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The 500,000 Invisible Indians of El Salvador

Any discussion of the Indians in El Salvador must first establish that they do in fact exist. A commonly held notion in the capital city, San Salvador, is that there are no longer any Indians in the country; foreigners are invariably told that indigenous culture has been abandoned, except for a few extremely threadbare and insignificant pockets in remote, rural areas. The general sense among students of Central America is that El Salvador's indigenous population has long since fallen victim to acculturation, and that all that is left is a mixed, or mestizo, blend of the Indian and the Spaniard. The spate of books that have appeared over the past 10 years mention Indians almost exclusively in a historical context (especially in reference to the well-known matanza of 1932), and frequently refer to today's rural population collectively, as campesinos, as if ethnic groupings simply did not exist.

With the notable exception of ethnographic work done by two Salvadorean anthropologists, Alejandro Marroquín and Concepción Clará de Guevara, virtually nothing has emerged on the indigenous people of El Salvador.(1) Few foreign anthropologists have shown interest in carrying out field studies of any sort in El Salvador; of those who have, even fewer have concerned themselves with the local indigenous population. Neighboring Guatemala, which has more than 4 million Indians divided up among some 22 distinct Mayan language groups, has siphoned off all of the academic attention. Anthropologists, like tourists, are drawn to "exotic" peoples.

Yet despite this attitude, coupled with "an environment of tacit or open negation of their existence", Indians do indeed exist in El Salvador, and in considerable numbers. In areas just a short distance from San Salvador live people who identify themselves and are identified by those around them as naturales or indios; the non-Indians around them are called ladinos or mestizos. Large communities of Indians are found in the western departments of Sonsonate, La Libertad, Ahuachapán, and (to a lesser extent) Santa Ana. In Sonsonate, the towns of Nahuizalco and Izalco have a markedly Indian stamp to them; yet the bulk of the indigenous population throughout the western region is found in rural settlements, or cantones. Sizable indigenous communities also thrive in the south-central department of La Paz and in the northeastern section of the departments of Morazán and La Unión. One of the best-known Indian communities in the country is the municipality of Panchimalco, just a short distance from San Salvador.

Although no reliable statistical information exists on the number of indigenous people in El Salvador - the last census to count Indians was in 1930, and even then the figures were wildly underreported(2) - Marroquín estimated in 1975 that they made up approximately 10 percent of the Salvadorean population. If this estimate were used today, out of a total population of slightly more than 5 million people, there would be about 500,000 Indians.

The historical record gives a clearer notion of the demographic trend among El Salvador's Indians. According to census data from the years 1769-1798, out of a total population of 161,035, 83,010 were Indians, representing 51.6 percent of the population. The census of 1807 counted 71,175 Indians out of a total of 160,549 people. By 1940, according to Barón Castro, the number of Indians had dropped to 20 percent of the Salvadorean population; yet at that time their absolute numbers had increased dramatically, topping 375,000. In the early 1950s, Adams noted, "There are something under 400,000 people that could be classified as Indian". And because the category of "Indian" in El Salvador is a closed ethnic grouping, almost on the order of a caste, it is certain that their absolute numbers have increased since the 1940s, although their percentage of the total has most likely decreased.

How could such a large ethnic population go undetected? How is it that El Salvador's Indians have become invisible, in the sense used by Ralph Ellison in his book about the invisible black man in US society? Perhaps the most remarkable thing is that in a country so tiny - its land surface is slightly less than 22,000 km² - and with such dense concentrations of indigenous people living so close to the capital, their existence is flatly denied. Certainly people from the capital know that poor people live in these rural areas. But the fact that these people are Indians escapes them altogether. This brings up the question of ethnicity: How is Indian defined in El Salvador?

Historical Perspective

During the first millennium A.D., the western end of El Salvador was a minor outpost of Mayan civilization, which had its major centers in highland Guatemala and in the region surrounding Copan, just across the present-day Honduran-Salvadorean border. Several centuries before the arrival of the Spaniards, the Mayans inhabiting the western two-thirds of El Salvador were replaced by Nahuatl-speaking peoples from central Mexico. It was these people, called Pipiles, whom the Spaniards conquered when they moved their armies into the area in the early years of the sixteenth century. The eastern third of the territory that is now designated El Salvador, bounded by the Lenca River, was inhabited by a heterogeneous collection of Lenca, Jinca, Pokomám, Chortí, and Matagalpa peoples.

