You can be anything you want... sort of.

April 16, 2016

Much of Pachaysana’s work relates to identity: individual identity, national identity, but most especially cultural identity in an ever-changing world. Since our work brings together local communities, most especially indigenous and farming communities, and international students, the evolving nature of cultural identity is always at the forefront of our dialogue.

 

For several years, I have been writing about cultural identity in Ecuador and what role education plays. This work will soon be published in Spanish, in a book called “The Myth of Identity.” Over the course of several blog entries, I will share translated and adapted excerpts from the book. The intended audience for this work is “educators”, but in the broadest sense of the word, meaning beyond formal education and teachers. Educators are also parents, organizational leaders and the elder generation. In truth, all active participants in a creative dialogue are educators, because that dialogue provides the continuous learning opportunities that are necessary to inspire the changes we seek as a collective. The excerpts are adapted from the intended Ecuadorian audience and refocused on the majority of our readers, who live in the United States, so as to not lose applicability of the content. Here we go…

 

 (Working on exploring our stories in the community of Tzawata.)

__________

I want an identity! But where does it come from? Is identity something that appears at birth, or is it something that I assume from my society, nationality, ethnicity, family, etc.? Or is it a little of everything? My identity is something that is only mine, or is it shared, is it fixed or does it change?

 

When it comes to the big question of “who am I” there are surely an array of questions that pass through your imagination. They are similar to the questions that pass through mine, and everyone’s for that matter. Identity is such a complex topic, often frustratingly so, mostly because it is just so overwhelming to think about. It includes a seemingly endless interconnection of diverse elements, such as my individuality, my beliefs, my experiences, my nationality, my ethnicity, my gender, my family, my social class, my community(ies), my relationship with a globalized world, etc. All of these things bind together (or crash into each other) in one person defining the “who am I.”

 

And this takes us to a rather substantial problem: my identity is mine alone or my identity always implies a “we”? If we decide it is the latter, perhaps because we realize that an individual identity can only be shaped via a dialogue with the world, most especially other human beings, then who is this “we” that influences or shapes my identity? Ugh, this is not easy at all!

 

When I reflect on my childhood in the USA, I remember hearing a phrase repeated over and over again, a phrase that we are just starting to hear in Ecuador: “you can be anything you want,” as if our identity was a destination over which I have control.  Yet, this phrase was uttered almost simultaneously with others, ones that always felt contradictory to me, at least in part: “you are American… you are Jewish… never forget who you are… be proud of your history and your roots,” as if my identity was something that was already defined. Without a doubt, “who we are” reflects a combination of all these phrases. In other words, I am shaped by my historical, social and cultural roots just as I am formed by what I make out of my life; however, navigating among these many elements is incredibly arduous, especially because the dominating cultural discourse promotes individualism, personal achievement, even fame.

 (Our facilitator, Javier Cevallos, talking about who we are and who we want to be in the community of Mariscal.)

 

I don’t suggest that “making a name for yourself,” which we seem to value more and more with every generation, perhaps perpetuated by our obsession with sports stars and the winners of talent shows, is bad, but I do wonder how this all affects our perception of identity. Could it be that in the midst of such individualist endeavors we are losing sight of a creating a meaningful “us,” forgetting how to form collectives, whatever it is we consider to be our collective: communities, cultures, countries, etc.?  

 

However, I must also realize that when faced with the complexities of life in an ever-more globalized community, perhaps we cling to our individualism because it is the easiest to perceive and define. It’s just too hard to figure out to which “we” I belong and what that “we” means. There are many studies on Ecuadorian identity, but due to rich cultural diversity in a very small country, not to mention a history full of magnificent heroes and ferocious violence, we struggle to define what it means to be Ecuadorian. Complicating matters for the majority of our blog readers, in working with our international students I notice an even greater struggle to determine what it means to be “American”***? Try to imagine sitting among a group of “Americans” from all over the United States and reach an agreement on the topic.  What does it mean to be an “American”? For both countries, the very subject brings up ideas and images of “nation,” and we surely see some fairly abstract symbols in our heads. Maybe we see a flag, perhaps a national bird, or maybe we hear the national anthem. In Ecuador we might even think of our national soccer team.

 

 (Drawing our identities by linking our stories in the community of Tzawata.)

 

Our imaginations naturally seek out ways to represent our collective via symbols, which due to formal and informal educational processes are inherently linked to national symbols. While focused on these national identities, we ignore the most obvious… that perhaps our collective identities have little to do with grand national symbols. Perhaps, our identities are better expressed by the other symbols, hidden inside certain truths that we can only discover by exploring the world around us and our daily interactions with it. Surely Ecuadorian and “American” reflect much more than our nationality, surely there is a cultural significance; however, the only way to penetrate the deeper meanings of “who we are” and make sense out of the chaos is by investing tremendous amounts of time and patience.

 

Why so much time and patience? Well, because without a doubt, the most profound conflicts live deep inside our collective subconscious. In many circles (academic, political, religious, for example) it is often suggested that we are in the midst of an identity crisis, and some even promise us ways out of that crisis, if we are to just follow their lead. Think about “making America great again.” Regretfully for those who offer quick-fix promises, it is more likely that such an approach to solving an identity crisis is simply a way of complicating the problems even more.

 

(Locals and internationals working on an Identity project in Mariscal.)

 

Identity conflicts are not solved by following, or by waiting, or by rescuing something that we once were. When we start believing in rescuing a past greatness, or a past wholeness, we further a false discourse that our identity rests in returning to a time when we were supposedly something special. This throws us into passivity, and rather than trying to transform our conflicts by exploring self (and our collective selves), we wait and just let things happen.

 

As I close this entry and look toward future ones, I ask you to consider your identity as a verb, meaning the practice of your life in dialogue with other life. This simple change of perspective will open the door for a more active exploration of who we are. Then, let us take some time to reflect on what aspects of our identity are parts of our cultural baggage, meaning those elements that we cannot deny are part of our history, and what elements are due to my human creativity. Clearly, this is best achieved via the dialogue, meaning in discussion with others. Then, at a later date, we can take this conversation further.

Enjoy the dialogue!

 

*** I put the quotation marks for “American” because Ecuadorians are also Americans. When I refer to “Americans” I clearly mean “United Stateseans”

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