There are an estimated 40 million indigenous people in Latin America that belong to approximately 600 different ethnic groups within the region. Nearly 13% of all Latin Americans and around 40% of the rural population identify as indigenous.
Despite such a strong physical presence, these native people suffer discrimination and exploitation. Since the Spanish Conquest, Latin America’s indigenous population has endured slavery, massacres, forced migration, exclusion from the mainstream social and economic systems, and a blatant disdain for their culture. While indigenous groups are more likely to become trapped in poverty, their resilience against a dominant society and ability to survive centuries of hardship are incredibly inspiring.
The five Latin American countries with the highest indigenous populations are: Bolivia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, and Peru. No indigenous population is the same. Each carries its own history, culture, language and perspective of the world. Since these native people pre-date State lines and geopolitical boundaries, it is accurate to categorize them based on ethnicity rather than by country.
1. The Quechuas (Population: 10 million)
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The Quechua population comes in first place with a whopping 10 million people. They are the original descendents of the Incan empire, and inhabit the Andean regions of Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile. Because of the 8 million Quechua speakers in Peru, it has been deemed an official language of the country, equating it to the same level of Spanish.
Quechua people practice a blend of Roman Catholicism mixed with their ancient Pre-Hispanic religions. The most famous Quechua holiday is the Inti Raymi festival, which takes place in the former Incan capital of Cuzco.
Inti Raymi is the Incan Sun Festival in June to venerate the Winter Solstice. The festival draws thousands of tourists each year to witness the Quechua people re-enact the ancient sun-worshipping ceremony, draped in tradition Incan tunics. The festival extends into the night with eating, drinking, dancing, and the quintessential llama sacrifice.
2. The Mayans (Population: 8 Million)
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The second-largest indigenous population in Latin America is the Maya group, consisting of between 8 and 10 million people. Stemming back some 4,000 years to when civilization began in Central America, this group has triumphed in Southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador.
The Maya culture reached its peak in the “Classic Period,” from about 250 to 900 AD, with pioneering advances in architecture, math, astronomy, agriculture, and art. They are most famous for their numerical system and calendar, which are still used today. In 50 BC, the Maya were even the first people in all the Western hemisphere to keep written historical records.
3. The Aymaras (Population: 3 Million)
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Next up is the Aymara group, consisting of over 3 million people. They reside in high plains of the Andes mountains in Peru, Bolivia, and Chile. The Aymara are regarded as the most resilient indigenous culture throughout the continent, as they stood strong against the Incan empire, the Spanish conquerors, and the modern-day neoliberal imperialists.
The Aymaras are descendants of the earliest tribes of South America, dating back to between 500 and 200 BC. Interestingly, as the Incan empire began dominating most regions of the continent, economically and politically, the Aymara people were the only group to be granted the privilege of retaining their language and culture.
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A Shameful Legacy Of Cultural Racism
With such rich and ancestral cultures, it is a disgrace that Latin America’s indigenous cultures are not respected. In recent decades, however, the region has attempted to overcome a long, tumultuous history of racism and hatred between indigenous and non-indigenous populations.
Bolivia, for example, the State with the largest indigenous populace (62% of its total population) elected the continent’s first-ever indigenous president in 2005, Evo Morales. Under Morales, Bolivia reformed the national constitution in 2009 to recognize the country as a pluri-national state with 36 different indigenous cultures, each with its own language.
In 2009, the president also initiated his “indigenous autonomy” policy, which made Bolivia the first country in Latin America to grant indigenous people the right to govern themselves.
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In Ecuador, indigenous people formed the first national political organization for their interests, The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE).
In Guatemala, Rigoberta Menchu launched the indigenous struggle to an international audience, garnering support against oppressive national forces. In Mexico, the “General Law of Linguistic Rights of the Indigenous Peoples” rendered all indigenous languages in the country official languages of Mexico in addition to Spanish. In Peru, indigenous groups have been granted territorial reserves from the government as compensation for centuries of stealing the native people’s lands.
While the road towards equality and justice for indigenous people still has a long way to go, modern Latin American governments and Pan-American organizations are beginning to consider the concerns of their native populations and are trying to right the wrongs of so many years passed.