Although Guatemala offered remote highland strongholds where the Indians could live in isolation and maintain their cultural traditions. El Salvador had no such areas. As a consequence, Indians and Spaniards were thrown together from the beginning. The Indians became an integral part of the colonial economic system as indentured laborers on estates; today, they are the landless and seminomadic poor who migrate about the country in search of seasonal work. Racial mestizaje was initiated early and has stretched across the entire country, to the point where today the observer is likely to be confronted by light-skinned people with curly hair and thick lips who are considered Indians, as well as people with markedly Indian features who are classed as mestizos.

At the end of the sixteenth century, cacao production in western El Salvador "was greater than that from any other part of America"; the same general area of the country simultaneously became famous for its balsam production and was known as "the Balsam Coast." Although interest in these two products had declined by the end of the eighteenth century - today they have insignificant commercial value - they left a special stamp on the lives on the region's indigenous people. The Spaniards allowed the Indians to pursue their customary agricultural systems, and in the process left much of the traditional social and political structure intact. The lands were protected by Spanish decree from cattle ranching and, according to Browning, "the native communities...enjoyed a degree of economic independence that was unique in the colony". This treatment had lasting consequences:

Even after the disappearance of cocoa, the relative independence of these villages and their ability to conserve their traditional economic and social structures is a theme that recurs throughout the subsequent changes in land use and settlement. By the mid-19th century, these communities still retained their own language, their customary forms of land tenure, and willingness to resist changes introduced by the national government to a much greater extent than most other villages in the country at that time.

Spaniards settled in and exploited other parts of Salvadorean territory in a very different manner - with special and altogether tragic consequences for Indians. Toward the end of the sixteenth century, indigo plantations began spreading across much of the central and coastal region and east of the Lempa River. The indigo plantations were run completely differently from the cacao plantations: they were controlled entirely by Spanish overlords, who recruited vigorously and often without scruples and maintained intense labor requirements. They split up Indian communities and shipped villagers to the plantations to work. The mills in which workers extracted the blue dye were unsanitary to the extreme. A visiting priest made the following observations about the indigo exploitations in 1636:

I have seen large Indian villages...practically destroyed after indigo mills have been erected near them. For most Indians that enter the mills will soon sicken as a result of the forced work and the effect of the poles of rotting indigo they make. I speak from experience as at various times I have confessed great numbers of fever-stricken Indians and have been there when they carry them from the mills for most of these wretches have been forced to abandon their homes and plots of maize, many of their wives and children die also. In particular this is true of this province of San Salvador where there are so many indigo mills, and all of these built close to Indian villages.

Indigo was customarily farmed on large estates that also included cattle ranching, other commercial crops, and the small subsistence plots of the indentured laborers. Along the northern tier of the country, the major economic activity was cattle ranching, which also served to push Indians out of their communities. Disease brought by the foreigners was killing or weakening the local inhabitants; those who survived were either absorbed into the estates or fled into the backlands to escape paying increasingly burdensome tribute.

During the period stretching up to the end of the eighteenth century, Indian communities were virtually disappearing across the northern section of the country, in the east, and throughout the coastal plain. The number of homeless people drifting about the country increased. "They do not wish to be known one from the other for they wander about freely," said a contemporary observer, "and if they commit a crime in their village, by moving to some other part they avoid investigation; the haciendas and sugar mills there are many that say they do not know where they come from or where they belong, nor do they wish to say". Across the central plateau, however, Indian communities kept a foothold, mostly in the departments of Sonsonate, Ahuachapan, and San Salvador and up through the northeast corner of the country. Much of this zone has an altitude of more than 500 meters, and is relatively free from malaria, yellow fever, and other diseases.

