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ETHNONYMS: Indígenas de Otavalo, Otavaleños, Runa (Quichua for "people") de Otavalo


Identification. The name "Runa" dates from the post-Inca Conquest, whereas the names "Otavaleño" and "Indígena" date from the post-Spanish Conquest. The main tribes in the area when the Incas arrived in the late-fifteenth century were the Caranqui and Cayambi.

Location. Aboriginally, these groups occupied the Andean cordilleras and the valleys of what are now Imbabura and Pichincha provinces from the contemporary border of Colombia to Carapugno (modern Calderón) at the northern edge of Quito. Most Otavalo still live in the Otavalo Valley in Imbabura Province, but there are large numbers in Quito and smaller colonies in every Ecuadoran population center; in Bogotá, Popayán, and Pasto, Colombia; and in Venezuela, Brazil, and Spain. The Otavalo wear a distinct costume combining pre-Hispanic, Spanish colonial, and modern elements. This dress has changed over the centuries, but serves to identify wearers as members of the Otavalo ethnic group. It is possible for Indians to hide their ethnic identity by adopting White-style dress, but this is rare.

Demography. In 1990 the indigenous population of the Otavalo Valley was estimated at 45,000 to 50,000, including 3,000 in the town of Otavalo, with another 5,000 to 8,000 Otavalo living in expatriate communities in Ecuador and abroad.

Linguistic Affiliation. The pre-Inca aboriginal language has been lost except for a few place-names, patronyms, and loom terms. It was affiliated with the Barbacoa Group of the Chibchan Language Family, as is the language spoken by the contemporary Cayapa in the western lowlands. Quichua was introduced into Ecuador in the fifteenth century by the Incas and was spread by Spanish missionaries as a lingua franca. According to the 1974 Torero classification, the Otavalo speak the Quichua B dialect of the Quechua II Language Group. (Linguists disagree whether Quichua B is a dialect or a separate language.) The Otavalo call Quichua runa shimi (the people's tongue). Most Otavalo are bilingual in Quichua and Spanish (castellano ) and a few also speak Portuguese, English, French, or German.

History and Cultural Relations

The Caranqui and Cayambi lived in small, socially stratified city-states. They united to resist the Inca invasions of Ecuador in the second half of the fifteenth century but were finally defeated around a.d. 1495. Sarance (modern Otavalo) and Caranqui became Inca administrative centers. Before the Incas had a deep hold on the region, the Spanish, under Sebastián de Benalcázar, conquered Ecuador in 1534. By 1535 land in the Otavalo region was being given to Spanish settlers. Because Ecuador lacked the mineral resources of Peru and Bolivia, the Spanish put the indigenous population to work in Crown-owned and private textile factories under highly abusive conditions. By the mid-1550s a conquistador had been given a large encomienda (population grant), which included Otavalo. He set up an obraje (weaving factory) in Otavalo that employed up to 500 males at its height, but it reverted to the Spanish Crown in 1581. Other obrajes were also established in the region. The encomienda system evolved into large, privately owned landholdings (haciendas), and in the eighteenth century Indians were conscripted to work in hacienda textile factories through the mita, a system of forced labor. Ultimately, many Indians became permanently attached to the haciendas under a system of debt servitude (wasipungu ), which included weaving for the hacienda in obrajes as well as agricultural work. Textile production in Ecuador was the mainstay of the colonial economy, with exports to what are now Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia. In 1964 debt servitude was outlawed, and some land reform was realized under the Law of Agrarian Reform and Colonization. The contemporary prosperity of the Otavalo through their involvement in the manufacture and marketing of textiles has resulted in more respectful and equitable treatment of them by Whites.


Aboriginal settlements probably consisted of small towns where chiefs and priests resided, surrounded by small farms. Today there are about seventy-five small, dispersed communities, usually organized along a Spanish model around a central plaza with a church and school. Tile-roofed adobe or concrete-block houses are set among gardens or farmland. The town of Otavalo is a major tourist center with White- and Indian-owned hotels, restaurants, tour agencies, and craft shops.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The production of textiles has been important for centuries in the Otavalo region. Until the twentieth century, when a full-time weaving and merchant class arose, most textile activity was integrated into the agricultural cycle, and the Otavalo were subsistence farmers raising potatoes, corn, haba beans, quinoa, cherries (all indigenous crops), garden vegetables, and guinea pigs. Since the Spanish Conquest the Otavalo have also raised wheat, pigs, chickens, cattle, sheep, and occasionally horses.

