The other night my father blasted his Ecuadorian music in the living room. My brother groaned and left the space to workout in the bedroom. My sister rolled her eyes and wore her headphones. I hummed to Julio Jaramillo, El Curiquingue, and Don Medardo y sus Players songs. My mother danced with my father with a happy smile on her face. She still misses her lindo Ecuador, even though she migrated to the States as a teenager.
The next song popped up in my dad’s playlist: Cholo Soy by Sanyi. In Ecuador, the term cholo is mainly used to insult a person with Indigenous heritage. Ecuadorians also use the derogatory term to describe the poor, the dirty, and the dumb in society. In Santa Elena, however, comuneros (villagers) use the term cholo to identify themselves as an ethnic group in the Ecuadorian coast. According to oral tradition, the cholo comuneros are heirs of the Manteno-Wankavilka-Puna tribe. Before 1530, this tribe governed the Ecuadorian coast with an international sea-faring trade system and a strong military base that kept the Incas out of their land.
does not place them on a favorable position in Ecuadorian society. Ecuadorian Indigenous people consider the cholos comuneros as a people with no cultural Indigenous background. This statement makes the cholos comuneros seem a people who actively deny their Indigenous heritage when in fact it’s the opposite of their current situation.
Cholos comuneros are pushing for national recognition of their land, culture, and people. Since 1937, cholos lost complete power over their ancestral land when the Ecuadorian government decreed an Agrarian Reform law that encouraged individuals to divide their communal lands into parcels. Each person owned a piece of land. For the first time, Cholos comuneros dealt with a dilemma they have never faced before: How do they sustain a fractured land of 515,000 hectares and maintain Indigenous culture, family, and traditions in place? Family clans had to act quick and separate themselves in different regions to hold possession of their ancestral territories. Simultaneously, local and international corporations put a foot in their land to steal, evict cholos, and destroy Indigenous culture.
In 1982, cholos decided that in order to claim as a national Indigenous sovereignty under the Ecuadorian constitution, they had to reclaim their Indigenous roots, culture, and background as a collective people. The reclamation process will also put them on a higher political platform and align them with the rest of the Indigenous people in Ecuador.
Unfortunately, some Indigenous nations did not approve of cholos comuneros input. They say that cholos do not qualify as an Indigenous group because they lost their native language and traditional clothing. They think that cholos assimilated into Western culture and were ashamed of their Indigenous heritage. But that was not the case. Even though cholos comuneros explained that adaptation to the Spanish language and Western culture served to keep them up-to-date with worldwide trends, this reason alone did not make them less Indigenous.
As we speak, since 2001, cholos comuneros are shifting to a new ethnic label: Wankavilka. This shift will place them closer to the Indigenous spectrum of Ecuadorian society. This shift will highlight their political stand as they push for national recognition of their Indigenous culture in 2014. In some communities, they revived most of their Wankavilka practices, traditions, and ceremonies. For example, in Comuna Sacachun, they resurrected their ancestral ceremonies of birth, death, and marriage. In Comuna Antoncillo, they asked elders to actively pass down the oral tradition to the youth. In Comuna Chanduy, they brought back the incision of frontal teeth as a way of honoring their ancestors’ culture.
Sanyi, a famous technocumbia artist in Ecuador, produced her song, Cholo Soy. It touched my heart when I heard someone else speak about my identity as un cholo:
I’m a cholo and don’t pity me/Coins are worthless but of value to the Whites./We the cholos ask for nothing./With the little we have, everything is possible.
Let me live my life, walk my mountains, feel my winds, and hear my ancestors./You say, “I’m sad and I let others tell me what to do.” You say, “You cholos have no purpose in this world.”
But let me remind you, the Whites from Spain came to our land and stole our silver and gold./It was Pizarro who killed our King Atahualpa./So many promises, beautiful and false promises./I’m a cholo and don’t pity me.
Cholo soy, I say, loud and proud. I’m a Cholo, look at me, beautiful and brown. My breath inhales the Pacific Ocean midst. My feet moves to NDN panpipes, drumbeats, and strings. My stories stretch back to thousands of years of oral tradition. To the first elders in Sumpa, La Punta, Tumbala, Goancavilca, Guayas, and now Santa Elena Peninsula. To the first lovers of Sumpa who taught us the value of respect, honor, and tradition. To the fish and turtles on our beaches and to the tigers and deer on our forest. To the ancestors who fought for us and protected us all these centuries and thanks to them, we carry our Indigenous identity.
When I ask a “Latino” the question of his or her identity, I can sense the frustration in their body, in their eyes, the trembling nerve on their lips as they wrestle with the questions, with their identity, and with their fear. Some would answer, “I’m Latino because I speak Spanish.” Others would say, “I’m not an Indian because I’m civilized.” But many would snap, “What do you mean Indian? Do I look cholo to you?”
All this time, I encountered similar reactions when I asked a Spanish-speaking person from “Latin America” if they considered themselves Indigenous or what? Some would even say “But we are mestizos.” True, but what is your race mi’hijo/a? A mestizo is not restricted to the mixed-Indigenous population in Latin America. The mestizo is a metis in French world and a mixed in English world. In Europe, there are white-mestizos with mixed national backgrounds of Irish, German, and French heritage. In Asia, there are Asian-mestizos with mixed national backgrounds. of Japanese, Chinese, and Korean heritage In Africa, there are African-mestizos with mixed national backgrounds of Ethiopian, Egyptian, and Congolese heritage. But they still identify with their race: Caucasian, Asian, and African.
So why can’t we say, “We are Indigenous?”
I’m a cholo, so what? Don’t pity me, but respect me.