Cultural Diversity in Ecuador
In my last post, I wrote about the great bio-diversity of Ecuador. In this post, I would like to share with you another great diversity in this small country, which is that of its people.
Ecuador has a population of approximately 15,100,000 people. Ecuador is about the size of Colorado with a population of 5,300,000. As you can see, the population of Ecuador is about three times the population of Colorado. Like many other countries the bulk of the population lives in the urban areas in about six to eight of the largest cities. The remainder of the population basically populates smaller cities and towns in rural areas.
About ten percent of the Ecuadorian population lives outside of Ecuador. Due to a couple of past economic repercussions and political instability during the 80’s and 90’s, large numbers of Ecuadorians left the country to find jobs in Spain and the United States. As both of these country’s economies have suffered in recent years, and as the U.S. continues to implement a schizophrenic immigration policy toward illegal immigrants in the country; increasing numbers of Ecuadorians return to their homeland, and fewer of them are emigrating from the country. President Correa is encouraging Ecuadorians abroad to return home, especially the 20,000 professionals, whom the President would like to see contribute to the Ecuadorian economy. However, many Ecuadorian families continue to prosper from the money sent back from the states and from Spain, as most Ecuadorian émigrés continue to live abroad.
Amer-Indians of Ecuador
Approximately seven percent of the Ecuadorian population is indigenous, and most of these Amer-Indians live in the rural areas of the country. Increasingly over the last forty years, more indigenous have relocated to the larger cities. Cuenca, for example, has been impacted by large numbers of indigenous in recent decades, when forty years ago their numbers were negligible. The indigenous groups are divided into many various ethnic or tribal groupings. Some of these people, particularly in the urban areas have modified their dress and other habits and customs; while other native-Americans continue to maintain much of their dress and other ethnic markings.
One of the largest indigenous groups is the Quichua, who continue to maintain their language; and while fewer men who reside in the cities maintain their style of dress today, many of the women still do. The men, however, oftentimes can be identified by the cords they wear around their wrist, which reminds them as well as others of their identity. The Quichua men and women who wear traditional garb can be identified by their tall top hats. Some women also are identified by their bouncy, pleated skirts which widen at the hips. Some Quichua as well as other indigenous women who live in the cities will find young women abandoning their traditional dress and only the older women may be found to wear such outfits in some families. Other young women sometime revert back to their traditional garb when they become middle-age or older. Therefore, it is difficult to predict with certainty, if many of the traditional clothing will be totally abandoned or not among the city-dwelling indigenous in another ten or twenty years. A fascinating tidbit of history is the fact that the traditional garb of the indigenous was actually imposed upon them by the Spaniards in the sixteenth century, as a way for the Spaniards to be able to tell the various indigenous groups apart, and also to put some clothes on many indigenous groups.
Interestingly, in a Spanish-speaking culture, Spanish is often a second language for many of the indigenous members, while their ethnic tongue is their primary language. What can be entertaining is when an expat with broken Spanish attempts to speak with indigenous vendors in the mercados with their “Spanish as a second language” skills; it can be like the blind leading the blind. “Why do these vendors have so much trouble understanding my Spanish?” an expat might say, without understanding that Spanish may not be the vendors primary language. There are many Amer-Indians groups with their own language, but the Quichua language in various dialects is spoken by 2,500,000 people in Ecuador.
Five years ago, I was visiting in Hawaii. The Mormons have a large tourist compound where one can visit a site devoted to the traditional Samoan culture, another devoted to the people of Fiji, another to the Hawaiian Native Americans, etc. However, the sites and the programs were presenting cultures that no longer existed. The entire venue had a Disneyesque quality of virtual-reality and entertainment. In Ecuador, the exciting thing about the indigenous cultures is that they exist in the here-and-now as living, breathing cultures. This is not to say that these groups have not been affected by the cultures and modern conveniences around them, but they most certainly, in general, continue to identify with their ethnic heritage and many of their customs and dress. This tendency is even stronger in the rural areas, and the beauty of the various groups’ clothing can be seen in many of the parades and festivals across Ecuador.
As mentioned in my last post, in El Oriente (Amazonas), where only three per-cent of the population of Ecuador resides, the densely tropical rain forests provide shelter and isolation to some small tribes that live much as people did in the Neolithic age. These cultures which hearkened back in most people’s minds to a by-gone age are quickly being destroyed by the encroachment of modern civilization. Yet these people do live in the 21st century, and by virtual of that fact alone have every claim to being identified as people of the 21st century as well. Well most “moderns” would view such people as “primitive” because they do not live in complex cultures, there are many beautiful qualities in these cultures of simplicity for people who have been raised in such cultures, that can be superior to the down-side of the rabid pace of material accumulation, obsessiveness, and the hectic stress-inducing pace of modern day civilizations. If progress is defined only by complexity, GNP, and technological advances; as it obviously is, then the remnants of such simple societies that still exist in the world will not survive.
The Afro-Ecuadorian population is also about the same size as the indigenous population, which comprises seven per-cent of the population. Almost all of the Black population of Ecuador is located in the province of Esmeraldas, which is located in northwestern Ecuador along the Colombian border and directly east of the Galapagos. Blacks make up about seventy percent of the population of Esmeraldas, and ninety percent of Ecuador’s Black population lives in the province. Blacks are almost non-existent in the river valleys of the Andes Mountains.
