Bolivia Ethnic Groups

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Ethnicity can have very different meanings to different people. In this lesson, we'll discuss the ways people construct ethnicity in Bolivia and determine what this may mean for the nation today.

Ethnicity in Bolivia

Fun fact: The only two landlocked nations in South America are Paraguay and Bolivia. However, thanks to the massive river systems running through the continent, even these two countries have pretty easy access to water. Why is this relevant? Well, in places like South America, geography can have an important impact on ethnic diversity.

Bolivia contains parts of the Amazon rainforest, as well as the Andes Mountains, and with its central location on the continent, the country was once an important colonial center for the Spanish Empire. Overall, there has been a great amount of opportunity for various ethnic groups to interact with one another in Bolivia, and this has had interesting consequences. You see, ethnicity is much more than just DNA; it's a matter of how people view themselves and others, and it often reflects people's places in society. Defining ethnicity simply by genes is like defining a pizza simply by its crust while ignoring the toppings people choose to put on it. Perhaps a better metaphor for Bolivia would be defining salteñas by the dough instead of the stuffing, but you get the idea. (Also, try salteñas sometime--they're delicious.)


Mestizo Ethnicity in Bolivia

Let's dive right into the complex web that is Bolivian ethnicity. About 68% of Bolivians ethnically identify as mestizo, or a person of mixed European and Amerindian descent. That seems simple enough, but we'll see very quickly ethnicity is not so easy to define. In colonial times, the Spanish social system was based on rigid ethnic divisions that calculated bloodlines going back four to five generations. If you had one grandparent who was European and one who was Amerindian, plus two mestizo parents you would fall into a specific category, along with anyone else of that background. People with more European ancestry generally held higher social status; however, enforcing this system was all but impossible, so people had a choice in terms of which parts of their ancestry they openly identified with.

Bolivia today does not have such a strict system, but the remnants of this history are still around. For mestizos, daily life is full of constant choices in terms of self-identification. A single person may identify as mestizo at one moment and white or Amerindian at another. In fact, about 44% of mestizos actively identify with a specific Amerindian identity, at least part of the time, and openly embrace that language and its customs. There are no strict rules regarding ethnic identity, not even on the national census that sometimes does and does not include mestizo as a formal category. Certain people of mixed European/Amerindian ancestry don't identify as mestizo at all, but rather as cholo or chola (cholo is male, chola is female). A cholo/a is a person of mixed descent who is usually seen as being more in touch with their Amerindian ancestry. In some regions, the term may be applied to people who have mixed ancestry from various Amerindian groups. Considering Bolivia has the highest income inequality in all of Latin America and that many inequalities fall along ethnic lines, how a person chooses to self-identify in certain scenarios can be significant.

Cholo identity is exemplary of the ambiguity in Bolivian ethnicities and is often a matter of self-identification.

Amerindian Ethnicity in Bolivia

One of the reasons the mestizo identity is so fluid in Bolivia is that the nation's Amerindian heritage is well-recognized. In many Latin American nations, Amerindian ancestry is acknowledged but not a major feature of people's daily lives. This is not true in Bolivia, though. In Bolivia, there are 36 formally recognized Amerindian ethnic groups, and, in accordance with Bolivia's constitution, each group's language is an official national language.

Amerindian identity is an important part of life in many parts of Bolivia.
Aymara festival

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