Approximately one-half million blacks lived on the north coast and its riparian hinterlands, the descendants of African slaves who worked on coastal sugar plantations in the sixteenth century. Blacks held a slightly higher position in the ethnic hierarchy than Indians, manifesting little of the subservience that characterized Indians in dealing with whites and mestizos. Few readily identifiable elements of African heritage remained, although observers noted aspects of dance, music, and magical belief that represented purported vestiges of African influence. Some linguists saw evidence of an "Africanized" Spanish in the dialects spoken by those blacks living in the more remote areas.
Most blacks earned their livelihood in subsistence agriculture supplemented by wage labor, fishing, and work on cargo boats. Women on the coast earned income through shellfish gathering. Before the onslaught of Sierra to Costa migration in the 1960s and 1970s, some black males earned their living running small stores and cantinas and others served as intermediaries between black laborers and white and mestizo employers. White and mestizo migrants, however, took over virtually all small-scale commerce and marketing efforts and increasingly served as employment brokers. The switch made skin color more important as an ethnic marker, with light-skinned blacks enjoying greater opportunities for mobility than those with darker skin.
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