Colombia Table of Contents

The population is descended from three racial groups--Indians, blacks, and whites--that have mingled throughout the nearly 500 years of the country's history. No official figures were available, but according to rough estimates in the late 1980s, mestizos (white-Indian mix) constituted approximately 50 percent of the population, whites 25 percent, mulattoes (black-white mix) and zambos (black-Indian mix) 20 percent, blacks 4 percent, and Indians 1 percent.

Recognizing the impossibility of objective racial classification and not wishing to emphasize ethnic or racial differences, the national census dropped references to race after 1918. Nevertheless, most Colombians continued to identify themselves and others according to ancestry, physical appearance, and sociocultural status. Social relations reflected the importance attached to certain characteristics associated with a given racial group. Although these characteristics no longer accurately demarcated distinct social categories, they still helped determine rank in the social hierarchy.

The various groups were found in differing concentrations throughout the nation, largely reflecting the colonial social system. The whites tended to live mainly in the urban centers, particularly in Bogotá and the burgeoning highland cities. The large mestizo population was predominantly a peasant group, concentrated in the highlands where the Spanish conquerors had mixed with the women of Indian chiefdoms. After the 1940s, however, mestizos began moving to the cities, where they became part of the urban working class or urban poor. The black and mulatto populations were also part of this trend but lived mainly along the coasts and in the lowlands.

Descendants of Indians who survived the Spanish conquest were found in scattered groups in remote areas largely outside the national society, such as the higher elevations of the southern highlands, the forests north and west of the cordilleras, the arid Guajira Peninsula, and the vast eastern plains and Amazonian jungles, which had only begun to be penetrated by other groups in the twentieth century. The Indian groups differed from the rest of the nation in major cultural aspects. Although some continued to speak indigenous languages, Spanish, introduced by missionaries, was the predominant language among all but the most isolated groups.

Historical Development

In the first fifty years after the discovery of the Americas, the Spanish began to settle in present-day Colombia, introducing their culture and social system and imposing their values on the African slaves they imported and the indigenous population they conquered. Spanish colonists settled in the Caribbean coastal zones, the highland plateaus, and the areas along the major rivers but were initially unsuccessful in settling Chocó, the eastern plains, and the Amazon Basin. Patterns of colonial settlement were reinforced throughout later periods, leaving frontier areas-- usually less hospitable land--open for settlement by nonwhites-- especially blacks, mulattoes, and retreating Indian tribes.

The Spanish created a hierarchical society in which they occupied the top stratum in terms of prestige, wealth, and power; slaves and Indians occupied the bottom. White skin became synonymous with being Spanish and therefore of high status. Offspring of mixed unions fell somewhere in between, adopting the dominant culture if recognized by their Spanish fathers, remaining on the social periphery if not. As the character and value system of the nation were formed, notions of color, class, and culture merged to elevate whites, subjugate blacks and Indians, and allow upward mobility for mulattoes and mestizos who dissociated themselves from the heritage of their nonwhite ancestors in favor of becoming "Spanish."

Probably more than any other Latin American people, Colombians remained conscious of their Spanish heritage. The persistent supremacy and relative purity of the Spanish heritage was brought about by a combination of factors. The indigenous population was sparse, heterogeneous, and thus relatively easily subdued, driven into less accessible and less desirable areas or absorbed by the Spanish population during the colonial era. Blacks, viewed as slaves until the mid-nineteenth century and as manual laborers thereafter, remained segregated economically, geographically, and socially. Although Indians and blacks outnumbered whites and people of mixed blood in certain regions, they remained minorities without shared identity or cohesion on the national level. The lack of immigrants from other European nations and the emphasis on traditional Spanish institutions--particularly Roman Catholicism-- helped white Colombians retain their Hispanic identification. Finally, a diverse geography and resultant regionalism exacerbated the lack of communal feelings among the masses and provided little basis for national cohesion within any group except the tightly knit white elite.

As Colombian society developed, there was little change in its rigid stratification. Various intellectuals, clergy, and politicians unsuccessfully attempted to debate the status of Indians and blacks and to prevent discrimination against them. Being a recognized member of the national society and thereby eligible for its benefits and a chance at upward mobility required allegiance to a culture and a behavioral pattern based almost entirely on traditional Spanish values. Anything outside this pattern was anomalous and was considered un-Colombian.

