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Colombia, Population

The racial makeup of the Colombian population is diverse. About 58 percent of the people are mestizo (of mixed Spanish and Native American ancestry), about 20 percent are of unmixed European ancestry, and about 14 percent are mulatto (of mixed black and white ancestry). The remaining 8 percent are blacks, Native Americans, and people of mixed race.

The Native American population at the time of the Spanish conquest is believed to have numbered between 1.5 million and 2 million. Many of the indigenous people were nomadic. The Chibchas, living on the Cordillera Oriental in the east, practiced agriculture. Intermarriage between the Spanish and the indigenous people began soon after the arrival of the Spanish, leading to the appearance of the mestizos. Early in the colonial period the Spanish brought African slaves from the areas that are now Angola, Nigeria, and Zaire. African ancestry is most evident today among the population of the Caribbean shores and inland among the people living along the Magdalena and Cauca rivers.

The Colombian upper class largely consists of a wealthy white elite, some of whom trace their lineage to the aristocracy of the colonial era. The wealth of this elite is based largely on the ownership of land and property. The upper class also includes a group of people whose wealth is more recent; these people have accumulated wealth through commercial and entrepreneurial activities.

The middle class has grown as a result of industrialization and economic diversification in the 20th century. Historically the middle class was largely made up of those who had fallen from the aristocracy through loss of wealth and property. It was small in number and politically passive. During the 20th century, the middle class grew to include people who rose from the lower class by succeeding in business. Groups that are regarded as middle class include small-business people, merchants, professionals, bureaucrats and government workers, professors and teachers, and white-collar workers.

The greatest portion of the population belongs to the politically powerless lower class. Its members are poorly educated and do not have adequate housing, health care, or sanitation. Those who are employed are low-paid manual laborers. Few of the benefits of economic growth have reached the poor. Rural areas have an agricultural system in which estates are owned by the wealthy elite. This system keeps members of the lower class in a kind of bondage as field workers. In the cities the creation and expansion of a labor movement has resulted in some improvements for workers, but working conditions remain substandard, and wages and living standards are low.

Family roles in Colombia are sharply delineated, and women generally play a subordinate role in Colombia society. Although women are active in the lives and care of their children, society at all levels is essentially dominated by men. Since the 1970s a few women have become active in public affairs, but this is an exception to the roles of most Colombian women.

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