As the Spaniards expanded their estates, the Indians consistently lost ground. Indian communities in the early years of the colony all had extensive communal lands - called ejidos and tierras comunales, although the distinction between the two terms was often unclear - that served as their economic base and held the communities together. The Indians' control over their lands slowly deteriorated throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but it was after independence that it was dealt its most severe blow. El Salvador's leaders, searching for ways to diversify away from indigo, the country's primary source of income, chose coffee as an alternative. Introduced in the 1840s, coffee spread rapidly across the rich volcanic ridges of the central highlands. By the turn of the century, indigo had virtually disappeared as an export crop and by 1930 coffee represented more than 90 percent of El Salvador's total exports.

This shift in emphasis was possible only through a radical change in the country's land tenure system. The communal territories of Indian communities, which made up approximately 25 percent of the country's land surface at the time, came under attack. In the best liberal tradition, it was argued at the time that

The existence of lands under the ownership of the Comunidades impedes agricultural development, obstructs the circulation of wealth, and weakens family bonds and the independence of the individual. Their existence is contrary to the economic and social principles that the Republic has accepted.

In 1881, government decrees abolished communal lands; within the next few years, the last vestiges of the Indian tenure systems were dismantled. Outsiders, especially the hacienda owners flocking to the coffee areas, encroached rapidly. Although Indians were allowed to continue using the land for subsistence, so was everyone else. Those who planted permanent cash crops, such as coffee, cacao, and rubber, could secure legal title to the land; conversely, those who grew subsistence crops had no rights to the land.

It was at this time that still another mass expulsion of Indians from their land took place. Large numbers of subsistence cultivators were transformed into dispossessed, landless peasants. Those who were more fortunate became indentured laborers on the estates. Others became unattached and unknown within their own society, with no legal rights, no cultural connections, and no particular allegiances. As they severed their ties with the past, they lost their Indian roots and became acculturated peasants, or ladinos. As labor unrest and conflict grew, the government created a force of rural mounted police in 1889 to keep order throughout the western highlands, where the transformation in land tenure and use had been the most radical. Several years later the rural police force was expanded and permanently settled in the area.

The ground for revolt was well prepared. The worldwide economic depression starting in 1929 had devastated El Salvador's agricultural economy, which was overwhelmingly dependent upon coffee. The harvest had been left to rot, and Sonsonate's rural population found itself without a means to make a living. Since the late 1920s, militant communist organizers and labor leaders had been active in the area, especially among the Indian communities. When the bottom fell out of the economy, the agitators succeeded in convincing the Indians to rise up and attack ladino landholders and shopkeepers. Violence exploded in the Sonsonate area in January 1932. Over a period of 72 hours, several thousand Indians armed with machetes randomly looted the area; approximately 35 ladinos were killed.

The Salvadorean military quickly intervened and easily recaptured the territory. Then the reprisals began. According to several vivid eyewitness accounts, the troops began by rounding up those people directly involved in the conflict, and then went after all those who possessed Indian racial features and dressed in "Indian" clothes. Soldiers executed the captives and dumped their bodies into mass graves.

Although estimates on the number of people killed at this time differ (from about 15,000 to 50,000), the massacre was thorough - women and children were not spared. The consequences for the Indian population were devastating. The natural hatred - and fear - that the ladinos had toward Indians was given free expression; this enmity was combined with the dreaded stamp of communism to create the ideological image of "the communist Indian." "The fight to defend the reigning order," notes Marroquín, "was saturated with the anticommunist slogans that came to bear on the Indian problem: Indian and communism became the same thing." The Indians of El Salvador went underground, for decades denying their existence to the outside world and hiding their identity. In 1975, Marroquín commented on the "profound distrust...even hostility" of the ladino toward the Indian:

At the present time, 43 years later, this closed political attitude is starting to disappear and already people speak with liberty about the Indian and his problems, although the indigenist tendency is principally toward archaeology.

Marroquín, who doggedly fought to better the condition of the Salvadorean Indian and persisted in speaking out on abuses, was himself forced into exile in Mexico in the 1970s.

