Colombia Table of Contents
The population is descended from three racial groups--Indians, blacks, and whites--that have mingled throughout the nearly 500 years of the country's history. No official figures were available, but according to rough estimates in the late 1980s, mestizos (white-Indian mix) constituted approximately 50 percent of the population, whites 25 percent, mulattoes (black-white mix) and zambos (black-Indian mix) 20 percent, blacks 4 percent, and Indians 1 percent.
Recognizing the impossibility of objective racial classification and not wishing to emphasize ethnic or racial differences, the national census dropped references to race after 1918. Nevertheless, most Colombians continued to identify themselves and others according to ancestry, physical appearance, and sociocultural status. Social relations reflected the importance attached to certain characteristics associated with a given racial group. Although these characteristics no longer accurately demarcated distinct social categories, they still helped determine rank in the social hierarchy.
The various groups were found in differing concentrations throughout the nation, largely reflecting the colonial social system. The whites tended to live mainly in the urban centers, particularly in Bogotá and the burgeoning highland cities. The large mestizo population was predominantly a peasant group, concentrated in the highlands where the Spanish conquerors had mixed with the women of Indian chiefdoms. After the 1940s, however, mestizos began moving to the cities, where they became part of the urban working class or urban poor. The black and mulatto populations were also part of this trend but lived mainly along the coasts and in the lowlands.
Descendants of Indians who survived the Spanish conquest were found in scattered groups in remote areas largely outside the national society, such as the higher elevations of the southern highlands, the forests north and west of the cordilleras, the arid Guajira Peninsula, and the vast eastern plains and Amazonian jungles, which had only begun to be penetrated by other groups in the twentieth century. The Indian groups differed from the rest of the nation in major cultural aspects. Although some continued to speak indigenous languages, Spanish, introduced by missionaries, was the predominant language among all but the most isolated groups.
Data as of December 1988