Ecuador Ethnic Groups

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

The nation of Ecuador has a unique experience with ethnic identities. In this lesson, we'll talk about major ethnic groups in Ecuador and see what this means to the nation today.


A lot of times, we identify places by their geographical coordinates. It's a useful way to find places. So, here's one for you: imagine what it's like to live at 0'-0'-0'. Where in the world is this? Not only is this spot inhabited, it's actually the capital city of a major nation. The República del Ecuador literally translates to the 'Republic of the Equator', so Ecuadorians seem to be pretty proud of their location along the geographic center of the world. However, with a complex history combining some of the world's greatest empires, identity in this South American nation is a little more complex than just a set of numbers.


Mestizos in Ecuador

So, who are the Ecuadorian people? The majority of Ecuadorians, about 72% in fact, identify as ethnically mestizo. This term implies a mixed Amerindian and European heritage, which is a result of the Spanish Empire conquering the territory in the 16th century. For the most part, the Spanish side of this ancestry is privileged over the Amerindian heritage.

Spanish is the official language, Roman Catholicism is the most-followed religion, and most people dress and behave along Western/European lines. Still, that idea of an Amerindian heritage is very important, and there are national holidays throughout the year that celebrate it.

Ethnic Minorities in Ecuador

A strong mestizo identity is very common across Latin America, but in Ecuador this means something a little different. Unlike in many nations were the mestizo ethnicity is upheld as the definitive national standard, ethnic minorities in Ecuador have found a strong social and political voice to challenge that assumption.

Whether it's through the National Commission on Statistics for Indigenous, Afro-Ecuadorian, and Montubio Peoples, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, or one of the many other activist groups of the nation, strong ethnic pride amongst statistically-minority communities is a major feature of modern Ecuadorian society.

Of these minority groups, the largest are the Montubio, comprising about 7.5% of the total population. Montubio identity is complex and fluid; this group is formally composed of a variety of people and draws from a number of Amerindian and other ethnic groups who resided along the nation's coast for centuries. So, like the mestizos, they are a group defined by mixed ancestry. The Montubio people fought long and hard for formal recognition by the Ecuadorian government, finally gaining their own status on the national census after a series of hunger strikes in 2001.

Following closely behind the Montubio are people of a more specific Amerindian ethnic identity, who altogether make up another 7% of the total population. Fierce pride in Amerindian ethnicity has been growing in Ecuador, and many groups are encouraging people to stop identifying as mestizo and embrace a purely Amerindian ethnic identity. Some activists groups claim that as many as 40% of Ecuadorians are actually Amerindian, but historic pressures across Latin America encouraged mestizo identification, a trend which may now be reversing.

Amerindian arts and culture are alive and well in Ecuador
Ecuadorian dance

While Ecuador is home to a wide and diverse range of Amerindian groups, two stand out in particular. First are the Quechua. When Spain first arrived in Ecuador, it was already claimed by another mighty empire: the Inca. The Quechua people are the descendants of this empire, and largely responsible for the maintenance of pride in the nation's Inca heritage. In fact, Quechua is one of the official languages of the nation.

The other major group in Ecuador is the Shuar, who are an Amazonian people. The Shuar language does not have official status, but is a de facto official language of intercultural and ethnic relations within the nation. Many other Amerindian nations are spoken as well, some of which have official status in the region where they are most spoken.

Following the Amerindian groups, Ecuador does have a strong population who identify as ethnically white, called criollos in Ecuador. This is an interesting identity, as criollo was originally a colonial term for a Spaniard born in Latin America. So, they identify purely with European heritage, but in a way that is distinctly Ecuadorian, attached to the nation. About 6% of people in Ecuador identify along these lines.

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