A seventeenth century shipwreck brought the first Blacks to Ecuador. The survivors infiltrated the jungles off the coast which offered them protection, and as indigenous populations began to realize that they had little to fear from the survivors, the groups began to mix. Eventually “zambos” was the term used to describe the offspring of the indigenous and Black populations. Mullatoe is the term used as it was in North America to describe the offspring of Black and White parentage. Runaway slaves also arrived from Columbia, and joined the Blacks in Esmeraldas. The Jesuits also had slaves brought from Columbia to work their sugar cane fields. Otherwise, Black slavery was almost non-existent in Ecuador, as the indigenous populations were used to cultivate the fields in a less binding form of semi-slavery or a kind of feudal serfdom.
Terms like Afro-Ecuadorians are used primarily in scholarly circles. The Ecuadorian people never use African-Americans and neither does the Black population. Black is the term normally used by the Ecuadorians in identifying Black-Ecuadorians, both by Blacks and non-Blacks alike. Some ethnicists and linguists believe the term “zambo” was the Spanish derivate for the Anglo term, sambo, which later became a pejorative term. However, other ethnicists and linguists claim that there are other explanations for the source of the North American term, sambo.
White European stock in Ecuador comprises slightly above six percent of the population. Most of the White progeny in Ecuador are of Spanish descent. The Spaniards were the conquistadors of Ecuador and all of South America, except for the Portuguese colony of Brazil, in the early fifteenth century shortly after Columbus had made his voyages to the West Indies, which today is known as the Caribbean Islands. Over the years other White ethnic groups also came to settle in Ecuador. Germans, French, and Italians were among the larger groups. There are also smatterings of Jews who have settled mainly in Quito, Palestinians, and in Cuenca there are some Pakistanis and Chinese. Only recently have a small number of East Indians made their way to Cuenca to test the viability of relocation to Cuenca as well.
I once did a post in 2012 of a Jewish Seder I attended. Every year about the time of Seder, I continue to get emails from Jewish-Americans asking if I can put them in contact with the Jewish worship community in Cuenca, as they consider a move to Cuenca. However, my Jewish contacts tell me that there is no synagogue or worship community here in Cuenca. Most Jews in Cuenca tend to be ethnic Jews, rather than religiously practicing Jews.
The largest ethnic group in Ecuador are the mestizos at 71% of the population. The mestizos are a mixture of Indian and Spanish ancestry. Cholas is a term sometimes used to describe Indians who have abandoned their ethnicity to assimilate with the ways of the cultural dominant Spaniard White class. Tribal language may be abandoned, and Spanish may become the primary language. Efforts are made to increase schooling, and to seek jobs that have been traditionally reserved for Whites, concomitantly abandoning traditional dress and hair styles to qualify for such jobs in retail, the bureaucracy, small businesses, etc. is undertaken. Total abandonment from their indigenous communities into an assimilated world is rare, however. Most Cholas will make the move in incremental steps, as they move further away from their indigenous values and beliefs taking possibly a generation or two to accomplish. Although Cholas have little if any White ancestry, because of the assimilation process, they are to varying degrees or not considered Metizos. Many Metizos also self-identify as Whites.
Many Mestizos work in blue-collar jobs that are the backbone of the economy, whether in mining, oil-rigging, construction, manufacturing, and skilled labor type of jobs. Artisans are still an important part of Ecuadorian economy and culture. Sixty percent of the furniture made in Ecuador is made in Cuenca, generally by hand. The arts of gold and silver smiting, and of jewelry-making are examples of crafts that continue to thrive. Bead-work, embroidery, and weaving, on the other, are examples of crafts under stress, as the amount of compensation many crafts persons can earn can be very low for the amount of hours required to meticulously complete an item. Fewer in the younger generation, therefore, are less inclined to want to learn the intricacies of bead-work, embroidery, and weaving. Efforts are being taken to maintain vibrant artisan communities in Ecuador before they become a lost heritage as has been the case in so many cultures around the world. Only time will tell if such efforts are successful.
Religion in Ecuador
Ecuadorians continue to be overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, at the rate of slightly over eighty percent of the population. Especially among the rural indigenous, there often will be a mixture of Catholic and indigenous religious practices. Protestantism has grown in Ecuador, primarily of the evangelical variety, and over eleven percent of the population is now Protestant. While other groups are represented, their numbers are miniscule to the over-all population. Two of the larger, smaller groups are members of the Latter Day Saints or Mormons with numbers of 185,000. Young Mormon missionaries can easily be spotted here in Cuenca, and they obviously are succeeding in making inroads with conversions among Ecuadorians. The other larger religious group is the Jehovah Witnesses who are about 85,000 in numbers in Ecuador. I have met more Jehovah Witnesses here in Cuenca than I have ever known when I lived in the Chicago area. Ninety-one percent of the Ecuadorian population identifies with some form of religion.
A Nation of Great Diversity, and Yet Greater Homogenization
While the White patrician class continues to dominate the leading positions of power, professions, and business; greater fluidity in class mobility is taking place as new avenues of advancement open to classes and ethnic groups of Ecuadorian people that had once be reserved only for the upper classes. There was a time in the U.S. when one ethnic group thought it was superior to another and vice-verse. Much the same attitude exists in Ecuador today, so class lines and group distinctions of superiority do have more fluidity than the rigid rankings that once existed in Ecuador. Yet it is the traditional White standards of middle class respectability, a strong work ethic, articulate speaking of Spanish and increasingly English, the value for schooling, the desire for material possessions, and the striving for white-collar jobs that motivate the upward mobility of the people.