As somebody born and raised in the UK, Medellín surprised me. Unlike the melting pot of my home, Medellin’s people, belonging to the ethnic/geographic/cultural term Paisa, are paradoxically homogenous yet diverse at the same time.
How come these people are so remarkably different to Colombians from other cities like Bogota or Cartagena? These guys looked distinctive, sounded unique.
Just who were these people welcoming me into their gorgeous city?
Let’s answer that… In this article, we provide a comprehensive look at who, or what Paisas are. We’ll cover their territory, history, culture and more.
The term Paisa is an Abbreviation
‘Paisa‘ is an abbreviation of the Spanish word Paisano, meaning countryman. This is likely to derive from the livelihood of early settlers which consisted of working the land via means of agriculture, cattle ranching and gold mining. Oh, and we can’t forget coffee plantations!
Some contend that the word Paisa is actually a contraction of the words País A, or Pais Antioquia – meaning Country Antioquia.
What, or who, is a Paisa?
Paisa is a geographic, cultural and ethnic label referring to inhabitants from large swathes of Colombia. You may know them as the people of Medellín, but their reach actually spans across 6 departments – all of which dominated by the Andes. These are:
- Large parts of Antioquia
- North-western Tolima
- Parts of the Valle del Cauca.
Until 1905, the Paisa region was a defined administrative territory of the country, covering both Antioquia and the Coffee Axis.
In 1966, the Coffee Axis was divided into Risaralda, Caldas and Quindío. Since then, the Paisa region ceased to be an administrative division of the country.
Today, not all Paisas share the same administrative land however remain bound by a common culture, history and heritage.
It should be noted that Paisas are proud of their background. This is illustrated by the preference of Medellínenses (people from Medellín) to call themselves Paisas.
What is the history of Paisas?
Paisas are synonymous with much of Colombia’s mountainous Andes region. That is because its lush and nutrient dense landscapes attracted Spanish settlers. They saw opportunity in extracting gold and working the lands for cattle grazing. While goldmining has since dwindled, cattle ranches (rancheros) remain a significant economic activity for much of the territory. In response to a booming demand for coffee, the coffee axis now supplies 12% of the world’s Arabica coffee!
The biggest challenge faced by settlers was the inaccessibility and isolation of the mountain ranges. Until the 16th century, the land recognized as Antioquia by today’s standards was inhabited by Indo-American natives.
Pre-Columbian times, the Paisa territory was occupied by various indigenous tribes such as the Nutabes, Tahamíes and Quimbayas. As was typical during times of the Spanish Inquisition, years of territorial skirmishes occurred between these Amerindian tribes and European settlers.
By 1540, Spaniard Jorge Robledo marked his conquest with the founding of Cartago, a city located in the northern fringe of the Valle del Cauca. It is a mere 20-minute drive from the city of Pereira.
Just one year later, these European settlers would expand their footprint with the development of Arma, a city located at the banks of the Cauca River. On August 11, 1813 the former Province of Antioquia declared its independence from the Spanish crown, being an independent state from the rest of Nueva Granada for a few years. When it was reconquered by the Spanish and later incorporated into the nascent Republic of Colombia. Concurrently, this city would become its capital. Today, it is known as Santa Fe de Antioquia, although it is has since lost its status as the capital of Antioquia. Medellín has taken that title since 1826…
Why Paisas Have Distinctly European Attributes...
With the establishment of a new sovereign province, successive waves of migration ensued, predominately from the Iberian Peninsula. First to arrive in the 16th century were Spaniards from the Extremadura province in western Spain. Their early settlement influenced the names of some towns, including Medellín itself, which is derived from Medellín de Badajoz, a town in Extremadura.
It is posited that the ancestry of Paisas, including people from Medellín, derives predominately from Spaniards of the Extremadura region.
In addition, subsequent waves of migration from Andalucía and the Basque province are evident, particularly the latter. The ubiquity of Basque surnames amongst Paisas support the belief that the region holds one of the highest densities of Basque ancestry (in the Americas).
It is also said that waves of Canarians, primarily from the island of Lanzarote, had immigrated to Antioquia.
The bulk of this migration occurred during the period of inquisition in the 17th century.
Interestingly, Sephardi Jews, shunned by Spanish rulers for straying from Catholicism, took refuge in the isolated mountains of Antioquia. In doing so, they too added to the European genepool of Paisas.
Broadly speaking, the genetic makeup of Paisas developed from years of male settlers mixing with female Amerindians. Hence, it is normal to observe a wide variety of appearances between Paisas. Studies of DNA among the population confirm that although European influence is prominent, Amerindian (Native American) ancestry accounts for 20%-40%.
Perhaps it is this combination that has resulted in women from this region being widely revered for their physical beauty.
Paisas Have Been Shaped By Years of Early Isolation
The rugged and inaccessible terrain of the Andes meant that while settlers did arrive, it never managed to develop as a base for Spanish Inquisition. By contrast, coastal areas such as Cartagena de Indias were more reachable for Spaniards arriving on boat, resulting in more concentrated campaigns by the Inquisitors.
The Paisa region instead attracted a subset of this population that were eager to scratch out a living on the mountains. It is this insulation of settlers that has resulted in the genetically isolated and preserved makeup of people today known as Paisas. It is also why they constitute such a distinct cultural identity within Colombia. They are not comparable to any other region in the country and this is because of their reduced contact with surrounding areas.
Also, remember that the bulk of Spanish Inquisition took place towards the northern regions of Colombia. Antioquia was seen as a remote region and thus only caught the interest of those willing to tolerate these remote conditions.
Medellín, the capital of Antioquia, has long been considered the second most important city of Colombia, behind the capital of Bogota. Many Paisas like to declare that the historic Paisa/greater Antioquian region could even stand its own ground as an independent country.
Paisas are Known for Their Beautiful Spanish
A glimpse of any online poll or forum will quickly reveal that many people, both Spanish speakers and not, have a preference for Colombian Spanish. Specifically, they refer to Medellín, but this will include other Paisa regions covered by the Coffee Axis where the accent is indistinguishable.
It is ideal for learners of the language due to its softness and rhythmic intonation. The accent is melodic and Spanish speakers often refer to is as ‘cantadito’ (song-like).
There are certain characteristics of their Spanish that make it distinct from Castellano in Spain:
- The use of “seseo” – Unlike in Spain, Paisas do not distinguish between the sound between ‘s’ and ‘z’ and soft ‘c’s. In Spain, gracias would be pronounced as grathias.
- Paisas pronounce ‘ll’ as a ‘j’. For example, Medellín becomes Medejín.
- The word ‘s’ is pronounced more like a ‘sh’. Think tip of the tongue – kind of like Sean Connery!
- The use of ‘usted’ is commonplace amongst Paisas. Even families often communicate using this second person pronoun. It’s a respect-based formality.
- ‘Pues’ is a very common filler word, meaning something along the lines of ‘like’. E.g., pues, todo bien (well, all good).
When I decided to learn Spanish, I chose Medellín over Spain even though I was from the UK. Over 7 years and I have no regrets. In fact, my Spanish accent is often compliment by Spaniards when I’m back in the UK.
Paisas Hold on to The Faith of Their Early Settlers
An extant import brought over by the Spaniards was their faith in God. Whilst Colombia does not have an official religion, it is estimated that 90% of the country are Catholics. This makes Colombia one of the countries with the highest rates of Catholic baptism in the world.
The faith of the Catholic Church is a special symbol of the traditional Paisa culture. It is no coincidence that in 1986 Pope Juan Pablo II came to Medellín and then Francisco did in 2017. Catholicism is deeply embedded into the public life of Paisas. You’ll often hear expressions such as “gracias a dios” (thanks to God), “Dios te bendiga” (God bless you), “que dios le pague” (may God bless you). We can’t forget the particularly Paisa expression, “ay Ave Maria”, meaning hail Mary.
Catholic churches are an inextricable feature of any Paisa settlement. You’d be hard pressed to find any town or city in the region without one.
In Medellín alone, there are over 200 churches. Its biggest, the Catedral Basílica Metropolitana, is located in El Centro and is one of the biggest baked clay structures in the world constructed with over 1,120,000 adobe bricks.
Important Cities With a Paisa Identity
Capital of the department of Antioquia.
Population: 2,6 million
Nickame: The city of eternal spring.
Capital of the department of Caldes.
Nickname: The city of open doors.
Manizales is often cited as the ‘safest’ city in Colombia…
Capital of the department of Risaralda.
Capital of the department of Quindío.
Armenia is known as the ‘Miracle City’.
What is The Culture Like?
Whether in a bustling city or slower-paced rural environment, Paisas have not lost their love for the outside.
They never forget their roots and this is why their festivals are amongst the biggest in the country. Feria de las Flores, where the city of Medellin invites the world to celebrate their tradition of flower growing, is a festival that could easily give Rio’s Carnival a run for its money.
Paisas are an active bunch despite having, dare I say it, a disrespect for the notion of time. Coming from the UK, where we keep tight schedules and always look to optimize every minute of the day, I was in for a real culture shock when I first came to Medellin. Medellin may be the second most important city of the country but it still, in ways, retains the pace and atmosphere of a pueblo (if you can excuse the traffic).
If you can peel away from the buzzing streets of Poblado, you’ll discover the Paisas’ notion of ‘parchando’, which means to hang out. Go to Envigado, Sabaneta, Belen or Laureles and you’ll see Paisas parchando around parks, playing chess, walking their dogs, or simply sipping on a tinto.
Paisas are fiercely proud of their history and territory, as I’m reminded whenever I enquire about a city like Bogota…
“por qué Bogota cuando Medellín lo tiene todo?”.
Paisa Pride is a real thing that has driven Medellin through times of despair and total transformation.
Finally, if there are two things that these people can not live without, they are:
Despite a proliferation of tourism in recent years, locals continue to demonstrate their curiosity and hospitality towards foreigners; it’s something that I’ve not seen to the same extent anywhere else I’ve been!
Prominent Paisa Figures
Famous Paisas have established themselves within a multitude of domains, from entertainment, music, politics, art and even drug monopolies…
Some famous names include:
- Juanes (musician)
- Fernando Botero (famous artist and sculptor) Maluma (musician)
- Víctor Gaviria (director).
So, here’s a succinct summary of what you should know about Paisas:
- There is no longer an official Paisa territory. It is now a cultural/historic/genetic identity.
- They are very proud people, often referring to themselves as Paisas above all else (e.g. people from aren’t really known as as Medellinenses).
- The distinct look of Paisas is the result of successive waves of migration from the Iberian Peninsula over the 16th and 17th century.
- The identity of Paisas has been preserved due to the remoteness of the terrain.
- They speak a very enviable form of Spanish which is, in my opinion, ideal for beginners.
- Paisas are a very curious, hospitable people and will welcome you into their way of life with open arms.