchanges.[5]

The tenor of such exchanges differs in cases of limited hacienda dominance. The Otavalos of northern Ecuador, the Saraguros, and the Salaacas in the central Sierra resisted hacienda intrusion and domination by whites and mestizos. These Indians are thus less inclined to be subservient and adopt instead an attitude of aloofness or distance in dealing with whites and mestizos.[5]

Most Indians, however, can improve their situation only by changing their ethnic affiliation. Such a switch in allegiances is fraught with risk, since individuals thereby lose the security offered by their small community of family and neighbors. Many reject such an extreme move and instead make a series of accommodations such as changing their dress and hairstyle while working for brief periods away from home and gradually increasing the length of their absences.[5]

By the early 1980s, changes in Indian ethnic consciousness could be identified in some communities. An increasing number of educated Indians returned to work in their native communities instead of assuming a mestizo identity and moving away. They remained Indian in their loyalty and their ethnic allegiance. The numbers of Indian primary school teachers of Quichua increased, and literacy programs expanded; both trends reinforced Indian identity.[5]

Although these developments were most prominent among prosperous groups such as the Otavalos and the Saraguros, the number of Indians in general moving into "mestizo jobs" increased during the oil expansion. New opportunities gave Indians the option of improving their economic status without sacrificing their ethnic identity. Observers also noted a general growth in ethnic pride coupled with negative reactions toward those Indians who chose to abandon their roots and become mestizos.[5]

Oriente Indians[edit]

Although the Indians of the Oriente first came into contact with whites in the sixteenth century, the encounters were more sporadic than those of most of the country's indigenous population. Until the nineteenth century, most non-Indians entering the region were either traders or missionaries. Beginning in the 1950s, however, the government built roads and encouraged settlers from the Sierra to colonize the Amazon River Basin. Virtually all remaining Indians were brought into increasing contact with national society. The interaction between Indians and outsiders had a profound impact on the indigenous way of life.[6]

In the late 1970s, roughly 30,000 Quichua speakers and 15,000 Jívaros lived in Oriente Indian communities. Quichua speakers (sometimes referred to as the Yumbos) grew out of the detribalization of members of many different groups after the Spanish conquest. Subject to the influence of Quichua-speaking missionaries and traders, various elements of the Yumbos adopted the tongue as a lingua franca and gradually lost their previous languages and tribal origins. Yumbos were scattered throughout the Oriente, whereas the Jívaros—subdivided into the Shuar and the Achuar—were concentrated in southeastern Ecuador. Some also lived in northeastern Peru. Traditionally, both groups relied on migration to resolve intracommunity conflict and to limit the ecological damage to the tropical forest caused by slash-and-burn agriculture.[6]

Both the Yumbos and the Jívaros depended on agriculture as their primary means of subsistence. Manioc, the main staple, was grown in conjunction with a wide variety of other fruits and vegetables. Yumbo men also resorted to wage labor to obtain cash for the few purchases deemed necessary. By the mid-1970s, increasing numbers of Quichua speakers settled around some of the towns and missions of the Oriente. Indians themselves had begun to make a distinction between Christian and jungle Indians. The former engaged in trade with townspeople. The Jívaros, in contrast to the Christian Quichua speakers, lived in more remote areas. Their mode of horticulture was similar to that of the non-Christian Yumbos, although they supplemented crop production with hunting and some livestock raising.[6]

Shamans (curanderos) played a pivotal role in social relations in both groups. As the main leaders and the focus of local conflicts, shamans were believed to both cure and kill through magical means. In the 1980s group conflicts between rival shamans still erupted into full-scale feuds with loss of life.[6]

The Oriente Indian population dropped precipitously during the initial period of intensive contact with outsiders. The destruction of their crops by mestizos laying claim to indigenous lands, the rapid exposure to diseases to which Indians lacked immunity, and the extreme social disorganization all contributed to increased mortality and decreased birth rates. One study of the Shuar in the 1950s found that the group between ten and nineteen years of age was smaller than expected. This was the group that had been youngest and most vulnerable during the initial contact with national society. Normal population growth rates began to reestablish themselves after approximately the first decade of such contact.[6]

Increased colonization and oil exploration also displaced the indigenous population, hurt the nutritional status of Indians, and damaged tribal social relations. The Indians' first strategy was to retreat to more remote areas—an option that became less available with increased settlement of the tropical forest. Land pressures also produced a decline in the game available and, hence, in Indian protein levels. Even livestock raising did little to improve Indian diets, since this was done primarily for sale rather than consumption. In addition, the decline in migration opportunities increased tribal hostility and competition between rival shamans.[6]

Critics contended that the government took little effective action to protect Indians. Although the government had designated some land as "indigenous communes" and missionaries had organized some Indians into cooperatives, Indians remained disadvantaged in conflicts with settlers, who had greater familiarity with the national bureaucracy.[6]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Población del país es joven y mestiza, dice censo del INEC. Data from the national census 2010 (2011-09-02)
  2. ^ a b c d e Patricia Kluck. "Ethnic Groups". Ecuador: A country study (Dennis M. Hanratty, ed.). Library of Congress Federal Research Division (1989).  This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Patricia Kluck. "Whites and Mestizos". Ecuador: A country study (Dennis M. Hanratty, ed.). Library of Congress Federal Research Division (1989).  This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  4. ^ a b Patricia Kluck. "Blacks". Ecuador: A country study (Dennis M. Hanratty, ed.). Library of Congress Federal Research Division (1989).  This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i Patricia Kluck. "Sierra Indians". Ecuador: A country study (Dennis M. Hanratty, ed.). Library of Congress Federal Research Division (1989).  This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g Patricia Kluck. "Oriente Indians". Ecuador: A country study (Dennis M. Hanratty, ed.). Library of Congress Federal Research Division (1989).  This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.