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Gráficos de la campaña impulsada por indígenas de Uruguay.

Censuses: Organizations of indigenous descendants of Uruguay begin a campaign for self-identification

30 March, 2023 | Ricardo Changala

In 1876, the division general and president of Guatemala approved a decree declaring the indigenous people of the town of San Pedro Sacatepéquez ladinos.

The brief recitals of the presidential term indicated the convenience of the norm to put into practice “measures that tend to improve the condition of the indigenous class (sic)” and that “several principal aborigines of San Pedro Sacatequepez [department of San Marcos] have

manifested desire that that faction be prevented from wearing the suit as it is customary for the ladinos”.

The only article of the decree establishes that “For legal purposes, indigenous people of both sexes of the aforementioned town of San Pedro Sacatequepez are declared ladinos, who will wear the dress that corresponds to the ladino class from next year.” [1]

By a single legal act, the government of that time decided to modify the cultural root of a collective, not only by changing its denomination but also forced it to abandon traditional clothing by changing it to that of the rest of the population. And, in addition, the basis for this would be the application of “several main Aborigines”.

Almost sixty years later, in 1935, the decree was repealed since “the reasons that gave rise to the decree have ceased…”.[2]

This is one example among many of the treatment given, not by the conquistadors but by the independent states, to indigenous people and collectives, their identities and cultures.

“The Indians, victims of the most gigantic dispossession in world history, continue to suffer the usurpation of the last remnants of their lands, and continue to be condemned to the denial of their different identity. They are still forbidden to live in their own way and manner, they are still denied the right to be. At first, the plunder and other murder were executed in the name of the God of heaven. Now they are fulfilled in the name of the god of Progress.”[3]

The national censuses are a clear reflection of this reality, its evolution and current state.

Having information about the population, its number and social composition was the concern of the Spanish kings because they were necessary data for their tax policy.

Until the end of the colonial period, the officials of the empire sent information on these aspects where they exhibited a remarkable ability to create pseudo-biological categories classifying the indigenous population, of African origin and others that emerged after years of social mixing.

Thus, for example, in the viceroyalty of New Granada (present-day Colombia, Venezuela, Panama and Ecuador) they created the category “free of all colors” that included mestizos, mulattoes, zambos (individuals with indigenous and African ancestry) and free blacks, which in general was the majority in the censuses. On the other hand, in the Captaincy of Central America, non-indigenous people were categorized as “ladinas”, a term that today persists in Guatemala.


The independent republics generally maintained the census racialization, as for example in Nicaragua where the census included the indigenous, mestizo, mulatto, black, zambo and white categories.

In those cases, such as Guatemala and Honduras, where the categories were indigenous or Ladino, the Afro-descendant population directly disappeared from the records. The same happened in Argentina and Uruguay since the obsession to “whiten” their population led, for years, to the census denial of the component of African and indigenous origin, despite its notorious presence in everyday reality.

When the pseudo-scientific basis was discarded, the attitude of most of the states in the region was to forget the issue under the cover of assimilationist and integrative ideologies, although there were some exceptions.

A profound change took place in the last part of the 20th. century and at the beginning of the 21th. With the international recognition of the rights of Indigenous Peoples and People of African descent to be considered as ancestral, cultural and social collectives and, therefore, the need for specific legislation and public policies.

This is reflected, not only in the census questions, which are gradually including the topic, especially from self-identification, but also the need to structure mechanisms for consultation and participation of Afro- and indigenous groups for the design and implementation of statistical research tools (censuses, surveys and others).

But, as ECLAC points out, the process has advances and setbacks for multiple reasons, technical, political and cultural. It is required that the ethnic approach transcends the mere inclusion of questions to distinguish the indigenous or Afro-descendant condition, but to promote an information collection process that allows indigenous and Afro-descendants to orient and follow up on their life plans and policy priorities[4].

In this context, the campaign initiated by the organizations of indigenous descendants in Uruguay is also relevant, which, in view of the census that will be held this year 2023 (still without a precise date established), promote the self-identification of people with indigenous ancestry.

The campaign argues that: “More than one million Uruguayans have an indigenous relative, but in the previous census only 5% have recognized it in the previous census.”


The organizations base their proposal on multiple scientific studies that have recently been known to show that the weight of the indigenous component in the population of Uruguay is immensely greater than what has historically been recognized.

Precisely for this reason, because of the denial that has always been made of the existence of indigenous people in the country, this campaign is key to encouraging ethnic self-identification.

[1] Decree No. 164, declaring the indigenous people of the town of San Pedro Sacatepéquez, Guatemala, Ladino, October 13, 1876.

[2] Decree 1729 of August 20, 1935.

[3] Eduardo Galeano, “Being like Them and other articles”, 1992.

[4] ECLAC, Recommendations for population and housing censuses in Latin America. Revision 2020