Race and ethnicity in Colombia
Colombia's population is descended from three racial groups—Amerindians, blacks, and whites—that have mingled throughout the last 500 years of the country's history. Some demographers describe Colombia as one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the Western Hemisphere and in the World, with 85 different ethnic groups. Most Colombians identify themselves and others according to ancestry, physical appearance, and sociocultural status. Social relations reflect the importance attached to certain characteristics associated with a given racial group. Although these characteristics no longer accurately differentiate social categories, they still contribute to one's rank in the social hierarchy. Genetic research with over 60,000 blood tests and 25 variables, determined that the average Colombian has an admixture of 65% European, 22% native Amerindian and 13% African ancestry, however these proportions vary widely from one region to another.
Racial/ethnic groups and their frequency
Colombia officially acknowledges three ethnic minority groups: the Afro-Colombian, indigenous, and Romani populations. The Afro-Colombian population consists of blacks, mulattoes, and zambos (a term used since colonial times for individuals of mixed Amerindian and black ancestry). A 1999 resolution of the Ministry of the Interior and Justice acknowledged the Romani population as a Colombian ethnic group, although Romani people were not recognized in the 1991 constitution (unlike the Afro-Colombian and indigenous populations). Estimates vary widely, but the 2005 census found that the ethnic minority populations had increased significantly since the 1993 census, possibly owing to the methodology used. Specifically, it reported that the Afro-Colombian population accounted for 10.5 percent of the national population (4.3 million people); the Amerindian population, for 3.4 percent (1.4 million people); and the Romani population, for 0.01 percent (5,000 people).
The 2005 census reported that the "non-ethnic population", consisting of whites and mestizos (those of mixed white European and Amerindian ancestry, including almost all of the urban business and political elite), constituted 86 percent of the national population. The 86 percent figure is subdivided into 49 percent mestizo and 37 percent white.
Distribution of racial/ethnic groups geographically
The various groups exist in differing concentrations throughout the nation, in a pattern that to some extent goes back to colonial origins. The Whites tend to live mainly in the urban centers, particularly in Bogotá and the burgeoning highland cities. The populations of the major cities are primarily white and mestizo. The large Mestizo population includes most campesinos (people living in rural areas) of the Andean highlands where the Spanish conquerors had mixed with the women of Amerindian chiefdoms. Mestizos had always lived in the cities as well, as artisans and small tradesmen, and they have played a major part in the urban expansion of recent decades, as members of the working class.
According to the 2005 census, the heaviest concentration of the indigenous population (22 to 61 percent) is located in the departments of Amazonas, La Guajira, Guainía, Vaupés, and Vichada. The secondary concentrations of 6 to 21 percent are located in the departments of Sucre, Córdoba, Chocó, Cauca, Nariño, and Putumayo. Amerindian communities have legal autonomy to enforce their own traditional laws and customs. Despite its small percentage of the national population, the indigenous population has managed to obtain nearly a quarter of the country's land titles under the 1991 constitution.
The black and mulatto populations have largely remained in the lowland areas on the Caribbean and Pacific coasts and along the Cauca and Magdalena Rivers. The Afro-Colombian population is concentrated primarily (21 to 74 percent) in the department of Bolívar and in the lowland parts of Cauca, Chocó, and Valle del Cauca departments, with secondary concentrations (16 to 20 percent) in Atlántico, Córdoba, Magdalena, Nariño, and Sucre departments. In the Chocó region, they have largely replaced the Amerindians and constitute about 80 percent of the population.
The population of the Archipelago of San Andrés, Providencia and Santa Catalina, which Colombia inherited from Spain after the Spanish had overcome an initial British settlement, is mostly Afro-Colombian, including several thousand raizal (those with roots) blacks. Despite the length of time during which Colombia has had jurisdiction over them, most raizales on these Caribbean islands have retained their Protestant religion, have continued to speak an English-based creole language as well as English, and have regarded themselves as a group distinct from mainland residents. Indeed, a non-violent raizal separatist movement has been growing increasingly vocal in this archipelagic department.
