One thing I expected living in Ecuador was to be treated like a foreigner. When people laugh while I walk by, stare without responding to my “Good Morning” or yell the only english words they know in my direction (“I Love You”) I’m not surprised. If an Ecuadorian wearing a feather hat and wool poncho stumbled around my town saying “Good Morning” in a thick accent I might laugh or stare too. However, I am surprised at my agitation by the verbal representation of that treatment: the word “gringo“, which essentially means “foreigner” or “white person”. I dont mean when my supervisor’s 3-year-old grandson greets me by saying “Holaaa Gringitoooo” with a big smile. Just like any word, it’s speaker and intent are just as important as it’s definition. It is when I’m labeled as “the gringo” by people who know me by name that bothers me.
But why? Most of the time “gringo” isn’t used maliciously, but simply as a description. I don’t take offense when people call me “the tall guy”. How is “gringo” any different? I suppose it’s that I’m not used to being characterized by my race. Where I come from being white is the standard, not the exception: there are no laws to promote the success of white students; no month to celebrate the accomplishments of white people; the election of a white president is not a notable date in history. All this is unnecessary for my ethnicity because we have the advantages of the majority. Thus I have never been subjected, repeatedly, to judgement based on something like skin color. But what I’ve come to realize – as a minority in a country where there is a special word and very strong stigmas associated with my ethnicity – is how demeaning generalizations can be, especially by race. It is our uniqueness that gives us value (if we were all identical there would be no loss by the absence of one of us). So when someone labels me as “gringo” they make assumptions which rob me of my individuality and significance. I cease being the unique “Josh Thompson” with my own thoughts, beliefs, and history, and commence being “the gringo” with the same thoughts, beliefs, and history as all the other “gringos“. By a generalization we are called valueless, and ultimately there is nothing more insulting, more demeaning, than someone declaring our life to be without value. The validity of the generalization is irrelevant (lets face it: the assumptions that I speak English, am not from Ecuador, and am wealthier than the average Ecuadorian are all correct) because it’s still a refusal to acknowledge the value of and in knowing another human being.
Making generalizations is hardly unique to Ecuador. Invariably, everyone has been generalized by another at some point. In America I’ve been generalized as “football player”, “Christian,” and “teenager”: all which can have negative connotations. But I have never been generalized with such magnitude – literally by everyone I’ve met – for something so arbitrary as skin color, and this must be from where my agitation stems. Coming from a society (i.e. parents, teachers) that teaches that generalizing based on ethnicity is ignorant and wrong only magnifies that agitation. But that is not to say that this level of prejudice does not exist in the U.S. It does. We can all probably recall a time when someone has acted differently – intentionally or unintentionally – towards a person of a different ethnicity solely because of skin color. I certainly can. I just have never been on the receiving end of such treatment.
I did not come to Ecuador necessarily expecting to gain a higher sense of social awareness or empathy for the prejudiced. But I did come expecting to learn. And I have.