Numbering probably around 22,000, the Saraguros are an ethnically distinctive (see discussion, below) native people of South America whose "traditional" homeland for the last few hundred years has been centered in the temperate mid-altitude (1800-2800 meters) Andean highlands of southern Ecuador. Though they now form a single ethnic group, their ancestry is probably mixed. Many claim that Saraguros are descended from mitimaes (populations transferred by the Incas) from southern Peru or Bolivia. Archaeological, toponymic, patronymic and documentary evidence also indicate ancestry from Cañari and other highland ethnic groups of what is now Ecuador.
Whatever their origins, Saraguros have long controlled most of the land resources in their home territory. Although in the earliest years of Spanish occupation Saraguros are said to have ambushed and killed both Spaniards and Indian collaborators of the Spaniards, this action was not likely to have been sufficient to protect their land in the long run. Rather, according to documentary evidence, this control was due largely to the importance of their forced labor service (mita) in managing an important tambo (way station, inn) from colonial times to the 1940s when the first motor road reached the area. In legal documents Saraguros argued, apparently successfully, that in order to render tribute to the state and provide support for the tambo (food, shelter, guide service, pack and riding stock, forage), they must keep their lands.
Thirty-five years ago (1962), when we first lived in the area as Peace Corps volunteers, almost all Saraguros were independent, relatively self-sufficient, agro-pastoralists. Most Saraguros had enough privately held land, in widely scattered parcels, to be able to provide most of their food needs (maize, potatoes, beans, squash, oca, melloco, etc.). Saraguro agriculture was primarily dependent on rainfall rather than irrigation; fields were plowed with teams of bulls. Scattered private holdings, sometimes supplemented by communal land in cloud forest and páramo areas, also provided relative self-sufficiency in terms of clothing (much of it made from wool sheared from their own herds of sheep); fuel (firewood harvested from their own forests); and houses (including timbers--only roof tiles generally had to be purchased). And the majority had access to sufficient land to support their main entry into the market economy: cattle. In addition to cattle and sheep, Saraguros raised guinea pigs, chickens and guard dogs; many also raised a few pigs, and horses or mules.
In order to have enough land to support their market and subsistence needs, and to provide each child--female as well as male--with a good inheritance, many Saraguros began to extend their rural landholdings beyond the Saraguro region, especially by colonizing the tropical rain forests of the valley of the Río Yacuambi, in the upper Amazon basin (the "Oriente"), about a hundred years ago. This area was in the traditional territory of the Shuar (known to Saraguros and others as "Jívaros," and stereotyped by many of these others as savage headhunting denizens of remote jungles).
A few (mostly land-poor) Saraguros supplemented their agro-pastoral incomes in 1962 by selling or bartering (mainly to other Saraguros) textiles, baskets, mats, and pottery they manufactured, by offering their services as curandero/as (curers), and (usually only sporadically, when debts or other monetary needs arose) by employment as unskilled or semi-skilled laborers.
Saraguro economic life in 1962 was centered around the nuclear family, within which there was considerable gender-equality. (For the views [in Spanish] of two Saraguro women on gender equality see Tene and Vacacela ). Wives and husbands brought more or less equal wealth into the family, mainly through advances in inheritance. Sexual division of labor was generally rather flexible. Boys and girls were raised to be autonomous (able to make their own decisions), responsible and productive. These features facilitated the nuclear-family-centered management of widely scattered resources: a fourteen year old daughter could be caring for the family cattle herd in the mountain pastures, alone; her father could be alone clearing new land in the Oriente, doing all his own cooking and washing; her mother could be at the main family home, caring for younger children, one of whom might be assigned the care of the family's herd of sheep. Though independent in many ways, the nuclear family was deeply embedded in obligation networks of bilaterally traced kindred, ritual kin, neighbors and friends, with whom a wide variety of mutual assistance was shared.
Although for social purposes kindred were bilaterally traced, in 1962 many Saraguros had a biological concept of parallel descent: men were biological descendants of male ancestors only; women of female ancestors. Also, church records indicate that in the first six decades of this century nearly 20% of marriages were between first-cousins, mostly of the FZS=MBD (so-called "matrilateral cross-cousin") variety. Marriage between first-cousins, and belief in biological parallel descent, is now rare in Saraguro.
