I Will Always be a Gringa

Lily Shaffer - Ecuador


January 2, 2011

I am white. I am a young woman. Luckily, I’m about the same height as most Ecuadorians. My hair is just reaching a point where I can put it in a ponytail. I don’t stick out too much.  But nonetheless, I am clearly an outsider. It doesn’t matter that I call this place home right now, that I have a job and family and friends here, that I am more or less fluent—I will always be a foreigner.  Natives know it, and frequently abuse it.  To say that this frustrates me is an understatement.

Let me give you a few examples of the special treatment I get.

A few weeks ago, I was out running before work. It’s about 7:30 am and I’m in workout clothes, iPod in, running. A taxi driving in the other direction u-turned and pulled up alongside me, beeping, while the driver leaned his head out the window and asked if I needed a ride. Obviously not, I’m running. The taxis drive me nuts. If I wait for the bus for ten minutes, I guarantee a minimum of twenty taxi drivers will slow down and beep and lean their heads out the window.

I was buying salchipapas the other day, a little indulgence I have here. They’re basically French fries sold by street vendors with a sauce of mayonnaise, ketchup, and aji (hot sauce). I asked for just aji on my salty treat, so the woman put half of a dollop. When I asked for more, she laughed a little bit and told me it was very spicy and I couldn’t handle it. “I know it’s very spicy,” I responded. “That’s why I want more.” When she put another half dollop on, I asked her for the bottle and poured a small lake onto my salchipapas. She looked at me, shocked, and told me I’m a very brave girl. Gee, thanks.

Or this: I was on the bus from visiting another fellow and as a man left, he leaned over and said, in what I think was a German burr, “careful with your stuff.” I nearly responded with “I don’t speak English” in a fake accent. Clearly I’m going to be careful of my stuff. You think that just because I’m a female and white I don’t know to be careful with my stuff? I just said, “gracias” and smiled.

But the case that took the prize…

I was in Otavalo, at the largest artisanal market in Ecuador. I asked a woman how much two different sweaters were. Suddenly, a man leaned over my shoulder and whispered, in a thick accent “she said fifteen and twenty.” Startled, I turned back to him and, in Spanish, responded, “I know. I understand.”

Our conversation evolved, and within about thirty seconds he told me that he was shocked with how fluidly and quickly I could speak in Spanish. He apologized profusely. It turns out, he was serving as a translator for a family of tourists and he told me he had never come across a young girl, by herself in a market, who not only could speak nearly perfect Spanish, but who lived and worked here.  It was a lovely little conversation, but I was angry the whole time. Seriously—full blown, forcing the feeling into my stomach, anger. Anytime these assumptions are placed on me—from being a tourist to an inefficient volunteer, a non-Spanish speaker to a clueless gringa who can’t use the bus system—I’ve gotten frustrated. I think it bothered me so much because the basis of these assumptions is simply my appearance, and I’ll never be able to change that. I will always be a short, white, woman.

I talked to my cousin the other night and he helped me look at the situation a bit differently. He actually proposed a bit of a challenge. Every time someone places these assumptions and I get the chance to explain myself, do so in as kind a way as possible. I always use the conversations I have to tell people why I’m here and what I’m doing. Admittedly, sometimes I’m a bit heated. Levi challenged me to use these conversations as a teaching opportunity rather than a proving myself opportunity. Instead of making the tour guide feel badly for putting me in a box, gently explain why I’m here. Show him, in as kind a manner as possible, that even though I look different, I am not different. I am human. He is human.  I won’t ever be able to change how I look, or who I am, or where I come from, but I can change how people view that.

Lily Shaffer