Monday, May 17, 2010


One of my projects for my Lakeside students that I am undertaking is filming Cuencanos about every day life and customs here in Ecuador. My colleagues Carrie and Paloma and I devised a series of questions to tie in with our Spanish 2 curriculum. Carrie has interviewed Peruvians and Paloma has interviewed Dominicans and I'm currently interviewing Ecuadorians. One of our goals in this project is to demonstrate the enormous cultural and linguistic variation that is found within the spanish speaking world.

Last fall, after arriving in Cuenca, I soon realized that the vast majority of Ecuadorian emigrants came from the two southern provinces of Azuay and Cañar. Most every family I've met in Cuenca has a family member living and working in the NY metropolitan region. As I have always been fascinated by immigration trends and patterns and since I teach an upper level Spanish class on this very topic, I decided to expand my video project and interview Ecuadorians who 1) currently have family members in the States and/or 2) have lived in the States and have returned to Ecuador.

I have heard countless heartbreaking stories from Cuencanos whom I've gotten to know throughout the year about kids being left behind, the hardships of living in NYC as an illegal immigrant with no English skills, the difficulty of being separated from one's family, and the tough transition of coming home. (For those who are interested in learning more about this topic, there is a fantastic book called "La Chula Vida: Gender, Migration, and the Family in Andean Ecuador and New York City" by Jason Pribilsky that I highly recommend- thanks, Lynn!!)

Although they come from a small Andean country of approximately 13.3 million people, Ecuadorians represent the third largest immigrant groups in metro New York (after Dominicans and Mexicans) and the second largest immigrant group in Spain (after Moroccans). When I first arrived, I was surprised to see that there was so much news coverage on Spain in the somewhat provincial Cuenca newspaper, but now I understand why. Spain's unemployment rate and the general state of its economy are of huge importance to Cuencanos and their families. (On a side note, President Correa is in Madrid today meeting with President Zapatero as well as the thousands of Ecuadorian immigrants currently living there. Immigration and the economy are on his agenda..).

In the past 25 years, Ecuador has experienced two major waves of emigration, sending 10 to 15 percent of Ecuadorians overseas, mostly to Spain and the United States, Low oil prices and floods that damaged export crops, coupled with political instability and financial mismanagement, caused a major economic crisis in the late 1990s. The national currency, the sucre, lost more than two-thirds of its value, and the unemployment rate rose to 15 percent and the poverty rate to 56 percent.* In 2000, Ecuador switched from sucres to the dollars, in an effort to stabilize the economy.

100,000 Ecuadorians left in 1998 and another 500,000 in 2005. In contrast to earlier trends, this more recent wave chose to emigrate to Spain because of an an existing agreement allowed Ecuadorians to enter the country as tourists without visas (the law changed in 2003), and because of its relatively strong economy. *

Similar to many Latin American countries, Ecuador depends on remittances its migrants send home. The Inter-American Development Bank estimated that Ecuador received $2.0 billion in remittances in 2004, equivalent to 6.7 percent of its GDP and second only to oil exports; 14 percent of adults in Ecuador receive remittances regularly. In downtown Cuenca and in all the centers of the surrounding villages, there are offices for locals to receive remittances and for them to send packages (often cuy!) to their family members in the States. We've noticed more families are now living in Chicago and Minneapolis now, not just the NYC region.

We see the influx of funds all over Cuenca and the surrounding villages in the "McMansions" that dot the countryside, the relative wealth in the city, and the imported electronic goods, clothes, etc. In most cases, a brand new house is built next to the old one (usually of adobe) and often is not lived in until the immigrant returns from the US. Some families wait decades for the person to return.

The two major immigrant groups found in Ecuador are Peruvians and Colombians. The majority of the Colombians are escaping violent situations caused by the rebel group FARC (Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces) and drug trafficking. Peruvians, on the other hand, are drawn to the dollarization of Ecuador where they can make relatively more money. As in so many countries, both groups experience a bit of discrimination from Ecuadorians and become the scapegoats in an effort to explain heightened violence and economic problems.

