views updated



"Ladino" is a term that was applied to the Old Castilian or Romance language to differentiate it from Latin, from which it was derived and of which it was considered to be a degenerate form. During the time that Muslims were in Spain, the term was applied to Muslims who spoke Castilian. In Mexico during the sixteenth century, Indians who had been educated by the friars and who knew the necessary Latin for the Catholic liturgy were sometimes called "Latinos" and, more generally, "Ladinos" or "Ladinizados." Later the term began to be applied to those Indians who learned Spanish. In a distorted sense, because of the cultural values attributed to the term "Ladino," the word came to be used to describe someone who was deceptive or malicious.


Identification. Despite the connotations of "Ladino" during the colonial period, the term took root; it persists only in Central American usage, with two distinct meanings. According to some authors who specialize in this area, the term "Ladino" is applied to any non-Indian. So, for example, the populations of Guatemala, and Honduras, and the Mexican state of Chiapas would be divided between Indians and Ladinos. North of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the term "mestizo" is now often used to refer to rural non-Indian people. According to other researchers, the classification is more complex: it is necessary to employ the more traditional colonial vocabulary and speak of Indians, criollos, mestizos, and Ladinosincluding in the Ladino group those who have deliberately rejected any cultural link to Indian culture. "Criollo" is a term usually reserved for Whites born in the New World without any admixture of Indian. Mestizos are people with mixed Indian-Hispanic ancestry. Whatever their contact with Indian culture has been, Ladinos try to prove that they have no connection with it. Ladino identity is fragile because it is defined in negative termsby what one is not; it is acquired by maintaining contact with the culture of more urban areas. In this article, we adopt the more restricted, but more complex, definition of "Ladino," as the culture of persons who have some degree of Indian culture in their background and who have turned away from it to seek a new, non-Indian, national, and urban cultural identity.

Location. Ladinos are found intermixed with indigenous, mestizo, or criollo groups and with mestizos or criollos in the areas of Chiapas, Guatemala, and Honduras, mainly in the cities and larger villages of the region. They do not form communities identifying themselves as Ladino; rather they try to imitate or blend in with criollos or mestizos. Under the other definition of "Ladino," however, as "anyone with a non-Indian culture," many rural villages are characterized as "Ladino" by social scientists because they have no obvious indigenous cultural characteristics and, in particular, no indigenous language.

Demography. According to the Guatemalan censuses of 1970 through 1990, 45 percent of the total population of the country is classified as "Ladino," amounting to approximately 4,500,000 people. In Chiapas, the category of "Ladino" is not registered in the census; in 1990, 240,429 non-Indian people resided in that state, constituting 19 percent of the population, but this is not a measure of the number of Ladinos in the cultural terms outlined here.

In the case of Honduras, the non-Indian population consists of around 4,200,000 peoplethat is, about 70 percent of the total population of the country; of these, only a few hundred thousand people on the urban periphery are Ladinos.

Linguistic Affiliation. Ladinos are by definition speakers of Spanish, the language they use habitually. Spanish gives them a sense of identity, despite the fact that many learned it as a second language and can also speak an indigenous language. They try, however, to deny that they know their mother tongueand try to forget itand, of course, they will not teach it to their children. Yet their Spanish is filled with terms and words that have their origin in Indian languages spoken in the area.

History and Cultural Relations

Under the more restricted definition of the term, Ladinos emerged in the sixteenth century, when Spanish domination was consolidated. The first Ladinos were Indians who were faced with the dissolution of their communities because of loss of their lands, because of congregation into towns (a policy that the Spaniards carried out coercively and from which some Indians tried to escape), or because the community disappeared as a result of an epidemic. Later, some Indians abandoned their communities to look for a better way of life; they established themselves in cities and tried to assimilate to the culture and values of the conquerors. During the colonial period, Ladinos were members of the Indian community, experts in matters pertaining to criollo culture. They could continue being Indians in racial terms, but they were treated differently.

Ladinos who adopted the values of Spanish cultureand in this way ameliorated their social positionwere not well regarded. Rather, they were feared and distrusted because they had rejected their own people, and they were never totally accepted by groups of purely European origin. In the colonial cities of Chiapas and Guatemala, distinct groups of criollos and Ladinos formed, although miscegenation, which is prevalent in the area, blurred the distinction and made it more difficult to define the borderline between one group and the other.

