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Otavalo Indians and the Path of Globalization, Part 3 of 3: Maintaining Cultural Identity

Updated on June 8, 2019
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Stephanie loves to save money in any way possible so she can spend it traveling and eating expensive food.

Textiles for sale in the Otavalo Market
Textiles for sale in the Otavalo Market | Source

Success Against a Backdrop of Failure

The prosperity that the Otavalos have gained has also highlighted the marginalized situation of most other Latin American indigenous groups. Despite the wealth disparities, the improvement in the lives on one indigenous community appears to have affected the surrounding groups positively: not only have they benefitted from the capital brought in by increased tourism to the region, but the valley and its surrounding areas have gained political and economic power that was unthinkable two decades ago.

In an era when “ethnocide” is a familiar term and international aid groups named Cultural Survival and Survival International are engaged in a battle against the “dominant culture” or globalization, the success of the Otavalos, both in the market and in their communal identity, is astounding.

City of Otavalo, Ecuador, home of the Otavalo Indians
City of Otavalo, Ecuador, home of the Otavalo Indians | Source

Factors in Otavalo's Success

The city of San Luis de Otavalo had a population of 26,000 indians, mestizos, and foreignors in 2001. In sits on the Pan-American highway two hours north of the capital city and popular tourist destination of Quito and two hours south of the Colombian border, a favorable position for visits from tourists traveling south and north. In addition, 60,000 Otavalos live in small communities throughout the valley, as well as in the large nearby cities of Ibarra and Quito, and Tulcan, the border town situated right next to the Colombian city of Ipiales. Many ingenous also live in nearby villages and come into the city for the daily market.

The map below shows that the small city of Otavalo is situated on the Pan-American highway. If you zoom out, you'll see Ecuador's capital, Quito, to the south, and the Colombian border to the north.

Diaspora and Identity

How have the Otvalos been able to retain their uniqueness in a time when they are no longer confined to a single territoy?

Anthropologist Lynn A. Meisch explains that “Otavalos are coping with globalization by relying on a combination of traditional values and practices and modern technology to preserve as well as market their ethnic identity”.

However, on the website of the Development Council for the Towns and Nationalities of Ecuador (CODENPE), the Otavalos themselves atribute their success to their innovative mentality and capacity to adapt to their circumstances, stating that “our people… always saw in handicrafts an alternative for survival and we have made that the fundamental base of our economy” (

Both theories may hold ground, as the Otavalos have been forced to react to an evolving market and a history of oppression. Otavalo is today the wealthiest indigenous municipality in Ecuador and the seat of the largest handicrafts market in South America. Their success and pride is dazzling, but it must be viewed against a backdrop of oppression.

Books by Lynn A. Meisch that helped me write this hub:

Andean Entrepreneurs: Otavalo Merchants and Musicians in the Global Arena (Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Series in Latin American and Latino Art and Culture)
Andean Entrepreneurs: Otavalo Merchants and Musicians in the Global Arena (Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Series in Latin American and Latino Art and Culture)
My primary source here: She goes in depth into the history of weaving among the Otavalos and the people who helped shape their commerce.

“In the 50’s, 60’s ,and 70’s, our parents lived in oppressive conditions, entirely in a subsistence economy. One of the solutions to save their children from the oppression and discrimination and offer them better economic opportunities was to raise them as mishus”.

-Quote from

A statue of Otavalo dancers in traditional dress is an expression of pride.
A statue of Otavalo dancers in traditional dress is an expression of pride. | Source
Otavalo man and woman in traditional dress
Otavalo man and woman in traditional dress | Source

Cultural Revival

Mishu is the Quichua word for the white/mestizo culture. In the mid-twentieth century, many families decided to move into the cities to raise their children not as Otavalo indians, but as mishus, so that they may live a situation of less discrimination.

However, in the midst 1970’s economic boom, cultural activity developed as a form of rescue and defense of the Quichua-Otavalo culture. Music and theater groups were organized as awareness-raising campaigns and children raised as mishus re-adopted the traditional dress and took to speaking Quichua. The Otavalos’ success abroad as artisans, musicians, and specifically as Quichua-Otavalo Indians encouraged a cultural rebirth, generating an environment in which being Indian stopped being something to hide and started to be something to be proud of. Nowadays, there is no longer a tendency of parents to raise their children as mishus. To the contrary, there are couples of Otavalos who have married foreignors who raise their children as Otavalos and give them Quichua names. Ethnic pride and economic development among the Otavalos seems to be synergystic. They are conscious of their past, of the resistance of their ancestors, and modern generations feel the great weight of protecting what their community has struggled for.

Young Otavalo school girls in traditional dress
Young Otavalo school girls in traditional dress | Source

Gender Equality in the Workforce

Notably, they do not think in a strong dichotomy that inhibits women from participating in the economic sector. This cultural aspect has contributed to their success as a group, allowing women to freely own land, resources, and businesses, and work independently as men do, augmenting the workforce in a way that the hispanicized white-mestizo population has been slow to do accomplish.

Ruminahui, an Inca warrior, is immortalized in Otavalo
Ruminahui, an Inca warrior, is immortalized in Otavalo | Source

A New Idea of Globalization

Tourism from wealthier nations is often viewed as damaging to cultural minorities. However, through repeated invasions from the Inca, Spanish, and now the dominant culture of globalization, the Otavalos have allowed globalization to enhance their uniqueness rather than diminuish it.

Otavalo contradicts the steamroller image of modernization, the assumption that traditional societies are critically vulnerable to the slightest touch of outside influence and wholly passive under its impacts…” (Meisch).

There are 145,000 visitors annually to Otavalo, and the technological innovations of telephones and internet have facilitated communications with distant places. There now exist internet sites called “” and “” to organize communities of expatriates, and Otavalos participate actively in national and local politics, to the point that they were able to elect an indigenous mayor to their city. They own hotels, hostals, bus lines, and restaurants. Mainstream Ecuadorians sometimes view indigenous people as “backwards” and “underdeveloped” but the Otavalo contradict these assumption in every way.

While there remain economic disparities among the Otavalo, and they have experienced legal difficulties abroad due to the underground sales of handicrafts and music, they have overall been a contradiction to the often negative aspects of globalization, especially in its affects on indigenous cultures. They have done a remarkable job at embracing a new, globalized era (with a little bit of help), allowing them to maintain their communal ties and cultural traditions through a combination of commerce and tourism, an accomplishment that is tragically rare among modern Amerindians.

More on Ecuador and Otavalo

Ecuador & the Galapagos Islands (Country Travel Guide)
Ecuador & the Galapagos Islands (Country Travel Guide)
If you want to go to Otavalo and enjoy the largest handicrafts market in South America, this book will help you get there. Lonely Planet Guides are my preferred guidebook.

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