Independence did little to alter the colonial framework of the society. In the struggle for independence, the peninsulares (those born in Spain) were backed by Spanish troops, and the criollos (those born in the New World of Spanish descent) were backed by mestizo and mulatto troops; nonetheless, the values and outlooks of the two factions were similar. Many of the peninsulares left after independence, allowing the criollos and some persons of mixed blood to take over their positions in the society. To this extent, the system was opened up to qualified mestizos and mulattoes, but those who moved up did so as individuals whose mobility was based on education, wealth, and culture rather than on a change in the status of their group. No attempt was made to upgrade the status of blacks, who remained on the periphery of the national society, or Indians, who remained almost completely outside it.

Both Indians and blacks 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 were more integrated into the national society and left a greater mark on it for several reasons. First, they had been a part of Spanish society since the Middle Ages, whereas Indians were relative newcomers. The Spanish had long possessed Africans as personal servants and did not find them as alien as the Indians they encountered in the New World. Moreover, it was more difficult for the blacks to maintain their original culture because, unlike the Indians, they could not remain within their own communities and did not initially have the option of retreating into isolated areas. They did not arrive in and were not grouped into organized social units, and, coming from different areas of Africa, they often did not share the same language or culture. Although slave revolts sometimes occurred, 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 Indians.

Blacks thus became a part, although a peripheral one, of Colombian society from the beginning, learning Spanish and adopting the ways of the Spanish that were permitted them. They thought of themselves as Colombians by the end of the colonial period and felt superior to the Indians, who officially occupied higher status, were nominally free, and were closer in skin color, facial features, and hair texture to the emerging mestizo mix.

The proportion of white ancestry has been an important measure of status for the mixed groups since the colonial era, when each degree of mixture was recognized as a distinct category. The plethora of terms for color still being used in the 1980s reflected the persistence of this colonial pattern and a continuing desire among Colombians to classify each other according to color and social group. A complex racial terminology led to persons of the same class using different terms to define themselves racially. These terms also cut across class lines so that persons at one level defined themselves as being racially similar to those at other levels.

The confusion over classification affected most Colombians because most of them did not define themselves as being white, black, or Indian, which are distinct and mutually exclusive groups, but as belonging to one of the mixed categories. Factors that helped Colombians order their perceptions of color were, in addition to the interplay of biological and social data, geographic residence and membership in a social class. Residence in a region often automatically categorized an individual. For example, blacks and mulattoes were so prevalent in Chocó that the word Chocoano (resident of Chocó) was virtually synonymous with the word black throughout much of Colombia. Whites and mestizos in Chocó were commonly migrants from neighboring Antioquia, so that any light-skinned person might be called an Antioqueño regardless of his or her origin.

Migration and rural or urban residence could also determine a person's status. A dark-skinned mulatto who because of wealth and prestige would be a member of the local elite in a rural area along the coast would not be so considered outside his or her region. Conversely, movement from a larger to a smaller town might enhance an individual's status. Usually the only Colombians whose status was invariable were the national elite, Indians, and blacks.

Perceptions of one's own color and that of others also varied with class membership. A lower-class person in either an urban or a rural area was likely to be more concerned with the daily struggle for survival than with skin color, especially if the person's peers were of a similar racial background. Members of the upper class were equally secure in their status as white Colombians, whether or not they appeared Caucasian to the casual observer, because their status automatically defined them as such. The racial segregation of the polar extremes of the class structure--with virtually no blacks or Indians in the elite and equally few whites in the lower class--reinforced cultural and class distinctions.

It was among the self-conscious, racially mixed members of the middle sectors that color and ethnic designations were critical and likely to contribute to status. All other factors being equal, light-skinned mestizos with straight hair found mobility easier than darker-skinned counterparts. A man, especially a black or mulatto, might improve his social position or that of his children by marrying a lighter-skinned or wealthier woman. Mestizos might place more emphasis on acquiring other accoutrements of whiteness, such as an education, a cultured life-style, or a genteel occupation.

Contemporary Trends

In the late 1980s, whites continued to occupy the highest positions in the government, economy, and society. Most of them resided in the large urban centers, and even those who did not considered themselves urban in orientation. Membership in the white group was usually concomitant with upper- or middle-class values and behavior patterns and adherence to Roman Catholicism and its teachings--in name if not in practice. Whites modeled their life-styles, family patterns, and human relations largely on European and North American norms and in turn dictated them to the rest of society.

The white group usually emphasized racial and cultural purity and wealth derived from property. This emphasis was particularly true in the capital and in the seats of colonial aristocracy, such as Popayán. The exception was in Antioquia Department, where a great deal of miscegenation took place and where social distinctions rested largely on economic achievement rather than ethnic considerations.

