Cotopaxi Quichua

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Cotopaxi Quichua

ETHNONYMS: Ecuadoran Quichua, Zumbagua/Guangaje (Tigua)


Identification. Under the generic name "Cotopaxi Quichua" are subsumed the two parishes of Zumbagua and Guangaje, located at the heart of this large, ethnically distinct indigenous area of the Ecuadorian highlands. The indigenous peoples who live in the Cotopaxi area do not have a distinctive ethnic name for themselves beyond that of "Naturales" (natives, autochthonous people) or speakers of "Inga shimi" (Quichua), although they clearly differentiate themselves from other Ecuadoran indigenous peoples such as the Salasaca or Otavaleños.

The inhabitants of these high, cold grasslands probably moved here from the hot lowland (yunga ) areas to the west; they still retain contacts with shamans from the Colorado (Tschatchela), one of the last surviving indigenous groups in the western Ecuadoran lowlands. Today, however, the ethnic characteristics of Zumbagua/Tigua life, in social organization, ritual, and language, are typically highland.

Location. The geographical area occupied by this group stretches approximately from above the town of Pujilí to the east, Pilalo to the west, Sigchos and Isinlivi to the north, and Angamarca to the south. The elevations are uniformly high, 3,400 to 4,000 meters or above; ethnic boundaries are roughly coincident with the limits for maize cultivation. Those who live on the páramo differente themselves from their maize-growing kin who inhabit lower elevations. The páramo can be characterized as alpine tundra; the predominant natural vegetation is the abundant ichu grass, which is crucial to the local economy as both fodder and fuel. Although the southern limits of the area are at 1° south of the equator, the high elevation creates a cold climate, with temperatures of between 6° and 12° C, frequent hailstorms in some seasons, and strong winds in others.

Demography. The exact population is difficult to determine; in 1985 the figure of 20,000 people for the parish of Zumbagua was frequently mentioned; the entire region might have twice that number of indigenous inhabitants.

Linguistic Affiliation. The people of the area speak a regional dialect of Ecuadoran Quichua; however, their speech also contains words not found in published vocabularies of Quichua, suggesting the remnants of a now-vanished indigenous language. Although the native language is still unquestionably the dominant language of the region, Spanish is important.

History and Cultural Relations

The prehistory of this region is almost completely unknown at this time, and little has been published about the early history. According to conventional descriptions of the highlands at the time of the Conquest, the inter-Andean valley to the east would have been inhabited by the Panzaleo, a shadowy group of whom little is known; however, more recent research suggests a rich ethnic mix including several other groups as well as Inca. Groups known as "Yumbo" would have lived to the west, and this term still exists in the mythology and ritual of the area. The early inhabitants of the high páramos are unknown; this ecological zone may have been largely uninhabited or the term "Sicchos-Angamarcas," used as an ethnic designation, may have referred to people who lived here as well as in the slightly lower, maize-growing area where the modern towns of those names are found.

In the seventeenth century grassland areas such as this became desirable in Spanish eyes, as the growing textile industry created a need for increased wool production. This region was transformed into a thriving and lucrative hacienda economy, and indigenous individuals were brought into the area from elsewhere to work as shepherds. A few pockets of "free" territory escaped being carved up into the large estates and became indigenous communities, such as the area known today as the comuna of Apagua, but most of the land and people fell under the jurisdiction of estates operated by religious orders such as the Augustinians. This arrangement prevailed for several centuries. After independence, these estates met various fates, some coming under private ownership and others becoming the property of the government. The inhabitants of the area lived under various systems of coerced labor; the huasipungo system of peonage is perhaps the best known.

By the late 1960s, the large-estate system had broken down and the area, which in the eighteenth century had been of some economic significance, had become marginal to the nation both economically and socially. A few, much smaller estates remain, as does a legacy of deep-seated racial hatred and mistrust of nonindigenous outsiders and especially of members of Ecuador's dominant White social groups.


