Apparently, I’m on TV…

Rosie Fitzsimmons - Ecuador

July 9, 2015

I awoke to see three missed calls on my phone and could hear ‰ÛÏBuenas noches,‰Û being repeated from my front door from a familiar voice. Admittedly it was only about 9:00pm, but it‰Ûªs surprising how late that feels when it gets pitch black by 7:00pm and the rooster insists on waking you up at 5:30am every morning. I ran out of my room, half thinking I was crazy and it was all a dream, to see Andy peaking his head through my rebar window by the front door with two other men behind him. Needless to say, I was thoroughly confused. Andy explained that the men were involved in producing a promotional video on tourism in the region and were specifically looking for a white girl as an extra. It was a strange proposal to be getting at nine o‰Ûªclock at night to say the least. But, he explained that they were pressed for time, considering the production was that following morning, so it would be a huge favor to him. I‰Ûªm not a huge fan of acting, not to mention my supervisor was still expecting me at work in the morning, but his friend made sure to add that breakfast and lunch were provided and I would be paid, but more importantly to me it was a favor to Andy and his friend, so I accepted. I was unsure that I could take the bus and find the hotel the crew was meeting at by six in the morning, so the friend, Santiago, (who I later learned had actually only met Andy that night) offered to pick me up in the morning. I didn‰Ûªt really know what the video was about or my small role in it, so in the morning I just got dressed as usual. When I walked out in blue jeans to meet Santiago he asked, ‰ÛÏDo you have anything more gringa?‰Û I quickly went back to my room to change into some khaki drawstring pants with plenty of pockets. ‰ÛÏPerfect,‰Û he remarked. After we checked in with the rest of the crew at the hotel, we drove deeper into the jungle to the location where the filming would be taking place. On the way, I attempted to get to know my fellow actor a little better to actually get some information on what I had gotten myself into. Turns out the man who had recruited me was not actually part of the production crew, he was just a friend of the casting director who had asked him to do him a favor by looking specifically for a white girl to play the part. I was a little taken aback. I wanted to know if this was normal or if it was just for this specific part. He explained that although he had no idea what the part actually entailed, he did have plenty of experience in these types of productions. He recalled one director once telling him that he frequently hired white women, exclaiming, ‰ÛÏThat sh** sells!‰Û I thought back to my time in Quito and remembered all the billboards and advertisements featuring women who appeared more European than anywhere even close to South America. I realized that this unsettling exclamation turned out to be a rather unfortunate truth. I then found I had gotten myself into a rather uncomfortable situation. I had always known that even in the States I was subject to white privilege – or I guess, in truth, I never really had, considering this privilege is to be oblivious to all the many privileges I actually have. But in this current situation, it was hard to remain oblivious. At least in the present circumstance, racial inequality and stereotypes seemed much more apparent in Ecuador than anything I had ever personally experienced. And I felt like by participating in this production, I was only perpetuating it. But I was also still very confused and also felt some moral obligation not to screw this guy and the entire production over by backing out, so I thought maybe I should see it through before jumping to such heavy conclusions. I had become familiar with the term Ecua-time, where time isn’t as regarded as precious in Ecuador as we tend to do in the U.S. It is enjoyed rather than rushed. People are said to go along with less haste and things have a tendency to get pushed back without concern. However, up until this point, I hadn‰Ûªt actually noticed it much for myself. But, apparently, when it comes to Ecuadorian productions, the concept of Ecua-time is wholeheartedly embraced – which seems a little counter-intuitive. I was told I would only be needed for a few hours work and would be home by lunchtime. I didn‰Ûªt get home until after 7:00pm, long past dinnertime. During the countless hours of waiting to be needed, I watched a Kichwa woman fully dressed in the traditional attire and adorned in beaded bracelets and necklaces unique to the Kichwa of the Amazon get traditional Kichwa markings painted on her face by the whiter-than-marshmallow-fluff makeup artist. I felt it was ironic to say the least. When it was finally time to start filming, I received no real explanation on the character I was meant to play, apparently I was just acting as myself. Although, I did not seem to be very good at it because, during the scene when a Kichwa woman walks out of the kitchen to offer us some guayusa tea, it took me several takes to muster the appropriate gasp of astonishment and broad smile as I beamed at my partner with excitement. Now I agree that guayusa is pretty amazing stuff, I just hadn‰Ûªt realized that every time my host mom had handed me some in the past 3 months it warranted that kind of reaction. And the rest of the scenes that followed went pretty much the same way. In the last scene, some of the women performed a traditional Kichwa dance as I sat with a constant wide smile on my face and clapped my hands fervently while another actor behind filmed on his iPhone. I have never felt so out of place, and this is taking into consideration that I had just been introduced to a new community a continent away from home. It all just felt so fake. After having been living in my homestay, I had grown familiar with certain customs. They were not some phenomena that warranted some extravagant performance, but their culture and way of life. It wasn‰Ûªt meant to be exploited to rich, white tourists and treated as performance art. But then I thought about how tourism accounts for a large portion of the Ecuadorian economy. Especially when there aren‰Ûªt that many options out there, a job in tourism is a safe one to have. I also came to realize that many lodges and institutions saw tourism rather as an opportunity to share and educate about the different cultures of the Amazon. Showing tourists various traditional aspects of the Kichwa culture only helps to preserve it, especially now that Western dress and medicine prevails and less people actually speak Kichwa. So maybe it wasn‰Ûªt the Kichwa culture I felt so defensive about, but about my own self-image. During one of the scenes, the director cut to discuss for a few minutes with the rest of the crew whether or not the girl who was supposed to be painting my face needed to stand on a box. ‰ÛÏDerecha‰Û_ Derecha! …Chuta, alguien me encuentre un traductor!‰Û he shouted. I was busy talking to the girl in front of me because I thought I should probably get to know her and make her feel a little less awkward about being so close to my face. When I then realized he was shouting at me, I hesitated to move because naming a general direction isn‰Ûªt really telling me much. Did he want me to take a step to the right, or just swivel my body to the right? But by that point he had already called for a translator and someone to just push me into the correct position. Now I admit that my Spanish still wasn’t very strong and with only 3 months under my belt I still had much to learn about Ecuador and the culture. But he didn’t even give me a chance, he just made an immediate assumption that I didn’t know anything at all. I understand that upon first glance I look like any other gringa, and he wasn’t in a position to spend the time to get to know me, but someone who actually cares and is curious shouldn’t automatically be lumped in the same category and treated as someone who’s just in it for the Instagram pictures. The fact that I was the only one that felt like I was playing a character hurt, and I was determined to disprove any other misconceptions about myself and my purpose in Ecuador. Usually my mom doesn’t really contribute much to small talk at the dinner table, but from then on I asked so many questions she didn’t really have much of a choice. Even after we had completed filming, I still didn’t have much of an idea of what it was actually going to be used for. About a month later, the first time I had seen Jane after-the-fact, who actually lived in a different province, she yelled, “I was eating dinner with my family and I saw you on TV!” So yeah, I’m basically the next biggest celebrity of South America now.

Rosie Fitzsimmons