Sierra Indians had an estimated population of 1.5 to 2 million
in the early 1980s and lived in the intermontane valleys of the
Andes. Prolonged contact with Hispanic culture, which dated back to
the conquest, had a homogenizing effect, reducing the variation
among the indigenous Sierra tribes.
The Indians of the Sierra were separated from whites and
mestizos by a castelike gulf. They were marked as a disadvantaged
group; to be an Indian or indígena in Ecuador was to be
stigmatized. Indians were usually poor and frequently illiterate,
they enjoyed limited participation in national institutions, and
they commanded access to few of the social and economic
opportunities available to more privileged groups.
Visible markers of ethnic affiliation, especially hairstyle,
dress, and language, separated Indians from the rest of the
populace. Indians wore more manufactured items by the late 1970s
than previously; their clothing, nonetheless, was distinct from
that of other rural inhabitants. Indians in communities relying
extensively on wage labor sometimes assumed Western-style dress
while still maintaining their Indian identity. Indians spoke
Quichua--a Quechua dialect--although most were bilingual, speaking
Spanish as a second language with varying degrees of facility. By
the late 1980s, some younger Indians no longer learned Quichua.
Most whites and mestizos viewed Indians as inherently inferior.
Some regarded indígenas as little better than a subspecies.
A more benign perspective condescendingly considered the Indian as
an intellectual inferior, an emotional child in need of direction.
Such views underlay the elaborate public etiquette required in
Indian-white/mestizo interactions. Common practice allowed whites
and mestizos to use first names and familiar verb and pronoun forms
in addressing Indians.
Although public deference to other ethnic groups supported
stereotypes of Indians as intellectually inferior, Indians viewed
deference as a survival strategy. Deference established that an
individual Indian was properly humble and deserving of the white's
or mestizo's aid and intercession. Given the relative powerlessness
of Indians, such an approach softened the rules governing
The tenor of such exchanges differed in cases of limited
hacienda dominance. The Otavalos of northern Ecuador, the
Saraguros, and the Salaacas in the central Sierra resisted hacienda
intrusion and domination by whites and mestizos. These Indians were
thus less inclined to be subservient and adopted instead an
attitude of aloofness or distance in dealing with whites and
Most Indians, however, could improve their situation only by
changing their ethnic affiliation. Such a switch in allegiances was
fraught with risk, since individuals thereby lost the security
offered by their small community of family and neighbors. Many
rejected such an extreme move and instead made a series of
accommodations such as changing their dress and hairstyle while
working for brief periods away from home and gradually increasing
the length of their absences.
By the early 1980s, changes in Indian ethnic consciousness
could be identified in some communities. An increasing number of
educated Indians returned to work in their native communities
instead of assuming a mestizo identity and moving away. They
remained Indian in their loyalty and their ethnic allegiance. The
numbers of Indian primary school teachers of Quichua increased, and
literacy programs expanded; both trends reinforced Indian identity.
Although these developments were most prominent among
prosperous groups such as the Otavalos and the Saraguros, the
number of Indians in general moving into "mestizo jobs" increased
during the oil expansion. New opportunities gave Indians the option
of improving their economic status without sacrificing their ethnic
identity. Observers also noted a general growth in ethnic pride
coupled with negative reactions toward those Indians who chose to
abandon their roots and become mestizos.
Data as of 1989