Being a white woman (gringa) in Ecuador

Aniska Bitomsky - Ecuador


October 8, 2019

(Check out the pictures at the end to get an insight what I do at my apprenticeship in the tourism office!)

Being a white woman in Ecuador.

I was visiting my friend, another girl from Germany, in the small town of Paute. We got ourselves some ice cream and sat down on a bench in the central park and were just chatting about life in Ecuador. The middle aged man was sitting on the bench opposite of us was soon joined by his friend, another middle aged man who greeted us with “buenas tardes”. So far, a little odd, but nothing to concerning, one could think. My friend turned around to me right after and said: “If they talk to us again, we don’t speak a single word of Spanish.” Right after she said that, they did say something to us in Spanish, we ignored them, the guy continued talking and we decided to leave as some of the words he was saying were “guapa” (pretty) “gringa” (white woman) and other similar thing. Even when we were walking away, he was still shouting after us, calling us beautiful and other things.

To be honest, this kind of situation which I have been spoken to by men who made me feel uncomfortable and made me leave is not that uncommon, not only in Ecuador. However, as a white and (for Ecuadorian standards) very tall woman this type of interaction is more likely to occur than if I were in Germany or the UK.

On the way back to my home town from Paute, me an another guy were sitting in the bus, waiting for it to depart. The guy was chatting to the driver; I was minding my own business. At some point he turned around and asked me where I was headed. I replied and his next question was whether I was single. He did not ask this in any particular way, it was just as normal a question as where I was from or any other small talk question. I replied yes, he nodded as an answer and continued chatting with the driver. To me the only thing strange was that he didn’t ask me where I was from and I took that as a compliment to my Spanish. Being asked whether I am married or have a boyfriend is one of the first things I am usually asked by Ecuadorians who I just met. My response to the question about marriage is usually that I am only 18. Due to my height, people assume that I am about ten years older.

Another thing I have experienced here quite often is cat-calling, especially when I were more than just jeans and t-shirt. To me, wearing what I discovered are “more fancy” trousers with a blouse is just normal everyday business. However, here in Ecuador (where people, in my opinion, lack any fashion sense and only wear something a little nicer, if they work in official institutes) my “normal” clothes are super fancy. When I wear these types of clothes, the cat-calling increases a lot: “Hola baby” when I just walk past them; “Guapa gringa” and of course the standard whistling. Honestly, I struggle to understand what males hope to achieve by this…as if I ever would turn around, feel flattered by it and hang out with them. Then I guess it is more about feeling powerful and dominant and able to call out women than hoping for it to have any effect.

As you have probably already guessed by now, the Ecuadorian culture is quite sexist (let’s be honest, most main stream cultures are). To me it is very interesting to observe how this sexism is expressed (other than making women feel uncomfortable in public) as I do feel like this can differ a lot from culture to culture. In Germany, for example, one can observe sexism in the way the media and people sometimes refer to our female chancellor: reducing her to the way she looked that day or calling her “Mutti” (cute version for mum) which pushes her into the traditional role distribution for women. Unfortunately, I cannot compare Ecuadorian media due to my limited Spanish, but I can observe the behaviour of people. For example, it is very common for males to play Ecua-volley out in public and a lot of males are surrounding the pitch and watching. I have never once seen a female do sports out in public and if they are watching, then only with their husbands. I personally wouldn’t dare enter a space like that because I would get a lot of unwanted attention. I love playing volleyball and it is a shame, but I guess I’ll just have to find an all-women’s club.

                Side note on this, I have come to understand a little more why it is so hard for females to break gender rules or reform society’s expectations. One could easily say: Hey, just go out there as a female and show them how you can play volleyball and by you joining them it will be easier for other females to join. Just do it, go and break the gender stereotypes. I deeply admire all the women in our past who have done this and changed the agency of women for all coming generations. The flipside of the join is that one makes oneself very vulnerable to unwanted sexual attention by doing so, especially in a culture where men are used to expressing their dominance over women in sexual ways. So I pay my respect to all women who exposed themselves to that risk for the good of other women. (I acknowledge that these considerations are within a culture which has a very binary understanding of gender and do not mean to diminish the struggles of all people on the gender spectrum, nor the pressure on men and young boys to fit into a “machista” culture. I can only speak from my perspective of a cis-head female.)

I talked about this a little in my first blog, but now I would like to expand on the gender roles within a family context. I have never seen a man cook other than when he is a chef, not in my family or the extended family on visits or in the market or when visiting neighbours. The men sit down at the table and are served by females and when they want seconds, often they ask the daughter or mother to bring them seconds. I have also not seen a male person clean. The male is the head of the family, he pays, he orders the taxi (btw, only seen male taxi drivers so far), he makes decisions, he works, he introduces the rest of the family, he serves the alcoholic drinks (which females only occasionally drink), he is taken serious and respected. With regards to this topic I am treated a little differently because I am a visitor, so I usually am not asked to help cook or clean, I am always offered a drink and I introduce myself.

All in all, in Ecuador I have become a lot more aware of what it means to be white in a culture in which they are the minority (people love to assume that I am rich) and especially what it means to be a white woman who stands out everywhere she goes. I am glad I am having this experience because being a white women in Western and Central Europe and I am learning a lot more about privilege. Ecuadorians assume I am privileged because I am white, but in the local context am I? Sure, most of the things here are cheap for me coming from the UK and Germany. However, I do not speak Spanish nor do I fully know the culture, the way things work, appropriate behaviour. I know very little local people or where to get the information I need. In anthropological terms, I do not have social or cultural capital and my economic one is limited at the moment because my credit card still has not arrived (after a month!). And of course, I am a white woman…

I took this picture on the first day of a piece of art in the workshop of a family who lives close to Gualaceo.

This is the place in the central plaza where the artisans sell their products. I took this for a FB post on the page of the tourism office.
Hasta luego!

Aniska Bitomsky