The country's ethnic groups descended from Spanish colonizers and South American Indians; indeed, the relationship between the two groups defined Ecuador's subsequent pattern of ethnicity. The mix of these groups created a third category, described variously as mestizos or cholos. The fourth element consisted of descendants of black slaves who arrived to work on coastal plantations in the sixteenth century. Censuses did not record ethnic affiliation, which in any event remained fluid; thus, estimates of the numbers of each group should be taken only as approximations. In the 1980s, Indians and mestizos represented the bulk of the population, with each group accounting for roughly 40 percent of total population. Whites represented 10 to 15 percent and blacks the remaining 5 percent.
The precise criteria for defining ethnic groups varied considerably. The vocabulary that more prosperous mestizos and whites used in describing ethnic groups mixed social and biological characteristics. Typically, higher-status whites considered their own positions as derived from a superior racial background. Nonetheless, ethnic affiliation remained dynamic; Indians often became mestizos, and prosperous mestizos sought to improve their status sufficiently to be considered whites. Ethnic identity reflected numerous characteristics, only one of which was physical appearance; others included dress, language, community membership, and self-identification.
No pretense to equality or egalitarianism existed in ethnic relations. From the perspective of those in the upper echelons, the ranking of ethnic groups was undisputed: whites, mestizos, blacks, and Indians. As the self-proclaimed standard bearers of civilization, whites contended that only they manifested proper behavior, an appropriate sense of duty to family and kin, and the values integral to the Christian, European culture.
As with much of social life, this particular view of ethnicity had strongly feudal overtones. The conquistadors accepted and lauded hierarchy and rank. Their success in subduing the Inca Empire made them lords of the land and justified holding Indians as serfs, to serve as a cheap source of labor. Although individuals might change their position in the hierarchy, social mobility itself was not positively viewed. The movement of individuals up and down the social scale was regrettable--ideally, a person should be content with, and maintain, his or her assigned role in the social order.
The geography of ethnicity remained well-defined until the surge in migration that began in the 1950s. Whites resided primarily in larger cities. Mestizos lived in small towns scattered throughout the countryside. Indians formed the bulk of the Sierra rural populace, although mestizos filled this role in the areas with few Indians. Most blacks lived in Esmeraldas Province, with small enclaves found in the Carchi and Imbabura provinces. Pressure on Sierra land resources and the dissolution of the traditional hacienda, however, increased the numbers of Indians migrating to the Costa, the Oriente, and the cities. By the 1980s, Sierra Indians--or Indians in the process of switching their ethnic identity to that of mestizos--lived on Costa plantations, in Quito, Guayaquil, and other cities, and in colonization areas in the Oriente and the Costa. Indeed, Sierra Indians residing in the coastal region substantially outnumbered the remaining original Costa inhabitants, the Cayapa and Colorado Indians. In the late 1980s, analysts estimated that there were only about 4,000 Cayapas and Colorados. Some blacks had migrated from the remote region of the Ecuadorian-Colombian border to the towns and cities of Esmeraldas.
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