Through my interviews, I have been brought to tears several times, hearing the unbelievable stories of my students and friends. Two of my students who I interviewed last fall spoke of their parents leaving them for a better life in the US when they were babies. One young woman saw her Dad one more time when she was 7 and she's seen her Mom only a handful of times. Gainfully employed in NYC, they regularly send her money for which she is grateful and which has enabled her to attend the university, but, as she says, there is no replacement for the presence of your mother and father.

Ceclilia, a woman in my aerobics class, left for the States with her husband, leaving her 4 and 8 year old boys with her mother for economic reasons. She returned 8 years later to find that her 16 year old was incredibly rebellious and angry at her and the 12 year old was far more attached to Grandma than to Mom. The next year, both boys left for the States to live with their Dad who was still working there and they have never come back. Fortunately, Cecilia has a third son who still lives with her (he's in high school now) and her marriage is still intact, but she can't talk about her first 2 sons without sobbing.

*My data came from a great website:

Sunday, May 16, 2010


In most parts of Latin America that I am aware of, soccer, or "fútbol" in Spanish, is the undisputed king. But in Ecuador, perhaps because their national team is so abysmal, fútbol and volleyball seem to be equally popular.

But not just any volleyball. What's played here is not the two-person beach volleyball they play in Santa Monica, nor the 6-person variety that we learned in high school. No, it is a three man sport (I've never seen women play), and its notable feature, at least from a North American point of view, is that cheating, especially concerning what's considered a "catch," is allowed. According to the Double-Tounged Dictionary the game has "permissive ball handling rules."

It is very popular. I first noticed it in Quito, our first week in country. Wandering around some neighborhood, a little lost, I first saw a large crowd, and it wasn't until we got closer that we realized it was an Ecuavolley game. In Cuenca we've seen pick-up games everywhere. I've even seen, and if you've traveled in Latin America you'll find this very hard to believe, people using the crossbar of a soccer goal as a "net" for their volleyball game. It seems to be especially popular amongst slightly overweight cab drivers, who gather at courts, public and private - yes there are private courts where people presumably pay to play, who gather after lunch for a game or two. It is a betting game, with all players anteing up a certain amount, and it is, presumably, winner take all


With our time in Cuenca coming to a close, I'll try to write about some stuff we take for granted, but which is really quite different from our lives in Seattle.

Food shopping in Cuenca, as in many places in Latin America, takes a variety of forms. As Cuenca is a relatively big and modern city, there are, of course, even more options here than one would find in the countryside. Bread is purchased daily from any number ("cualquier cantidad") of local "panaderias" (bakeries) - there are at least three within easy walking distance of our apartment which we patronize regularly. Most of the bread we buy would be considered "rolls" or "buns"in the US. Nothing all that special, most white, or wheat ("integral"), or with egg or corn, often with a thin layer of cheese in the middle. A roll typically costs $0.10 for a basic roll, to perhaps 0.15 for a fancy roll. What is most satisfying about these places is the delicious aroma of freshly baked bread that permeates the street.

In addition, there are a number of local "tiendas," basically small corner shops that sell a little bit of everything: snack food, pop, beer, as well as real food like eggs, fruits and vegetables, milk, along with other household necessities, like detergent, sewing supplies, etc. Many of these local stores also sell whatever type of "mercancia" (literally, merchandise) their friends of family brings back from the States. This could be anything from shoes and clothes to hibachis or dancing Santas. Our favorite local tienda is Doña Margarita's, about 2 blocks away. Like many of these stores, it's just a storefront - customer's wait outside while Margarita scurries about inside collecting the goods that are requested. As often as not, someone asks for an egg, she goes to get it, brings it back, the customer asks how much, she tells them, and they then request 2 more! It's also a good place to witness the Ecuadoran version of "waiting your turn" in which whoever walks up to the store interrupts whatever transaction is underway to ask for what they need!