El Salvador's Indians Today

At present, only one Indian community in all of El Salvador retains communal lands as a holdover from colonial times: Santo Domingo de Guzmán, a small village in Sonsonate. Although it has a ladino mayor and virtually all of its agricultural lands are owned by ladinos, its Indian community has managed to hold on to 12 manzanas (approximately 12 acres) of land within the township boundaries. This land is supplemented by another, tiny area used for gathering clay for making tortilla griddles (comales), a main source of income for the community. In 1987, just before the planting season for corn, Indian leaders divided the 12 manzanas of land among 125 farmers judged to be the most needy in town.

Surprisingly, although this is all that remains of the communal land base that was once so important to the Indian economy, the communities themselves still exist, although with some qualification. Marroquín comments in the conclusion of his sensitive essay on the Salvadorean Indian: "We have deliberately used the word 'community' in the foregoing observations; in its place we should have put 'community in the process of disintegration,' because since the communal lands and the ejidos were liquidated by law, the indigenous communities have been disappearing one after the other". Virtually all of El Salvador's Indians today are poor to the extreme: a fairly reliable marker for identifying Indians is their skeletal appearance. Without any land or any future prospects, they pick up manual labor of the basest kind when and if it is available. Yet they endure.

What Is an "Indian" in El Salvador?

What separates an Indian from a ladino in El Salvador today? Virtually all of the Indians also spoke Spanish by the turn of the nineteenth century. Today no more than a handful of elders have even partial knowledge of an Indian language. Native dress has disappeared; a few older women in rural villages wear tattered huipil blouses and wrap-around skirts. To all appearances, the Indians have very little to distinguish them from the ladinos around them.

In October 1988, the Salvadorean anthropologist Concepción Clará de Guevara and I traveled to rural areas in Morazán, San Salvador, Ahuachapán, and Sonsonate, where we pursued, among other things, the question of what it was to be an Indian in El Salvador. Everywhere we went people clearly identified who was an Indian and who was a ladino. Indians - both individuals and groups - consistently gave us the following defining characteristics:

Skin Color

This characteristic was often mentioned first, although it was qualified slightly when we pointed out that there are light Indians and dark ladinos. In fact, the Indians tend to be darker, in part because of race, but to a large extent because they do manual labor in the sun. Indians often said that the ladinos were "people who are somewhat white."

Poverty and Hard Work

The Indians are poor, the ladinos are rich; and "the ladino, even if he doesn't have money, has pride." The Indian is the beast of burden who does all of the hard work; the ladino does not work outside in the sun. "The ladino has no strength...they call us Indians because we spend our lives working...the ladino works in a nice office...the ladino eats well, dresses well, sleeps well...the ladino cannot work in the fields, he would end up in the hospital...the ladino is avaricious."

Indians feel that poverty and manual labor have become such strong identifying Indian characteristics that those who become educated and earn a decent salary are often seen as having crossed over into the ladino ranks. They are often termed "independent." One Indian, speaking of someone who was a teacher, said: "Yes, he is an Indian, but because of his profession he considers himself who-knows-what." In reality, Indians who become merchants or teachers have most of their professional dealings with ladinos, and their direct contact with the Indian community often diminishes.

The relative economic situation of the- Indian is reflected in his material goods. "The Indian lives in a straw house...the household implements of the Indian are gourds and clay pots...the implements of the ladino are something else, they are modern: aluminum, china, plastic, pewter...the ladino has expensive clothes, things in fashion, fancy." Indians have always been on the bottom of the economic heap in El Salvador; with the present economic crisis, they are being pushed even farther down. In several areas we visited in Sonsonate, people could no longer afford straw-and-stick houses; they were roofing their houses with thin sheets of plastic.


Virtually all of El Salvador's Indians speak Spanish as their native tongue. Indians made it clear that "you can always tell an Indian when he opens his mouth" because "the Indian does not have the vocabulary the ladino has." They are all conscious that the Indian uses certain words and expressions and has a distinct intonation to his speech. As one man put it, "The Indian doesn't know how to speak, while the other [the ladino] can."

