Throughout high school I searched for my identity through means of reading books, exercise, self-reflection, making friends based on common interests and goals, and questioning what I want out of my life. Fast forward to a few weeks ago when I was peeling and chopping yucca, a white starchy root vegetable that grows wild in Ecuador. When my friend’s host mom casually told me that I’m yucca because I’m as pale and white.
Being called white or yucca on a regular basis has caused me to question how I identify myself. As a young female in the United States I identify with that population, the community in which I grew up, the social circles I’m involved in or the various activities I enjoy doing. Here however, my identity is not defined primarily by my personality or intellectual identity but, rather my skin color. I’m placed in the category of White or Gringa, a term used here to refer to foreigners of white skin.
Before coming to Ecuador I didn’t consider my skin color. Yes I knew I was white but I never thought of it as a defining factor of who I was—it’s simply a color (or is it?). Being a white American here has made me question the opportunities I’ve been given. Am I given them because I’m a kind, bubbly, and energetic person or because I’m White and represent privilege as a result of imperialism? Whether it’s persuading my way onto buses that requires only tickets, having to pay extra for food (getting the gringa price), being stopped by men and women to pose for photos, getting a doctor’s appointment on a Sunday when private practices are not open, or landing a date with the ex-president’s nephew. Or even just showing up in a rural community and being expected from community members to ‘help them’. When I think about these past events I’m baffled by the idea that they are almost all the result of my white skin color.
Why today, in the twenty-first century is skin color a defining factor? Did hundreds of years of colonization cause society to forever view ‘white and lighter skin’ to be better? From my observations and experiences I have come to the conclusion that the legacy of colonialism is still present in terms of the relationship between being light skinned and having power. When Spaniards invaded Ecuador they led a way of life that suppressed darker skinned peoples (indigenous groups) and empowered lighter skinned people (Spaniards). Today Ecuador is still largely based on race.
Napo, the province I live in is made up a combination of Colonials and Kichwas. Kichwas are one of the native indigenous groups that have lived in Ecuador for thousands of years. When the Spaniards conquered Ecuador they intermarried and had children with the various indigenous groups across Ecuador, creating Colonials. Currently, Colonials hold almost all the political positions indicating that having ‘whiter’ skin enables one more likely to have important more powerful jobs than their counterpart indigenous people. However, I am is baffled by this because Kichwas are also trying to continue to stay true to their ‘hunting and gathering’ lifestyles but also become involved in society. I believe they are restricted to become an essential part of society because of the way of life they have been told they are capable of leading and the assumptions about their reality they have learned from colonialism. The legacy of colonialism appears to continue to be present in the daily lives of people here because the same principles that were ever present during colonialism have continued to define the Ecuadorian society.
As I continue to live my life, here and in the States, I have yet another category to identify myself with. This classification however is not one I agree with. Yes, I might be white but that does not define who I am nor should it give me more power or self-confidence or anything. After all it is just the color of my skin.