Colombia Ethnic Groups

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

The nation of Colombia has a long history of people, ideas, and products passing through, and this has impacted the population. In this lesson, we'll talk about ethnicity in Colombia and see what this means to the nation today.


In the 19th century, a large number of Latin American nations all decided around the same time to declare their independence from Spain. One of the first was a group of colonies that together called themselves Gran Colombia. They did manage to achieve their independence, but the members of Gran Colombia decided they were better off as individual nations. One of the major nations to emerge from this split was Colombia. Due to its location at the northern part of South America, where the continent meets the narrow Central America, practically anything that passes across the Americas by land has to pass through Colombia. Over history this has included arts, ideas, technologies, money, products, people, and for a time, contraband items like drugs. The government of Colombia today is working hard to clean up its image and monitor what exactly passes through its borders. Still, this legacy of various exchanges has left an impact on the Colombian nation, and yes, the people.


Mestizo and White Ethnicity

So, who makes up the Colombian population? About 84% of people are those with predominantly European ancestry. This is largely a legacy of Spanish colonialism, but also an indicator of Colombia's importance in hemispheric trade since it has attracted immigrants from across Europe and North America as well. Of this 84% of the population, we can actually divide European ancestry one step further. Those of almost complete European ancestry are often considered white, while those who identify by mixed European and Amerindian heritage are considered mestizos. These are important terms. In nearly all Latin American nations, there are strict cultural divisions between the categories of white and mestizo, but Colombia is really the exception. Colombia embraces its Spanish heritage more than most Latin American nations, privileging it over their Amerindian history, largely because Colombian Amerindians were sparsely scattered at the time of Spanish conquest and never shared any pan-Amerindian identity the way Maya, Inca, or Aztec groups did. So, while mestizo and white are distinct categories in most of Latin America, in Colombia they are essentially grouped together.

Historically, most Colombian culture has been defined by Spanish traditions
Colombian food

Afro-Colombian Ethnicity

While those of various European ancestries do not really recognize distinct ethnic groups, this is not true of people with African ancestry. About 10.5% of Colombians identify with some form of African heritage, but there are some distinctions made within this group. Mulattos are people of mixed black and white ancestry. Zambos are people of mixed African and Amerindian heritage. For the most part, both of these groups have historically been basically Spanish in terms of culture. However, there are two other groups for whom this is not entirely true. The Raizal are Protestant-worshipping people of mixed African and British heritage who live on the islands off the coast of Colombia. They speak a Creole version of English. The Palenqueros are a community in northern Colombia historically founded by runaway slaves, integrated with some Amerindian groups. The Palenqueros speak Palenquero, which is the only Creole Spanish language in Latin America.

A Palenquero fiesta

Amerindian Populations

While most Amerindians in Colombia are at least partly European, bringing them with the mestizo category, the nation is home to several groups of basically pure Amerindian ethnicity. Total, they make up about 3.5% of the nation's population, but this number hides a great amount of diversity. Colombia is home to over 87 Amerindian cultures, speaking 64 distinct languages from 22 different language families. You may remember that I said Colombian Amerindians never really had a shared identity- this diversity is why. Legally, Amerindian groups in Colombia today have rights to political representation, but there have been issues here historically. Policies in the 20th century to modernize Colombia often targeted Amerindian groups, resulting in forced migrations to urban centers and a fair amount of prejudicial treatment, some of which still exists today.

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