"Gringo" is a Term of Endearment
When I first got to Ecuador, I couldn’t believe how much I saw things I recognized, from characters on television shows to imported candy bars to brand name clothes with English writing on them. On the bus, in the mall and even on the iPod’s of my Ecuadorian friends, I constantly hear songs in English that at one point were also popular in the US, (not always the currently popular ones). I see signs that are in both Spanish and English to cater to the tourists that come here, and I see food chains I thought were distinctly North American, like fro-yo shops and KFC.
Me and a friend from Pintag, playing/writing music and rapping together
Something I’ve been thinking about a lot is the influence of western culture on people’s lives here, and the way it manifests itself in ways I never expected. For example, a lot of people use slang words in English that have been adopted for use in Spanish, like saying “full” (pronounced füül) to mean very, or a lot, or the invented verb cachar, which I think comes from the English verb to catch, but they conjugate it just the same as any other verb in Spanish and means the same thing as it does in English, i.e. “¿me cachas?” = “did you catch that?” Not only is the language influenced by English, but other media that I see, like advertisements and television programs are also influenced by western standards of beauty.
Final presentation for our first class “Identity and Place” in Quito
In all three of the host families that I’ve lived in, people like to watch TV during/after meals and something I’ve noticed a lot on television is how much most of the actors and newscasters look, well, like me. They are usually light skinned, young, have “European” features and sometimes are even blonde and blue eyed; even actors on shows that are produced and made in Latin America. Often times, the only difference to me from any show I watch in the US is that they are speaking Spanish. It’s also popular to watch US produced shows or movies that were originally in English but re-dubbed in Spanish, which for me is actually kind of nice in that I can talk to my host communities about shared media that we have both consumed. And part of me feels grateful because it makes it easier to relate to people and start conversations. But it has also been kind of depressing to realize how dominate my own culture is.
View from one of the host family’s houses in Quito
It’s been really interesting to watch how this plays out in day to day life, especially walking around as a gringo every day and interacting with my host families and host communities, almost none of whom look anything like the people that I see on television. My host mom in Quito made a huge deal about how beautiful my eyes are (I have blue eyes) and how lucky I am to have them instead of brown eyes. Other people have also called me blanquito, or said I have skin so pale I look like a vampire, and they mean it as a compliment, because the implication there is that the lighter the skin you have, the more attractive you are. It’s been really weird to field comments like this because I don’t want to agree with them, that blue eyes are better/more attractive than brown eyes, or that the lighter are, the more beautiful you are, but I also don’t want to be rude and not accept the compliment. Because that’s what it is to them, a compliment.
Graffiti mural we made with some community members in Pintag
I’ve never felt so much that my whiteness gives me power as I do here. Every day, my very presence is something that causes a discussion, and sometimes I don’t know how to react to it. Sometimes I also wonder if I should even be here; is my presence yet another lingering facet of colonialism? In some ways maybe. But I think that the beautiful nature of this program is that my presence is not inherently something that means all other forms of thinking (i.e. Ancestral indigenous knowledge, non-traditional pedagogy) are stifled because I feel like our facilitators do a really good job making sure it is a fair exchange of knowledge by putting the decisions in the hands of the community. I feel like this program is, in reality, designed for local Ecuadorians, and the few international students that get to observe and participate are just lucky guests. The history of where I come from and the privilege that has allowed me to be here, versus my motivation for wanting to come here are very different, and that is something that’s not always immediately obvious to the general public here. But I think I’m learning to live with the contradiction.