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Colombia Table of Contents


Historical Development


Harbor at Santa Marta
Courtesy Embassy of Colombia, Washington

In the first fifty years after the discovery of the Americas, the Spanish began to settle in present-day Colombia, introducing their culture and social system and imposing their values on the African slaves they imported and the indigenous population they conquered. Spanish colonists settled in the Caribbean coastal zones, the highland plateaus, and the areas along the major rivers but were initially unsuccessful in settling Chocó, the eastern plains, and the Amazon Basin. Patterns of colonial settlement were reinforced throughout later periods, leaving frontier areas-- usually less hospitable land--open for settlement by nonwhites-- especially blacks, mulattoes, and retreating Indian tribes.

The Spanish created a hierarchical society in which they occupied the top stratum in terms of prestige, wealth, and power; slaves and Indians occupied the bottom (see Colonial Society, 1550- 1810 , ch. 1). White skin became synonymous with being Spanish and therefore of high status. Offspring of mixed unions fell somewhere in between, adopting the dominant culture if recognized by their Spanish fathers, remaining on the social periphery if not. As the character and value system of the nation were formed, notions of color, class, and culture merged to elevate whites, subjugate blacks and Indians, and allow upward mobility for mulattoes and mestizos who dissociated themselves from the heritage of their nonwhite ancestors in favor of becoming "Spanish."

Probably more than any other Latin American people, Colombians remained conscious of their Spanish heritage. The persistent supremacy and relative purity of the Spanish heritage was brought about by a combination of factors. The indigenous population was sparse, heterogeneous, and thus relatively easily subdued, driven into less accessible and less desirable areas or absorbed by the Spanish population during the colonial era. Blacks, viewed as slaves until the mid-nineteenth century and as manual laborers thereafter, remained segregated economically, geographically, and socially. Although Indians and blacks outnumbered whites and people of mixed blood in certain regions, they remained minorities without shared identity or cohesion on the national level. The lack of immigrants from other European nations and the emphasis on traditional Spanish institutions--particularly Roman Catholicism-- helped white Colombians retain their Hispanic identification. Finally, a diverse geography and resultant regionalism exacerbated the lack of communal feelings among the masses and provided little basis for national cohesion within any group except the tightly knit white elite.

As Colombian society developed, there was little change in its rigid stratification. Various intellectuals, clergy, and politicians unsuccessfully attempted to debate the status of Indians and blacks and to prevent discrimination against them. Being a recognized member of the national society and thereby eligible for its benefits and a chance at upward mobility required allegiance to a culture and a behavioral pattern based almost entirely on traditional Spanish values. Anything outside this pattern was anomalous and was considered un-Colombian.

Independence did little to alter the colonial framework of the society. In the struggle for independence, the peninsulares (those born in Spain) were backed by Spanish troops, and the criollos (those born in the New World of Spanish descent) were backed by mestizo and mulatto troops; nonetheless, the values and outlooks of the two factions were similar. Many of the peninsulares left after independence, allowing the criollos and some persons of mixed blood to take over their positions in the society. To this extent, the system was opened up to qualified mestizos and mulattoes, but those who moved up did so as individuals whose mobility was based on education, wealth, and culture rather than on a change in the status of their group. No attempt was made to upgrade the status of blacks, who remained on the periphery of the national society, or Indians, who remained almost completely outside it.

Both Indians and blacks continued to reside on the outskirts of national life, as much because of their class and culture as their color. As a group, however, blacks were more integrated into the national society and left a greater mark on it for several reasons. First, they had been a part of Spanish society since the Middle Ages, whereas Indians were relative newcomers. The Spanish had long possessed Africans as personal servants and did not find them as alien as the Indians they encountered in the New World. Moreover, it was more difficult for the blacks to maintain their original culture because, unlike the Indians, they could not remain within their own communities and did not initially have the option of retreating into isolated areas. They did not arrive in and were not grouped into organized social units, and, coming from different areas of Africa, they often did not share the same language or culture. Although slave revolts sometimes occurred, no large community of escaped slaves survived in isolation to preserve its African heritage, as did the Maroons in Jamaica. Finally, despite their position on the bottom rung of the social ladder, black slaves often had close relations--as domestic servants--with Spaniards and were therefore exposed to Spanish culture much more than were the Indians.

Blacks thus became a part, although a peripheral one, of Colombian society from the beginning, learning Spanish and adopting the ways of the Spanish that were permitted them. They thought of themselves as Colombians by the end of the colonial period and felt superior to the Indians, who officially occupied higher status, were nominally free, and were closer in skin color, facial features, and hair texture to the emerging mestizo mix.

The proportion of white ancestry has been an important measure of status for the mixed groups since the colonial era, when each degree of mixture was recognized as a distinct category. The plethora of terms for color still being used in the 1980s reflected the persistence of this colonial pattern and a continuing desire among Colombians to classify each other according to color and social group. A complex racial terminology led to persons of the same class using different terms to define themselves racially. These terms also cut across class lines so that persons at one level defined themselves as being racially similar to those at other levels.

The confusion over classification affected most Colombians because most of them did not define themselves as being white, black, or Indian, which are distinct and mutually exclusive groups, but as belonging to one of the mixed categories. Factors that helped Colombians order their perceptions of color were, in addition to the interplay of biological and social data, geographic residence and membership in a social class. Residence in a region often automatically categorized an individual. For example, blacks and mulattoes were so prevalent in Chocó that the word Chocoano (resident of Chocó) was virtually synonymous with the word black throughout much of Colombia. Whites and mestizos in Chocó were commonly migrants from neighboring Antioquia, so that any light-skinned person might be called an Antioqueño regardless of his or her origin.

Migration and rural or urban residence could also determine a person's status. A dark-skinned mulatto who because of wealth and prestige would be a member of the local elite in a rural area along the coast would not be so considered outside his or her region. Conversely, movement from a larger to a smaller town might enhance an individual's status. Usually the only Colombians whose status was invariable were the national elite, Indians, and blacks.

Perceptions of one's own color and that of others also varied with class membership. A lower-class person in either an urban or a rural area was likely to be more concerned with the daily struggle for survival than with skin color, especially if the person's peers were of a similar racial background. Members of the upper class were equally secure in their status as white Colombians, whether or not they appeared Caucasian to the casual observer, because their status automatically defined them as such. The racial segregation of the polar extremes of the class structure--with virtually no blacks or Indians in the elite and equally few whites in the lower class--reinforced cultural and class distinctions.

It was among the self-conscious, racially mixed members of the middle sectors that color and ethnic designations were critical and likely to contribute to status. All other factors being equal, light-skinned mestizos with straight hair found mobility easier than darker-skinned counterparts. A man, especially a black or mulatto, might improve his social position or that of his children by marrying a lighter-skinned or wealthier woman. Mestizos might place more emphasis on acquiring other accoutrements of whiteness, such as an education, a cultured life-style, or a genteel occupation.

Data as of December 1988

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Colombia Table of Contents