Thirty-five years ago, only a few Saraguros had as many as
three years of schooling. Those who wished to finish primary
grades had to attend schools in the town of Saraguro, the "cabecera cantonal" (county seat), inhabited by about 1500 non-indigenous people (blanco/mestizos). No Saraguros lived in town
at that time. In these schools they were subject to a degree of
abuse and humiliation on the part of both teachers and
non-indigenous students. Saraguros were not permitted entry into
local high-schools in the early 1960s.
In 1962 Saraguro communities were strongly integrated on an informal level, through patterns of family ties, reciprocity and obligation networks, redistributive activities, and informal social controls such as gossip. A rich, extensive fiesta system (in which women, as well as men, served independently as sponsors) provided a more formal framework for some of these features. Formal political organization, however, was non-existent or weak.
Access to western medicine was limited in 1962. Several Saraguro women were trained as auxiliary nurses, a development agency doctor was sometimes in the area, and a Protestant mission provided medical care (much against the wishes and preaching of local Catholic authorities). Infant mortality was high.
By the early 1970s Ecuador began to cash in on the benefits
of a new source of wealth--petroleum. Although much of this
wealth was wasted in military spending, corruption and poor
planning, and although inhabitants of oil-producing territories
suffered dispossession and pollution of their lands, many parts
of Ecuador (including the Saraguro area) did experience some
apparent benefits. For example, there was an explosion of
infrastructural development: networks of highways, canals, and
power systems were built; schools, clinics and hospitals were
constructed and staffed. In addition, Ecuadorian educational and
occupational structures began to be more open than before to
people such as the Saraguros who retained distinctive ethnic
As a consequence of these and other changes in Ecuadorian
society, and of Saraguro ability to take advantage of them,
Saraguro society has been transformed in many ways.
Today (1997) Saraguros are carpenters and shoe makers, nuns,
doctors, dentists, nurses, drug-store owners, veterinarians,
lawyers, musicians, elected officials at the
canton and national levels, government bureaucrats, directors of
regional NGO programs, shop owners, muleteers, gold-camp
laborers, construction laborers, maids, owners of body repair
shops, mechanics, welders, leaders of pan-indigenous movements,
primary and high school teachers and directors of schools. A
number of Saraguros have now visited or lived in the United
States, as university students, as Andean musicians, and as
observers and communicators about indigenous rights in the
Americas. Yet at least to some extent most Saraguros are still
engaged in agro-pastoral activities in the highlands. And cattle
thieves, indigenous and non-indigenous, are still a major concern in the
area. Saraguros have continued to extend the frontier of their
agro-pastoral activities far into the tropical forest--in some cases
(unlike most modern Ecuadorian frontier colonizers) hours beyond
the reach of the nearest roads.
Some Saraguros participate moderately in the consumer society; a
few now own cars, pick-ups,
trucks, chain-saws or computers. More own motorcycles. And even
more own stereo systems, TVs and VCRs, or cameras. Most have
electricity and piped water in their homes and in several
communities residents have flush toilets connected with septic
Stronger formal community organizations have been developed.
Effective political organizations (e.g. CIOIS, affiliated with
CONAIE [La Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador], and
FIIS, which is not)--sometimes
in conflict, sometimes collaborating), oriented toward the
protection of Saraguro rights and the promotion of other Saraguro
interests, have emerged in the last two decades. Saraguros now
run candidates for regional and national offices, sometimes
successfully. Thus Dr. Luis Alberto Macas, a Saraguro with a degree
in law, was for a number of years the leader of CONAIE (Ecuador's major national indigenous rights organization), was the winner of the
Goldman Environmental Prize (an international award) and, most
recently, was elected to the Ecuadorian senate.
Not only are the Saraguros of the 1990s participating much
more widely in the national educational system, but they are also
attempting to devise local school systems and programs that suit
their interests and needs more effectively. More than 100
Saraguros are now primary and high school teachers and directors.