Social status of racial/ethnic minorities
Since independence both Amerindians and blacks have continued to reside on the outskirts of national life, as much because of their class and culture as their color. As a group, however, blacks have become more integrated into the national society and have left a greater mark on it for several reasons. First, they had been a part of Spanish society since the Middle Ages, whereas Amerindians were new to Spanish social structures. The Spanish had long possessed Africans as personal servants and did not find them as alien as the Amerindians they encountered in the New World. Moreover, it was more difficult for the blacks to maintain their original culture because, unlike the indigenous people, they could not remain within their own communities and did not initially have the option of retreating into isolated areas. Moreover, the blacks came from different areas of Africa, often did not share the same language or culture, and were not grouped into organized social units on arrival in the New World. Despite slave revolts, no large community of escaped slaves survived in isolation to preserve its African heritage, as did the maroons in Jamaica.
Finally, despite their position on the bottom rung of the social ladder, black slaves often had close relations—as domestic servants—with Spaniards and were therefore exposed to Spanish culture much more than were the Amerindians. Thus, blacks became a part—albeit a peripheral one—of Colombian society from the beginning, adopting the ways of the Spanish that were permitted them and learning their language. By the end of the colonial period, the blacks thought of themselves as Colombians and felt superior to the Amerindians, who officially occupied higher status, were nominally free, and were closer in skin color, facial features, and hair texture to the emerging mestizo mix.
Many blacks left slave status early in Colombian history, becoming part of the free population. Their owners awarded freedom to some, others purchased their liberty, but probably the greatest number achieved freedom by escape. Many slaves were liberated as a result of revolts, particularly in the Cauca valley and along the Caribbean coast. The elimination of slavery began with a free-birth law in 1821, but total emancipation was enacted only in 1851, becoming effective on January 1, 1852.
Those blacks who achieved freedom sometimes moved into Amerindian communities, but blacks and zambos remained at the bottom of the social scale and were important only as a source of labor. Others founded their own settlements, mainly in unsettled lands of the Pacific basin where they were called cimarrones (maroons). Those regions were very unhealthy, inhospitable, and dangerous. A number of towns, such as San Basilio de Palenque in the present department of Bolívar, and San José de Uré in southern Córdoba, kept the history of revolt alive in their oral traditions. In the Chocó area, along the Pacific, many of the black communities remained relatively unmixed, probably because there were few whites in the area, and the Amerindians became increasingly resistant to assimilation.
In other regions, such as the Magdalena valley, black communities had considerable white and Amerindian admixture. Descendants of slaves have preserved relatively little of their African heritage or identification. Some placenames are derived from African languages, and some traditional musical instruments brought into the country by slaves are used throughout the country. Religion in the black communities remains the most durable link with the African past. Wholly black communities have been disappearing, not only because their residents have been moving to the cities but also because the surrounding mestizo and white populations have been moving into black communities. Eventual absorption into the mixed milieu appears inevitable. Moreover, as blacks have moved into the mainstream of society from its peripheries, they have perceived the advantages of better education and jobs. Rather than forming organizations to promote their advancement as a group, blacks have for the most part concentrated on achieving mobility through individual effort and adaptation to the prevailing system.
Afro-Colombians are entitled to all constitutional rights and protections, but they continue to face significant economic and social discrimination. According to the 2005 census, an estimated 74 percent of Afro-Colombians earned less than the minimum wage. Chocó, the department with the highest percentage of Afro-Colombian residents, had the lowest level of social investment per capita and ranked last in terms of education, health, and infrastructure. It also continued to experience some of the country's worst political violence, as paramilitaries and guerrillas struggled for control of the department's key drug- and weapons-smuggling corridors.
- Bushnell & Hudson, p. 86.
- Bushnell & Hudson, p. 86-87.
- Bushnell & Hudson, p. 88.
- Bushnell & Hudson, p. 87-88.
- Bushnell & Hudson, p. 88-89.
- (Spanish) "Foro debates no. 5: Pobreza y exclusión social en Bogotá, Medellín y Cali" (PDF). Fundación Foro Nacional por Colombia (October 2006), p. 87. Accessed April 21, 2012.
- Bushnell & Hudson, p. 89.
- Bushnell & Hudson, p. 90.