The settlement pattern is extremely dispersed: houses are scattered among fields in Zumbagua, and in Tigua, where elevations are higher and pastoralism predominates, houses are associated with scattered corrals. The older house form is the chaquiwasi, or "foot-house," so called because the adobe walls are only a few bricks high, most of the house consisting of the enormous thatched roof, giving the structure the appearance of a gigantic, smoke-breathing haystack. These houses are large and oval in form. They are being rapidly replaced by smaller, rectangular houses with tin roofs and concrete-block walls; an intermediate form has adobe walls and straw roof, but is of the same shape and size as the modern bloque houses. Standard domestic architecture utilizes single-room, freestanding structures clustered together, so that one larger building houses the kitchen and is the center of family life, and surrounding buildings serve as dormitories and for storage; also of great importance in family life is the courtyard or patio defined by this cluster, where many domestic activities take place.

Farmsteads are grouped together into comunas, which in turn form the much larger parroquias (parishes); these divisions are political and conform to national governmental structures but also to local social groupings. Comuna boundaries usually coincide with either watercourses at the bottom of slopes, or watersheds at the top of hills.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. A combination of subsistence agriculture and animal husbandry predominates in the local economy, especially for women and the elderly. For many adult men, however, temporary migration out of the area to find wage labor is the primary economic strategy. In Zumbagua, moving contraband cane alcohol produced in the western lowlands up over the mountains into the White towns for sale or bringing it into the parish also provides cash income for some families. In Tigua cash is generated for some families by making artesanías (paintings, masks, baskets) for sale to ethnic arts stores in Quito.

The primary agricultural activities are the production of barley, fava beans, and potatoes and other tubers, all primarily for consumption within the household. Sheep and llama pastoralism are next in importance, again being raised primarily for home consumption; pigs, raised on household scraps, are kept to be sold when emergency funds are needed.

Industrial Arts. Implements made in the area include a variety of wooden and stone tools, including mortars and pestles; shallow rectangular basins (bateas ) of all sizes, from bathtubs to serving vessels; handles for tools such as hoes and shovels; and so on. Production is somewhat specialized, with higher comunas near the rocky outcroppings of the hills making stone objects and low comunas near the cloud forest doing woodworking.

Weaving and spinning are also important, although the replacement of locally made textiles with purchased clothing has lessened the role these arts play in the economy. Men's ponchos and blankets are woven by men on large backstrap looms; smaller looms are used to make belts and hair ribbons, items used as gifts for wives or daughters. Spinning is women's work.

The construction of the chaquiwasi is also an industrial art requiring a good deal of knowledge, especially botanical, since the roof is basically a huge basket made of several different kinds of woods, reeds, and grasses, some of which are brought down from the highest zones by women and some of which are brought up from the low cloud-forest zones by men.

Trade. Trading with inhabitants of other ecological zones is much curtailed by the cash economy and by the increasing impoverishment of local people, which leaves them with less and less in the way of surplus. Reciprocity remains an important and elaborated aspect of social relations, especially between adult kin and compadres (fictive kin). Most households strive to maintain ties with other households who have complementary access to resources, primarily defined in terms of access to higher or lower elevations.

Division of Labor. There is some specialization by sex, with men heavily involved in wage labor and with craft production somewhat gendered. The role of musician is exclusively male. As is typical of the Andes, however, gender divisions are loosely constituted, with persons of either sex readily crossing over to lend a hand or taking over a task if no one of the other sex is available.

There is also some age specialization, with a host of necessary but trivial tasks being thought of as the domain of children; these include fetching water or fuel, caring for infants, feeding the household animals, and so on, although all these tasks are frequently done by adults, especially women, if there are no children at hand.

Many individuals or households have some specialized craft or trade, whether it be weaving, shamanism or curing, or an occupation that generates income either from outside of the area, such as artesanía production, or from the sale of items obtained elsewhere to local residents, often in small dry-goods stores or stalls in the weekly markets.

Land Tenure. Land for planting is held by individuals, never by families or groups, although people count the wealth of families and households by considering their joint holdings. Pastoral land, in contrast, is held by the comuna.


