Ethnic, Indigenous and Immigrant Groups

I think it’s important to break down the actual make-up of the Colombian people as it is little-known how mixed they actually are. Certain countries in South America retain more of these three groups (ethnic, indigenous and immigrant) than others mostly due to their location. Brazil being the prime example, is followed by Colombia and Argentina.  Let’s first look at the country’s multiculturism. 

The essence of Colombian culture lies in the mixing of Spanish, indigenous, and African cultures. The greatest expression of the mélange is perhaps the Carnival of Barranquilla, whose rhythm is the cumbia, and which was proclaimed by UNESCO in November 2003 as one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. The culture of Spain is still very dominant in Colombia: the layout of towns, bull fighting, holy week processions, and the “refined” dialect of Bogotá are part of its legacy. Afro-Colombians have historically been marginalized from society. Nonetheless, they have contributed greatly to Colombian culture, including its music, dance and folklore. Cumbia is said to be derivative of the cumbe dance of Equatorial Guinea. Small numbers of Roma or “gypsies” are scattered throughout the country. Sephardic Jewsand Ashkenazi Jews exist in several of the larger cities; Bogotá has five synagogues. Germans settled in parts of Santander, including Bucaramanga. They also brought the accordion to Valledupar, which would become a key instrument in the very popular vallenato music genre.

Ethnic Groups

The census data in Colombia does not record ethnicity, other than that of those identifying themselves as members of particular minority ethnic groups, so overall percentages are essentially estimates from other sources and can vary from one to another.

According to the CIA World Factbook, the majority of the population (58%) is mestizo, or of mixed European and Amerindian ancestry. 20% is of European ancestry only, 14% mulatto (of mixed European and black African ancestry), 4% of black African ancestry only, and 3%zambo (of mixed Amerindian and black African ancestry). Pure indigenous Amerindians comprise only 1% of the population. The overwhelming majority of Colombians speak Spanish, but in total 101 languages are listed for Colombia in the Ethnologue database, of which 80 are spoken today as living languages. Most of these belong to the ChibchanArawak and Cariban linguistic families. The Quechua language, spoken by descendants of the Inca empire, has also extended northwards into Colombia, mainly in urban centers of the southern highlands. There are currently about 500,000 speakers of indigenous languages.

Indigenous Groups

Before the Spanish colonization of what is now Colombia, the territory was home to a significant number of indigenous peoples. Many of these were absorbed into the mestizo population, but the remainder currently represents over eighty-five distinct cultures. 567 reserves (resguardos) established for indigenous peoples occupy 365,004 square kilometres (over 30% of the country’s total) and are inhabited by more than 800,000 people in over 67,000 families. The 1991 constitution established their native languages as official in their territories, and most of them have bilingual education (native and Spanish).

Some of the largest indigenous groups are the Wayuu, the Arhuacos, the Muisca, the Kuna, the Paez, the Tucano and the Guahibo. CaucaLa Guajira and Guainia have the largest indigenous populations.

Immigrant Groups

The first and most substantial wave of modern immigration to Colombia consisted of Spanish colonists, following the arrival of Europeans in 1499. However a range of other Europeans (Dutch, German, Italian, French, Swiss, Belgian and Basques, also many North Americans) migrated to the country in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and, in smaller numbers Poles, Lithuanians, English, Irish and Croats during and after the Second World War. For example, former Mayor of Bogotá Antanas Mockus is the son of Lithuanian immigrants.

Many immigrant communities have settled on the Caribbean coast, in particular recent immigrants from the Middle EastBarranquilla (the largest city of the Colombian Caribbean) and other Caribbean cities have the largest populations of Lebanese and ArabsSephardi JewsRoma, and people of Italian, German, and French descent. For example, the singer Shakira, a native of Barranquilla, has both Lebanese and Italian ancestry. There are also important communities of Chinese and Japanese.

Black Africans were brought as slaves, mostly to the coastal lowlands, beginning early in the sixteenth century and continuing into the nineteenth century. Large Afro-Colombian communities are found today on the Caribbean and Pacific coasts. The population of the department of Chocó, running along the northern portion of Colombia’s Pacific coast, is over 80% black.

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