With no definite criteria for identifying their group, Ladinos began to relate to the nascent "national state" on an individual basis and adopted state institutions. Although they established relations with Spanish and criollo groups and, subsequently, with mestizos, and attempted to assimilate their cultural practices, Ladinos generally remained in a subordinate position. Relations were reestablished with Indian communities years after the initial rupture.


There are no settlements that one might consider specifically Ladino, unless we adopt Adams's (1956, 1964, 1970) criterion and classify as "Ladino" every non-Indian city or town in Guatemala, Chiapas, and Honduras. There are family groups or individuals who live in the middle- or lower-class areas of cities and larger towns in the area, having adopted models of urbanization and settlement typical of these urban milieus. One frequently finds two- and three-generation families whose houses are located on the same land or on adjacent lands, but, in contrast to those who revindicate their Indian origin, Ladinos do not form migrant colonies originating from a single place.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Since precolonial times, the right to the usufruct of the land was linked to membership in a community. Ladinos originally gave up their agricultural rights in order to work at various occupations within urban areas, mainly in manufacture and commerce. In the nineteenth century Ladino laborers began to be employed in haciendas and, later, on coffee plantations, although only when there was a scarcity of indigenous labor. Nowadays it is unusual to find them performing agricultural labor; their presence is more noticeable in small-scale commerce and in the service sector. Some hold jobs as low- and middle-level public functionaries.

Industrial Arts. There is no handicraft production that might be considered typically Ladino; however, Ladinos are associated with agro-industrial and local industries; they participate as wage earners within mestizo establishments. In the highlands of Chiapas and isolated villages of Guatemala, Ladinos work in the production of aguardiente (a cane liquor), which they monopolize in a kind of clandestine emporium that illegally introduces the product to Indian communities.

Trade. Most Ladinos are employed in commerce. They incorporate themselves within the system established by the urban majority, operating small stores or stalls in local markets or working as traveling salesmen in cities. Often they are also intermediaries between suppliers of agricultural products (especially rural Indian communities) and large-scale urban merchants. Some are small private entrepreneurs who transport cargo in their own trucks or vans, or drive passenger vehicles.

Division of Labor. Ladinos have adopted models of division of labor that are predominant among mestizo groups: a father must provide for his family and a mother must dedicate herself to domestic work and the care of her children. Nevertheless, compelled by economic need, women are now increasingly having to find employment outside the home. They run family businesses or sell food or other items from ambulatory stalls. Increasingly, sons and daughters of better-off Ladino families study at universities to become elementary-school teachers or occupy positions as public functionaries.

Land Tenure. Neither members of indigenous communities nor well established in mestizo farming communities, Ladinos can own land only as private proprietors. Given their commercial orientation, however, their primary interest is not in working the land. If they do own property, it is more likely to be land in the city that they use for business ventures, as investments, to build and rent housing, or to leave to their children.


Kin Groups and Descent. Ladino families are isolated groups that can trace their descent back two or three generations but rarely maintain solid relationships with collateral kin. Their relationships tend to be extended through compadrazgo, which provides an opportunity for betterment, if not in economic terms, at least in terms of status.

Children of nuclear families, if both of their parents are living, carry the paternal name, and when they form their own families they frequently maintain their patrilocal residence. There are cases of single mothers, and among them a lack of continuity in family names is more frequent. Some children take the name of the putative father, others that of their mother.

Kinship Terminology. Ladino kinship terminology is the same as that used by other Spanish-speaking groups in the area. That is, one speaks of grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, cousins, brothers- and sisters-in-law, fathers- and mothers-in-law, and sons- and daughters-in-law in the same way in which these terms are used within Hispanic culture. The only unusual characteristic is the rather frequent incorporation of an entenado a child given into someone's care by its parents, or semiadopted by another family for various reasons. The child may have been orphaned, been mistreated at home, or come from a family in dire economic straits. A child facing such circumstances may be sent to another family to be cared for in exchange for doing some work. The entenado is almost always a relative by marriage or a more remote family memberperhaps a godson or goddaughter.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Mixed marriages, either between Ladinos and mestizos of other groups or between Ladinos and Indians, are the most common form of marriage. In urban marriages with mestizos, the Christian ceremony is performed in the church of which both bride and groom are members, and, in many cases, there is also a civil ceremony. In the case of marriage to an Indian woman, the indigenous tradition of asking for the woman's hand must be followed, and traditional ceremonies must be performed in each community, including a Christian religious ceremony.

