Let’s talk about the Christmas messages, we the expat community, may be sending to our Indigenous neighbors, and in turn, how some of them may be embracing negative aspects of our North American culture without even realizing it.
I’ll use Cotacachi in the Northern Sierra as example. The town itself has a population of about 10,000, with another 40,000 living in surrounding rural Pueblos. The vast majority of those Pueblos are Kichwa. In the 1990’s more than 90% of those communities in the Cotacachi area were in abject poverty. We’re talking about 20 years of recovery which barely makes a dent on the psyche of the populace. Today, rural poverty countrywide is about 25%, the majority of whom, once again, are Indigenous.
My estimate is there are somewhere between 400 to 500 full-time expat residents in the area. A number of these expats live amidst or nearby rurally located Indigenous communities in Colonias or Gringo gated communities. Some live in houses nearby the rural communities and not within separated Colonias. Most live in Cotacachi proper or close by.
For those living in town, daily life provides consistent contact with both Ecuadorians and Kichwa. It’s fair to say that the expats who take the time to learn Castellano have the most contact. There is a core of about 50 expats (my estimate, possibly exaggerated) who have made real effort to have more than superficial contact with the Indigenous; they have a tendency to stay out of the mainstream Gringo life and gravitate toward the Natives.
There are enough English-only-speaking Gringos around so that, in the 3 1/2 years I’ve been here, more and more people move to Cotacachi without feeling the need to learn Spanish. This alone is changing the perception that our Ecuadorian neighbors hold of us as a group.
There are literally hundreds of small Indigenous communities in the surrounding rural areas. Only a few of them have expats living nearby. Only a small proportion of those primarily NA residents have interaction with their neighbors; for the most part, their lives are centered in their gated communities or homes punctuated by forays into town or elsewhere.
The vast majority of our rural neighbors have never seen an expat on their home turf. Such a spectacle only occurs when the kids come into town, and for many, that’s a rare experience. So to most of the Indigenous kids, expats are a novelty.
Because we are physically so much different – literally towering over them compared to their own adults, and our complexions are quite light in comparison — we are creatures of a different order.
Here in Cotacachi, Indigenous kids whom I’ve never met before frequently come up to me in the streets and call me by the name I share with my fellow Caucasians, “Plata.” That’s money. It’s not a question or a request; that’s who I/we are to them.
Many years ago the Indigenous had some pretty horrid experiences with people of our kind called Conquistadors. They lived in a completely different level of affluence, wielded ultimate power of life and death and had access to the country’s resources based upon the enslavement of the people whose blood was part and parcel of the land.
But this is not ancient history. Up until the 1960’s one form or another of the “Obraje” system — what amounted to indentured servitude based on debt — was still active for many workers in textiles and agriculture. The “Duenos” (owners) were white.
Remember, Ecuadorian society is basically stratified: Caucasians, followed by Mestizo (mixed Native and Spaniard), then Indigenous, then Blacks. Whether we recognize it or not, expats by color alone sit at the top of the totem pole. Whether we like it or not, we are associated with the dominating class.
CHRISTMAS IN THE PUEBLOS
Gift-giving for Christmas time is relatively exotic to Ecuadorians and has even been more slowly introduced to the rural Indigenous. The idea of “Papa Noel” (the equivalent of Father Christmas or Santa Claus) is beginning to catch on with the upper classes. I’ll go so far as to say, however, that 90% of the small villages around Cotacachi have not even heard of the concept; especially of gift-giving. Once expats start arriving nearby, however, the idea begins to take hold.
This past Christmas season (2015) there was a surge of support in the expat population to spread some Christmas Cheer. Broadly, Indigenous community member(s) and neighbor expat(s) come together and a plan for distribution of gifts to the children is devised. The call would go out to bring something wonderful to the impoverished community children. That is generally how the “events” were characterized.
[color-box color=”gray”]QUESTION #1: Must the qualification of poverty be involved in order to attract enough interest from the expat community?
