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Identification. "Salasaca," the name of an ethnic group of Ecuador, is derived either from the name of the zone to which they were sent as mitimaes (settlers) from Bolivia, or from two common surnames, "Sala" (a Panzaleo name found in eastern Ecuador) and "Saca" (a Puruhayes name found in the west of the country). The Salasaca notion of being a culturally distinct group is clearly expressed in their manner of dress. The men wear white trousers, white shirts, and black and/or white ponchos. The women wear black skirts, black blouses, and brightly colored shawls fastened with a silver needle. Both men and women wear belts. Women may wear several belts, the combined length of which may be 20 meters. For everyday purposes, most people wear highland hats. For special occasions, however, white felt hats with wide brims are worn. T-shirts may be worn instead of traditional shirts and blouses.

Location. The Salasaca zone, which is about 12 square kilometers in extent, is situated at 1.3° S. and 78.4° W. It is a plateau, 2,500 to 2,900 meters above sea level, in Tungurahua Province of central Ecuador. Rainfall is between 50 and 100 centimeters a year, and the average yearly temperature is between 12° and 18° C. The climate is one of relatively warm days and chilly nights.

Demography. According to the National Population Census carried out in Ecuador in 1974, the Salasaca numbered 4,236. A more recent census, conducted in 1982, counted only those Salasaca who lived along the main road. Because Salasaca are reluctant to take part in censuses, the actual population can only be estimated; it was approximately 8,000 in 1989.

History and Cultural Relations

A much-discussed theory is that the Salasaca were brought from Bolivia in the fifteenth century by the Inca ruler Pachacutic (Yapangui II). Within the framework of his newly introduced mitimae system, a small number of men and women were supplied to colonize the present Salasaca zone. Salasaca origin as mitimaes is supported by certain characteristics in family names, terminology, fiestas, and music. Another suggestion is that the Salasaca are a fusion of two former communities, one from an eastern zone in Tungurahua Province and the other from the Chimborazo Province. Although the Salasaca fiercely defend their ethnicity, interrelationships of an economic and ritual nature are frequent. Regular interaction is maintained with the Niton and Chiquichas peoples to the east, the Chivaleos to the northwest, the Picayhuas to the northeast, the Rumipata people of the Chimborazo Mountain range to the west, and the Canelos Quichua in the eastern lowlands. Relationships with people in towns and abroad are increasingly common and enable economic exchanges and coparenthood.


The Salasaca parish is divided into sixteen sectors (manzanas ) that are evenly populated. The road between Ambato and Banos, which was constructed in 1934, bifurcates the zone. The parish has several wide, open areas, but in the central square there is a Catholic church, an Evangelical church, a convent, a school, a post office, a medical post, a communal house, and a cooperative. There are also several saloons and boutiques, with living quarters upstairs. The traditional compound consists of three generally separate buildings, which are more or less rectangular. There is a main house with a single door, which always faces north. The other two buildings in the compound are smaller housesone on either side of the main house. These smaller houses face the center of the compound.

Houses are of three different styles. In the past the houses were made entirely of grass, agave fibers, and bamboo sticks and had a roof touching the ground. This particular style of house is still constructed, although the skills required are rapidly disappearing, as is the grass. The second style has mud walls reinforced with bamboo and a roof of reeds and is the most common style of house in the zone. The third and most recent style uses locally produced cement blocks and corrugated iron. Although the older styles of house are said to be warmer and more resistant to earthquakes, houses of cement are considered more prestigious and are thus favored. Families have small shelters in their fields; these were originally used at night for guarding cattle from thieves but are now used mainly for cooking meals during the agricultural season.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Salasaca Indians are primarily horticulturists. They practice a system of shifting cultivation and mixed cropping, which includes more than seventy species of cultigens. The most important crops are maize, potatoes, beans, peas, and alfalfa (medicago sativa ). Crops are sown or planted, each at particular times throughout the year. Tools are rudimentary and are produced either locally or in nearby towns. Fields are separated by neat lines of agave plants (three or four species are grown). Eucalyptus is the most common tree, followed by the capulí (genus prunus ). Salasaca recognize four different species of capuli. It has cherrylike fruits and is much appreciated as a subsistence crop during February and March. The fruits are also sold for cash. Fields are irrigated every six weeks using water from five major irrigation canals. The water flows for twenty-four hours on each occasion, and people lead and regulate the flow of water into and along their fields. All families have a number of animals such as rabbits, guinea pigs, and fowl. Most people also own cattle and pigs, and some have a horse or a donkey. Many plants and fruits are used for food, medicine, and religious purposes. These may be cultivated or collected from the wild on the slopes of nearby Teligote Mountain.

Family income is supplemented by the occasional sale of eggs, milk, rabbits, guinea pigs, and fowl. Larger animals, such as cattle and pigs, are usually sacrificed for ceremonies. As land is limited and the population is growing, many men and young women are forced to migrate in order to earn money off the farm. A second reason for migration is to accumulate enough money to sponsor a fiesta. Men are employed principally as construction workers, whereas women find employment as shepherdesses or as maids in the cities. All households have a European loom that is used mainly for making clothes. The backstrap loom is used for weaving belts and hair ribbons, whereas the European loom is used for larger pieces of material and also for tapestries.

Industrial Arts. Attempts have been made to copy the successful commercialization of Otavalo weaving. In 1969 a cooperative was created with the assistance of a Peace Corps volunteer. In spite of the fact that the cooperative has about 200 members and a house to exhibit and sell its crafts, many Salasaca sell their wares individually. Since 1982 a market for tourists has been held each Sunday in the main square.

Trade. Goods and services are exchanged with neighboring Indian groups and with the mestizo population. For example, cupuli cherries are bartered for small woven baskets (chigras ), grains, and tools. The Salasaca are famous for their aggressive bulls and vicious cows, which they take to bullfights and fairs all over the country.

Division of Labor. Women traditionally did the domestic work, including bringing up the children; men did most of the work in the fields. As a result of both the commercialization of weaving and the increased migration, however, women are now carrying more and more of the agricultural work load in addition to their traditional duties.

Land Tenure. Within the zone, only Salasaca are entitled to cultivate land. The few mestizos who live in the zone are engaged in small-scale trading. Between Salasaca, land can be bought and sold, although few have legal title to their properties. All land is divided among the Salasaca; the only communal land is on the slopes of Teligote Mountain. A major problem is the fragmentation of land as it is inherited by succeeding generations.


Kin Groups and Descent. All relatives up to and including first cousins are considered close kin (nucuchi pura ). Those outside this group are referred to as mana nucuchi pura. Male in-laws belong to masha, whereas females belong to cachun. Descent is bilateral. Ritual relations, for example, coparenthood, are established through baptism and marriage and are considered equal to blood ties. Padrinos (godfathers) and madrinas (godmothers) therefore belong to the nucuchi pura group.

Kinship Terminology. Kin terms follow a linear system concerning for first ascending generation and the Eskimo system for the first descending generation.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. The Salasaca are endogamous, and a spouse has to be chosen from the mana nucuchi pura group. It is through the marriage ceremony that members of this group are said to be "made close kin." The ceremony lasts for several days, and there is much celebrating in the salon and in the houses of the bride's and bridegroom's parents. Marriage is sealed by both civil and Catholic acts and by ceremonies performed by the elders of each family. During the ceremonies, the leading roles fall not to the bride and the groom but to their selected coparents. A newlywed is supposed to be given land and a house by his or her parents. Because of poverty and land shortages, however, couples now tend to live with the family of either the bride or the groom. The couple tries to set up their own residence as soon as possible. Divorce is said to be more common now than in the past. This can perhaps be partly explained by the increased necessity of migration to seek wage labor.

Domestic Unit. A household is usually composed of a small nuclear family. Should an aging parent be left alone, he or she will join the household of a son or a daughter.

Inheritance. Among contemporary Salasaca, sons and daughters inherit equally. Traditionally, an inheritance was distributed through a game called huari tullu, which is played during different stages of a funeral. The game is played with a die made from a donkey bone. The deceased is said to influence the game. Today the game is played at every funeral but is no longer considered to affect the division of the inheritance.

Socialization. Children learn the demands of life early; little boys and girls learn their respective roles by taking part in the daily work of their parents. There are six primary schools and a secondary school in the parish.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Rights and obligations between consanguineal, affinal, and ritual kin form the basis of society, and the household is the central unit of social organization. The prestigious alcaldes maintain cultural and social continuity. There are temporary organizations such as the ayudana, which consists of four to six people within a nucuchi pura group; it is formed to clear a field or build a house. A minga (reciprocal labor-exchange unit), involving numerous participants, is called together by the teniente político (political lieutenant) to perform communal work.

Political Organization. The Salasaca community was legally established in 1962. In 1963 a junta campesinado (peasant council) was formed with an elected representative from each sector. The community became a parish in 1972, and a teniente político was elected to represent the government. The main functions of the junta campesinado are to maintain the irrigation system, to organize nightly patrols to guard the livestock, and, with the teniente político, to coordinate administrative and practical matters. The Salasaca do not pay taxes, a prerogative granted them by an Ecuadoran president after they purportedly saved his life.

Social Control. Order is maintained by surveillance of each other in daily interaction. Gossip is an important means of communication, and the Salasaca are ingeniously able to keep track of people's whereabouts by simply observing footprints on paths. Retaliations, transmitted by a type of witch doctor called a brujo, are a constant fear.

Conflict. Internal conflicts are usually settled within the community by the alcaldes, men in respected positions whose main function is to uphold the religious and social order. Serious crimes, perhaps involving outsiders, are handled by lawyers in the nearby town. There is an everpresent conflict between the Salasaca and the national society, and the violations on Salasaca and their territory are innumerable: the most serious are cattle theft and the building of roads and power lines that destroy their fields and houses. Agreements, if ever reached, have always been to the disadvantage of the Salasaca, an ethnic group regarded as culturally inferior by the mestizo population.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Traditionally, Salasaca saw the sun, Inti-yaya, as their father, who gives them life. The moon, Quilla-mama, was the mother. Wild and domestic animals and the surrounding mountains played an important part in their conception of the universe. In the early 1940s a Catholic priest lived among the Salasaca for several years. Shortly afterward Madres Lauritas established themselves in the community and built a school and a convent. At about the same time the evangelical Christian and Missionary Alliance built a church on the opposite side of the road. Today Salasaca traditional beliefs are synchronized with Catholicism, whereas the Evangelical church has only a few followers.

Religious Practitioners. Apart from the Catholic priest, the alcaldes are regarded as religious leaders. The curador (curer) and the brujo also deal with the supernatural world. The favors of good spirits can be obtained by paying for a mass, by lighting candles, or by sprinkling blessed water in sacred locations. Evil spirits dwell in black animals and in looms. A particularly dangerous spirit, Koko, inhabits large ovens, large trees, stones, deserted houses, and rabbit holes (uticos). Protection against evil spirits is obtained by keeping blessed water and onions on the patio.

Ceremonies. Apart from boda, rites de passage that mainly concern the family (for example, baptism, first haircut, first trousers, marriage, and burial), the Salasaca practice a cycle of twelve major religious fiestas that involve a greater number of people than are involved in the boda. Half of these fiestas are sponsored by the alcaldes and the other half by ordinary men who, through sponsorship, gain social status and prestige. The most important ceremony of all, which concerns every Salasaca, is the aya caray on All Souls' Day, when food and drink is symbolically shared with dead family members.

Arts. Ideas are artistically expressed in, for example, the embroideries on men's trousers and in the patterns on woven belts. Designs depict important animals and constellations of stars in the mythology. In this way, beliefs are exhibited on everyday clothes and ceremonial dresses. Traditional dances and instruments, like the bocina, which is made from a bull's horn, and cupuli leaves are important in all ceremonies. Contemporary national music is increasingly appreciated, however. Lullabies are sung to children. Several folklore groups have been formed to perform music, dance, and drama.

Medicine. Diseases are thought to be transmitted by evil spirits. The curador uses a wide variety of medical plants and often resorts to the purification rite using a guinea pig. Knowledge of herbal medicine is impressive, and such remedies are often effective. The Salasaca fear hospitals and rarely go to them. There is a government-sponsored medical post in the center of the parish.

Death and Afterlife. The cosmos is divided into three spheres: pamba, which is life on earth; hauapacha, which is the place where Jesus lives with the good spirits; and hukupacha, where demons, the evil spirits, and a dwarflife being called pipon, dwell. Burial is regarded as the most important ritual in the life cycle. After death, a person goes first to hauapacha, where Jesus will decide if he or she is allowed to stay or should continue to hukupacha and stay there forever. If the person is unfortunate, he or she has to pass Mama Abuela, the Tungurahua volcano, where he or she has to eat a meal of black beetles before proceeding to hukupacha.


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