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El Salvador to Recognize Indigenous Peoples

Submitted by on May 16, 2012 – 3:15 pm 5 Comments |  
The government of El Salvador has moved to constitutionally recognize the existence of the country’s indigenous peoples, although the measure must first be ratified by the legislature. Ratification looks likely, despite opposition from the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA). The measure would not provide any direct benefits to indigenous peoples, but it could be used to help protect them against discrimination.

Census figures indicate that El Salvador’s indigenous population is negligible, representing just 0.2 percent of the population. According to the standard national narrative, the county is almost entirely mestizo (of mixed European and Native American ancestry), its indigenous languages having disappeared long ago in favor of Spanish. Indigenous rights associations, however, present a very different picture, arguing that up to 17 percent of the population should be classified as indigenous, belonging to the Nahua-Pipil, Lenca, and Cacaopera ethnic groups. The discrepant figures, they claim, derive from a relatively recent history of ethnic violence. In 1932, the government crushed a peasant revolt that had strong indigenous roots, killing tens of thousands of people in the process. Subsequently, it banned the use of the Pipil language, and villagers began to hide their indigenous roots for fear of reprisals. According to the Wikipedia, Pipil now has only 20 native speakers, although it lists the ethnic population at 20,000. The Ethnologue map posted here greatly exaggerates the extent of indigenous languages in El Salvador.

Pipil is a Nahuan language that is very closely related to the Nahuatl of the Aztecs, spoken today by some 1.5 million people in Mexico. Yet El Salvador was never part of the Aztec Empire. Instead, the language seems to have been introduced to the region much earlier, perhaps in the 12th century by refugees fleeing the Toltec capital of Tula after a bloody civil war.

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  • Is this, then, something of a disagreement between a linguistic and a genetic understanding of ethnicity?

    • Yes, to an extent, but it also involves cultural and historical issues, as well as self-designation. Over most of Middle America, one can can be of pure Amerindian genetic ancestry and still be counted as mestizo or Ladino ( if that is how one views one’s self. But one could be a mono-lingual Spanish speaker of mixed descent and still be counted as indigenous. As a result, one get very different demographic figures.  

  • Lopez

    Ethnicity and identity are two separate things. There are many towns that have VISIBLE Indian traits, but they have grown in fear of repression since 1932. For me it is important because the mestizo identity is meaningless if there is no Native identity too. Whereas in Chile, many mestizos are still able to trace back to Native ancestry. Famous people such as Roberto Orellana and Mercedes Sosa claim Native ancestry. However, in El Salvador repression through literature in which Natives were depicted as primitive spread shame and alienation on its own people.