Whites and Mestizos

Ecuador Table of Contents

Whites constituted the most privileged ethnic group and occupied the top of Ecuador's social pyramid. Despite their own realization that there was an admixture of Indian genes in their heritage, whites placed considerable emphasis on their purported purity of blood and Spanish ancestry. Although whites shared a common cultural background, differences in class and regional loyalties--especially the split between Quito and Guayaquil-- remained important.

In general, financially successful whites were employed as high-status professionals, government officials, prosperous merchants, and financiers. In the white ideal, manual labor was viewed as degrading and evidence of an inability to maintain a proper lifestyle. Accordingly, business interests were geared toward maintaining the family's social status rather than the pursuit of economic success for its own sake.

Below the white elite, but merging with it, were mestizos or cholos. Mestizos shared, to a large extent, a common set of values and a general cultural orientation with whites. Indeed, the boundary between the two groups remained fluid. Geography also played a role. In the smaller towns of the Sierra, those of mixed ancestry would call themselves whites, but they would be considered as mestizos by whites of larger cities or by those with more clearly superior social status. Income and lifestyle also constituted important factors; a wealthy mestizo might be called a white, whereas a poorer one would be classified as a mestizo. Those in rural areas sometimes distinguished between "whites" and "legitimate whites." The latter could demonstrate to the satisfaction of the local community that their parents were considered white. Differing views of ethnicity partially reflected status differences between those involved in a given exchange. Hacienda foremen, for example, typically thought of themselves as whites. Although Indians would agree with that classification, hacendados regarded foremen as mestizos.

The terminology and categories themselves derived from colonial legal distinctions. Peninsulares (Spanish-born persons residing in the New World) ranked at the top of the social hierarchy. They enjoyed a range of legal privileges and status denied even wealthy criollos born of Spanish parents in the colonies. The pedigree of forbearers defined status at every level. Individuals were ranked by the number of grandparents legally classified as white.

Common usage, however, modified the categories through the centuries. In the nineteenth century, for example, the term mestizo described a person whose parents were an Indian and a white. In contrast, a cholo was one whose parents were an Indian and a mestizo. By the twentieth century, mestizo and cholo were frequently used interchangeably. On occasion, however, some people used cholo in a derogatory sense to describe an Indian trying to rise above his or her proper station. Other people might use cholo to designate an intermediate category between Indian and mestizo.

As with whites, facility in Spanish, urban orientation, livelihood, manners, and fineness of clothing defined mestizo identity. Traditionally, mestizos filled the intermediate occupations such as clerk, small merchant, hacienda foreman, and low-ranking bureaucrat. Although mestizos were assumed to be of mixed Indian-white ancestry, an Indian might gradually become mestizo by abandoning his or her previous lifestyle.

Usually, individuals desiring to switch ethnic affiliation had to leave their villages, learn Spanish well enough to mask their origin, and acquire a mestizo occupation. They also had to acquire sufficient finesse and confidence in dealing with whites and mestizos not to be marked as Indians. It was virtually impossible for an Indian to change ethnic identity in his or her home community. No improvement in expertise, level of education, or facility in Spanish would cause locals to treat one born an Indian as a mestizo.

In special circumstances, individuals could move from one group to the other without leaving their communities. For example, the Saraguro Indians of southern Ecuador were generally more prosperous than local whites. Indeed, the latter either depended on the Saraguros for their livelihood or lived in communities where typically most of the populace was Indian. As a result, a distinctive pattern of ethnic change prevailed. Some whites opted to become Indians, usually improving their economic options in the process. A few Indians decided to improve their ethnic status and became white. The switch was made, however, without resort to subterfuge. Indians did not hide their origins, nor leave their home communities.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress