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Colombia: Contemporary Trends
Country Study > Chapter 2 > The Society and Its Environment > Race and Ethnicity > Contemporary Trends

CONTEMPORARY TRENDS


In the late 1980s, whites continued to occupy the highest positions in the government, economy, and society. Most of them resided in the large urban centers, and even those who did not considered themselves urban in orientation. Membership in the white group was usually concomitant with upper- or middle-class values and behavior patterns and adherence to Roman Catholicism and its teachings -- in name if not in practice. Whites modeled their life-styles, family patterns, and human relations largely on European and North American norms and in turn dictated them to the rest of society.

The white group usually emphasized racial and cultural purity and wealth derived from property. This emphasis was particularly true in the capital and in the seats of colonial aristocracy, such as Popayán. The exception was in Antioquia Department, where a great deal of miscegenation took place and where social distinctions rested largely on economic achievement rather than ethnic considerations.

Non-Antioqueño whites continued to stress colonial notions of the superiority of mental over manual labor, encouraging genteel remunerative activities derived from owning land or a career in law, medicine, or architecture. Creative or journalistic writing, literary criticism, and university professorship were also considered appropriate careers or sidelines for whites who were financially secure. For those less well off, business, commerce, and industry provided more lucrative, if less traditional, positions.

Although North American cultural influence has grown substantially since the 1950s, whites remained culturally tied to Europe -- particularly to France and Spain. Children continued to be sent to Europe and the United States for schooling, to learn languages, and to become cosmopolitan. Only in the twentieth century did white Colombians begin to seriously study nonwhite facets of their country's social system and incorporate them into their scholarly and creative works.

Insistence on racial purity within the white group varied among regions and sometimes was not as important as light skin and an old, respected Spanish surname. In fact, many people who came from families that had been considered white for generations were actually descendants of people of mixed ancestry who purchased certificates of white ancestry from the Spanish crown. Whites did not usually marry dark-skinned individuals, however, unless economic hardship necessitated bringing a wealthy mulatto or mestizo into the family.

From the earliest years of the colonial period, miscegenation among whites, Indians, and blacks occurred so much that people of mixed origin soon came to outnumber all other groups combined. In fact, racial mixing was so great that Colombians usually referred to themselves as a mestizo nation -- in this case meaning simply "mixed" -- despite the absence of a significant cultural synthesis.

In the mid-1980s, people of mixed origin were found throughout the society -- in all classes, occupations, and geographic regions. The status of individuals of mixed blood varied, from those who bordered on being white to those who had recently moved out of marginal status as black or Indian. Probably the only factors that tied the mixed group together were a general recognition that status as a mestizo or mulatto was better than that as an Indian or a black and some feeling of belonging to the national society.

Colombians perceived considerable differences between mestizos and mulattoes. Mestizos found upward mobility easier than mulattoes in most areas, probably because mestizo physical characteristics were more like those of the idealized Colombian: light brown to white skin, straight or wavy hair, and caucasoid facial features. Moreover, once a person was considered mestizo, his cultural identity automatically became that of the dominant white group, whereas mulattos often exhibited black cultural and social traits that made upward social mobility more difficult.

Many blacks left slave status early in Colombian history, becoming part of the free population. Some were awarded freedom by their owners, and some purchased their liberty, but probably the greatest number achieved freedom by escape. There were numerous revolts, particularly in the Cauca Valley and along the Caribbean coast, that liberated many slaves. Those who achieved freedom sometimes moved into Indian communities, and their zambo offspring became part of the indigenous group. Others founded their own settlements. A number of towns, such as Palenque in northern Antioquia Department and Ure in southern Córdoba Department, kept the history of revolt alive in their oral traditions. In the Chocó area, along the Pacific, many of the black communities remained relatively unmixed, probably because there were few whites in the area and the Indians became increasingly resistant to assimilation. In other regions, such as the Magdalena Valley, black communities had considerable white and Indian admixtures.

The distribution of blacks in the 1980s continued to reflect that of the colonial period. The greatest number lived in the lowland areas on the Caribbean and Pacific coasts and along the Río Cauca and Río Magdalena. In the Chocó region, they had largely replaced the Indians and, along with mulattoes, constituted 80 percent of the population. On the Caribbean islands of San Andrés and Providencia, which Colombia acquired from Britain at the end of the colonial period, there were several thousand blacks. Despite the length of time during which Colombia had jurisdiction over them, most blacks on these islands retained their Protestant religion, continued to speak English, and regarded themselves as a group distinct from mainland residents.

Descendants of slaves preserved relatively little of their African heritage or identification. Some place-names were derived from African languages, and some traditional musical instruments brought into the country by slaves were used throughout the country. Religion in the black communities remained the most durable link with the African past.

In the 1980s, wholly black communities were disappearing, not only because their residents were moving to the cities but also because the surrounding mestizo and white populations had begun moving into black communities. Eventual absorption into the mixed milieu appeared inevitable in the 1980s. Moreover, as blacks moved into the mainstream of society from its peripheries, they perceived the advantages of better education and jobs. Rather than forming organizations to promote their advancement as a group, blacks concentrated on achieving mobility through individual merit and adaptation to the prevailing system.

