The People and Culture of Ecuador
Ecuador’s culture is a mix of distinct traditions that originated in the Andes, the Ecuadorian Amazon, or the coast. After the arrival of the Spanish, Ecuadorian identity incorporated Catholic traditions, which are now deeply ingrained in national culture. Approximately 40 to 65 percent of the population is mestizo, a mix of indigenous and Spanish ancestry. Another 20 to 25 percent of Ecuadorians define themselves as indigenous. Four percent of Ecuador’s population lives in the Amazon Basin (also known as the Oriente).
Spanish is Ecuador’s official language, while Quechua and Shuar are the two major indigenous languages. Quechua is the language of the Inca, which was the dominant culture in Ecuador when the Spanish arrived. Quecha can still be heard throughout the Sierra regions — in fact, some older people hardly know Spanish. Shuar comes from a group of indigenous people in the Ecuadorian Amazon.
Ecuador does not have a large amount of immigration, therefore, ethnic diversity exists but is limited. There are higher concentrations of Afro-Ecuadorians on the coast, which is mainly due to the slave trade conducted by the Spanish. Small Chinese communities have developed in the cities of Guayaquil and Quevedo. There is some fusion in the country's cuisine, but on the whole, even transplants have grown accustomed to mirroring the country's penchant for hearty dishes. Ecuador does have a few speciality foods reserved specifically for the holiday and festival seasons.
Spanish nobility designated the mestizos as upper class landowners. Indigenous people had to work on the farms, and lacked the opportunity to improve their stations. This system of labor continued from the 16th century through the 1960s. In the 1960s, agrarian reform broke up the tracts of land still controlled by Ecuador’s gentry. Many indigenous people could once again control the land and become campesinos, the Spanish term for subsistence farmers.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Ecuador experienced a huge demographic shift. Ecuador’s oil exportation increased, and many Ecuadorians who had made their living on farms moved to the cities in search of more profitable jobs. This led to overcrowding, and cities like Guayaquil developed large slums. In the past decade, Ecuador’s improving economy has brought a renaissance to cities like Guayaquil, to the enormous benefit of both Ecuadorians and visitors alike.
In rural communities, Ecuadorians rely heavily on their neighbors. The term compadres refer to couples who serve as godparents to each other’s children. Even in urban Ecuador, there is a strong emphasis on the nuclear family, due in large part to the pervasiveness of Roman Catholicism.
Yet Ecuador’s nuclear family has some problems. Domestic abuse is a widespread social ill — it is estimated that 30 percent of Ecuadorian women with partners endure some form of physical abuse.
Mountains have strong spiritual significance in traditional Ecuadorian religion. The largest mountains in a region are often called Taita, the Quechua word for father, and the second smallest is Mama. Catholic shrines appear throughout the mountains, erected by the Spanish in spots where the conquistadores had discovered Inca religious sites.
Every native culture in Ecuador relies on healers for spiritual guidance and physiological treatments. These healers can be men or women. They combine native knowledge of medicinal plants with traditional forms of witchcraft. Medicinal plants include the coca leaf, quinine, tobacco, and the psychotropic plant ayahuasca. Over the years, healing rituals have come to incorporate Catholic prayers.
The National Pastime: Soccer
No different from the rest of South America, Ecuador is passionate about soccer (fútbol). In recent years, economic development has greatly improved Ecuador’s game. A Quito team called LDU Quito won the 2008 Copa Libertadores. Since 2002, Ecuador has participated in three World Cups. In the 2014 World Cup, they beat Honduras and tied with France. They ended the World Cup in 26th place.
Ecuador has an extreme home team advantage. The national team is located in the high-altitude city of Quito, and visiting teams often struggle with the climate while playing here. Ecuadorian players have adapted to the limited oxygen, giving them a sizeable advantage over players from lower elevations.
Indigenous Groups of Ecuador
Indigenous people often face poor treatment from urban or mestizo Ecuadorians. Ecuadorians have a choice to identify as indigenous – these distinctions don’t rely so much on physical characteristics as language and style of dress. While indigenous people are a small portion of the population, their land disputes are some of the most pressing issues in Ecuador today.
Ecuador’s indigenous population comprises many groups. After the arrival of the Spanish, some tribes were wiped out. Others have dwindled in number due to loss of land.
If you travel to the Ecuadorian Amazon, you may meet indigenous people. Some members of these groups choose to wear traditional clothing, and may have prominent piercings and large pieces of jewelry. It’s also not unusual for tribe members to forgo wearing traditional clothing in favor of sneakers, jeans, and other modern apparel. No matter what your hosts are wearing, be sure to ask before you take pictures.
Not all of the indigenous people live in the jungle. Otavoleños live in the Andes, in the Imbabura province of Ecuador, and are known for their weavings. When the Spanish arrived, Otavoleños were forced to produce large quantities of embroidered textiles to send to Europe. Today, Otavoleños still have strong cultural ties to their textiles. Many people wear traditional clothes – blue ponchos, wide-brimmed hats, and embroidered wool skirts for the women. Their weavings have become popular around the world, and their wares are sold in large quantities to outsiders.
Groups like CONAIE (Confederation of Indigenous Nations of Ecuador) work to help defend the land rights of indigenous groups in Ecuador’s jungle. CONAIE, as well as a host of other non-profits, continue to organize protests against the incursion of oil companies on the ancestral land of Ecuador’s indigenous groups. Ecuador’s current government has imposed strict border control around a section of the Ecuadorian Amazon preserved for the indigenous people, in attempt to prevent outsiders from introducing devastating diseases to the native population.
The Huaorani people famously entered into a protracted lawsuit with Chevron over the company’s use of their land for messy oil extraction. Ultimately they lost the lawsuit, but in recent years CONAIE has helped the Huaorani people reclaim a large amount of property. They also made the news in the 1960s and 1980s, for murders of missionaries that tried to make inroads with the tribe.
Other groups have had more success getting oil companies to rethink their plan to extract oil from the Amazon. In September of 2014 the Ecuadorian government offered a formal apology to the Sarayacu people for allowing oil companies to enter their territory. The Sarayacu organized a protest against the oil excavation, and had their case reviewed by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. In addition to an apology, the Ecuadorian government will have to pay $1.4 million to the 1,200-member tribe.
The Shuar–Achuar people are best known for their practice of decapitating enemies and shrinking their heads. This ritual was meant to give the victor more spiritual power. But this practice has fallen out of favor, and now the Shuar-Achuar focus their energies on maintaining their land.
The Cofán people recently reclaimed large amounts of land. They have done this with the help of an unusual chief. Randy Borman was born to American missionaries stationed with the Cofán tribe. He grew up with the Cofán people, and made it his mission to put his western education to work for the benefit of his birthplace. Now he serves as the chief of the Cofán, and because of his work with the local government Cofán territory has expanded. It has grown six times in size since Borman became chief.
For such a small country, Ecuador has a huge variety of native cultures. Increased attention to singular populations of indigenous people will hopefully improve the conditions of these historically downtrodden groups. Ecuador has a wealth of endemic natural resources, not the least of which is its ancient lineage of natives who know how to make the most of its rich forests and fertile land. The continued development of this country remains unknown — all the more reason to book your holiday and absorb some its unique culture.