Part 1: Who are the Kichwa Otavalo people?: Countering the single story narrative

Anyone who is part of GCY is familiar with the idea of the single story. It refers to a common thread in most Americans’ view of the world. When we think about other countries, especially less developed ones, we tend to be content considering only one narrative of how the people live their lives. In Africa, we imagine huts, savannas and lions, in China, rice paddies and triangle shaped hats. In Ecuador, most imagine dirt floors and poor farmers. For this reason, the most valuable lesson we learn from traveling, is how short-sighted one narrative is to define an entire country. However, not everyone has the privilege of being able to travel to Ecuador. For this reason, I would like to share with you the most impactful parts of indigenous culture. Things that contradicted how I saw the world, and how many Americans see the world. 

Indigenous people live all over Ecuador, each tribe speaking its own language. Most of the tribes struggle to survive, being displaced by oil ventures in the Amazon or development on the coast. However, the Kichwa people in the mountains of Ecuador all speak dialects of the same language, Kichwa.

The Kichwa people in Otavalo, the region where I lived, are unique because the city of Otavalo is in part run by the Kichwa people. In Otavalo, the Kichwa celebrate their culture and are not ostracized for their long hair and clothing as they are in much of Ecuador. Kichwa Otavalo, the dialect used Otavalo, is spoken daily, so I had the privilege of living in the only place in the world, where it is possible to learn about Kichwa culture and language. 


Kichwa Otavalo women wear beautiful shirts, hand embroidered with colorful flowers, paired with a long skirt, held up by a colorful cloth called a faja. They also wear golden earrings, golden tiered necklaces and long coral bracelets called manillas. Every time my mother went out, she would put on this ensemble and present herself as a Kichwa woman. Whether she was going to the city, or to pick up some cloth, she always put on this outfit. The clothes of the Kichwa Otavalo are a huge part of their identity, and seeing so many women walking down the streets of a bustling city, wearing such distinctly Kichwa clothing, created a sense of community and pride in their ancestry. 


Comadre or compadre identify people who you have chosen as godparents for your child or as the godparents for your first communion or wedding. Your comadre and their families become an extension of your own. And since Kichwa people get godparents for baptism, first communions and weddings, a lot of people in your community end up being your comadres. As my host mother walked down the street, every other person she would greet as a comadre. This practice changes the way families are in Kichwa culture. They are extensive and facilitate a greater sense of community. Especially since families either move far away or stay in the same town. In Ilumán, where I lived, my great aunts and uncles lived two doors down or a block away. I really liked this way of expanding the family. It really meant a lot to become someones godparent, and being asked to be a godparent was a sincere gesture of trust and friendship. 


Tumarina is a Kichwa ritual that is performed in springtime. It is paired with the celebration of the new year, which, according to the Kichwa calendar, begins in February. It consists of filling a bowl with water and flower petals, then scooping water and petals out of the bowl and placing them on top of someone’s head and saying a blessing for their future. The ritual symbolizes love and respect given from one person to another and is usually performed by an elder or godparent. The water is taken from a spring and symbolizes people’s connection to the earth, pachamama in Kichwa, while the flower petals symbolize connection to the sun, or Tayta Inti. I really like this ritual because it reinforces the strong familial and community ties that create the Kichwa culture. Keeping this ritual alive also honors and celebrates Kichwa culture itself and gives Kichwa people a space to celebrate themselves and each other. 

There is so much more to say about the Kichwa Otavalo but these moments were the ones that stuck with me and made me reflect on myself and where I come from. Learning from other cultures gives us so many lessons to reflect on, but I think it also gives us a chance to look back at our own cultures. America is very different from Ecuador, there are more people, it is physically bigger, and has a very different way of looking at community.