Nicaragua Ethnic Groups

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

Nicaragua is the largest nation of Central America, but who lives there? In this lesson we'll look at the ethnic groups of Nicaragua and see what this diversity means to the nation today.


They call themselves the Nicas. We generally refer to them as Nicaraguans. Whatever you call them, the people of the Central American nation of Nicaragua live in an interesting place. Nicaragua is the largest nation of Central America, weighing in slightly larger than the state of New York. It receives the most annual rainfall in Central America, and is also home to the world's only freshwater lake that contains a population of sharks. But, not everything is perfect. There are some difficulties facing the nation. Nicaragua is the poorest country in Central America, and has a long history of violent dictators. But who are the Nicaraguans, the Nicas, themselves? Well, as they live in such an interesting place, I think it's fair to say that they are some pretty interesting people.


Mestizo Ethnicity in Nicaragua

In terms of ethnicity, most of Nicaraguans identify along similar lines. Or so it seems. The largest ethnic group in Nicaragua, making up about 69% of the total population, are the mestizos, which is term referring to people of mixed European and Amerindian ancestry. So, the term itself is ambiguous. It does not necessarily denote how much European or Amerindian ancestry a person identifies with, or specify which specific European or Amerindian nations contributed to their ancestry. In general, however, there are assumptions. The European side essentially means Spanish. Spain colonized Nicaragua in the 16th century, and maintained a strong presence until Nicaraguan independence in 1838. While mestizos do identify with Amerindian heritage, their cultural practices and belief systems are essentially Spanish. This idea of mixed heritage is, however, upheld as the national ethnicity, and greatly associated with the national identity.

Mestizo heritage is perhaps best seen in the national cuisine, a mixture of Spanish and Amerindian flavors
Nicaraguan cuisine

Ethnic Minorities in Nicaragua

White Ethnicity in Nicaragua

Apart from the mestizos, Nicaragua does maintain populations that identify with a single, non-mixed ethnic heritage. The largest of these groups are the whites, who make up 17% of the total population. Again, this almost always refers to Spanish ancestry, although British and American populations did enter Nicaragua throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. White Nicaraguans tend to live in the urban centers, and historically have held more political and economic power, largely as a direct legacy of colonialism.

Black Ethnicity in Nicaragua

The next ethnic minority group in Nicaragua are people who identify as ethnically black. As in many parts of the Western Hemisphere, people of African ancestry are generally descendants of slaves forcibly transported to the region for agricultural labor. Since slavery was most predominate in the Caribbean, the majority of Nicaragua's black population, historically and today, live along the Caribbean coast of the nation. They make up about 9% of the total population, and many identify more with Caribbean traditions that purely Nicaraguan ones. A number of these people also identify as creole, which recognizes mixed white and black ethnic heritage. A smaller percentage identify as zambo, being of mixed African and Amerindian ancestry.

Amerindian Ethnicity in Nicaragua

Finally, we get to the Amerindian population of Nicaragua, who altogether make up about 5% of the total population. The people who identify strictly as Amerindian are the only ones to still speak Amerindian languages or practice tradition customs. Again, the mestizos identify with this ancestry but practice Spanish culture. Nicaragua does have a history of ethnic conflict between the government and its Amerindian population, one which turned violent during dictatorships of the late 20th century, resulting in armed rebellions in rural Nicaragua made of Amerindian guerrilla fighters.

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