Cuenca has a number of American-style supermarkets, including some downscale ones like "Mi Comiseratio" or Comiseratio Popular. There is also a very popular upscale one called "Supermaxi," which has decent prices if you purchase a membership card at $40/year, and a low-cost alternative, where we shop, called "Gran Akí" This is where we buy our cleaning supplies, staples like pasta and rice, and American-type foods like cereal, peanut butter, and our candy and cookies. Some price samples: pasta, 1 lb, $0.76; milk, 1 lt bag, $0.88, or $0.84 when bought by the dozen; jar of peanut butter, $4.50;

For fresh fruits and vegetables however, our market of choice is "12 de Abril. " It's about a 15 minute walk from our house, and it is very much a market for locals - no tourist stuff here. Typically we go twice a week, and we buy broccoli, $1.00 for two or three medium-sized heads; pineapple, $1.00; papaya, $1.00 for 2 or 3 small ones (Hawaianas); mangoes, $1.00 for 3 to 5 mangoes, depending on the season; avocados, 3 or 4 for $1.00;

Here's what $10 bought at the market back in November:

Friday, May 7, 2010

Cuenca: City of Horns

Cities have reps. Cities have marketing slogans. Chicago - the Windy City; Detroit - Motown; New York - the Big Apple; Seattle - formerly Jet City, now Coffee City. Cuenca has a new marketing slogan - "todo un mundo," (a whole world.") In many ways this fits - it has beautiful colonial architecture, plenty of traditional folkloric arts, and beautiful parks on the outskirts of the historic downtown. But I'll also remember it as the City of Horns - "Pitobamba" if you will.

I try to imagine what must go thru the heads of the drivers here.... "Here comes a corner and I never learned how to slow down at intersections. I TAP MY HORN - once. There's a buddy of mine - do I owe him money or does he owe me money? I TAP MY HORN- three times. Oh crud, a red light. Oh well, I'll just fire off a quick text message. Oh crap, it's green. I TAP MY HORN- twice. Damn, this traffic is moving slow. Maybe I can pass this truck before I get to the next light. I TAP MY HORN- twice. Oh shoot, that stop sign is coming up way too fast for me to possibly hit my break pedal. I TAP MY HORN- twice. Oh look, there's a cute gringa. Maybe she'll sleep with me if she just notices what an amazing Ecuadoran hunk I am.... I TAP MY HORN- twice...." And so it goes, until, "WHAT is that pedestrian doing in the crosswalk? I better not startle him by using my horn, I'll just gun it..."

Cuenca is a remarkably pedestrian unfriendly city. A lot of the problem is structural. The downtown streets are narrow, and sometimes old buildings obliterate the sidewalk, which in the best of circumstances is usually only about 5' wide. The sidewalks are usually about 6-8" above the street level, and driveway cuts of 45 degrees are frequent, resulting in twisted ankles if you're not careful.

Outside the historic center, many intersections are controlled by "redondels" ("round-abouts"). These are quite easy for drivers to navigate - the basic rule is that the vehicle inside the redondel has the right-of-way. It's easy, an entering vehicle only needs to look to the left. For a pedestrian trying to cross at the corner however, it's like being a duck in one of those arcade shooting galleries! And since 50% of the drivers don't use turn signals, it's a crap-shoot as to whether the vehicle waiting to enter the redondel will go thru it, or will just barely enter it and make a right turn - remember, they are all looking to their left! Zebra-striped crosswalks and even pedestrian signals exist both inside and outside the historic center, but nobody (no driver) pays they least bit attention to them. Every now and then the city will launch some "traffic safety" campaign, but it mostly consists of volunteers scolding pedestrians for not using the crosswalk. It's absurd, because the reality is that it's much safer to cross mid-block, when you can see that the coast is clear.

A curious side note to all this is that I discovered, after I got my bicycle and began riding it in the street, that I am much safer as a bicyclist than I am as a pedestrian. Drivers see me on my bike, and they even yield the right of way to me. Go figure!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Cultural Differences

For the most part, Don and I embrace and appreciate the vast cultural differences between Ecuadorian and American life. We value the emphasis on family gatherings, relationships, meal times, and the general enjoyment of life. People are very relaxed here, find great joy in the simple pleasures of life, live in the present, and are understandably proud of their beautiful and diverse country.

