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World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - El Salvador

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 2007
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - El Salvador, 2007, available at: [accessed 1 December 2015]
Comments In October 2015, MRG revised its World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples. For the most part, overview texts were not themselves updated, but the previous 'Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples' rubric was replaced throughout with links to the relevant minority-specific reports, and a 'Resources' section was added. Refworld entries have been updated accordingly.
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


El Salvador is the smallest and most densely populated country in Central America. It is bounded on the south by the Pacific Ocean and has no Atlantic Coast. El Salvador shares borders with Guatemala on the west and Honduras on the northeast.

The national terrain is characterized by two volcanic ranges running approximately west to east separated by broad valleys like that of the Lempa River. This is located in what was once a traditional Lenca territory. The fertile valleys are now dominated by large-scale agricultural enterprises.


The majority of present day Salvadoran society consists of mestizos who are mainly of mixed Spanish and indigenous descent.

While it was never a major centre of indigenous urban civilization, Spanish colonialists on arrival found a sizeable indigenous population. Many died during the conquest.

As in other territories there was a mixing of Spanish and indigenous groups beginning in the 16th century, which created the prevailing mestizo mainstream.

With the development of cotton, indigo, and sugar plantations in the early 17th century, many indigenous villages were destroyed, their lands seized and the inhabitants forced to farm and work on these plantations.

As in other Spanish colonial territories enslaved Africans were also brought to El Salvador to work in the forced labour enterprises and eventually became absorbed into the mestizo mix. Their historical presence has never been officially acknowledged in a society that does not recognize ethnic diversity. Nevertheless the genetic legacy can still be determined by the appearance of distinctive hair texture and darker skin tones in some members of the population as a whole as well as within marginalized indigenous groups.

The concentration of land in the hands of a small, Spanish-descended landowning elite has been at the root of the conflict faced by the country at different times during the twentieth century. The last census of indigenous Salvadorans, was conducted in 1930. It showed a population of 80,000, or 5.6 per cent of the total. However in 1932 between 10,000 and 50,000 people were systematically killed by the government of General Maximiliano Hernandez Martínez following an abortive uprising. During 'The Matanza' (massacres) as it was called, anyone wearing indigenous dress or having indigenous physical features risked being deemed guilty of participating in the uprising and murdered.

In the face of this repression, most of the remaining indigenous peoples adopted Spanish customs and assimilated into the general population; this was the virtual end of a distinctive indigenous culture. However, apart from the small numbers of indigenous communities that still remain, many of the Salvadoran poor continued to identify themselves as descendants of the original inhabitants in talking about 500 years of oppression.

It is noteworthy that the leader of the 1932 uprising who was ultimately arrested and executed was named Martí. It is his name that was preserved in the title of the FMLN (Frente Martí Liberación Nacional) the leading opposition group whose anti-oligarchy guerrilla forces fought against the Salvadoran military during the 1980-1992 civil war.


Main languages: Spanish

Main religions: Christianity (Roman Catholic, Protestant/Evangelical)

Main minority groups: indigenous (Pipil, Pocomam, Lenca) (1%, CIA 2007)


Though the Salvadoran government officially recognizes the existence of the indigenous population in the form of specially constituted state institutions, discrimination against them is both by default as well as unofficial practice.

The present Salvadoran Constitution does not make specific provisions for the rights of indigenous peoples, or for their ability to participate in decisions affecting their lands, culture, traditions, or use of natural resources. Furthermore El Salvador does not maintain official records of the indigenous population or include such a category in the census.

The largest organization dealing with indigenous issues in El Salvador is the Centre for Cultural Affairs (CONCULTURA). It is the only public organization overseeing indigenous affairs in the public sector (Ministry of Education).

In 1955 the state established the Indigenous Affairs Unit of the National Council for Culture and Arts to work for the recognition of and to provide support to Salvadoran indigenous peoples and organizations. The unit has mainly been concerned with basic cultural issues. Since 1988, the most significant activity has been related to preserving and disseminating the Nahuatl language.

In 1998 the Ministry of Education with the support of CONCULTURA and the National Indigenous Salvadorian Coordinating Council (CCNIS) instituted a program for the 'Revitalization of Nahuat-Pipil language' including texts. As of 2006 this has only been promoted in five schools in the department of Sonsonate and no efforts have yet been made to include indigenous culture and language within the regular national curriculum.

CCNIS is a non-government organization that represents at least 11 of the 18 existing indigenous organizations. It includes grassroots organizations at the community level, which influence and determine levels of acceptance and cooperation with incoming programs.

In the larger context, it was not language rights but pressures on the land and widespread poverty that were the causes of the country's second major conflict, during the 1980s. The army, financed, trained and backed by the USA, waged a war against the FMLN guerrillas for twelve years, during which 80, 000 people lost their lives. However, since the peace accords were signed on 16 January 1992, land issues have continued to be a source of tension.

