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El Salvador Ethnic Groups

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

El Salvador is unique in several ways. In this lesson, we'll talk about the ethnic groups of El Salvador, and see what ethnicity has meant in this nation.

El Salvador

Did you know that El Salvador is the smallest country in Latin America? The entire nation, located on the Pacific coast of Central America, is roughly the size of Massachusetts. But if you're expecting to head to this small nation and spend some time in isolation, well sorry to disappoint you but El Salvador is also the most densely populated nation in Latin America. So, it's not the largest nation, but there are a lot of people who live there. So, who are these people? Let's find out.

El Salvador
El Salvador

Mestizos in El Salvador

The majority of Salvadorans ethnically identify as mestizo, which is a term that refers to mixed European (de facto Spanish) and Amerindian ancestry. This is very common amongst most Latin American nations, where nationalist intellectuals in the 19th century promoted anti-colonial identities that encouraged independence from Spain based on a proud double heritage. About 86% of Salvadorans consider themselves to be mestizo, and this ethnicity is generally upheld as the national identity.

Being mestizo means recognizing a mixed ancestry, but the reality of this is pretty specific. Most mestizos speak Spanish and behave along Western/European cultural standards. Amerindian heritage is acknowledged, but few customs are maintained. If you want to see the influence of Amerindian ancestry in Salvadoran food, you may find traces in certain annual festivals, in music and dance, but the biggest area will be in the national cuisine. A large number of Salvadoran dishes are based in Amerindian traditions.

Salvadoran food is itself mestizo, a blend of Spanish and Amerindian traditions
Salvadoran cuisine

Ethnic Minorities in El Salvador

As for the rest of Salvadorans, the majority identify as white, or almost entirely ethnically European. About 12% of Salvadorans identify this way, and this is significant. Not every Latin American nation has such a large number of people who reject all Amerindian ancestry. There may be numerous reasons for this in El Salvador. Economic disparities have tended to fall along ethnic lines, with white Salvadorans holding more political and economic power than mestizos or other groups for much of the 20th century, so choosing to identify as white can have political motivations.

Beyond that, El Salvador is home to several communities that identify as totally Amerindian, although together they make up less than 1% of the overall population. Ethnic conflicts in the 20th century, often violently targeted against Amerindians, may have increased pressure to assimilate and adopt a mestizo identity.

Today, there are three primary groups of Amerindian populations who still call El Salvador home. The oldest of these groups is likely the Pipil. According to oral traditions and archeological evidence, the Pipil were likely originally from the Valley of Mexico, loosely related to the people who would one day found the Aztec Empire. The fled west to escape Toltec armies in Central Mexico, ending up in what is now El Salvador. The Pipil were subject to a fair amount of ethnic violence in the early 20th century by the government.

The next of El Salvador's substantial Amerindian groups are the Lenca. The Lenca are indigenous to Central America, mostly living in Honduras, but a sizeable population is still in El Salvador. Their language is now considered extinct, and the majority of Amerindians of all ethnicities in El Salvador do speak Spanish.

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