Current figures estimate that the Saraguro population numbers between 22,000 and 37,000 individuals, who live in some 180 communities located in a small territory to the north of Loja province (Ecuadorian Sierra).
They form an ethnically distinctive native people of mixed ancestry. As such, they would be descended from Palta and Cañari pre-Incan cultures, as well as from mitimaes or mitmaq (forced colonizers) from Peru and Bolivia transferred by the Incas to the Andean highlands of southern Ecuador after this territory was annexed by the Tawantinsuyu.
Up to mid-20th century, almost all Saraguros had enough privately held plots of land, distributed between discontinuous ecological levels, to be relatively self-sufficient and able to provide most of their food needs (maize, potatoes, beans, squash...). Traditionally, their farming practices relied on rainfall for water, and teams of oxen were used for ploughing. In addition to raise cattle and sheep for the market, they also kept chickens, pigs and cuises (guinea pigs) for self-sufficiency. Communal land in cloud forest and paramo areas provided them with firewood and the timber they needed to build their houses and tools and a whole lot of other products. At that time, few Saraguros (usually in heavy debt) were dependent upon other members of the community for their employment, while some (mostly poor-land) supplemented their agro-pastoral income by manufacturing and selling or bartering textiles, baskets, pottery and so on.
Organized around the nuclear family, Saraguro life was not isolated from kin connections. Within the family gender roles were considerable egalitarian, and division of labour was generally rather flexible and adaptative. Boys and girls were raised to be responsible and productive and encouraged to make their own decisions. Despite their independent and self-sufficient nature, families maintained close ties with their ayllu (clan, extended family) and community members. In addition, communities were strongly integrated through reciprocity and obligation networks, redistributive activities, and principles of mutual help, solidarity and joint responsibility. Fifty years ago only a few Saraguros had finished primary school education. At that time they had to attend school in the village of Saraguro, largely populated by non-indigenous people (whites and mestizos), where they were subject to humiliating treatment.
Saraguro ethnic identity was expressed, among other things, through the use of Kichwa. Both men and women wore their hair in a long single braid and distinctive clothing. All were Catholics and maintained strong ties to the land and traditional practices, as well as links with their ayllu, communities, culture and heritage.
The petroleum boom in the 70s and 80s brought in wealth for a few and serious threats for the inhabitants of oil-producing territories, who were left to deal with forcible displacement, pollution and dispossession from their traditional lands. Many infrastructures were built at that time, including roads, bridges, canals and power stations, but also schools, clinics and hospitals.
Although, at least to some instead, many Saraguros continue to be involved in agro-pastoralist activities, today their occupations encompass a wide range of activities, including leadership positions in various settings such as government, non-governmental organizations, educational and academic institutions. Most have running water and electricity in their homes, have switched to bottled gas for cooking and heating, participate in the consumer society and own cars, trucks, TVs, chain-saws, cell phones, computers, music systems, etc.
As Jim and Linda Belote put it almost two decades ago: "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". And many of those problems are still with them today: teenage pregnancy, marrying outside their cultural and ethnic backgrounds, lack of ethnic identity, acculturation, young people moving to the city from the country, deforestation, environmental degradations among others. Many questions remain to be solved; there are always new challenges and life situations to be face. It is neither is easy nor always possible to strike a balance between traditions and the demands of our capitalist society. A dilemma that has been encountered by most indigenous (and non-indigenous) societies throughout recent history.
Picture 01. Saraguro little girls.
Picture 02. Saraguro man playing the quipa (horn trumpet).
Picture 03. Saraguro old couple.
Picture 04. Saraguro women 01.
Picture 05. Saraguro women 02.
Picture 06. Saraguro old women.
Picture 07. Saraguro girls.