El Salvador's peace accords have not resolved the causes of the armed conflict. The country remains one of the most unequal in the region, ranking 0.54 on the GINI index. Over 40 per cent of its population lives in poverty. Dollarization of the country's currency system, introduced in 2001 and a shrinking agricultural sector have increased pressure on the economy where 60% of the workforce is employed in the service sector.

Nearly 17 per cent of the national income is derived from foreign remittances sent by the 20 per cent of the population that lives abroad. Human rights violations have continued in the post-war era and the growth of organized crime, youth gangs and vigilante squads has been a reminder of the failure to dismantle the structures of repression, as well as to address broader issues of social and political inequality.

Despite a growing cultural consciousness, the situation of the Pipil, Pocomam, Cacaopera and Lenca seem to be tied to the fate of the Salvadoran population as a whole. It is unlikely that questions of indigenous rights can be solved unless the land question and social disparities in the whole country are settled more equitably.

In 2001 a Multisectoral Technical Committee that included indigenous representatives was set up to comprehensively examine the sociocultural problems of the country's indigenous peoples. With help from the World Bank the Committee completed an indigenous profile of El Salvador that contained information on the history, skills, knowledge, and incidence of poverty This was followed in 2004 by a Social Capital Assessment also sponsored by the World Bank However as of mid-2006 there has been no follow-up on the recommendations made in either of these studies regarding steps needed to improve the quality of life of indigenous people.



Minority based and advocacy organisations


Asociación de Mujeres por la Dignidad y la Vida (Las Dignas)
[Gender Rights]
Tel: +503 2284 9550

Fondo Ambiental de El Salvador
[Environmental Trust]
Tel: +503 2226 3000

IMU (Instituto de Investigación, Capacitación y Desarrollo de la Mujer)
Tel: +503 2226 0543

Organización de Mujeres Salvadoreñas para la Paz (ORMUSA)
[Indigenous Gender Rights]
Tel: +503 2225 5007

PNUD (UNDP) Programa El Salvador
[United Nations Development Programme]
Tel: +503 2263 0066

Popular Education Collective (CIAZO)
Tel: +503 2226 0107/0189, +503 2225 1288

Indigenous peoples

Consejo Coordinador Nacional Indígena Del Salvador (CCNIS) includes:
Asociación Coordinadora de Comunidades Indígenas de El Salvador (ACCIES)
Asociación Nacional Indígena Tierra Sagrada (ANITSA)
Movimiento Autóctono Indígena Salvadoreño (MAIS)
[Indigenous Culture & Development]
Tel: +503 298 8676

Instituto para el Rescate Ancestral Indigena Salvadoreño (RAIS)
Tel: +503 2275 4179

Museo de la Palabra y La Imagen
[Exhibition: 'Memoria de los Izalcos']
Tel: +503 2275 4870

Sources and further reading


Aldo A. Lauria-Santiago (1995) Historical Research and Sources on El Salvador, Latin American Research Review, Vol. 30, No. 2. pp. 151-176.

Alvarenga, Patricia Cultura y Etica de la Violencia: El Salvador 1880-1932 (San José, Costa Rica: EDUCA, 1996)

Bierhorst, John. The Mythology of Mexico and Central America. William Morrow, New York, NY, 1990.

Catholic Institute of International Relations, El Salvador: Wager for Peace, London, CIIR, 1993.

Centre for World Indigenous Studies: The Fourth World Documentation Project. retrieved 25 April 2007,

Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination Considers Report of El Salvador, 28 February 2006. UNOG. retrieved, 25 April 2007,

Dunkerley James (1982) The Long War: Dictatorship and Revolution in El Salvador London: Junction Books

Gatehouse, M. and Macdonald, M., In the Mountains of Morazán, London, Latin America Bureau, 1994.

Huezo Mixco, M. (2000) 'Cultura y Violencia en El Salvador' in PNUD Violencia en una Sociedad en Transición: Ensayos San Salvador: PNUD pp: 115-138

Jovel, Rosalia. El Salvador: Country Gender Profile (2005) retrieved 25 April 2007,

Knight, Alan Racism, revolution, and indigenismo: 1910-1940. In The Idea of Race in Latin America, 1870-1940. Richard Graham, ed. Austin: University of Texas Press. 1990

Luciak, I.A (2001) After the Revolution: Gender and Democracy in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. By. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press

Mason, T. David 'The Civil War in El Salvador: A Retrospective Analysis' Latin American Research Review vol. 34, no 3 (1999) pp. 179-196 American Research Review, Vol. 30, No. 3, pp. 43-74.

McLeod, Murdo Spanish Central America: A Socio-Economic History, 1520-1720. Berkley: University of California Press. 1973

Murray, K., with Barry, T., Inside El Salvador, Albuquerque, N. Mex., Resource Centre Press, 1995.