Industrial Arts. Even before the arrival of the Incas, the Indians of the Otavalo Valley were known as weavers and merchants, using such indigenous technology and materials as the hand-held spindle, backstrap loom, and cotton and possibly camelid fibers to weave clothing and blankets. The obrajes, although oppressive, introduced production weaving and the technology upon which the modern economy is based: hand carders, walking spinning wheels, treadle looms, and sheep's wool. Because of a wool shortage, cotton and such synthetic fibers as acrylic are also used. Modern textile production is primarily a cottage industry with family members helping with production. About 25,000 males and females over age 16 work part- or full-time in the textile industry. Children also help after school. Involvement ranges from families who make two handspun wool backstrap loom-woven ponchos a month to families who produce hundreds of acrylic shawls a day on electric looms with the help of hired workers. The Otavalo produce clothing for themselves, for other Ecuadoran Indians and Whites, and high-fashion clothing for the export and tourist markets, as well as blankets, bedspreads, tapestry wall hangings, handbags, and electric machine-knit socks, to give a partial list. There are some wage workers in textiles but there is no industrial proletariat. Those not working in the textile cottage industry are subsistence farmers, day laborers in farming or construction, or both farmers and producers of other crafts. Families and villages have specialties. Mats are made from totora reeds in communities around San Pablo Lake; others fashion pottery, leather goods, and baskets.

Trade. From pre-Inca times through the early Spanish colonial era, a separate merchant group (mindalaes ) traded cotton textiles, beads, and other luxury goods throughout the sierra. Later, nonhacienda Indians continued to travel and market textiles. Today there are part- and full-time merchants who travel throughout Ecuador and to other Latin American countries, North America, and Europe selling textiles made by the Otavalo and by Whites and Indians from other parts of Ecuador, including wool or cotton sweaters hand-knit by White women in Ibarra, Mira, San Gabriel, and Cuenca. Substantial merchandising also occurs at the Saturday and Wednesday Otavalo markets.

Division of Labor. Women traditionally spun with the hand-held spindle and men did the weaving. Today men predominate as weavers, but women also weave on both the pre-Hispanic stick loom and the European treadle loom. Both sexes spin, dye yarn, sew, finish textiles, garden, herd, farm, and sell items in the market and in stores. Women generally cook and care for infants, but men help. There is a high degree of gender equality, which was probably even greater before the Spanish Conquest. From a very early age children of both sexes help with textile and agricultural tasks, carry water, wash clothes, gather firewood, and care for their younger siblings.

Land Tenure. Information is lacking on Caranqui and Cayambi land tenure. Under the Inca empire land was communally owned and redistributed annually, with parcels farmed for the Sun (region), the Inca, and individual family consumption. Landownership has always been important to the Otavalo, and in the twentieth century, even before the agrarian reform, they bought back hacienda land whenever possible. In the 1990s small, individually owned landholdings are the norm.


Kin Groups and Descent. It is not known if the Caranqui or Cayambi had clans or moieties, but if so they have disappeared. Colonial documents mention the ayllu, a Quechua term for a corporate landholding group based on presumed common ancestry, but today "ayllu" simply means "family." There is no rule of village exogamy. Most Otavalo marry within the ethnic group, but there are some marriages with Whites. Descent is bilateral. Children have a patronym and matronym, and men and women keep both names after marriage. The practice of extending the family network through compadrazgo (coparenthood, fictive kinship) has religious, social, and economic importance. Godparents to a child at baptism, first communion, or confirmation became compadres to the child's parents. Compadres recognize an obligation to help one another in various ways, including economically, so families frequently choose compadres from a higher socioeconomic bracket. Godparents are supposed to supervise the religious education of their godchildren but usually help the godchild with secular matters (gifts, money for education, jobs) and may be asked to raise the child if he or she is orphaned.

