Sierra Indians had an estimated population of 1.5 to 2 million in the early 1980s and lived in the intermontane valleys of the Andes. Prolonged contact with Hispanic culture, which dated back to the conquest, had a homogenizing effect, reducing the variation among the indigenous Sierra tribes.
The Indians of the Sierra were separated from whites and mestizos by a castelike gulf. They were marked as a disadvantaged group; to be an Indian or indígena in Ecuador was to be stigmatized. Indians were usually poor and frequently illiterate, they enjoyed limited participation in national institutions, and they commanded access to few of the social and economic opportunities available to more privileged groups.
Visible markers of ethnic affiliation, especially hairstyle, dress, and language, separated Indians from the rest of the populace. Indians wore more manufactured items by the late 1970s than previously; their clothing, nonetheless, was distinct from that of other rural inhabitants. Indians in communities relying extensively on wage labor sometimes assumed Western-style dress while still maintaining their Indian identity. Indians spoke Quichua--a Quechua dialect--although most were bilingual, speaking Spanish as a second language with varying degrees of facility. By the late 1980s, some younger Indians no longer learned Quichua.
Most whites and mestizos viewed Indians as inherently inferior. Some regarded indígenas as little better than a subspecies. A more benign perspective condescendingly considered the Indian as an intellectual inferior, an emotional child in need of direction. Such views underlay the elaborate public etiquette required in Indian-white/mestizo interactions. Common practice allowed whites and mestizos to use first names and familiar verb and pronoun forms in addressing Indians.
Although public deference to other ethnic groups supported stereotypes of Indians as intellectually inferior, Indians viewed deference as a survival strategy. Deference established that an individual Indian was properly humble and deserving of the white's or mestizo's aid and intercession. Given the relative powerlessness of Indians, such an approach softened the rules governing interethnic exchanges.
The tenor of such exchanges differed in cases of limited hacienda dominance. The Otavalos of northern Ecuador, the Saraguros, and the Salaacas in the central Sierra resisted hacienda intrusion and domination by whites and mestizos. These Indians were thus less inclined to be subservient and adopted instead an attitude of aloofness or distance in dealing with whites and mestizos.
Most Indians, however, could improve their situation only by changing their ethnic affiliation. Such a switch in allegiances was fraught with risk, since individuals thereby lost the security offered by their small community of family and neighbors. Many rejected such an extreme move and instead made a series of accommodations such as changing their dress and hairstyle while working for brief periods away from home and gradually increasing the length of their absences.
By the early 1980s, changes in Indian ethnic consciousness could be identified in some communities. An increasing number of educated Indians returned to work in their native communities instead of assuming a mestizo identity and moving away. They remained Indian in their loyalty and their ethnic allegiance. The numbers of Indian primary school teachers of Quichua increased, and literacy programs expanded; both trends reinforced Indian identity.
Although these developments were most prominent among prosperous groups such as the Otavalos and the Saraguros, the number of Indians in general moving into "mestizo jobs" increased during the oil expansion. New opportunities gave Indians the option of improving their economic status without sacrificing their ethnic identity. Observers also noted a general growth in ethnic pride coupled with negative reactions toward those Indians who chose to abandon their roots and become mestizos.
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