Non-Antioqueño whites continued to stress colonial notions of the superiority of mental over manual labor, encouraging genteel remunerative activities derived from owning land or a career in law, medicine, or architecture. Creative or journalistic writing, literary criticism, and university professorship were also considered appropriate careers or sidelines for whites who were financially secure. For those less well off, business, commerce, and industry provided more lucrative, if less traditional, positions.

Although North American cultural influence has grown substantially since the 1950s, whites remained culturally tied to Europe--particularly to France and Spain. Children continued to be sent to Europe and the United States for schooling, to learn languages, and to become cosmopolitan. Only in the twentieth century did white Colombians begin to seriously study nonwhite facets of their country's social system and incorporate them into their scholarly and creative works.

Insistence on racial purity within the white group varied among regions and sometimes was not as important as light skin and an old, respected Spanish surname. In fact, many people who came from families that had been considered white for generations were actually descendants of people of mixed ancestry who purchased certificates of white ancestry from the Spanish crown. Whites did not usually marry dark-skinned individuals, however, unless economic hardship necessitated bringing a wealthy mulatto or mestizo into the family.

From the earliest years of the colonial period, miscegenation among whites, Indians, and blacks occurred so much that people of mixed origin soon came to outnumber all other groups combined. In fact, racial mixing was so great that Colombians usually referred to themselves as a mestizo nation--in this case meaning simply "mixed"--despite the absence of a significant cultural synthesis.

In the mid-1980s, people of mixed origin were found throughout the society--in all classes, occupations, and geographic regions. The status of individuals of mixed blood varied, from those who bordered on being white to those who had recently moved out of marginal status as black or Indian. Probably the only factors that tied the mixed group together were a general recognition that status as a mestizo or mulatto was better than that as an Indian or a black and some feeling of belonging to the national society.

Colombians perceived considerable differences between mestizos and mulattoes. Mestizos found upward mobility easier than mulattoes in most areas, probably because mestizo physical characteristics were more like those of the idealized Colombian: light brown to white skin, straight or wavy hair, and caucasoid facial features. Moreover, once a person was considered mestizo, his cultural identity automatically became that of the dominant white group, whereas mulattos often exhibited black cultural and social traits that made upward social mobility more difficult.

Many blacks left slave status early in Colombian history, becoming part of the free population. Some were awarded freedom by their owners, and some purchased their liberty, but probably the greatest number achieved freedom by escape. There were numerous revolts, particularly in the Cauca Valley and along the Caribbean coast, that liberated many slaves. Those who achieved freedom sometimes moved into Indian communities, and their zambo offspring became part of the indigenous group. Others founded their own settlements. A number of towns, such as Palenque in northern Antioquia Department and Ure in southern Córdoba Department, 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 Indians became increasingly resistant to assimilation. In other regions, such as the Magdalena Valley, black communities had considerable white and Indian admixtures.

The distribution of blacks in the 1980s continued to reflect that of the colonial period. The greatest number lived in the lowland areas on the Caribbean and Pacific coasts and along the Río Cauca and Río Magdalena. In the Chocó region, they had largely replaced the Indians and, along with mulattoes, constituted 80 percent of the population. On the Caribbean islands of San Andrés and Providencia, which Colombia acquired from Britain at the end of the colonial period, there were several thousand blacks. Despite the length of time during which Colombia had jurisdiction over them, most blacks on these islands retained their Protestant religion, continued to speak English, and regarded themselves as a group distinct from mainland residents.

Descendants of slaves preserved relatively little of their African heritage or identification. Some place-names were derived from African languages, and some traditional musical instruments brought into the country by slaves were used throughout the country. Religion in the black communities remained the most durable link with the African past.

In the 1980s, wholly black communities were disappearing, not only because their residents were moving to the cities but also because the surrounding mestizo and white populations had begun moving into black communities. Eventual absorption into the mixed milieu appeared inevitable in the 1980s. Moreover, as blacks moved into the mainstream of society from its peripheries, they perceived the advantages of better education and jobs. Rather than forming organizations to promote their advancement as a group, blacks concentrated on achieving mobility through individual merit and adaptation to the prevailing system.

When the Spanish arrived in 1499, they found a heterogeneous Indian population that numbered between 1.5 and 2 million, belonged to several hundred tribes, and spoke mutually unintelligible dialects. The complexity of their social organization and technology varied tremendously, from stratified agricultural chiefdoms to tropical farm villages and nomadic hunting and food- gathering groups. Throughout the colonial years, the indigenous population constituted an estimated 50 percent of the total population, but by 1988 it had dropped to roughly 1 percent. About sixty tribes were scattered throughout the departments and national territories.