Yet, there are times that I just can't wrap my head around why certain things are done as they are and I find myself getting frustrated, annoyed, and realizing that I prefer the American way. During those moments, I try my best to bite my tongue, especially around Mia and Nikki, as I want to model acceptance and appreciation of cultural differences. Sometimes it works and other times they see right through my frustration. :)

It has been heartening and refreshing to stay in touch with several of our friends who are living in different countries (China, Saudi Arabia, Botswana, France) this year who are occasionally experiencing similar feelings of discomfort related to cultural differences.

So here are a few of the funny, frustrating experiences that I have had in Ecuador- all of which point to a big cultural divide.

LAUNDRY The good news is our apartment came with a shared washing machine that is outside. The bad news is it has never really cleans our clothes. Yes, the smell comes out but often the clothes look worse than when we put them in. We hang them out to dry and when it is windy and sunny it takes no time at all. One Friday morning we had done our wash and it started to rain. We were leaving to go out of town for the weekend and needed our clothes to be dried by early afternoon when the kids got home from school so we decided to just go to a laundromat and stick them in a drier. Sounds easy enough, right? Wrong. We take our wet clothes there and the employee announces that we have to wash AND dry them. Sorry those are the rules. We explained the situation and offered to pay the extra for the washer, but really all we needed was to dry them and we were a bit rushed (the concept of being rushed has no significance here...). The employee said absolutely no way and then I offered her to just run the washing machine as if there were clothes in there and we'll just dry out clothes. I was getting desperate. No can do. We left in a huff certain that some other laundromat would love to have our business rather than this lame one.

Wrong again. Laundromat #2 said the same thing. We still can't figure out why. We ended up getting our clothes washed for the second time that day, which really wasn't so bad because they actually got cleaned this time, and we got out of town on time.

THE COPY PLACE. One day, I went to the university copy shop to make some copies for my class and discovered that double sided was half as much as one sided. This clearly did not make sense to me. I asked the employee why they would charge more when less ink is being used and she just said "that's how we do it here". OK then. Now I make sure one word is printed on the other side so that I can print double sided. Somethings just don't make any sense to me. Don and I often remind each other that efficiency is neither a goal nor a priority here.

CUTTING IN LINE. I know my friend Gretchen who has lived in China for a year a half can relate to this!! I have been in Latin America long enough to know that most lines (for buses especially) are never respected. What surprised me, though, is how you can be in the middle of a transaction with a shopkeeper and another customer will come up, interrupt us, and the shopkeeper will tend to him/her. After about 10 times of patiently waiting my turn and not interrupting anyone at my local store, I realized there was no way I'd ever get to make my purchase unless I just aggressively demanded my goods. This is totally against my nature, but that's how it works here. Completely befuddled by this interrupting behavior, I once asked Margarita, our local shopkeeper, why she just doesn't finish one transaction and say "just a moment please" to the interrupter. She just looked at me, befuddled by MY question!!

The interrupting culture is alive and well among adults and kids alike. As a university professor, I'm constantly interrupted by my students and repeatedly say "please wait your turn", "Let me finish with Johnny and then I can answer your question". The problem is waiting (and raising your hand for that matter) is not modeled by the adult community so it's very hard for kids to learn it. Mia and Nikki have noticed the same thing in their classrooms and they are surprised the teachers let the kids interrupt all the time. Interestingly enough, at meal time, NO ONE interrupts (unlike in our house) and everyone listens very respectfully while one person talks. They also NEVER talk with food in their mouths. If my Ecuadorian family ever came to the 20 person Heath family dinner in the Adirondacks, they would be appalled by our lack of education! :) So I guess I do have a thing or two to learn from these folks.

NO SEAS MALITO (Don). One of the most common phrases we hear in Cuenca is "No seas malito..." frequently followed by a request for a favor. It literally means, "Don't be a little bad thing" but translates better as "Would you do me a favor." The problem is that it is usually asked in a terribly whiny voice, and is often used not just to request a favor, but also to ask for a lower price, a loan of money or goods, or when directed at us, some "little" favor, like translating and transcribing two 10 minute videos (from a virus laden flash memory card). Cultural diffences indeed!