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Class and Ethnicity in the Canton of Cayambe:

The Roots of Ecuador's Modern Indian Movement

Marc Becker, Ph.D.


Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Kansas, 1997

My research examines changes in ideologies of class and ethnicity within rural movements for social change in Ecuador during the twentieth century. It explores how popular organizations engaged class analyses and ethnic identities in order to influence strategies of political mobilization among Indigenous and peasant peoples. Although recently ethnicity has come to dominate Indigenous political discourse, I have discovered that historically the rural masses defended their class interests, especially those related to material concerns such as land, wages, and work, even while embracing an ideology of ethnicity. Through the study of land tenure and political mobilization issues, this project examines the roles of leadership, institutions, economics, and class relations in order to understand the formation of class ideologies and ethnic politics in Ecuador.

Although various Indigenous revolts occurred during the colonial period, these were localized and lacked a global vision for social change. In contrast, beginning in the 1920s Indian organizations emerged which understood that immediate and local solutions would not improve their situation, but rather that there must be fundamental structural changes in society. Moving from narrow, local revolts to broad organizational efforts for structural change represented a profound ideological shift which marks the birth of Ecuador's modern Indian movement.

An examination of how these early organizations and movements developed and operated elucidates the emergence of subsequent Indigenous organizations. This study utilizes a sequence of organizing efforts in the Canton of Cayambe in the northern Ecuadorian highlands from the formation of the first Indigenous sindicatos (peasant unions) in the 1920s to the promulgation of agrarian reform legislation in 1964 as a case study. This story reveals the demands of Indigenous movements, the organizational strategies which they implemented to achieve those demands, and the influence which this history had on the formation of Ecuador's modern Indian movement. It is the thesis of this study that Ecuador's Indigenous movement has its roots in leftist organizational efforts, and that its character must be understood as an integral part of that history. In fact, it is the nature and content of that relationship with the left which has led to Ecuador witnessing perhaps the strongest Indigenous movement in Latin America in the 1990s.

This book is built on a study of the nature of land tenure relations extracted from documents at the Archivo Nacional de Historia, the Archivo Historico del Banco Central, and the records of the Junta Central de Asistencia Pública, all located in Quito, Ecuador. Newspaper reports from mainstream dailies and small leftist publications provide a wealth of information on rural protest actions. Although records from early organizations do not exist, their actions are documented in front-page stories in these newspapers. Finally, published and tape recorded testimonies and interviews which anthropologists conducted in the 1960s and 1970s with Indigenous actors who are no longer living provide critical insights into this history of rural protest actions.

Download the dissertation (PDF, 1.8MB)


I. Introduction: Class Ideologies and Ethnic Politics in Ecuadorian Peasant and Indigenous Movements

Part One: History and Economics

II. Historic and Social Origins of Revolt in Ecuador

  1. Regionalism in Ecuadorian history
  2. The formation of ethnic and group identity in Ecuador

III. Culture and Ethnicity in the Canton of Cayambe

  1. Cayambe-Caranqui period
  2. Inka occupation
  3. Spanish colonial period
  4. Nineteenth-century political economy

IV. Land Tenure Patterns and Rural Economies in Cayambe

  1. Encomiendas and haciendas
  2. Service tenancy and the huasipungo
  3. Demographics and agricultural censuses

V. Public Space, Private Space: A Tale of Two Haciendas

  1. Pesillo hacienda
  2. Guachalá hacienda

Part Two: Organization and Protest

VI. Una Revolución Comunista Indígena: Rural Protest Movements in Cayambe

  1. A brief history of the Ecuadorian Left
  2. Early peasant organizations in Cayambe

VII. Federación Ecuatoriana de Indios: Class and Ethnicity in a Twentieth-Century Peasant Movement

  1. Labor unions and working-class struggles
  2. Governmental policies and legislative reforms
  3. Federación Ecuatoriana de Indios (1944)
  4. Ethnicity in a peasant movement?

VIII. Una Granja Colectiva Comunista: Proletarian Pressure for Agrarian Reform

  1. Guachalá
  2. Pesillo
    1. Working conditions
    2. Land rights
    3. Bilingual education
  3. 1961 march

Part Three: Ethnicity and Nationalism

IX. Ethnic Organizational Strategies in Peasant Movements

  1. Economic realities of agrarian reform
  2. Citizenship and constitutional reforms
  3. Emergence of ethnic-based Indian federations

X. Conclusion: Indigenous Versus Leftist Perspectives on Nationalism, Ethnicity and Class

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