Located in between Otavalo and Ibarra, the center of Cotacachi is a town in the Imbabura Province of Northern Ecuador where I am living this year. A city that centers around tourism, leather, and oil revenue, Cotacachi keeps its streets well kept, well lit, and safe. Cotacachi consists of around 15,000 Mestizos (People who can trace some of their ancestors to Spain), 15,000 Indigenous People. But here’s the catch, there are also over 400 expatriates. Mostly American, they buy properties and (mostly) settle down for the long term. For better or for worse, they are a defining part of this town.
Below is a mildly flawed “Open Letter” journal entry of mine, written in the heat of the moment after (and directed towards) a troubling interaction with an American man who has been living in Cotacachi for a few years. Let’s read it through in its raw form, then see my attempt at a more well-rounded collection of thoughts after rereading this entry a month later.
““WHAT THE HECK!!*
I don’t understand; and I would love for you to help me see where you are coming from.
You tell me: ‘Oh yes, it’s super cheap to live here!’
Well, ‘cheap’ is subjective. When teachers are making 3.50 USD an hour, one can assume that a lunch would be two dollars. In America, proportionally speaking, would you pay at least 30 dollars for an average lunch? And call it cheap? No.
You tell me: ‘The people here are so nice!'
Well why do you not care about their culture? You marry an Ecuadorian, but never learning Spanish, stay in your posse of predominantly white people to form a little perfect bubble. You eat at pricier restaurants with a new menu that has an English translation for your comfort. Sorry to break the news, but this isn’t an LA suburb with oddly good weather. This is Cotacachi: 3,000 miles away from the United States. Or should I say 4,674 kilometers away, since that is the unit used in this country. Believe it or not, Spanish is the national language (along with Kitchwa, the language my indigenous family also speaks**). With your privilege, you have the resources and time –since most of you are retired– to take language classes. Maybe, if you’ve been living here for over five years, it might help learning the language? I don’t know…It might help when communicating with the locals? Maybe you can even go to restaurants without a translation? Just because you can get around without knowing Spanish doesn’t give you a pass to be intentionally ignorant.
This is different than a tourist who comes by for a day, week, or even month to explore and learn about the area/culture. After you’ve been here for ample time, and are a resident living here permanently AND CAN VOTE, is it too crazy for me to ask you to get of your high horse of cultural superiority, manifested in gated communities and your own American store? Don’t tell me that you only go to the American store sometimes and that if it wasn’t there, you wouldn’t mind at all! Ever heard of the supply and demand economic concept? Oh, you haven’t? Let me mansplain for a hot second. If you, a privileged white person who has money, want an American style omelet, and a breakfast place opens up that serves American style omelettes, will you go? Yup: Serendipity, Robin’s baked goods, Yanneck’s bread bakery, cafe Rio Intag, Substation, and every other white-ass business. These wouldn’t be there if there weren’t gringos to support these long term. Gentrification is alive and well. Cotacachi, as more and more white people permanently move here, is dramatically changing. Rents are rising, businesses are relocating, and the vibe of communities is becoming unrecognizable to Ecuadorians.
‘Oh, but Danny, I pay my house cleaner, gardener, dog walker, cook, restaurant waitress, driver, and all the local businesses!’
Thanks for your benevolence of 2.50-4 dollars and hour. Yes, these people rely on a service jobs to bring home money, but the important thing is not your pay, but mindset. My dad makes his money now driving you all to Quito, Ibarra, and surrounding areas. I’m not opposed to employing locals to do your work; that’s privilege you can afford due to your white/American identity and hard work. But, I dare you to learn Spanish, or Kichwa. Learn about my Dad, his likes and dislikes, family. Learn about your next-door neighbors, it is an easy first step to building a more cohesive community!
I understand that this sassy letter won’t get all of you to sign up for Spanish classes tomorrow, so be it. My friend, Toluwani, is a strong believer in the ability for anyone to live and travel anywhere in the world they please, and I guess that’s rubbed off on me. Stay here if you please, but please, talk a walk around your new home and notice the beautiful 2.00 almuerzo lunch places. Notice the preservative infused white bread, filling the panaderia on each corner with a smell of heaven. Say ‘Buenos Dias’ or ‘Ally Punga’ to the indigenous woman with a child in tow, keeping her eyes down to avoid your gaze. Why not even strike up a conversation with your newfound words in Spanish, or better yet, Kichwa. Recognize the beauty of this new home, the way it is, and do your part to enhance the community with your financial privilege.
This letter, written in an idealistic haste, is very over dramatic. However, while I may have hand-picked facts that work well together, everything is based off of observations and conversations. I met two gringos while I was reading in the park who told me they didn’t bother learning Spanish because they didn’t need to. One actually complained that the kids here couldn’t hold a conversation in English, asking him the same basic questions every time. The stores I mentioned all have prices unaffordable to most people in Cotacachi. The neighborhoods are changing, as storefronts morph to please either tourists buying leather or expats’ needs. And the most tangible thing I only briefly discussed was the price of land. Luckily, many of the houses and businesses here locals inhabit are their own. Expats are common renters here. However, locals looking to buy new land, homes, and storefronts are finding prices extremely out of their range. According to a real estate agent I’ve talked to here, prices have more than doubled in the past five years due to gringo clients who can afford it.
