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 CaƱar. 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:

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