Travelers coming south from Guatemala to Honduras may be surprised at the overwhelming nonindigenous nature of the population. More than 90 percent of Hondurans are mestizos, also called ladinos (persons of mixed European and Central American Indian ancestry). Only 5 percent of the people, or about 410,000, claim to be Amerindian, while less than 1 percent are black and 2 percent are white.
Because Honduras was only partially controlled by the Spanish during the colonial era, the north coast, the Bay Islands, and the Mosquitia have a culture markedly different from that of the country’s interior. English and North American influences have left their mark on the coast; English is spoken as often as Spanish, and the culture is more closely related to the Caribbean islands than the rest of Honduras.
While the number of minority ethnic groups in Honduras is a mere 6 percent of the total population, certain regions of the country are strongly marked by these pockets of ethnic and cultural diversity. The largest indigenous group in the country is the Lenca, who number around 300,000 people living in villages and towns throughout western and southern Honduras. Perhaps because they provided the stiffest defense to the Spanish invaders, the Lenca are, in a way, the emblematic tribe of the country, idealized in the national myth not unlike the Aztecs in Mexico. Nonetheless, the Lenca language is now lost entirely, and only a few traditions continue.
Tucked into the far western corner of the country along the Guatemalan border are an estimated 37,000 Chortí Maya. While Chortí traditions and language were on the decline for many years, in recent years the group appears to have reasserted itself, creating a strong and vocal Chortí organization.
Once living across large areas of central Honduras, the Tolupán have practically ceased to exist as a cultural group. Only one village in the mountains of northern Francisco Morazán still speak their language, though 10,000 campesinos in rural Yoro call themselves tribu and organize their villages in a communal fashion.
Farther east in Olancho and the Mosquitia are two former rainforest tribes now living in rural villages, the Pech and Tawahka. The Pech number around 4,100 people and are split into two regions, one around El Carbón along the highway from San Esteban to Tocoa, and the second northwest of Dulce Nombre de Culmí. The even smaller Tawahka, with a population of only about 2,650, live along the Río Patuca, near the border of the Gracias a Dios and Olancho departments.
True to Honduras’s propensity to join in collective action (which is perhaps in part derived from the communal tendencies of the indigenous groups), the Chortí Maya, Lenca, Tawahka, and Pech are in frequent contact with one another and with Garífuna and Miskito organizations to work together for their common cause, fighting against repression and governmental neglect.
Garífuna and Miskitos
Few ethnic groups in the world can trace their birth to specific historic events, but Honduras is home to two that can: the Garífuna of the north coast and the Miskito, in the northeast. These two unique ethnic groups were created from the mixing of African slaves who escaped from two shipwrecks with two different indigenous peoples early in the colonial era. Rather than fade in the face of modernization, both these groups appear to have grown stronger. According to the 2001 census, the Miskito numbered over 55,000, while the Garífuna totaled nearly 50,000, with another 13,300 English-speaking blacks on the Bay Islands categorized into a separate group.
© Chris Humphrey and Amy E. Robertson from Moon Honduras, 5th Edition