Ross, Matt, Salvadorans take steps to reclaim heritage. February 1, 2006. retrieved 25 April 2007,

Tilley, Virginia (2002) 'New Help or New Hegemony? The Transnational Indigenous Peoples' Movement and 'Being Indian' in El Salvador', Journal of Latin American Studies 34(3): 525-555.

US Department of State, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1994, El Salvador, Washington, DC, US Government Printing Office, 1995.

Indigenous peoples

Bierhorst, John. The Mythology of Mexico and Central America. William Morrow, New York, NY, 1990.

Campbell, Lyle. American Indian languages: The historical linguistics of Native America. New York: Oxford University Press. 1997

Campbell, Lyle. Middle American languages. In L. Campbell and M. Mithun (Eds.), The languages of native America: Historical and comparative assessment (pp. 902-1000). Austin: University of Texas Press. 1978

Campbell, Lyle. The Pipil language of El Salvador. Mouton grammar library (No. 1). Berlin: Mouton Publishers. 1985

Carrasco, David, Editor in chief. The Oxford encyclopedia of Mesoamerican cultures: the civilizations of Mexico and Central America, in four volumes. Oxford University Press, New York, 2001.

CCNIS (1999) Pueblos Indígenas, Salud, y Condiciones de Vida en El Salvador. San Salvador: OPS/CONCULTURA.

Chapin, Mac (1990) La Población Indígena de El Salvador. San Salvador: Ministerio de Educación Dirección de Publicaciones e Impresos

Chapin, Mac. 'The 500,000 Indians of El Salvador'. Cultural Survival Quarterly. 1989.

Chapman, Anne M. Los nicarao y los chorotega según las fuentes históricas. Publicaciones de la Universidad de Costa Rica, Serie historia y geografía 4. San José: Ciudad Universitaria. 1960

Clavijero, Francisco Xavier. [1775]. Historia antigua de México. Mexico: Editorial Porrúa. 1974

Enemies of War: El Salvador Before the War. retrieved 25 April 2007,

Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, Gonzalo. [1557]. Historia general y natural de las Indias, Islas y Tierrafirme del mar de Océano. J. Amador de los Ríos (Ed). Asunción, Paraguay: Editorial Guaraní. 1945

Fondo Ambiental de El Salvador. retrieved 1 May 2007,

Foro Nacional Sobre Los Derechos Indigenas En El Salvador. 31 Agosto 2002. retrieved 25 April 2007,

Fowler, William R. (). The Pipil-Nicarao of Central America. (Unpublished PhD dissertation, Department of Archaeology, University of Calgary).

Fowler, William R. (1983). La distribución prehistórica e histórica de los pipiles. Mesoamérica, 6, 348-372. 1981

de Fuentes y Guzmán, Francisco Antonio. (1932-1933 [1695]). Recordación florida: Discurso historial y demostración natural, material, militar y política del Reyno de Guatemala. J. A. Villacorta, R. A. Salazar, & S. Aguilar (Eds.). Biblioteca 'Goathemala' (Vols. 6-8). Guatemala: Sociedad de Geografía e Historia.

Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (Ed.). (). Ethnologue: Languages of the world (15th ed.). Dallas, TX: SIL International. 2005 (Online version:

Hablemos On Line. Identidad Amenazada. 12 August 2001. retrieved 25 April 2007,

Hablemos On Line. Salud Deteriorada. August 12, 2001. retrieved 25 April 2007, m

Ixtlilxochitl, Don Fernado de Alva. [1600-1611]). Obras históricas de Don Fernado de Alva Ixtlixochitl, publicadas y anotadas pro Alfredo Chavero. Mexico: Editoria Nacional, S.A. 1952

Jiménez Moreno, Wigberto. Síntesis de la historia pretoleca de Mesoamérica. Esplendor del México antiguo (Vol. 2, pp. 1019-1108). Mexico. 1959

Jiménez Moreno, Wigberto. Mesoamerica before the Tolteca. In J. Paddock (Ed.), Ancient Oaxaca (pp. 4-82). Stanford: Stanford University Press. 1966

León-Portilla, Miguel. Religión de los nicaraos: Análisis y comparación de tradiciones culturales nahuas. Mexico: Instituto de Investigaciones Históricas, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. 1972

Macdonald, T., 'El Salvador's Indians', Cultural Survival Quarterly, vol. 6, no. 1, Winter 1982.

Organizacion Panamericana de la Salud. Representacion en El Salvador. 1999. Date accessed: 12/08/2003

Peterson, BG (2006) 'Consuming Histories: The Return of the Indian in Neoliberal El Salvador' Cultural Dynamics, Vol. 18, No. 2, 163-188

Tilley, V (2005) Seeing Indians: A Study of Race, Nation, and Power in El Salvador Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press

UNDP Human Development Reports as a standard source on countries.

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