Kin Groups and Descent. Kinship is bilateral, and there are no distinct corporate kin groups as are described for parts of the central and southern Andes. Individuals and households strive to create complex networks of kin and compadres. Nevertheless, the extended family, coresident and with all members acknowledging the authority of the senior couple, is clearly the fundamental social unit.

Kinship Terminology. Kinship generally follows the typical Andean pattern, with kin terms being Quichua rather than Spanish.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage does not imply the merging of ownership of land or other assets; each partner retains control of his or her own property. The primary economic function of marriage, besides propagation, is the creation of work groups, since land is worked and animals are cared for collectively by households and extended families. Most marriages are patrilocal, although a significant number adopt a matrilocal residence. The young couple travel frequently to their in-laws, in order to work the land owned there by one spouse and to assist in agricultural labor there. Divorce is infrequent, whereas remarriage after the death of a spouse is common.

Domestic Unit. The residential unit, which includes several married couples and unmarried adolescents living in separate domiciles but sharing many tasks and activities and clearly dominated by an elder couple, is considered both typical and ideal.

Inheritance. Inheritance is bilateral, with all children ideally inheriting equally from both parents; in practice, however, the situation is always complicated and fraught with difficulties. The basic criteria for making decisions about inheritance include the degree to which the child was raised by a particular person rather than biological paternity/maternity, and a second, reciprocal issue, the degree to which the child has supported the parent in old age; the latter consideration often makes a youngest child or grandchild, who lives with an elderly person after their other children are married, the principal inheritor.

Inheritance is a gradual, lifelong process, beginning with the gift of a baby animal or a few rows of plants in a field to a very young child and progressing to major gifts of land after marriage and as the parents' health begins to decline.

Socialization. Socialization takes place within the context of the large extended family, including both those who are coresident and the parents' frequently visited affines and siblings. Children learn by attempting to do what older siblings and adults are doing, rather than by formal instruction, a strategy that makes children eager to prove themselves by sharing work.

Infants are given great amounts of affection and attention, and the youngest child of a household is indulged in every whim. When a new child is born, the displaced idol often reacts with temper tantrums and destructive fits, but these are ignored and gradually disappear. On the whole, adults and especially mothers avoid disciplining very young children, although older children may be chastized very harshly for failing in their responsibilities. Young children are dressed and treated as androgynous beings; it is only with the boy's first haircutting or girl's ear piercing that the child achieves a gender.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Social stratification within the community is diffusely defined but evident; some families are large, wealthy, and influential, whereas others are not. The word huaccha, "orphan," used in many contexts to refer to those who have no special power, expressed clearly the local sense that both material wealth and a human network are necessary for social success. Although the coresident extended family is clearly the primary social group, also important are the network of ties between these groups, usually defined either by blood or fictive kinship.

Political Organization. Political organization may be defined according to participation in the formai structures of power, set up by the government or the Catholic church (or in a few areas by evangelical churches), in which case it must be said to be extremely weak, with only a few families very actively involved. Much political activity in this rural and decentralized society centers around relationships either within or between families, however, which, while they do not involve formal political roles and do not directly affect the lives of all inhabitants of the area, nevertheless do involve a great many people directly and indirectly and are the subject of the liveliest interest.

A third realm of political activity, interrelated with both formal and informal politics, arises through the annual fiesta cycles. Each fiesta requires sponsors, and the sponsors activate their entire social network to put on a performance designed to enhance the prominence of the sponsors and thus the status of their network of kin and friends.

Social Control. The area has no formal means of social control: there is no police station, no jail, and no judicial system. When a thief or a murderer is to be brought to justice, the only available sanctions are execution by the victim's family or the bodily removal of the perpetrator to the provincial capital, several hours away by bus. Since this process involves the entire family of the victim fighting the family of the perpetrator long enough to arrive at the police station, it may end in violence or escape before the formal legal system is able to intervene.

Few outsiders will intervene when violence erupts within the family; negative gossip is the only censure in this case. As in many face-to-face societies, however, gossip is a strong force in controlling behavior and is, in fact, the most frequently applied sanction in all cases.