But, there is a flipside to the narrative I’m weaving. The people making the money off of the gringo boom are overwhelmingly local, like my uncle. Jorge is raking in the dough, using some of his money to help family and charity. His money could easily be used to rebuild his conspicuous house into a mansion, buy the latest technologies, and machines to work his land; however, he chooses to spend his money modestly and preserve his culture. Also, there are many expats who do lots of charity work with the community: tutoring English, working at a soup kitchen, and supporting local businesses. Many (not all) of the overpriced American businesses are owned and operated by Ecuadorians, providing new jobs. The landscape of Cotacachi isn’t changing that much, since only a fraction of the population are gringos, and the two dollar lunch places still continue to operate. A wider variety of restaurants representing different nationalities can’t hurt and isn’t a new phenomenon in Ecuador. Chifa (a “Chinese” Asian fusion style of food) is represented in every single neighborhood throughout the Imbabura province. And most heartwarmingly, I am meeting gringos who have very close and adorable friendships with local families and children. Coming to holidays, big family events, and casual dinners, they engage with traditions and local customs with ease.
Dale, the real estate agent, told me there are three types of gringos who live here:
The people who are looking for a change in their life and decided the weather was nice here, attempting to replicate their American life overseas.
People who move here to save money.
And finally, the people who move to Cotacachi because they are interested in the rich culture and are excited to engage with their new community.
Apparently, the first and second categories never last longer than three years: it’s the people who are truly committed to living in Ecuador because it’s Ecuador build the true bridges and connections.
When discussing my qualms with Toluwani***, she brought up a super interesting point. What makes this white community in a predominantly mestizo and Indigenous community any different than her mainly black Caribbean community in the foreign New York City? What's the difference between People of Color living among their peers in the states and white folk doing that here? This question has taken me a while to mull over, but I think I’ve arrived at an answer I’m content with. Her community is one that is considered, both externally and internally, a community of immigrants. Immigrant, defined by Merriam-Webster, is a person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country. To not only live in a foreign place, but to raise a family and engage with the surrounding areas: through work, education, or larger social events. It’s human nature to group up according to common interests and backgrounds, but I see a clear difference in the mindset and goals of foreigners in Cotacachi and Caribbeans residing in Queens. The expats living here don’t call themselves immigrants, and neither do the country or locals here. Expatriates, persons who live outside their native country, are very different than immigrants. If the people here intend to stay here for life, why don’t they call themselves immigrants? It’s mainly retirees who move here, and when I ask, they never commit to a definite time they plan to stay in Cotacachi. Either they don’t actually plan to establish a life here, or think themselves above the title “immigrant”.
Now, you might ask, how I am different than the other gringo living here? Well to start with, I believe I am entering this community in a sustainable way. The host family I am staying with actively sought out a foreigner to live with them for a year, the school where I am (single-handedly) teaching 500+ students English needs me.**** Yes, I help out at the gringo bakery. Yes, I buy lunch sometimes at gringo places. But, I can’t think of a third “Yes…” phrase to complete this anaphora, and I take this craft seriously. Through this mutualistic relationship, I consensually entered this community to learn and connect with a culture that is different than mine.
Through this journal entry, and the resulting reflecting, I learned a larger lesson: don’t jump to conclusions so fast. It’s easy to place blame or results on one group, whether that be in politics or life. However, taking a step back can not only lead to more nuanced discoveries about “blame”, but also a deeper understanding of the original subject at hand.
Cotacachi won’t ever be the same as long as there is a sizeable population of American immigrants, but maybe that’s OK. Just like how the face of any community changes when a new group moves in, a country is dynamic. But, it’s imperative that these expats are conscious and intentional of the effect their presence has. When these cultural and language barriers are knocked down between communities, learning occurs on all sides, creating a more global and sustainable world for all.
*I may have…modified…this word
**If you speak Kichwa, and are an expat living in Cotacachi, please ignore this entire letter. Good for you for taking on the time to learn this truly native language to Ecuador. Also, keep in mind that Spanish was brought here by the conquistadors who destroyed the Incan civilizations.
***Toluwani and I are neighbors here and see each other pretty much once a day. From our daily walk into town together, to the hours we hang out after our respective teaching apprenticeships, it’s hard to think of a conversation we haven’t had.
**** The school wouldn’t have a teacher for grades 1-7 to teach English if I wasn’t there. This isn’t an exaggeration, there is now only one paid English teacher (my supervisor) for the whole school, grades 1-10. To say we are stretched thin would be an understatement.