Otavalo - Economy

Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The production of textiles has been important for centuries in the Otavalo region. Until the twentieth century, when a full-time weaving and merchant class arose, most textile activity was integrated into the agricultural cycle, and the Otavalo were subsistence farmers raising potatoes, corn, haba beans, quinoa, cherries (all indigenous crops), garden vegetables, and guinea pigs. Since the Spanish Conquest the Otavalo have also raised wheat, pigs, chickens, cattle, sheep, and occasionally horses.

Industrial Arts. Even before the arrival of the Incas, the Indians of the Otavalo Valley were known as weavers and merchants, using such indigenous technology and materials as the hand-held spindle, backstrap loom, and cotton and possibly camelid fibers to weave clothing and blankets. The obrajes, although oppressive, introduced production weaving and the technology upon which the modern economy is based: hand carders, walking spinning wheels, treadle looms, and sheep's wool. Because of a wool shortage, cotton and such synthetic fibers as acrylic are also used. Modern textile production is primarily a cottage industry with family members helping with production. About 25,000 males and females over age 16 work part- or full-time in the textile industry. Children also help after school. Involvement ranges from families who make two handspun wool backstrap loom-woven ponchos a month to families who produce hundreds of acrylic shawls a day on electric looms with the help of hired workers. The Otavalo produce clothing for themselves, for other Ecuadoran Indians and Whites, and high-fashion clothing for the export and tourist markets, as well as blankets, bedspreads, tapestry wall hangings, handbags, and electric machine-knit socks, to give a partial list. There are some wage workers in textiles but there is no industrial proletariat. Those not working in the textile cottage industry are subsistence farmers, day laborers in farming or construction, or both farmers and producers of other crafts. Families and villages have specialties. Mats are made from totora reeds in communities around San Pablo Lake; others fashion pottery, leather goods, and baskets.

Trade. From pre-Inca times through the early Spanish colonial era, a separate merchant group ( mindalaes ) traded cotton textiles, beads, and other luxury goods throughout the sierra. Later, nonhacienda Indians continued to travel and market textiles. Today there are part- and full-time merchants who travel throughout Ecuador and to other Latin American countries, North America, and Europe selling textiles made by the Otavalo and by Whites and Indians from other parts of Ecuador, including wool or cotton sweaters hand-knit by White women in Ibarra, Mira, San Gabriel, and Cuenca. Substantial merchandising also occurs at the Saturday and Wednesday Otavalo markets.

Division of Labor. Women traditionally spun with the hand-held spindle and men did the weaving. Today men predominate as weavers, but women also weave on both the pre-Hispanic stick loom and the European treadle loom. Both sexes spin, dye yarn, sew, finish textiles, garden, herd, farm, and sell items in the market and in stores. Women generally cook and care for infants, but men help. There is a high degree of gender equality, which was probably even greater before the Spanish Conquest. From a very early age children of both sexes help with textile and agricultural tasks, carry water, wash clothes, gather firewood, and care for their younger siblings.

Land Tenure. Information is lacking on Caranqui and Cayambi land tenure. Under the Inca empire land was communally owned and redistributed annually, with parcels farmed for the Sun (region), the Inca, and individual family consumption. Landownership has always been important to the Otavalo, and in the twentieth century, even before the agrarian reform, they bought back hacienda land whenever possible. In the 1990s small, individually owned landholdings are the norm.

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