Conflict. Although the network of relationships that bind people together is the strongest force holding the community together, equally strong are the deep enmities that develop between families. Hostilities between groups quickly pull in others, who must declare their allegiance, and thus can polarize entire comunas. The first stage is gossip that accumulates force and spreads through families and neighborhoods; next come public confrontations on roads or footpaths or at public gatherings such as fiestas; these may escalate into public fights in which concerned onlookers either pull the combatants apart or join in the fray themselves. At this point, the conflict either returns to the level of grumbling and gossip and gradually ceases to arouse much attention, or it may escalate into a general confrontation that involves dozens or even, eventually, hundreds of people. The latter occurs only when local, kinbased problems become intermixed with national politics or with political issues that concern the entire population, such as agrarian reform, Catholic-Protestant conflicts, or national elections.

More salient in most people's lives are conflicts within the family. The most common conflicts are between spouses, between parents and children, and between siblings. Husband-wife conflicts differ in severity depending on whether the coresident family defuses or exacerbates the problem; it is common for drunken husbands to strike their wives, but if the family immediately and strongly censures this behavior, it becomes infrequent and not life threatening, whereas in other households women sustain horrible injuries and may in fact die at their husbands' hands. Women also use physical aggression to express their anger, and groups of women in a family sometimes band together to beat up an abusive husbandusually in cases where residence is matrilocal.

Conflicts between siblings or between parents and adult children are almost always over two issues: splitting the residence unit or dividing the inheritance. The latter issue is especially disruptive and occasionally leads to violent death; more commonly, family members spend untold sums in lengthy legal battles that may end up consuming much of the family's resources.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Most people in the area are Catholic, although there is a small but actively recruiting evangelical Protestant movement. Christian religious beliefs are heavily syncretized with Andean beliefs in a sacralized geography.

The most important sacred places vary in different subregions of the area, although all residents of the area are familiar with distant shrines. Despite the existence of a larger sacred cosmology, sacred geography, which is inseparable from its secular counterpart, is constructed somewhat differently for each family and individual.

Religious Practitioners. Formal religious practice belongs to the priests, and both calendrical and life-cycle rituals have aspects that involve rites at which a priest must officiate. However, all such ceremonial occasions also have portions that are in the hands of families and rites that are performed within the household. Another aspect of religious practice is the domain of shamanism and curing. No research has been done on either kind of practice in this area, but both are very important in local life.

Ceremonies. Unlike many other areas of rural Ecuador, this region still has an active ceremonial cycle of calendrical rituals. Fiestas involving masked and costumed dancers and processions from the comunas of the sponsors into the town center are celebrated at Christmas, the 6th of January, Easter, and Corpus Christi. Also celebrated are New Year, at which effigies of the old year are burned and men perform dances; Carnival, when sexually active adolescents conduct ritual battles with stones up in the grazing lands at the borders between comunas; and All Souls' Day (Finados), when families remember their dead through commemorative meals.

Arts. The region is perhaps best known for its lively folk paintings. These depictions of fiesta scenes, painted on sheepskin, have their origins in the paintings made on the surface of the drums used during Corpus Christi. Another folk art with its origins in the fiestas is the carving of masks, which take the form of animals such as deer, foxes, and dogs or human forms such as the clown or White man. Of perhaps greater importance in local life are the verbal arts; as with many Quechua and Quichua speakers, the people of the region place great importance on the use of language and are appreciative of rhetorical skill. Especially characteristic are riddles. The performances of costumed dancers at fiestas are also important areas of artistic expression, involving verbal humor as well as mime and dance.

Death and Afterlife. Ideas about death and the afterlife are various, and show the lively coexistence of Western and Native American beliefs in local thought. The notion of a distant heaven has little appeal despite acknowledgment of it as an official truth, but the spirit of the deceased is thought to stay very close to the body and to its loved ones immediately after death. A commonly described form of mourning is to wander the high hills crying out for the dead, asking where they have gone.

As is typical in the Andes, Finados is an important occasion on which the dead are thought to be close to their living relatives. During the wake, games of chance are played similar to those that have been described in other parts of Ecuador.


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