With increasing frequency, lack of money to pay the cost of any type of ceremony leads to "stealing" the bride, which also obviates the need for gifts. As a rule, however, even though it might be several years later and the couple may already have had children, they will attempt to formalize the relationship and reestablish relations with the wife's family.

Domestic Unit. For people who have only recently become Ladinos, or first-generation Ladinos, neolocal domestic units and simple nuclear families are typical. With succeeding generations, however, extended families that include the husband's mother and some of the sons and their wives become more common. Sons take their spouses to their paternal home, but daughters do not. Sometimes the youngest daughter of the family remains in the home and does not marry so as to attend to the needs of her parents in their old age, but, more frequently, an entenada or an older granddaughter takes on this obligation.

Inheritance. There are no clear rules regarding inheritance; however, it is expected that the oldest son or several of the sons will continue working in their father's occupation and will inherit his business. Nevertheless, if a daughter or younger son takes care of the business, she or he will be the one to inherit it, albeit with an obligation to help one's brothers. Families who are in a position to do so try to leave houses, lands, and some kind of small business to each of their children, including married daughters.

Socialization. Socialization of childrenjust as in the case of mestizostakes place in schools, neighborhoods, and churches. Sometimes it occurs within the workplace, given that some of these children work from a very early age.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Ladinos are groups that consolidated and developed from the second half of the nineteenth century onward. Because of this short history, Ladino families have no extensive network of social relations. They have abandoned their communities of origin and the institutions that would have permitted them to build up a collective identity.

Political Organization. Ladinos participate in the political system of the society as a whole. In Honduras, they do not take an active part in politics, but simply accept what the dominant system expects of them in terms of respect toward national institutions. They do not appear to be linked to any Indian organizations. In Guatemala and Chiapas, their political participation is mixed; some have opted for supporting the governing classes, actively setting themselves off from subversive indigenous organizations. In the Chiapas Indian mobilizations of 1994, however, Ladino groups supported the Indian movement in its demands, perhaps in opposition to the coletos (inhabitants of San Cristóbal de las Casas who consider themselves direct descendants of the old colonial aristocratic families).

Social Control. Because the group does not identify itself as such, there are almost no mechanisms for social control beyond those established by the society at large.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Ladinos are people whose syncretic processes have been deeply internalized. They come from Indian communities in which the customs of their grandparents persists; because the mainstream society holds these traditions in contempt, Ladinos reject them, yet, simultaneously, they are ashamed of the extent to which the costumbre still influences them. All of them are members of some Christian churchformerly it was only the Catholic church, but increasingly Ladinos have joined various Protestant churches or fundamentalist sects.

Medicine. Although Ladinos pride themselves on using only conventional allopathic medicine, in cases they consider to be serious, almost all will go to an herbalist, bonesetter, shaman, midwife, or curer in their community of origin or of some indigenous group in the city.


Adams, Richard N. (1956). Encuesta sobre la cultura de los ladinos en Guatemala. Guatemala City: Ministerio de Educación Pública, Seminario de Integración Social Guatemalteca.

Adams, Richard N. (1964). "La mestización cultural en centroamérica." Revista de Indias (Madrid) 95-96:153-176.

Adams, Richard N. (1970). Crucifixion by Power: Essays on Guatemalan National Social Structure, 1944-1966. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Casaus Arzú, Marta (1992). Guatemala: Linaje y racismo. San José, Costa Rica: Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales.

Glittenberg, Joann Elizabeth Kropp (1976). "A Comparative Study of Fertility in Highland Guatemala: A Ladino and an Indian Town." Ph.D. dissertation, University of Colorado at Boulder.

Pitt-Rivers, Julian (1970). "Palabras y hechos: Los ladinos." In Ensayos de antropología en la zona central de Chiapas, edited by Norman McQuown and Julian Pitt-Rivers, 21-42. Mexico City: Instituto Nacional Indigenista.

Spielberg, Joseph (1965). "San Miguel Milpas Altas: An Ethnographic Analysis of Interpersonal Relations in a Peasant-Ladino Community of Guatemala." Ph.D. dissertation, Michigan State University.