The corollary of this is that the Indian lacks education. We visited several rural areas where no more than a handful of children were enrolled in the first levels of primary school. Again, the economic situation of the Indian precludes sending his children to school, for they must have uniforms, shoes, and notebooks, and pay an initial enrollment fee (which amounts to no more than several dollars, but is still beyond their means).


The Indian is the object of vitriolic comments by the ladino population. A visitor in 1807 commented that "drunkenness, thievery, idleness, laziness and lewdness are the characteristic vices of this species." Today, the negative image continues in full bloom. Indians are commonly referred to as dirty, irrational, given to sudden fits of anger, hypocritical, shifty, dishonest, lazy, and stupid. "The Indian is discriminated against," writes Marroquín, "and it is thought that he is almost at the level of the irrational animals". Expressions such as No sea tan indio! ("Don't act like an Indian!") and Se le salió el indio! ("The Indian came out of him!") are commonly used to describe irrational, violent, or just plain repellent behavior.

Over the centuries, the Indians of El Salvador have internalized this negative stereotype to the point where they believe themselves to be inferior beings. Several Indians noted that when the ladino greets people, he stands forward and looks them in the eye; the Indian "rolls up in a ball" and feels ashamed. "We Indians have no merit [as human beings]...the Indian is very humble, very pitiable...we don't have civilization, we don't have the resources to civilize ourselves...the Indians are the worst, they are the ones who spend their lives working...we Indians are nobodies, we are not good people, we are just workers." These statements were invariably made without emotion - as it they were simply facts of nature.


In one area, the Indian feels superior to the ladino: he is "closer to God." It is generally believed that the ladino is "without faith." He practices a "social religion" in which he goes to church on Sunday, mainly because he feels he has to, "but he doesn't understand the words of the Bible." Many ladinos concur.

Indian communities throughout El Salvador maintain what are termed cofradias, or religious brotherhoods. It is the purpose of these brotherhoods to maintain the upkeep of the local church and to manage all of the religious ceremonies during the course of the year. In the "Indian" town of Panchimalco, the yearly round of religious ceremonies is presently a joint effort of ladinos and Indians: the ladinos provide the financing and the Indians carry out the ceremonies. Indian religious leaders note that "the ladinos don't know how to carry off the rituals, so we help them out."


El Salvador has a large population of people who call themselves Indians. These people have been stripped of practically everything they once had: their lands, much of their native culture, their language, their autonomy, and even their sense of self-worth. As expressed in the vocabulary of anthropology, they are heavily - even thoroughly - "acculturated," and for this reason they are generally overlooked, ignored, and invisible to those who have had no direct contact with them. Yet there they are, and as their numbers grow, so does their poverty.

Marroquín was the first to see that the Salvadorean Indian could not be defined by the usual set of ethnic markers - native language, dress, aboriginal customs, and so forth. Rather, Indians in El Salvador can only be defined as a historically conditioned socio-economic category made up of descendants of the first peoples in America, who by means of the Spanish conquest were reduced to conditions of acute exploitation, misery, oppression and social injustice, conditions that, in essence, are maintained in their descendants.

Indeed, it may be argued that the Salvadorean Indians' collective identity as victims of injustice and crushing exploitation is the main ingredient that holds them together as an ethnic group. All they have to leaven the mixture is each other and the conviction that they are "closer to God."


(1) Marroquín wrote two book-length studies of Indian communities, Panchimalco (1959) and San Pedro Nonualco (1964), and summarized a lifetime of research and thought on the Indians in El Salvador in an insightful essay entitled "El Problema Indígena en El Salvador' (1975). Clará de Guevara, a student of Marroquín's, produced a thickly textured cultural survey of El Salvador's most thoroughly Indian region under the title Exploración etnográfica: Departamento de Sonsonate (1975). Richard Adams spent just over a month in El Salvador doing survey work on the native peoples of Central America in the early 1950s (Adams 19571: this represents the most ambitious work done by an outside anthropologist to date.

(2) Adams noted that the 1930 census, published in 1942, recorded only 5.6 percent of the population as Indian. Evidence Adams gathered in the field indicated that the Indian population was greatly underreported.

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