Kinship Terminology. Evidence from the 1940s suggests that Otavalo Quichua kinship terminology was similar to that of the Inca: a bifurcate-merging system with classificatory three-generation cycles in both maternal and paternal lines. Today Spanish and some Quichua terms are used according to a European system, except that an affinal or consanguineal aunt is called pani (Quichua for sister) as well as tía (Spanish for aunt). The Quichua mama and taita (mother and father) are used for parents and as honorifics for elderly people in general, whereas the Spanish tía and tío (aunt and uncle) are used for these kin and as honorifics for younger adults. Children often call their godparents by the Quichua terms achimama or achitaita (godmother or godfather).

Marriage and Family

Marriage. A person is not considered an adult until he or she marries, and marriage is the norm. It appears that aboriginally there were trial marriages; children resulting from such unions were considered legitimate. There is still no stigma attached to children born out of wedlock nor is virginity in either partner particularly valued. Until the mid-twentieth century most marriages were arranged by the couple's parents. Today young people meet and court at the Otavalo market, while running errands in town, at fiestas, or while attending high school. They generally marry between the ages of 18 and 24. The traditional giving of food by the groom's family is still practiced, together with the procession of the young man's parents to the home of his prospective bride to discuss the marriage. The food does not necessarily represent bride-wealth, since the bride's family does not lose her labor and the young couple may reside with them. Nor is a dowry given.

Exchanges of food between the families after marriage as agreed upon are a recognition of the reciprocity and the complementarity of opposites, which are core values in indigenous society. Appropriate marriage partners include anyone of the opposite sex except a first cousin or closer consanguineal relative. The mayor of the community places a rosary around the necks of the couple in a short ceremony and the union is recognized. Later, civil registration of the marriage is followed by a church wedding and fiesta if the man's family has the money to pay for the celebration. Divorce is rare.

Domestic Unit. Neolocal residence is the ideal, but until a young couple can build or buy their own house, they live with either set of parents depending on the families' resources; extended families are common. Unmarried or handicapped adults usually live with their parents or another relative, and orphaned children live with relatives.

Inheritance. Land and property are divided equally among all children, resulting in successive divisions of landholdings and a proliferation of tiny plots. The youngest child usually is given the parents' house while they are alive, with the understanding that he or she will care for them in old age.

Socialization. Children are given much attention and affection and are raised relatively permissively. They are included in all activities, but they are also expected to help with household, farm, and textile chores; to obey adults promptly; and to respect them. Physical discipline, such as spanking, is infrequent. Ridicule, stern looks, or harsh words are usually sufficient to ensure proper behavior. Most children attend primary school. Increasing numbers are going on to high school and some to the university.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. There is scant information on aboriginal social organization, but it appears that age was respected. Genders were equal, but priests and hereditary leaders (kurakas ) had high rank. Today wealthy weaving and merchant families are beginning to form an indigenous upper class.

Political Organization. The village (parcialidad ) is an unofficial subdivision of the parish (parróquia ), with no single authority. Instead, kinship and reciprocity bind the community. Each village has two mayors (alcaldes), appointed by the local political chief, and an elected council (cabildo). The political mayor calls collective work parties for such jobs as road repair but has no formal mechanism for enforcement. Indians have the right to vote and participate in politics at the local, provincial, and national level. Some Otavalo are active in nationwide indigenous federations.

Social Control. The most common and effective mechanism for social control is the disapproval of one's family and community. Outside authorities such as the civil guard or town police are rarely, if ever, called in. Relatives and compadres informally mediate many marital and familial conflicts. Intractable conflicts, especially those over landownership or money, often end up in the local courts.

Conflict. The Caranqui and Cayambi forcibly resisted both the Inca and Spanish conquests. In the colonial era, there was an uprising in the Otavalo area against the Spanish in 1777. Through the 1970s and 1980s there have been conflicts with local haciendas over land, including the 1978 occupation of the Hacienda La Bolsa by Indians until they were dislodged by the army.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Spanish converted the Indians to Roman Catholicism, and indigenous celebrations were adapted to Catholic feast days. Today most Otavalo are Catholics with a substrate of pre-Hispanic beliefs. Since about the 1960s evangelical Christian sects and the Latter Day Saints have made converts through their missions in Otavalo.