To so many North Americans, of whom I am one, guilt plays a huge role in the mechanics of gift-giving at Christmas time; we’ve been wired to think of the poor, but especially during this time of year! Sure, Christmas is about sharing, but we have been conditioned to look at it through the prism of economics.
Predictably and without judgement, the call attracted a lot of people who generally don’t have a whole lot to do in their day-to-days with the Kichwa. Still, it attracted many open hearts for the originators to work with. Conceptually, this is a wonderful thing, but I found myself asking…[/color-box]
QUESTION #2: How many negative aspects of NA culture are being brought to the Indigenous children as well? How many negative stereotypes are being promoted?
Without doing anything to negate the really good intentions of the people involved, I feel compelled to talk a bit about the elements of cultural blindness that seem to have been exhibited. This all started when I saw pictures and read Posts on Facebook describing how the events had unfolded.
The first image that jumped out at me was of a string of tiny Indigenous children lining up to receive a gift of cookies and candy from a large white person. I have been to other community functions, not Christmas-related, where similar things have happened.
At another pueblo, a white man with beard was dressed up as Santa, Papa Noel. He first gave gifts to the elders, then to the kids. Though not an imposing figure, still just the act of lining up to receive bounty from a white guy implies a hierarchy that smacks of Colonialism.
Standing in line, waiting your turn, and then being told something affirmative while being granted a gift (that is identical to every other kid on line) sends a message; if I am polite and well-behaved, wait my turn and then be thankful, this big creature, so foreign to me, will give me something frivolous for nothing.
Many of these events were requested by Indigenous community members. And it’s likely they organized the lines and other orchestrations. What I’m reflecting on is the unconscious symbolism that occurs on both sides that, if considered a bit more deeply, could be done differently in the future.
There are a lot of us expats who have been involved in the social and psychological sciences and the arts and are aware how visual cues reinforce hierarchical thinking. I believe WE are the ones who need to set the pace to reduce the damage. We can start with being cognisant of how much space we take up in relation to our Host Culture.
In some, not all, of the events, another race/culture comes to bestow a blessing, telling the people they have value once they accept the gift. I had to cringe. That white Santa Claus is not one of their own. It communicates a distinct separation, not only in appearance, but in access and affluence. One post made it clear their parents hadn’t been able to offer such largess in eight years! But these strangers could.
In the absence of continual contact, we’re essentially Ghost-like and indistinguishable one from the next. More than 60% of expats moving to Cotacachi are gone in a couple of years. Considering it takes a couple of years to get comfortable enough with the language to even venture outside of your comfort zone to make contact, you can get an idea of the lack of integration that prevails.
So once a year, some predominantly unknown white faces materialize, distribute gifts and disappear. We ARE Santa Claus; a Bigger-Than-Life symbol of periodic reward dependent upon acceptable behavior. We come on schedule, and it’s ours, not theirs.
Typically, the expat initiator/sponsor is someone with a personal investment in the particular community but not necessarily. More often than not he/she is approached by an Indigenous adult who, hearing of how it works, wants such largesse for his/her community. Let’s face it, folks, no matter what we do; to the impoverished we are resources.
For many of us, largesse is exactly how we express our connections; it’s a cultural thing and they pick up on it.
[color-box color=”gray”]QUESTION #3: If language were not a barrier, wouldn’t we be able to express our connection with the Indigenous in many more ways than just giving gifts and money?
This invitation to experience this aspect of our culture is a logical gateway for inclusion. But does it really work that way? In a number of Facebook posts, I noted that during the meal time, the expats were seated and served separately after milling together in groups of their own kind.
Granted, the Kichwa, in honoring guests, DO at times set them apart and form “receiving lines” for them. My point is, we can make suggestions in planning that do not reinforce separation by being willing to “meld” with the larger group.
