Ethnic Groups

Bolivia Table of Contents

The conquest of the Inca Empire brought the Spanish into contact with a stratified and ethnically diverse population in the region of present-day Peru and the Bolivian Altiplano, Yungas, and valleys. The scant eighty years of Inca rule over the Aymara tribes brought large-scale population movements within the empire. Inca policies included the forced migration of potentially hostile (usually recently conquered) groups and their replacement by Quechua-speaking colonists (mitimas) of unquestioned loyalty. Mitimas resettled in the valleys around Cochabamba and Sucre; many Aymara were expelled to the extreme boundaries of the empire.

Spanish rule created a racially stratified society in which whites (blancos) and mestizos controlled Indians living in a form of indentured servitude (pongaje) on haciendas. The Spanish justified colonial policies as a means of converting the Indians to Christianity, a goal that was often subordinated to other needs.

However humane Spanish colonial policy was in theory, in practice the system was filled with abuses. The policies were frequently used to exact tribute from the Indians to underwrite the colonization effort. In the encomienda system, for example, the Spanish overlords collected tribute from the Indian communities and, in return, were to see to their religious instruction.

Encomenderos, however, often exacted excessive tribute and appropriated Indian lands. The Spanish also employed the preColumbian mita to require all able-bodied adult males to report for labor in the mines at prescribed intervals. This conscripted labor, coming at a time when European diseases caused unprecedented epidemics among the Indian population, ruptured many communities and Indian kin-groups. The resulting elevated mortality rates, coupled with arbitrary increases in the length of service, left some villages virtually devoid of adult males.

Indians fled to escape the intolerable conditions, many to the periphery of the mining communities themselves where they survived by a variety of illegal, if widely tolerated, means. Others sought refuge on haciendas, where they were exempt from the mita. Urban domestic servants and artisans, called yanaconas, were exempt as well. The general upheaval of the colonial period spawned a floating, rootless population unattached to any specific Indian community. Such individuals often abandoned their native language and way of life; they formed the basis of a class that was neither socially nor culturally Indian.

This group, added to the offspring of Spanish-Indian unions, rapidly gave rise to a population of mestizos of uncertain social position. Mestizo offspring of marriages recognized by the dominant Hispanic rulers were frequently assimilated by the ruling group. Illegitimate offspring of Spanish men and Indian women were usually taken in by their mother's kin. Alternately, if they had received some education or training, they joined the ranks of urban artisans and petty merchants. They swelled the ranks of a distinct social group that was Spanish speaking and closer in culture to the rulers than to the mass of rural Indians, yet clearly separate from the Hispanic elite.

With the gradual decline of the mining enterprises and the end of the colonial period, most Indians found themselves tenants on large estates that depended on entailed labor to turn a profit. Free Indian communities remained on the less desirable lands. Pressures on these communities from further expansion of the haciendas depended on the level of agricultural profits in a given region. Independence brought little change; the small white elite remained firmly in control. Their wealth throughout most of the postindependence era rested on their agricultural estates, and they firmly resisted any effort to change the status or outlook of their resident labor force, the Indian peons. As a result, the economic and social culture of the hacienda, and with it that of the Indians, continued into the twentieth century.

Ethnicity remained the focus of much of national life in the 1980s. It was a continuing force in the social relations of individuals and communities. Ethnic identity--always somewhat fluid--became considerably more so following the changes of the 1952 Revolution. The ethnic hierarchy with whites at the pinnacle and the mass of Indians at the bottom continued, although the possibilities for those at the lower level to rise improved.

Bolivia's principal groups were a small number of whites, a larger, more fluid and diverse group of mestizos, and a majority of Quechua or Aymara Indians. Whites were sometimes lumped with mestizos and called mistis (the Aymara version of mestizo). One commonly used term, cholo, referred to an upwardly mobile Indian- -one anxious to assume the norms and identity of a mestizo. Terminology varied by the region, class, and ethnic affiliation of the speaker.

A number of minority groups also existed. The Callahuaya, a linguistically distinct subgroup of the Aymara, lived in Muņecas and Franz Tamayo provinces in La Paz Department. The group was widely known for its folk medicine, and many, if not most, of the men earned their livelihoods traveling among the weekly markets held throughout the Andes. Those who marketed might speak Quechua, Aymara, and Spanish in addition to their native Callahuaya. There were also a small number of blacks, the descendants of the few slaves imported during the colonial era. The Spanish rejected African slaves as a source of labor for the mines, regarding them as being unable to stand the rigors of the cold or the altitude. Most blacks lived in the provinces of Nor Yungas and Sur Yungas in La Paz Department. Significant numbers of Europeans migrated before and during World War II. In the mid1980s , large German-speaking communities existed in La Paz and Santa Cruz. Colonization in the Oriente in the 1960s and 1970s also brought small numbers of Asians to the region around Santa Cruz.

Lowland Indians
Altiplano, Yungas, and Valley Indians
Mestizos and Cholos

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress