Colombia’s Ethnic Diversity: Is It a Blessing or a Curse?

In my last blog post, I tried to make sense of Colombia’s ethnic diversity. In today’s blog post, I will pursue that theme further, and pose the question as to whether Colombia’s ethnic diversity is a blessing or a curse. This is not a question that I have made up in my mind: rather, it is a question I encountered last week at the University pub – where some two gentlemen (who appeared to be scholars) were arguing over this very same issue. One was of the view that Colombia’s ethnic diversity is a blessing. The other was of the contrary view: that Colombia’s ethnic diversity is a curse.

So where do I stand on the question of whether Colombia’s ethnic diversity is a blessing or a curse? My views on this are mixed. I see Colombia’s ethnic diversity as a blessing to the extent that it makes for a much more vibrant culture. You just have to visit countries where people are of a single ethnicity to understand just how culturally monotonous (and frankly boring) such places can be. As they say, ‘it takes all sorts’ – and when it comes to ethnicity, we Colombians indeed come in all sorts.

On the other hand, I see Colombia’s ethnic diversity as a curse to the extent that it is the basis for social and political strife. You have to understand that there are some deep-seated grievances based on ethnicity in Colombia. Firstly, we have the native people’s of Colombia, who still have some vestiges of the belief that the other groups of people who came later are, in actual fact, ‘occupiers’ of what they see as their land. Then there are the people of African stock, who were brought to Colombia as slaves, and who still hold on to the understandable resentment that comes with a history of slavery. And while still looking around, you discover the descendants of the Spanish colonists: who have come to belief that they ‘discovered’ Colombia, and who view Colombia as ‘theirs’… It gets very complicated.

All said and done, I am of the view that all we can do is celebrate the ethnic diversity of Colombia: because it is something that is already there, and it is not something we can change.

Colombia’s Ethnic Diversity: How to Make Sense of It

Sometime last month, I was having a coffee with one of the expatriates working in Bogota, when she made an interesting observation: that Colombia is one of the most ethnically diverse countries she has ever been to. I didn’t take this observation lightly, coming as it did from someone who is very widely traveled, and from someone who is in fact an anthropologist by training. Thus, the remark about Colombia being one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world got me thinking about that subject (of ethnic diversity in the country).

My reflections on Colombia’s ethnic diversity led me to the realization that, in actual fact, the ethnic diversity is as a result of migration. Here we are looking mostly at migration that has taken place over the last 7 centuries or so. Granted, even before the (major) migrations started with the arrival of the first Spanish colonists in 1499, Colombia already had some degree of ethnic diversity. That was the case given the fact that the native people who were already here were quite ethnically diverse. That is where you had native groups like the Tairona and Quimbaya, not to forget the Muisca — to name but just a few examples.

The arrival of the first Spanish colonists is, however, what opened the gates to much greater ethnic diversity: diversity not just in terms of languages spoken, but also in terms of color/race and culture.

The native people’s of Colombia were what you would call people of ‘red Indian’ stock. The Spanish colonists, on the other hand, were what you would call people of European stock. And there seems to have been some sort of intermingling between the Spanish colonists and the native peoples of Colombia (actually, the Spanish crown encouraged that sort of thing). That intermarriage then led to the rise of a new mixed-ethnicity.

Then the Spanish colonists went ahead and brought in African slaves. The African slaves brought in were of different ethnicities. And with the passage of time, there was further intermingling between the people of African stock who were brought in as slaves and the Spanish colonists, giving rise to a new ethnicity. Later still, there was intermarriage between the people of African stock who had been brought in as slaves and the native Americans, giving rise to even more (new) ethnicities. And this not to mention the fact that the people of mixed racial ethnicities were also prone to intermarriage amongst themselves… the end result being the remarkable ethnic diversity that is to be seen in Colombia today.