In the agricultural chiefdoms of the highlands, the Spaniards successfully imposed institutions designed to ensure their control of the Indians and thereby the use of their labor. By the end of the sixteenth century, political and religious administration was organized, and efforts to convert the Indians were well under way. The most important institution that regulated the lives and welfare of the highland Indians was the resguardo (reservation) system of communal landholdings. Under this system, Indians were allowed to use the land but could not sell it.

Similar in some respects to the Indian reservation system of the United States, the resguardo system lasted with some changes into the late twentieth century and was an enduring link between the government and the remaining highland tribes. As land pressures increased, however, encroachment of white settlers onto resguardo lands accelerated, often without opposition from the government. The struggle of the Indians on these lands to protect their holdings from neighboring landlords continued into the late 1980s. Nevertheless, the Virgilio Barco Vargas administration (1986- ) created new resguardos, including one in Guainía Commissaryship, and reconstituted others.

The highland Indian communities have been the subject of most Indian legislation since the 1940s. The National Indian Institute was originally founded in 1943 as a private body. It was later attached to the National University of Colombia (Universidad Nacional de Colombia--UNC) and eventually became an advisory body to the Directorate of Indian Reservations within the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock. The institute was reorganized in 1958 to include representatives of several ministries concerned with Indians, as well as members of the Colombian Institute of Anthropology. Division of the resguardos was immediately suspended, as far as possible, and a new program of community development directed at the incorporation of the Indians into the national society was begun.

In 1960 the Directorate of Indian Reservations was reorganized and became the Division of Indian Affairs; together with the National Indian Institute it was transferred to the Ministry of Government. The Division of Indian Affairs carried out its programs and policies through eight regional commissions for Indian welfare and protection. The location of the commissions corresponded to the resguardo zones and in general to areas inhabited by Indians who were already somewhat integrated into the national system.

In contrast to the highlands, the lowlands were less densely populated at the time of the conquest, and the natives possessed a simpler culture than the highland tribes. The tropical forest areas were inhabited by farmers whose slash-and-burn agriculture limited the size of settlements to 100 or 200 persons. Most of these tribes lived along rivers and depended partially on fishing for subsistence. Indians of the eastern savannas and the Amazon Basin were nomadic, traveling in small hunting and gathering bands and frequently living along rivers. When the Spanish arrived, many lowland groups retreated to areas that were less accessible or attractive to the Spanish. These nomadic tribes and forest dwellers fared better than their highland counterparts in maintaining independence from the Spanish because of their simpler, more mobile, and more self-sufficient lifestyle. Their contacts with outsiders were generally limited to missionaries.

In the past, the government generally had not attempted to legislate in matters affecting the forest Indians. During the colonial period, Roman Catholic missions were granted jurisdiction over the lowland tribes. With the financial support of the government, a series of agreements with the Holy See from 1887 to 1953 entrusted the evangelization and education of these Indians to the missions. The missions were coordinated with the government's Division of Indian Affairs through a representative in the National Indian Institute. In 1960 the secretary of the institute became the chief of the Section of Indian Protection in the Ministry of Government and was responsible for the Indians of the nation's peripheral regions. Barco's resguardo initiative affected forest tribes as well as highland tribes.

Although all tribes in Colombia had had some contact with outsiders, the degree and effect varied considerably. Some tribes, such as the Maku, Chiricoa, Tunebo, and others from Amazonas Commissaryship, remained very primitive nomadic hunting and fishing groups. Others had begun to cultivate such crops as cacao, sugarcane, corn, and bananas. Some of the most successful tribes developed effective methods of raising cattle. Nonetheless, it was difficult for Indians to retain land that they traditionally held, especially in the highlands, where the competition for cultivable land was keenest.

In the 1980s, there was considerable disagreement in Colombia over the number of remaining Indians, their concentrations, and their relationship to the national society. Some Colombian scholars argued against integrating Indians, contending that the indigenous peoples had as much right as any other element of the society to survive intact under government protection. However, this protection was only partial. The government lacked a comprehensive policy, and what legislation did exist seemed oriented toward assimilating the Indians. Other factors pointing toward gradual absorption of the Indians were expansion of colonization into Indian territories, government plans for the development of natural resources in Indian areas, and the Indians' increased contact with and integration into the national system through economic inducement.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress