Even after studying Spanish for 5 years and traveling to Latin America 2 times before, there are a lot of things I don’t understand about Pano, a town in the Amazon rainforest region of Ecuador that is my home until April. For example, I don’t get why people insist on wearing pants in the intense Amazonian sun, or why either coke or beer is the desired rehydration drink after playing soccer. And don’t even get me started on the Kichwa. But now with the United States election results released, there is one thing
I understand least of all.
When I first got to Pano, I felt a certain distance between the native people and myself. If I passed them on the street and gave them a cheery “Buenos Días”, the best I could hope for was a soft, muffled response of the same. I started to wonder if I had done something to offend them or if it’s just how things work here. But a few weeks later I found out the real reason, and no one put it so clearly as the two women who saw me when I got to church early and said “parece ladrón” or “he looks like a thief”. Now I’m not sure what part about being at a church at 7 am on a Sunday morning dressed in a bright green polo shirt made me look like a thief, but apparently I did. Of course, not everyone believed I was there to steal their things, but after hearing it again from my neighbor, a family friend, and a Kichwa woman that, upon discovering I worked at the health clinic, took it upon herself to dispel the rumor from just about everyone she knew, I think a solid amount believed it
So, if the people of Pano have a general distrust towards a black man that comes to their town, why is it that so many of them want a black man running one of the most influential countries in the world? In the days leading up to November 6th, I can’t tell you how many times I was asked “did you vote?” and “who did you vote for?” When I responded with “Yes” and “Obama”, there was always a “good, I hope he wins too” that followed. Whether I was talking to the Doctor at the health clinic that lived in the U.S. for 2 years, the woman selling fried pork on the street, the 12 French tourists that happened to be in town, or the German foreign exchange student that was staying with my host family in Quito, it seemed everyone was pulling for Obama. In fact, almost no one I talked to even knew Mitt Romney’s name (poor guy).
I was incredibly humbled. It almost seemed unfair that the election of the U.S. president gets so much press here, while the near kidnapping of the Ecuadorian president by his own police force 2 years ago got virtually no mention in the American media. “What does he mean to them?” I started to wonder. I know they think he’s intelligent and that Michelle Obama is an excellent woman, but it must take more than that to gain the support of a whole nation. It’s not like his policies are going to do very much for the average Ecuadorian. They will not receive aid from Obamacare. The wealthy don’t have to worry about their taxes being raised. As far as I know, the President doesn’t plan to change very much in terms of U.S. relations with any South American country. But it doesn’t matter; it seems simply having him sit in the Oval office is enough. And to be honest I don’t know why, I was always too afraid to ask. But I like to think it’s because Obama is much more than a President to them. He is a symbol. A symbol that things can change. A symbol that things can get better. A symbol of a hope so powerful, it can even enable someone that “parece ladrón” to become the President of the United States.