To me, the regimentation of the event and its rare occurrence sends kids the message “That’s what we can expect from Gringos, and on a certain day of the year.” Where are they the rest of the year? My hope is that this piece will be seen as a call for a living relationship with our Host communities rather than Christmas-giving as a yearly obligation as it has become in the U.S.[/color-box]
QUESTION #4: Why can’t we make Christmas a continuation and logical expression of our ongoing relationships with the people rather than a token expression of our affluence? (Could it be because we no longer do this with each other?)
Too many comments on the Facebook posts talked about how the Givers were the ones who received the real blessings of the day. Yes, that is the painful truth.
[color-box color=”gray”]QUESTION #5: Who is all this really for?
If we don’t ask, this will become embedded in the way our culture relates. Isn’t there a better way to express gratitude to our host communities than reinforcing culturally damaging stereotypes?
In NA you make sure EVERYBODY gets a gift that they can call their own. Individuality is important; personal ownership is the end goal of life. This doesn’t even take into consideration that monetary or other perceived values have become a competitive thing.
Kichwa, on the other hand, which is largely true with all of Ecuador, is a Collective culture and that means the well-being of the community takes precedence over the well-being of the individual. It is the community that distributes (with a certain amount of leeway for individual families to provide and distribute above and beyond the community’s norm) based on energy flowing to where it’s most needed.
The kinds of thinking that go on with our Christmases are a reflection of a completely different view of the world based on affluence, excess and obligation. Excess is barely something in the vocabulary of the Indigenous communities here with the exception of grown foodstuffs.[/color-box]
QUESTION #6: Is Christmas now about true extended-family sharing in honor of the birth of Christ or is it an expression of excess?
The Pueblos were flooded with cookies and candies in proportions that none of the kids get to see all year. The packages of cookies and candies in many cases were bigger than the kids’ heads! Also, Jesus doesn’t even give gifts like these.
Another aspect is that the kids living next to Gringo compounds get the goodies. Other communities, more distant, have not this degree of access. Now, to other pueblos it becomes desirable if not mandatory to seek involvement with the expat community in this way so they too, may provide for their kids.
[color-box color=”gray”]QUESTION #7: How do we contribute to the disruption of the natural balance here?
Each kid gets to consume more sugar in a couple of days than they have access to all year. Is it hard to guess every morsel is consumed by someone/thing because waste is not in their vocabulary either? I don’t see sugar as a gift. It is a path to diabetes which has grown exponentially throughout Ecuador in the last 20 years.[/color-box]
QUESTION #8: What are we spreading, our culture or our poisons?
When every kid in the community has a bag of goods, there’s no need to share. One of the bags pictured would easily circulate amongst five or more kids. What are we teaching them?
This sudden shift in reality only occurs once a year. Much to the expats’ credit, many programs go on that help support the schools and improve irrigation and other concerns of living. We and they need more of this.
[color-box color=”gray”]QUESTION #9: What if, instead of having white folks bearing gifts once a year and distributing them to the children and elders, we approached MANY neighboring Indigenous communities and found out what they need and want and rotated through them?[/color-box]
QUESTION #10: What if, instead of distributing unhealthy tokens of caring we put together funds for such things as irrigation, running water and emergency necessities for the families?
[color-box color=”gray”]QUESTION #11: What if we had the elders of the communities do the distributing? And what if the shared celebrations were reflections of ongoing relationships rather than anonymous honored guests popping in and popping out on a schedule?[/color-box]
QUESTION #12: What if we were sideline supporters rather than focal points and dropped the idea of spreading this kind of experience altogether?
These are some of the deeper cultural challenges we face and questions we must ask ourselves and each other before we do what we’ve been enculturated to do. For the Gringo; throw gifts periodically to express our generosity. On the Indigenous side; aspiring to embrace the trappings of affluence.
If we, as expats, are part of the problem, we need to recognize it and seek a way to meet the existing culture where it lives rather than in terms of what we’re comfortable with and used to.
If our name continues to be “Plata” we are the cause of it. And for those exclaiming on Facebook they couldn’t wait for this year, let’s hope they didn’t.