When the Spanish arrived in 1499, they found a heterogeneous Indian population that numbered between 1.5 and 2 million, belonged to several hundred tribes, and spoke mutually unintelligible dialects. The complexity of their social organization and technology varied tremendously, from stratified agricultural chiefdoms to tropical farm villages and nomadic hunting and food- gathering groups. Throughout the colonial years, the indigenous population constituted an estimated 50 percent of the total population, but by 1988 it had dropped to roughly 1 percent. About sixty tribes were scattered throughout the departments and national territories.

In the agricultural chiefdoms of the highlands, the Spaniards successfully imposed institutions designed to ensure their control of the Indians and thereby the use of their labor. By the end of the sixteenth century, political and religious administration was organized, and efforts to convert the Indians were well under way. The most important institution that regulated the lives and welfare of the highland Indians was the resguardo (reservation) system of communal landholdings. Under this system, Indians were allowed to use the land but could not sell it.

Similar in some respects to the Indian reservation system of the United States, the resguardo system lasted with some changes into the late twentieth century and was an enduring link between the government and the remaining highland tribes. As land pressures increased, however, encroachment of white settlers onto resguardo lands accelerated, often without opposition from the government. The struggle of the Indians on these lands to protect their holdings from neighboring landlords continued into the late 1980s. Nevertheless, the Virgilio Barco Vargas administration (1986-) created new resguardos, including one in Guainía Commissaryship, and reconstituted others.

The highland Indian communities have been the subject of most Indian legislation since the 1940s. The National Indian Institute was originally founded in 1943 as a private body. It was later attached to the National University of Colombia (Universidad Nacional de Colombia -- UNC) and eventually became an advisory body to the Directorate of Indian Reservations within the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock. The institute was reorganized in 1958 to include representatives of several ministries concerned with Indians, as well as members of the Colombian Institute of Anthropology. Division of the resguardos was immediately suspended, as far as possible, and a new program of community development directed at the incorporation of the Indians into the national society was begun.

In 1960 the Directorate of Indian Reservations was reorganized and became the Division of Indian Affairs; together with the National Indian Institute it was transferred to the Ministry of Government. The Division of Indian Affairs carried out its programs and policies through eight regional commissions for Indian welfare and protection. The location of the commissions corresponded to the resguardo zones and in general to areas inhabited by Indians who were already somewhat integrated into the national system.

In contrast to the highlands, the lowlands were less densely populated at the time of the conquest, and the natives possessed a simpler culture than the highland tribes. The tropical forest areas were inhabited by farmers whose slash-and-burn agriculture limited the size of settlements to 100 or 200 persons. Most of these tribes lived along rivers and depended partially on fishing for subsistence. Indians of the eastern savannas and the Amazon Basin were nomadic, traveling in small hunting and gathering bands and frequently living along rivers. When the Spanish arrived, many lowland groups retreated to areas that were less accessible or attractive to the Spanish. These nomadic tribes and forest dwellers fared better than their highland counterparts in maintaining independence from the Spanish because of their simpler, more mobile, and more self-sufficient lifestyle. Their contacts with outsiders were generally limited to missionaries.

In the past, the government generally had not attempted to legislate in matters affecting the forest Indians. During the colonial period, Roman Catholic missions were granted jurisdiction over the lowland tribes. With the financial support of the government, a series of agreements with the Holy See from 1887 to 1953 entrusted the evangelization and education of these Indians to the missions. The missions were coordinated with the government's Division of Indian Affairs through a representative in the National Indian Institute. In 1960 the secretary of the institute became the chief of the Section of Indian Protection in the Ministry of Government and was responsible for the Indians of the nation's peripheral regions. Barco's resguardo initiative affected forest tribes as well as highland tribes.

Although all tribes in Colombia had had some contact with outsiders, the degree and effect varied considerably. Some tribes, such as the Maku, Chiricoa, Tunebo, and others from Amazonas Commissaryship, remained very primitive nomadic hunting and fishing groups. Others had begun to cultivate such crops as cacao, sugarcane, corn, and bananas. Some of the most successful tribes developed effective methods of raising cattle. Nonetheless, it was difficult for Indians to retain land that they traditionally held, especially in the highlands, where the competition for cultivable land was keenest.

In the 1980s, there was considerable disagreement in Colombia over the number of remaining Indians, their concentrations, and their relationship to the national society. Some Colombian scholars argued against integrating Indians, contending that the indigenous peoples had as much right as any other element of the society to survive intact under government protection. However, this protection was only partial. The government lacked a comprehensive policy, and what legislation did exist seemed oriented toward assimilating the Indians. Other factors pointing toward gradual absorption of the Indians were expansion of colonization into Indian territories, government plans for the development of natural resources in Indian areas, and the Indians' increased contact with and integration into the national system through economic inducement.

Data as of December 1988




Last Updated: December 1988


Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Colombia was first published in 1988. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on Factba.se.

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