It is clear that in wages, in access to a wider range of
occupations, in access to political power, in access to medical
care (and reduction in infant mortality) and in access to
education and to travel, and in general, in enhancement of their
rights as native people in Ecuador, Saraguros have made many
gains in the last 35 years.
But new problems have emerged. Some now worry about the
negative effects of television on children. Some are concerned
about rising rates of child-birth to unwed mothers. Cattle
rustling is a major threat to the economies of some families.
People whose economies are still based mainly on agro-pastoralism
fear that they may not succeed in leaving their children a good
inheritance--and their children, now likely to be in the
educational system to and even through high school levels, are no
longer so available to participate in strengthening that which
would make a good inheritance possible: the household economy.
Some high-school aged young people now run away from home--mainly
to cities such as Cuenca and Quito. There are worries about the
Ecuadorian economy, about efforts to privatize government-provided services such as medical care, and about reductions of
government funding of many other state services. There are
concerns about overpopulation, about the reduction of local
forest cover (although forest destruction has been slowed by the
widespread use of cheap propane gas for most cooking), and about
the overall health of the environment. Many fear that their
native language, Quichua, is being lost. And many worry about
the future of Saraguro ethnic identity.
In the Andean world, ethnic identity is not fixed at birth.
In Saraguro it has been, and is, possible for individuals to
transculturate into another ethnic group by changing some of the
"boundary markers" such as hair style, and clothing--without
leaving the area. But up to the present most Saraguros have
maintained their distinctive ethnic identity.
Thirty-five years ago there was little ambiguity in Saraguro
ethnic identity. Saraguros all spoke at least some
well as Spanish, both men and women wore their hair in long,
single braids, both men and women wore distinctive clothing based
on black-dyed, home-spun and home-woven wool (particularly an
accordion pleated skirt for women, knee length pants for men), and women wore locally designed bead necklaces.
Virtually all maintained homes, plots of land, and ties of
obligation, fiesta participation, and kinship in traditional
Saraguro highland communities, even though some spent most of
their time in their Oriente landholdings. All were Catholics.
Other than a handful of auxiliary nurses who worked in the
highland communities and who were married to agro-pastoralists,
virtually no Saraguros had full-time occupations outside of agro-pastoralism. Thus in terms of limited educational levels,
language, hair-style, clothing style, ties to traditional land
and communities, religion, and occupation, the Saraguros were
Much of this has changed or begun to change. Some Saraguros
have entered the post-modern world in which consciousness of the
fuzzy, changing boundaries of ethnic identity has become a
preoccupation. Is it appropriate to dance to the music of a
"disco-mobil" or taped international Latin music at a Saraguro
wedding or a non-religious community fiesta? If music is a part
of ethnic identity, how much can traditional forms, techniques
and instruments be modified, in part to make it more appealing to
outsiders, without destroying its "ethnic" character? Can a
Saraguro be a Protestant (as a number now are) and still maintain
a strong ethnic identity? Can one withdraw from the networks of
mutual, reciprocal obligation? Can one establish a permanent
home and profession in a city and not lose one's ethnicity?
Does identity depend on conflict with another group, or is
contrast enough? Can a man wear long pants or a woman pants or
unpleated skirts and be a Saraguro? Can either maintain their
hair in other than a long single braid (or ponytail)? Or is
identity more internal than external? If internal, must one have
a Saraguro/Andean cosmovision?
Must one know Quichua to have a
Saraguro cosmovision? What is this cosmovision business, anyway?
Is it an essentialistic invention of anthropologists and
folklorists? Is it a coherent whole? Or fragments of an ancient
Andean world-view largely replaced by a Euro-Catholic vision of
what it is to be human in a world created by a single powerful
God whose interests are temporally threatened by human sin or
suceptability to satanic forces? And who decides all this? Each
individual? Anthropologists? The state? The community? And
So far, at least, most Saraguros seem to care. They are hanging on, retaining their own distinctive (though changing) ethnic identity for the ride into the next millennium. So far the majority--whether agro-pastoralists, teachers, doctors, or laborers; Catholics, Protestants, unbelievers, or searchers for "traditional" religious roots; bilinguals or monolinguals; residents in Quito or Saraguro, or in the remotest parts of the upper Amazon basin or in small towns in the US--seem to find some comfort, some pleasure, some feeling of who they are as human beings in the context of their own ethnically identified community, in its kinship patterns, in its ritual relationships, in its bonds of mutual obligation, and in its shared heritage.
