“Whether we are born into a culture which emphasizes community over independence, or a society which values tradition over feminism, we cannot easily escape the influence in which they have upon us.”
I hopped on the bus from Cuenca to Azogues and immediately made my way to the back. As with most people, I am particular about where I like to sit in buses. Back seats are optimal due to their window control and relative seclusion, in addition to the fact that it’s simply where the cool kids sit. Yet as I approached the back of the bus I began to have my doubts: there was a couple, both in their mid twenties, ravenously canoodling each other with the passion and veracity of two very determined competitive eaters. Since the bus was packed, I entered their bubble of assumed privacy and sat next to the window. At least I had control over that.
When I witness public displays of affection in Ecuador, I am reminded of my psychology class in Bosnia and Herzegovina, in which we learned about individualistic and collectivistic cultures. As Ecuador is a collectivistic culture – in which the emphasis is placed upon the family and not the individual – it is the societal norm for children to live with their parents until they are married and subsequently the youth feel uncomfortable or are unable to express their desire for one another in more private quarters. Hence, it is relatively common, even blasé, to notice the young lovers on the streets of Ecuador hand-in-hand and head-over-heels. Eventually, they came up for air and took notice of my obviously foreign features. The man, dark and mestizo asked me in broken English where I come from. Responding, we introduced ourselves to each other. The girl smiled a toothy grin, bubbly and effervescent, her face flushed from lascivious necking.
“Somos juntos (We are together),” she said, gesturing to her beau with a giggle, her carefree countenance juxtaposed against his weathered and weighty visage.
“Yo sé. Es bastante obvio (I know. It’s quite obvious.),” I responded with a sly smile and the couple broke into laughter.
There are some events that yield instant amigos and one of them is mild embarrassment on public transportation. Yet just as soon as we began talking about our lives in Azogues, the bus came to a creaking halt, ending our casual conversation, though it wouldn’t be the last time I saw them. Coincidentally, though not necessarily surprising given the size of my town, the woman lives in my vicinity and we regularly congregate on the bus on the way to my neighborhood Charasol.
In the parking lot of the bus station were my cousins, a young couple pregnant with their first child, ready to whisk me away to the ninetieth birthday party of my great aunt in a nearby small town called Ingapirca. As we drove into town, my cousin practiced his labored yet earnest English with me as his wife sat placidly, occasionally adding comments and questions, with one hand over her pregnant belly.
My uncle greeted me at the door, shaking my hand and offering a spirit-scented slurred salutation, taking me by the arm and leading me inside the large house. “I want to introduce you to everyone,” he said. There were at least a hundred people at the party and the woman of the hour along with many other family members I had yet to meet sat contentedly in the backyard on folding chairs chatting with each other. My uncle led me to a microphone positioned on the patio and instantaneously the entire crowd fell silent. I was expecting a hello and how-do-you-do not a speech! While I don’t remember exactly what I said besides wishing my great aunt a feliz cumpleaños, I emerged unscathed and began to mingle with the other guests.
A ninetieth birthday is, in my opinion, a grand achievement and it was truly a testament to the warmth and community in which my great aunt inspires. In addition, it was an international fiesta, featuring a Chilean, a Brazilian, and an American (guess who) in addition to the many Ecuadorians who had gathered there to celebrate her legacy.
An hour into the party, a clown emerged, wearing a blonde wig, a red nose, and comically applied makeup. While I have nothing but indifference for clowns, I knew that being the only gringo at the party made me conspicuous and therefore identified me as a target for the clown’s bromas. Normally that would not be a problem for me, however if there is one thing that I simply cannot grasp in Spanish (yet), it is humor. His act surprised me in the sense that he didn’t perform juggling or feats of acrobatic skill. He seemed to just be a vulgar comedian in overalls and oversized shoes (which on further inspection were exactly my size), who didn’t notice me until he asked the crowd:
“Does anyone here speak English?”
A wave of pointed fingers shot at me like arrows accompanied by a laugh at the embarrassment blooming on my face. If more than four people notice me at once, I blush incessantly, and the public observation of my bashfulness only exacerbated the rouge which seared my cheeks. Slowly, as if he could sense my hesitation, Trampolin (without the ‘e’) tramped his way towards me, wielding the microphone like a butcher knife.
“Hello. How are you?” Trampolin asked with seemingly genuine interest. Everyone in the room leaned forward to listen, not able to understand English.
“Um… I’m fine, thanks. You?” I held back a wince, knowing Trampolin would fire back with a joke.
“Very well! Thank you very much thank you very much thank you very much,” he replied.
Now fill in every word ‘thank’ with a certain four letter word that rhymes with ‘duck’ and you’ll get the joke. I feigned a polite chuckle while, needless to say, the monolingual crowd who understood only the punch line rolled with laughter.
The night continued on, filled with hearty laughter, roasted pork, and jovial conversation. Throughout the party, I began to notice a pattern that was reciprocated at the other parties in which I attended: the men would systematically get drunk off of hard liquor while their wives and daughters shrugged and nonchalantly laughed at their intoxicated behavior. In Ecuador, as I have observed, gender roles are a bit more traditional than in the USA. While this doesn’t entail that all Ecuadorian women are confined to the kitchen, it does mean that (in general) they cannot take part in the same activities that are ‘inherently’ masculine, such as binge drinking at family parties. The women are obliged to stay sober so that they can drive their inebriated husbands home afterwards and retain responsibility of their children.
At the end of the party, my cousin who picked me up from the bus station offered to drive me back to Charasol. The problem? He was one of these men heavily under the influence of alcohol at the time who insisted on driving instead of his stone cold sober (and pregnant) wife. Of course, I flat out refused to get in the car, expecting his wife to step up and take the keys from her intoxicated husband… but she stayed relatively quiet and demure, as if waiting for him to change his mind. After approximately twenty minutes of various family members trying (unsuccessfully) to convince him to let his wife drive, we gave up and left him slumped by the car in front of the house consoled by his (also inebriated) cousins. Before, the couple seemed so symbiotic and communicative that it struck me as odd that she didn’t feel comfortable putting her foot down. On the ride home, she explained to me the dynamics of the situation:
“It was exactly this way with my first husband and that is why we aren’t together anymore. When these men drink they are so inconsiderate. I am pregnant with his child and he doesn’t want to come home with me. Instead he wants to drink with his friends all night to celebrate.”
It was the ninetieth birthday of our great aunt and it was also the festival of Azogues, a city wide party to hail the independence of the town from Spanish colonialists, but it didn’t take much explanation to understand her frustration and wariness, a sentiment commonly shared among Ecuadorian women.
The experience at the party – and even the transportation there – made me think more critically about the roles in which we are placed by birth. Whether we are born into a culture which emphasizes community over independence, or a society which values tradition over feminism, we cannot easily escape the influence in which they have upon us. We can only observe these norms and see our actions within these contexts, and in our own small ways try to change them.