Indigenous culture is an integral part of what it means to be Latino. Before the Europeans arrived to colonize what is now Latin America, several indigenous peoples were thriving, some as part of advanced and prosperous dynasties. We aren’t taught this truth in schools, so we take it upon ourselves to share the information here and now.
Often classified by the language they speak, these indigenous peoples are still present, and still an elemental part of Latin America. Read on to learn a bit about the origins, location, culture, and present-day population of major indigenous cultures in every Latino country.
Location: Today’s Nahua, aka the Aztec, are native to central to southern Mexico and El Salvador.
Present Day Population: About 1.5 million people speak Nahuatl today. It is the most widely spoken indigenous language in Mexico. There are about 3,000 Nahuatl-Pipil speakers in El Salvador (as of 2009).
Culture: Nahuatl, or Aztec, is the Nahua language, spoken in Mexico, and parts of El Salvador.
Origin: Also known as Quiché, or K’iche’ Maya, the K’iche’ originated in the western highlands of Guatemala, as well as parts of El Salvador.
Location: Today, the majority of K’iche’ people are still found in the western highlands of Guatemala. There are also populations of the Mayan group in countries such as Mexico, El Salvador, and the United States.
Present Day Population: There is said to be 1,610,013 in Guatemala (as of 2011).
Culture: Activist and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Rigoberta Menchú Tum is probably the best known K’iche’ person in the world.
3El Salvador: Lenca
Origin: The Lenca people are native to El Salvador and Honduras.
Location: Eastern El Salvador and southwestern Honduras are where the majority of Lenca are found today.
Present Day Population: The population of Lenca is said to be 37,000 in El Salvador, and 100,000 in Honduras.
Culture: Mario Salvador Hernandez (as of 2012) is the remaining speaker of Lenca Potón (as of 2012), one of the types of Salvadoran Lenca.
Origin: Also known as Miskitu or Miskito, the M.skitu are an indigenous people native to the Mosquito (Caribbean) Coast of Honduras and the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua.
Location: Today, the M.skitu are located along the Mosquito Coast/Miskitu Coast/ of Nicaragua and Honduras
Present Day Population: The M.skitu population is about 200,000 (as of 2016), of which 180,000 speak the language. Other languages include Spanish and Miskito Coast Creole English/Nicaraguan Creole.
Culture: Many M.skitu people are Afro-Indigenous, while others are Afro-Indigenous and English.
Origin: The Tolupan people of Honduras, also known as the Jicaque/Xicaque (a derogatory name given by the Spanish), Ikake, originally came from North America (other sources say South America), and settled along the Atlantic coast, from the area of the Guatemalan border, down to the Olancho Department of Honduras.
Location: Today, in Honduras, the Tolupan are found in the departments of Yoro and Francisco Morazan, as well as in the Montaña de la Flor community.
Present Day Population: There is said to be 18,000 Tolupan people, living in anywhere from 18 to 35 tribes in Honduras.
Culture: As part of their oldest ritual, the Tolupan, during each lunar eclipse, drums are played, and wooden tables are struck with sticks, to scare away the darkness and protect the moon, and the tribe.
6Costa Rica: Cabécar
Origin: There are two main theories as to where the Cabecar people originated from. One is that all Chibchan languages (of which Cabecar is one) originated in Colombia, and dispersed up to various areas from there. The second is that they originated in the Talamanca mountains, of what is now Costa Rica and Panama.
Location: Today, the Cabecar live in the Talamanca Cabecar Indigenous Reserve, in the Limon province.
Present Day Population: There are about 17,000 Cabecares in Costa Rica.
Culture: Aláglöwa is the Cabecar word for woman, Ju is the word for house, and Káwö is the word for sun.
Origin: The Amazon rainforest and Antilles were home to the Wayuu before they migrated to northern Colombia.
Location: The Wayuu live on the Guajira Peninsula of northern Colombia and northwestern Venezuela.
Present Day Population: The Wayuu are the largest indigenous group in Colombia, numbering about 144,003 (as of 1997). There are said to be 293,777 Wayuu in Venezuela (as of 2001).
Culture: The Wayuu people, who create the colorful handmade mochila bags, were never subjugated by the Spanish.
Origin: The Warao, also Warrau, Guarauno, Guarao, etc. of Venezuela are a nomadic people, who originated in the area northwest of the Orinoco Delta.
Location: Today’s Warao live around the Orinoco Delta in northeastern Venezuela, western Guyana, Suriname, and Trinidad and Tobago.
Present Day Population: The total population of the Warao is said to be someone between 22,000 and 55,700.
Culture: The word warao means “the canoe people” or “the boat people.”
Origin: Kichwa, also known as Ruma Shimi, Kichwa shimi, is a dialect of Quechua. Some believe that the Kichwa spoken in Ecuador originated in the Amazon, while others believe the Inca/Inka introduced it. Quechua itself is believed by some to have originated on the central coast of Peru, or the central Andes.
Location: Kichwa is spoken in Ecuador, Peru, and Colombia.
Present Day Population: There are about 1.2 million speakers of Kichwa (as of 2010).
Culture: In Kichwa, alli p’unlla means “good morning/good day,” alamu; mashi means “friend,” and ankas is the color blue.
Origin: The Yanomami, which means “people,” or “human being,” are native to the Orinoco River basin.
Location: The Yanomami continue to live in river basin, but have also moved into the highlands. They occupy the rainforest between Venezuela and Brazil.
Present Day Population: There are about 35,000 Yanomami in total; about 16,000 in Venezuela (as of 2009), and 19,338 in Brazil (as of 2011).
Culture: The Yamomami is the largest relatively isolated tribe in all of South America.
Origin: The Guarani-Kaiowá are native to Paraguay, Argentina, and Mato Grosso do Sul state of Brazil, in the Nhande Ru Marangantu reserve. They are also referred to as Kaiwá, Cayua, and Caingua. They are part of the larger Tupi-Guarani, which originated in Central America and migrated south.
Location: They still live in these regions within Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina.
Present Day Population: There is said to be over 18,000 Guarani-Kaiowá (as of 2003).
Culture: The Guarani-Kaiowá are led by Chief Hamilton Lopez (pictured above). Nande Ru is “the great father,” or God, in Guarani culture.
Origin: The Mapuche originated in what is now Chile and Argentina.
Location: Today, they are found in southern Chile, and Argentina.
Present Day Population: In Chile, there are about 1,508,733 Mapuches (as of 2012), and 205,009 (as of 2010).
Culture: The Mapuche create silver jewelry and art, with Spanish, Chilean, and Argentinian coins that they received through trade.
Origin: Also known as the Kolla and Colla, the Qulla originated in the Jujuy and Salta Provinces of Argentina, western Bolivia, and Chile.
Location: The Qulla have remained in the same areas over time.
Present Day Population: There is believed to be about 65,006 Qulla in Argentina (as of 2010), and 3,198 who self-identified as Colla in Chile (in 2012). The Qulla in Bolivia make up about 0.3% of the population.
Culture: Every year, for the entire month of August, the Kolla in Argentina celebrate Pachamama, or Mother Earth.