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Venezuela Ethnic Groups

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

Ethnicity is constructed in very different ways around the world. In this lesson, we'll look at how it is constructed in Venezuela, and see what ethnic identification means to the Venezuelan society.

Venezuela

Nothing is truly as simple as it seems, and in Venezuela that concept is strongly reflected in ethnicity and ethnic heritage. Ethnicity is always a tricky subject, even in nations where it seems straightforward. It's a mixture of genetic ancestry and personal/social concepts of identity and belonging. So, how do the people of Venezuela self-identify?

Venezuela
Venezuela

Mestizo Ethnicity in Venezuela

The majority of Venezuelans, between roughly 65% and 90% of the population (depending on who you ask), identify as mestizo. A mestizo is a person of mixed European and Amerindian heritage. In Venezuela, as in many parts of Latin America, it doesn't really matter how much ancestry a person can claim from each side of this heritage. The concept of mixed ancestry is far more important than the actual percentages of genetic makeup.

There is one subgroup within the mestizo identity that needs mentioning. Pardos are mestizos who also claim some African heritage. This term can be problematic. Historically, it referred to a very specific caste in the Spanish colonial system without many rights because of their mixed ancestry. Today, it is a mark of pride for some, while others disdain its use. It is also used differently across the nation. While officially it refers to someone with European/Amerindian/and African ancestry, the African part is really the defining factor.

White Ethnicity in Venezuela

After the mestizos, the next largest group in Venezuela are those who ethnically identify as white, or of nearly total European ancestry. Since mestizos are seen as sort of the 'official' national ethnicity, identifying as white can sometimes be a sign of being an outsider. Many people who identify as white come from families that more recently immigrated to Venezuela. Others may simply claim more direct ancestry to Spanish colonial elites. While most people in this group do recognize Spanish heritage, there are also significant populations that are ancestrally from Italy and Portugal as well.

Black Ethnicity in Venezuela

Along with a population that claims non-mixed white ancestry is a population that identifies as black. Again, this group is largely composed of people who immigrated more recently and do not identify as pardo or mestizo. The black population of Venezuela mostly identifies with ancestry from the Caribbean. That's where most of their families lived for generations before coming to Venezuela for various political, economic, and social reasons. As a result, the vast majority of Venezuelans who identify as black can be found along the Caribbean coast of the nation.

Amerindian Ethnicity in Venezuela

The last major segment of Venezuela's population are those who identify as Amerindian, or ancestrally indigenous to the region. While there are roughly 26 Amerindian ethnic groups in the nation, they make up less than 2% of the total population. In a country with such a strong emphasis on mestizo identity, choosing to identify with a specific Amerindian group is also seen as a sign of not really belonging to mainstream culture. In fact, some of these groups today have maintained traditions dating back generations. The Yanomami, for example, are an Amazonian society of about 15,000 people who to this day have had barely any contact with the outside world. So, when Venezuelans think of Amerindian identity, this is often what they picture.

Many Amerindian communities in Venezuela show little influence from outsiders
Amerindian girl

Ethnicity in Venezuela

Now, you may have noticed that a lot of the population numbers in this lesson are pretty vague. There's a reason for that. Venezuela proudly insists that ethnicity doesn't really matter. In fact, the nation has not actually included ethnic identification on their national census since 1926. This means that ethnicity has a very fluid definition in Venezuela. Rather than seeing ethnic groups as different, they are all seen as variations along a single continuum. Basically, the assumption is that everyone has mixed heritage, with certain genetic features being more pronounced in some people than others.

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