On Gringos and Not Gringos

“Yo no soy de los Estados Unidos, soy de Europa” – the proud tone I used to say this sentence surprised me, considering I don’t normally identify myself based on the arbitrary geographical borders. The association with Europe was not enough for me, for it only painted the picture of developed Western Europe, and I found myself very happy when given the opportunity to specify my location within Europe and elaborate on the economic and political situation of Bosnia and Herzegovina in a typically Bosnian complaining voice.


I realized that my reaction did not come from a need to validate my national identity (which frankly, is not really strong), rather the need to reject an imposed identity that I do not relate too – the one of the United States. Thinking about the complexity of my identity marked my first months in my new community in Ecuador. I was awkwardly aware of the fact that my physical appearance immediately defined me as an interloper, but paired up with my position as an English co-teacher and the reality of Ecuador as a very popular destination among the US Americans, my “gringa” look also misrepresented me – earning me the approach reserved for the US Americans. I remember interpreting the Ecuadorian approach as a fascinating combination of both romanticizing and resentment – a relationship I was intrigued by; however did not find applicable to me, considering Bosnia’s lack of involvement in the colonial history and very limited influence on the world. A very good friend of mine understood that my rejection of an identity of a “gringa”, was an attempt to reject appearing as the superior one – either as an individual or a member of the group. Completely analyzing my response helped me come to peace with my position as a foreigner in my community and enabled me to fully focus on untangling the intricate relationship between Latin America and the United States.


The explanation for the romanticizing aspect of the Ecuadorian approach to the United States became evident very easily. Some of the first things I noticed in Ecuador were numerous Western Union offices; New York Yankees caps paired up with the traditional costume of a “chola Cuencana”; and many kids, taken care of by their grandparents or uncles instead of their parents. In the first week I found out that the population size of Cumbe, my community, is 3500 although the official number is higher, around 5000. The disrepancy was explained to me through the migration wave that started happening around 30 years ago, taking a lot of Ecuadorians to the US,  more precisely New York.  The destination was reached through the help of smugglers, fake passports or visas. The initial dream of earning enough money and returning to a better life in Ecuador was fulfilled for a small percentage of the migrants. A bigger part remained in the US, unable to reunite with their family members since another attempt of crossing the borders would simply be too risky, and tourist visas could not be given so easily (except for the elderly, who are not suspected to be illegal workers). I found the situation in Ecuador similar to the ex-Yugoslavian immigration during the wars in the 90s which caused the phenomenon of a “rich aunt living in Germany”, jokingly referred to as the highest ambition of 5-year old girls. Similarly, the US became associated in Ecuador with better and more prosperous life, a location of desire and a dream land. However, current teenagers have a lot lower chance of moving to the US than they parents and grandparents did. On the other hand, there are community members, such as my host dad, who have no interest in the US, and from my interactions with them I sensed the resentment part.


“The US is the new colonizer of Latin America” – I heard, but had no knowledge to understand how and why. Talking to my community members who dislike the US made me feel the emotions they feel, but did not really explain the theoretical part of it. So I did my own research, found out about the Monroe Doctrine, which prevented any further British involvement in the Americas, but also established the US hegemony over Latin America; I learned about the Alliance for Progress, which allowed aid sent to Latin America, but probably benefitted the US more; and I noticed the pattern in the US involvement with presidential elections in Latin America, mainly in the attempts of preventing communism anywhere near them (oops Cuba) during the Cold War. I understood better. I became known as the Global Citizen Year fellow which does not refer to the US and US Americans as merely America or Americans, motivated by a poem by Eduardo Galeano I read, talking about the view of the world on Latin America:


“Who are not, but could be.
Who don’t speak languages, but dialects.
Who don’t have religions, but superstitions.
Who don’t create art, but handcrafts.
Who don’t have culture, but folklore.
Who are not human beings, but human resources.
Who do not have faces, but arms.
Who do not have names, but numbers.
Who do not appear in the history of the world, but in the police
blotter of the local paper.

The nobodies, who are not worth the bullet that kills them.”
“Along the way we have even lost the right to call ourselves Americans. For the world today, America is just the United States; the region we inhabit is a sub-America, a second-class America of nebulous identity.”