Santa Ana’s cold disappears most afternoons, when the clouds shy away and a sun so strong fearlessly blazes above us. The island girl in me revels in these moments. So after I had my one-on-one check-in with my team leader this one sunny October day, I thought I should stay out for a little while longer, read my book, and enjoy the sun a little bit longer. A good half an hour into reading, two of the students I co-teach at the local high school approached me. We had a pretty normal conversation, and one boy jokingly mentioned something about them being ‘indios’. Keep in mind that my Spanish is still not the best, but I knew enough to know that indio isn’t exactly the nicest word used here to refer to indigenous people. So I asked him if he was indigenous, and he proudly said, ‘No, soy espanol, de Espania soy yo’. His friend decided to revisit the joke, and said, in an accent that he hadn’t been using earlier: ‘Soy indio, nacido de la tierra’, to which they both erupted into laughter, and I just sat there, confused. Having been confused in as to how to identify people who were indigenous versus the ‘mestizos’, I had asked someone, and learned that it mostly had to do with how they spoke Spanish differently, a little more rough around the edges. So I gathered that they had been making fun of the indigenous people, their way of speaking Spanish and their way of living. Indios was a term that was used to describe the people of the land, by Spanish settlers. The Spanish settlers had used many terms to describe those who were not of pure Catholic Spanish/European blood, and weren’t born in Europe. By the end of the colonial era, the list consisted of over a hundred terms to describe those who were any mix of European, Indigenous or African blood. According to your genealogy, you were labeled one of those hundred terms, and were to be placed accordingly within the ‘sistema de castas’.
Taking us out of the past, and back into the present, I look back at that joke the students had made, and see the remnants of the colonial era, having normalized and established these ideas of socio-economic worth corresponding to your ethnicity. I think of how sensitive the topic of race is in the U.S., and how people would not just throw around racial slurs in jokes, but perhaps I am just being insensitive to a cultural norm.
I also stop to think about the power complex in it though, there were no indigenous people there to defend themselves in regards to that joke, how would they feel, is it even possible to make jokes about ‘mestizos’ or ‘white mestizos’, because as far as I know, they’re such a big and powerful group, and the characteristics attached to those social groups are not ones they might be ashamed of, because the system works in their favor, unlike those they might make fun of.
With all this going through my mind, I can’t help other questions that pop into my mind about some more personal, and somebroader themes. The casualness with which people use, and identify with, the racial terms that have deemed past social hierarchies, imposed upon them by those higher up in that hierarchy, makes me question every day social interactions and opportunities for different social groups.
I question development endeavors, and the approach to advancing Ecuadorian society. As we’ve seen for years, and continue to see today, indigenous people have been manipulated, and/or forced into giving up their lands so that multinationals can carry out their extractive practices, potentially and really harming the lands through contamination. All for those in power to claim that it’s in the best economic interest of the country. Why is it that those who fall lower down in that hierarchy, always have to be the ones to sacrifice?
Of course there’s a way to move forward with minimal damage, but do those in power care enough to be patient, and to make sure that all social groups will advance as one, or are they so concerned with how fast the world is moving, and how high up the ranks they can move in this race between countries to be powerful, rich and well-known?
I find it worrisome that people don’t question enough the dilemmas that colonialism has left them with, and how to go about moving forward as a united people, in societies that have been so fragmented by their past? People seem to forget how far back their privilege goes, and what its origins are. Or perhaps they’re too absorbed in the perks of being privileged and the entitlement that comes with it, that they don’t want to acknowledge that many of these privileges aren’t ones they’ve worked hard to earn. We must be critical of where we stand as a people, how we are treated and how we treat others.