Ecuador, just south of the equator and nestled in the among the Andes mountains and along the Pacific Ocean, is a small but well developed nation. With a moderate climate, much of the social life takes place outdoors in public plazas, the culture overall highly collectivist. Quito, the capital, high up in the Sierra or Highlands at 2,850m elevation, is the second-highest capital city in the world.
Ecuador’s indigenous culture, inhabiting the area for 11,000 years, was primarily agricultural and made up of multiple ethnic groups; they all became part of the Incan Empire in the 15th century, thereafter colonised by the Spanish. Today, 4.5 million or 25% of the total population identify as indigenous, almost entirely Quichua people living in the Highland (central Ecuador); another 40-65% identify as mestizo, or mixed indigenous-Spanish.
Spain colonised Ecuador, along with most of Central and South America, from the 16th century until its independence in 1830, thus representing a major cultural influence. The conquistadores or conquerors were given enormous power including the right to various groups of people as labourers, similar to the fiefdoms of England. The class system introduced at that time naturally placed the conquerors at the top, with those born in Spain highest and those born locally of Spanish parents second; mestizos were next, followed by indigenous, and at the bottom, slaves brought in from Africa and the Caribbean. In today’s Ecuadorean culture, social class remains highly important and is determined by a number of factors — and is also considered fixed, with minimal opportunity for advancement.
Though land acquisition was a priority for the Spanish in their quest for an empire, the gold of Ecuador and its neighbors was also of keen interest. Ecuador, like Colombia, has a very long history of creating sacred objects from gold, its colour and shine deemed to please the gods — and the conquerors.
The Spanish conquerors brought their Catholic religion to Ecuador, as in much of Central and South America, requiring the indigenous peoples to convert; elaborate churches were built, perhaps none moreso than that of La Compañia de Jesús in Plaza Grande of Quito. The churches were filled with gold, to the glory of God — much as the indigenous peoples had used it for sacred ritual — and, to the glory of Spain and its monarchy, and ultimately, the Catholic Church.
The indigenous people of Ecuador, though required under Spanish rule to convert to Catholicism, managed to keep their indigenous beliefs more or less intact. Today, as with Santería in Cuba and elsewhere in the Caribbean, indigenous Ecuadorans practice a hybrid of Catholicism and indigenous faith — no better evidenced than the near-amalgamate of Pacha Mama, supreme goddess of earth and time, with Mother Mary.
Ecuadorans, and not only indigenous, continue to view the earth as sacred — Pacha Mama to the modern Ecuadoran may be perceived symbolically as Mother Nature — so much so, that they’ve written its protection into their constitution, the first nation to do so. A new constitution was written and ratified in 2008, one chapter of which is entitled Rights for Nature, declaring that ecosystems have rights to exist and are not human property.
Indigenous peoples of Ecuador have become a political force in their own right. As 25% of the population, with another 40-65% claiming partial indigenous heritage, they wield considerable influence. In October 2017 they protested foreign logging in a national park; in March 2018 an indigenous women’s group protested mining and oil drilling as violence against the land and its people. In October 2018 native groups proposed that an area the size of Mexico become protected land; most recently in October 2019, they led an 11-day nationwide protest against government plans for an austerity budget — and against the wishes of IMF — and they won.
The people of Ecuador, and indeed of Latin America, suffered enormous physical, psychological, social and cultural losses in 300 years of Spanish colonisation. Often such historic trauma gets buried in the culture, and expressed in dysfunctional ways. Art commonly provides a medium for expressing cultural loss and grief; La Capilla del Hombre or Chapel of Humanity, the life work of the late painter Oswaldo Guayasamín, gives expression to this sorrow — as a means for a people to heal.