Mestizos and Cholos

Bolivia Table of Contents

Mestizos and cholos, technically those of Spanish and Indian descent, constituted 25 to 30 percent of the population. Geographically, this was the most widely distributed of ethnic groups; economically and socially, the position of mestizos was equivocal. Because all of the so-called racial terms connoted social status rather than racial background, they were applied indiscriminately and often interchangeably. A wealthy, upperclass person of mixed blood, for example, might be considered white, whereas a poorer one might be termed a mestizo. An Indian might be called a cholo in one situation or a campesino in another.

During the colonial era, cholo was a generic term used to describe any person who had at least one Spanish grandparent. Over the years, a more specifically value-laden meaning evolved. Although it still carried a purely racial denotation, it also connoted an upwardly mobile Indian, in the somewhat negative sense of an aggressive social climber. Some writers have viewed cholos as an intermediate, transitional group between mestizos and Indians.

Regardless of the status differences between cholos and mestizos, the cultural criteria of language, urban orientation, livelihood, manners, and dress defined both. Traditionally, mestizos and cholos filled the intermediate positions, such as clerk, small-scale merchant, hacienda overseer, and lower-level government official. Often those who had recently begun the transition to cholo were unskilled laborers or self-employed vendors and artisans.

The transition from Indian to cholo or mestizo required at least a change in residence. By migrating to an urban area, an Indian might assimilate and become thoroughly mestizo in aspirations and identity. Assuming mestizo identity required not only a change in style of clothing and livelihood but also sufficient facility in Spanish to speak with a locally acceptable accent. Complete assimilation was difficult to accomplish in one generation, however. More typically, the migrant's children came to consider themselves mestizos or cholos as they were educated and became adapted to urban ways. Within individual families, such social mobility often engendered tension. The ambiguity surrounding ethnic categories and classification extended to the nuclear family. Full siblings could be viewed as members of different ethnic groups. Children who were relatively successful and adopted the dress and manners of cholos or mestizos deprecated their Indian parents and those siblings who were less educated or spoke Spanish poorly.

The 1952 Revolution changed the pattern of mestizo-Indian interaction. Traditionally, an elaborate etiquette ensured that mestizos, who considered themselves to be of higher status, received proper respect. Mestizos whose socioeconomic status declined after land reform, however, still wished to be treated with deference by Indians. Some, such as former landowners who had become impoverished, responded by refusing to interact with Indians. Others, who had entered commerce and marketing, interacted socially with peasants who were their trading partners but avoided dealings with their own former peons. Interethnic drinking patterns also changed in the years following the revolution, ceasing entirely in some regions, and becoming a new ethnic interaction in other regions.

More about the Ethnic Groups of Bolivia.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress