|by Jim Mola|
I would suggest, if you have not already done so, that you read Part I in my previous post, so that you will have a proper context for today’s Part II blog post:
It is my opinion based upon my academic studies and more importantly in my own life, work, and travel experiences that everyone is to one degree or another racist, classist, and cultural chauvinists. No one can escape at least a subtle form of a mixture of all three at one time or another in our psychological make-ups and thought patterns that eventually are vocalized or worse acted upon. Anybody who says otherwise is either untruthful or very naïve about themselves. In one way or another we will think or express ourselves about another group with some kind of stereo-typical mind-set. I have worked with and interacted with so many different kinds of people over my life-time, that no matter who they may be, they eventually will express some kind of negative expression about another group either out of a belief about another group, or in anger, or frustration with another group, or even if it is in jest or disguised as jest.
The question to my way of thinking isn’t whether or not we are racists, classists, or cultural chauvinists; but whether or not we recognize such behavior or thought patterns in ourselves, particularly when those thoughts and patterns are negative, and we are not willing to allow ourselves to think and behave with such patterns as a permanent mindset. Can we recognize the stereo-types we have toward whatever group, and prevent it from causing us to behave in a way that ultimately causes us to discriminate against an individual with whom we hold such stereo-types? Are we so psychologically insecure that we can only feel a sense of self-worth, when we feel superior to someone else or to another group? Or do we hold negative emotional baggage toward a group that becomes exhibited in racist, classist, or chauvinistic language and behavior, or in avoidance behavior of those who are different from our self-perceived identity group? Active discrimination and resentment toward “the other” results in stress and anger. Avoidance of members identified as “the other” is easier, more convenient, and less stress-inducing. Either strategy played out consciously or subconsciously can often be found in the expat community as it is found in any community.
Such conscious and subconscious strategies are, therefore, nothing unique when ascribe to the Gringo community in Cuenca. The Gringo community in Cuenca is the largest expat community in Ecuador of approximately 4,000 people. Ninety percent of the expats are from the U.S. and about ten percent are from Canada. Its numbers have not grown appreciably over the last two years. Approximately, the expat community experiences a forty percent turnover about every three to four years. There has been over the past year an uptick of expats who arrived around 2010 to 2011, who have chosen to move-on from Cuenca to other parts of Ecuador, to other international sites, or to return back to Canada or the U.S.A.
There are times when readers and people I know in the U.S. are surprised to hear or read references to the expat community as “gringos”. “Gringo” has often but not always been used as a pejorative term particularly by Mexicans to describe the Anglos in the United States. I don’t recall if I have ever heard any Ecuadorians use the term, but it is widely used by expats to describe themselves here in Ecuador. In fact, when two on-line news sites were formed by expats in 2011 and 2012 and focused on the expat community, they named themselves Gringo Tree and Gringo Post.
The Gringo community for the most part is a microcosm of varied people much like one finds in the U.S. and Canada. As expats have settled in Cuenca, they gradually have splintered in various groups based upon common interests. The openness that incredibly existed in 2009 to 2012 had many people focused more on getting to know one another and sharing a common and delightfully novel experience of being in a new culture. Gradually the openness gave way to people who began to group into their similar cultural beliefs and interests. While none of these expat groups are cemented in concrete in isolation from any other group, and few people would choose to stagnate in any given group; I believe these groups have a certain validity in identifying various categories of expats in Cuenca and their preferred social settings. Such groups include social conservatives, who of the religious stripe created a number of churches which cater to their brand of Evangelical Christianity, generally divided between Pentecostal and Non-Pentecostal; also included within this group are Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, and a sprinkling of devout Catholics who have an English mass at one church they can attend on Sundays. There are many and various types of New Age Movement experiences which are flourishing. The very natural setting of Ecuador, and the shamanic practices of some indigenous are inviting to such New Age groups. Cuenca also has it share of agnostics and atheists. There are also theists as well, who might identify themselves as spiritual but not religious, which means they do not identify with an organized religion, but have a belief in a higher power. There are political groupings such as libertarians, political conservatives, liberals, and Marxists. We have our meat-eaters, vegetarians, vegans, and hippies--old and new. We are expats who have money, expats who are financially comfortable by American standards-of-living in an Ecuadorian society, and expats who live marginally financial existences. We have expats who are world travelers, and expats who have moved to Cuenca and for the first time find themselves living outside the United States. We are expats who may isolate ourselves in our expat bubbles, or we are expats who attempt to maneuver between both the expat and Ecuadorian world, or we are expats who want to have little if anything to do with other expats. Needless to say, each of the above groupings experience some kind and degree of overlapping. Some of the expats remain isolated in their own little groups, while others stray into a cosmopolitan mix with basic loyalty to their identified group. Well, other expats pretty much defy identity with any group, and will mix with people from any group which will accept or at least tolerate them despite differences in values. If one wonders how well various expats interact and mingle with their host culture, imagine when expats have their own differences which may be friendly, tolerable, or at times conflict-laden within their own expat community.
Ultimately, once again, we are an expat community which is a microcosm of our countries of origin—mainly Canada and the U.S. Whatever are our values, interests, and group associations; they are not left at the door of the U.S. or Canada at the time of exit. When I first arrived in Cuenca, I recall expats who at Gringo nights would mention how they did not want to bring the conflict and divisiveness of American politics with them to their new life in Cuenca. That seemed to work, until the Presidential campaign election of 2012, then all the old divisiveness emerged. One word of advice to new expats to Cuenca, stay away from politics unless you are talking with other "true-believers" like yourself, where you can bask in the reinforcement of one another's already shared beliefs and prejudices, and then can congratulate each other on how intelligent and correct all of you are. Such advice if followed, will greatly reduce tension and divisiveness within the expat community. The one major difference, however, which separates expats from our microcosm of American society is the fact that for the overwhelming majority of us who are Anglo-Whites, we are the minority, who must navigate our way through a culture that is not the one that has nurtured and socialized us into whom we have become as people and as senior citizens.
Unfortunately, I have known my share of people in the Gringo community who are overt racists to the extent that they not only make racist comments to other Gringos, but make them loudly and deliberately within earshot of any Ecuadorian who may understand English. I won’t repeat some of the vile comments that some of these people make about the indigenous. Fortunately, some of these people have moved on, usually back to North America. Some of these people were/are very negative souls to begin with, and their racism was/is often a symptom of other problems in their lives that is simply being manifested through racist comments as one outlet. Gringos who would fit in this category are a miniscule percentage of Gringos in Cuenca.
Other Gringos are less overt. Sometimes their attitudes of superiority manifest in constant complaining and the desire to remain in their cultural bubbles where they can feed off of each others negativity. I remember a couple of years ago a new individual to the scene who invited me several times to have breakfast/lunch with a particular group of expats he had met and dined with on an almost daily basis. However, when he continued to tell me how negative the people in the group were about everything Ecuadorian, it was like why would I want to surround myself with such negativity?
All of us expats one time or another complain about something. The government and financial bureaucracies alone are enough to drive anyone crazy. There are days when our moods are not what we would like them to be. There are days when improper sleep, health concerns, and personal or family problems back in the states can play into our moods and frustrations that get acted out in frustrations with life in Ecuador. We are after-all human. The problem, however, becomes when those doing the complaining are chronic, and in the process debilitating to the psychological well-being of the social community of expats at large, or who begin to reflect badly on the expat community as a whole with Ecuadorians who have the misfortune of experiencing the wrath or negativity of expats.
One of the strongest qualities, in my opinion, of the Gringo community in Cuenca is that it is not living in a physical Gringo ghetto. It is a community scattered all over the city: from the West Side, particularly along the Rio Tomebama, to the South Side, particularly along Avenida Solano and branching out from there to wingspread along the Rio Yanuncay and then further south to the Mal del Rio area; from throughout El Centro, especially on the east and west sides of the core business area; and increasingly to the northeastern sections taking the autopisto out to those neighborhoods, which are truly like moving into the suburbs while still being within the city boundaries of Cuenca. A number of those northeastern neighborhoods and gated-communities are defined by class lines that increasingly separate the professionals from other Cuencanos as originally played out historically in the U.S. since the beginning of the 1950’s. Interestingly, not one of these communities are Gringos by majority or even approach a majority in any neighborhood in the city.
I live on the West Side of town, which is known as "Gingolandia". I am not at all certain as to why the West Side was dubbed with what was intended to be a pejorative term, when the density of Gringos is no higher on the West Side than many other neighborhoods in the city. The West Side is an affluent part of town. However, so are the South Side communities where Gringos tend to congregate. Not to mention the very exclusive gated-communities in the northeast part of town, although the vast majority of Gringos in that area live outside the gated-communities, which are almost the exclusive domain of the Ecuadorian professional classes.
The story is, and I have no way of ascertaining if it is true, that an expat living here for years who has not exactly been thrilled with the influx of Gringos, and more so with Gringos living outside of El Centro gave the West Side the disparaging name. Even though it is a misnomer, the name has stuck. The name is even used by Ecuadorians, although not coined by them.
I live in Edificio Palermo, which is the largest and tallest high-rise in the city, with a total of 154 units. The large number of units in the Palermo allows us to have amenities no other condo building has in Cuenca; including a decent size swimming pool, workout facilities and saunas, tennis/volley ball court and barbeque area, and a theatre. While such amenities are not found in other high rises, there are large numbers of luxury apartments and condos--some more luxurious than the Palermo--that are built throughout the city in the last ten years, so luxury apartments are hardly a phenomena restricted to the West Side of town. Mention the Palermo, and Ecuadorian taxi drivers are quick to say with a sly smile, "Oh you live in Gringolandia." Many Ecuadorians and expats think most people living in the Palermo are Gringos, even though only thirty per cent of the owners and tenants in the Palermo are Gringos. "Gringolandia" is an example of how an idea can take on a life of its own without little substance or evidence to support it.
Living on the West side in an upper middle class residential area of large homes and high rises, which is two to three miles west of the core of El Centro at Parque Calderon, does have the feeling of living a semi-suburban life experience. One truly has to go into El Centro to get the traditional Ecuadorian experience, and escape the ho-hum experience of suburban quietude on the West Side. Unless one is visiting indigenous neighborhoods outside of El Centro where the all-expansive, or should I say awe-expansive mercado, Feria Libre, is located; or the comparable communities on the north side of El Centro which reach into the foothills of the mountains surrounding Cuenca, one does need to spend time in El Centro to experience the historical sites, greater mix of classes and people, and much of the traditional feel of what may still exist in cities like Cuenca.
I certainly know Gringos who live in El Centro, who are irritated with expats moving out of El Centro into other parts of the city. Many expats may begin their first residency in El Centro and eventually move to other parts of the city. Others are very happy there, and would not think of moving outside the confines of El Centro. There are expats who initially move to El Centro who are excited about the parades, the countless religious processions, the flower market and other open markets scattered in El Centro, the festivals, the galleries, the restaurants, the center of shopping, the Calle Larga bar scene, the easy access to Parque Calderon and Parque de Madre, and the beautiful stroll along the Rio Tomebama. Only Avenida Remegio Crespo on the south side can rival El Centro for bars and restaurants.
Yet some expats grow weary of the noise, the hyper-activities, the auto traffic congestion on narrow streets, and the bus fume pollution. These expats eventually choose to move outside of El Centro. Many expats will move three or four times the first year or two from when they arrive in Cuenca, before they find the neighborhood and housing accommodations that are just right for them.
El Centro is also undergoing gentrification. Real-estate prices are sky-high by Ecuadorian standards. The old noblis homes with their large enclosed court yards are being converted into hotels, hostels, and restaurants. In recent decades, the population has dropped dramatically in El Centro. While the population numbers will never return to El Centro's halcyon days, they steadily are increasing, as renovation and conversion of many buildings into expensive condos and apartments takes place. I recently saw a photo advertisement with luxury studio apartments renting for $1,000 in El Centro, which is an absolutely ridiculous rental price. There are so many two and three bedroom luxury apartments for rent in Cuenca, often fully furnished for less money than $1,000 per month. However, if naive Gringos foolishly pay such amounts, then what can one expect? So even El Centro for better or worse is undergoing change. Will it maintain its mixture of people and classes, and its old traditional customs; or will it become a nice upper-middle class haven of gentrified homes and shoppes and restaurants and galleries like so many communities in the U.S.? Only time will provide the answer. It is understandable why Gringos who have been here for decades are not entirely happy with all the changes they see taking place in Cuenca and blame the new arrivals for them.
While there is plenty of physical housing integration of expats throughout Cuenca, that type of integration does not necessarily translate into cultural integration. People can live together in the same condo building, and only have superficial contact with one another. Most Gringos have contacts mainly with Ecuadorians who lived in the U.S., and who from that experience, also speak English. The unwillingness of most Gringos to learn Spanish is in my mind the single biggest factor that contributes to cultural isolation beyond commercial transactions. I am guilty of a failure to learn Spanish as much as the next guy. I, like many Gringos, and particularly with my academic background, came to Ecuador thinking that learning Spanish would find me competent if not fluent by this time after four years of living in Ecuador. It hasn’t happen for many reasons. Most of these reasons have some legitimacy, but when all the excuse-making is expressed, it simply amounts to my not wanting to devote the daily grind of practice to the language. I haven’t given up, but neither will I speculate in the years ahead how much more advanced I will become in mastering the language from my current one year ability in the language.
On the other hand, I will never understand the Ecuadorian culture in any in-depth semblance, if I don’t understand the language. So ultimately, all of my education, travel, and culturally diverse experiences where I have commonly been the minority will never ripen into the fruition of appreciating an immersion in another culture if I fail to master Spanish. Expansion of this theme of language and cultural understanding is one with which I will need to deal further in a later post.
The chronic complainers are a minority of expats. There are so many expats involved in the community through missionary work, volunteer work, and working with and knowing Ecuadorians in areas of business and art that offer opportunities of meaningful vistas of interaction, where they and their Ecuadorian friends can practice their Spanish and their English with one another and come to a better understanding of shared intercultural meaningfulness. These actions are more emblematic of Gringos in Cuenca than the chronic complainers and malcontents. Most Gringos, however, fall somewhere in-between these two groups.
In reality, most Gringos here in Cuenca, are happy to be here. Some of us are even ecstatic. Cuenca is for me as close as I can hope to get to Paradise, but that doesn't mean it is Nirvana 24/7. For the Gringos who are so unhappy with the way things are done in Ecuador, I only can hope that you will return to the states or to Canada, or find a Gringo community in another country where the only locals you will commiserate with will be wait-staff and bus boys, so you can live out your final days in as close a thing as you can experience to being in the U.S., and where you will only need to deal with people of color when they are serving you. I would not want to deprive you of your inbred experience, and I certainly have no illusion that anything I write will change your minds are get you to consider self-reflection.
For those expats who have enjoyed your time in Cuenca, and look forward to moving on to your next experience, thank you for being a part of my life, or being a part of whatever positive experience you shared of yourselves both with the Gringo community-at-large and the Ecuadorian community while you were here. I would never encourage anyone to stay in Cuenca or Ecuador when you believe it is time for you to go, even if some of you will be missed. The best of luck to you in your future adventures and endeavors. While Cuenca is the right place for me today, even I can't say what the future will hold for me tomorrow.
As editor, Bob Martin, of ExpatIsland and the other writers on-site have shared, every expat community has its complainers, its folks who don't want to adjust to a different culture, and its people who think things are always greener somewhere else. So whatever complaints some expats in Cuenca may have that they can't work around and adjust without being in a constant state of misery, such experience is not unique by any means to Cuenca or Ecuador.
Part III of the next installment will deal with culture shock and the Ecuadorian side of the equation.