We thank Silvia Gonzalez Medina and Salvador Quishpe Lozano for their thoughtful comments on this page.
For additional written information about Saraguro see the BIBLIOGRAFÍA link.
Because the Ecuadorian census does not account for ethnicity, population figures for those who self-identify as Saraguros are estimates (e.g. the figure of 22,000 given above). Some current estimates exceed 30,000.
After years of uneasy peace, skirmishing, and even war along an ill-defined border with Peru in the Upper Amazon Basin region to the east of Saraguro, the government of Ecuador finally reached a boundary settlement with Peru in 1998. Unfortunately, some Saraguros (and other Ecuadorians) who had cleared and claimed land in the Cordillera del Condor area (see Map 3:i) found their land was now officially located on the Peruvian side of the border. They vehemently protested the settlement, claiming that as Ecuadorians they felt their government had abandoned them.
Cattle rustling remains a serious problem for the Saraguros in the highlands. Legal authorities continue to belittle the issue ("what's the big deal, it's just a few cows"), letting off with little or no punishment the people clearly involved in stealing cattle. With some difficulty, Saraguros are attempting to devise ways of taking control of the situation themselves.
A new form of agricultural production is taking hold in the Saraguro communities--the use of wood-framed, plastic sheet-covered greenhouses (invernaderos) to produce tree tomatoes and other crops for the market.
Due, among other things, to overborrowing, missmanagement, and low prices on Ecuador's chief export, petroleum, the Ecuadorian economy is now in serious crisis. The currency has been severely devalued, access to bank accounts has been restricted, government funding of social programs has been curtailed, and subsidies for some essential commodities have been reduced or eliminated. There have been riots and road blockades. National rates of unemployment, poverty, crime and malnutrition have risen. Many state employees including school teachers and public health workers don't get paid for months at a time. Most Saraguros have been negatively effected by the economic problems of the nation. But those Saraguros who have maintained their traditional agro-pastoral adaptation have probably suffered relatively less.
Bottled natural gas, sold at highly subsidized prices, had taken over from firewood as the main fuel source for Saraguro cooking (except for preparing mote [boiled corn] and guinea pig) since the early 1980s. This has been one element of modern technology that has been very important in preserving environmental quality in the region--the cutting of local forests for fuel had been reduced. In 1998, as one response to its economic crisis, the Ecuadorian government began to remove the subsidies it had provided, and prices have risen dramatically. As people return to wood for cooking the destruction of forests in the Saraguro (and other) areas will accelerate.
Another consequence of the economic crisis is that a number of Saraguros have left Ecuador to seek work elsewhere, especially in Spain.
The inhabitants of the Saraguro communities of Las Lagunas, Ilincho and Gunudel-Gulacpamba own communal land in a cloud forest area a few kilometers to the south of Saraguro and along the Panamerican Highway. In order to more effectively protect the forest and the endangered species associated with it, to provide a natural laboratory for study, to help raise the environmental consciousness of the people, and to encourage appropriate recreation for local people and ecotourism for outsiders, this land has recently been formally established as a nature reserve called the Bosque Natural Huashapamba, (see Map 4:h).
In 1998 we obtained direct confirmation of the presence of up to 200 Saraguros in the Vilcabamba area (see Map 3:g), in the highlands of Loja province to the south of Saraguro . Saraguros from the Tenta to Selva Alegre region (see Map 4:d) began to go to the Vilcabamba area more than thirty years ago seeking rural wage labor. Now most of them own and work their own land to the south and east of Vilcabamba. With the idea of helping the Saraguro "Vilcabambeños" to maintain their Saraguro identity, formal contacts between them and Saraguro area indigeneous organizations such as the "Fundación J. Kawsay" were established in 1998.
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