Catholic saints, the Virgin Mary, and the Holy Trinity are worshiped, but the last drops of liquid in a glass are always poured on the ground as an offering to Pachamama (Earth Mother). Offerings are also made by women wanting children to a lechero tree on a hill overlooking Otavalo to the east. There is some belief in nature spirits, especially in the spirits of streams and waterfalls. The rainbow is feared as an evil omen that can cause flesh to petrify or lead to insanity or death. The two dormant volcanoes that dominate the Otavalo Valley are called Taita Imbabura and Mama Cotacachi; they figure in folktales and legends but are not worshiped as such. A smaller peak, Mojanda, is considered their wawa (baby).

Religious Practitioners. Because of colonial conversions to Christianity and Spanish suppression of indigenous religion, there are no practitioners of aborginal religion per se, although there are traditional healers.

Ceremonies. The aboriginal ceremonial cycle was organized around solar events and the agricultural cycle. Today Christian feasts (Christmas, Holy Week, Easter, etc.) are observed, but the most important fiesta is that of San Juan on 24 June, which coincides with the winter solstice. For this fiesta men wear elaborate costumes and the celebration includes all-night music and dancing and ritual drinking for nearly a week. Until about the middle of the twentieth century a ritual battle between the men of different communities was held in front of the chapel of San Juan at the edge of Otavalo, and the blood of the wounded or dead was considered an offering to the Earth Mother. The fiesta of San Luis Obispo, called Coraza, was observed in Otavalo on 19 August until the 1940s, but by the early 1990s it was limited to the community of San Rafael. Various saints' days and local fiestas are celebrated in different communities throughout the year. Music, dancing by men and women, quantities of food, and the ritual consumption of alcohol are considered essential at all fiestas. The sponsorship of a fiesta by a couple has traditionally been a source of great prestige, although success in the textile business is now another route to high status.

Arts. Besides textiles, traditional music is an important art form. Young Indians form folklore groups (conjuntos). Men play indigenous wind and percussion instruments as well as European stringed instruments, whereas both men and women sing traditional Quichua and some Spanish songs. Otavalo conjuntos play locally, compete in national music festivals, and sometimes record their music and perform abroad.

Medicine. Aboriginal and medieval Spanish beliefs have been syncretized in Otavalo culture. Illnesses are considered hot or cold and are believed to be caused by fright (susto or espanto ), evil wind (huyrashka or malviento ), evil spirits, or the entry of a foreign object. The town of Human is especially noted for its traditional healers. Male or female healers (curanderos or brujos ) treat illnesses with herbal remedies or rituals to suck out the foreign body, absorb the evil wind, or drive out the evil spirits. Healers often travel to the Amazon or coastal lowlands to study with jungle healers. Local midwives (patiras ) attend childbirth, and women stay in bed and observe a special diet for a month after giving birth, attended by a relative or a paid helper. Indians sometimes resort to Western-trained doctors in Otavalo, Quito, and Ibarra in addition to local healers.

Death and Afterlife. Syncretism is also evident in Otavalo concepts of death and the afterlife. The Otavalo believe in the Catholic heaven and hell, but many bury the dead with objects to help them in the afterlife. Baptized children are believed to go straight to heaven and become angels. On 2 November (the Day of the Dead) and on Holy Thursday, families carry offerings of wreaths, food, and drink to the cemetery. Food is shared with relatives and friends, given to beggars who say prayers for the dead, and left on graves because of the belief that the souls of the dead return for twenty-four hours and must be propitiated.


Meisch, Lynn (1987). Otavalo: Weaving Costume and the Market. Quito: Ediciones Libri Mundi.

Murra, John V. (1946). "The Historic Tribes of Ecuador." In Handbook of South American Indians, edited by Julian Steward. Vol. 2, The Andean Civilizations, 785-821. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

Parsons, Elsie Clews (1945). Paguche, Canton of Otavalo, Province of Imbabura, Ecuador: A Study of Andean Indians, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Salamon, Frank (1973). "Weavers of Otavalo." In Peoples and Cultures of Native South America, edited by Daniel R. Gross, 460-492. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday; Natural History Press.