A twenty-something-year-old gringa sizes up Cuenca´s expats and decides that many of them come up short

Dec 16, 2010

By Ashley Armstrong

A few months ago there was an article in CuencaHighLife about what Cuencanos think of the gringos living here. If I remember correctly, it was about a grad school project by a University of Cuenca student.

A lot of the comments were positive. The locals said that the foreigners brought higher standards and expectations with them and because of this, Cuenca was becoming more cosmopolitan and sophisticated. There were a couple comments about how local restaurants are getting better as a result of the gringos.

But there were a lot of negative comments too. In summary, these said that too many gringo expats who were arrogant and over-weight, and that they didn’t didn´t make much effort to learn Spanish and that they drank too much.

I was thinking about this last week when a friend and I were approached in a Calle Larga bar by a couple of older expats. They were on the pick-up prowl but apparently hadn’t looked in the mirror lately. If he had, he would have noticed that he was old and fat. And yes, he was arrogant and no, he didn´t speak Spanish except for two words he considered essential: vino and cerveza (judging by his condition, he was apparently fluent with these).

But my point is not to ridicule a pathetic old men looking for love. You can find the type anywhere in the world.

What I remember most was when he looked around the club and told us he hadn´t realized there were so many young gringos in Cuenca. I remember this because it reinforces the impression that young gringos have about many old gringos, which is to say, that they are so absorbed in themselves they don´t pay much attention to the life going on around them.

This is not just a problem in Cuenca. I have seen it everywhere I have traveled where there are expats — in Salta, Argentina and Granada, Nicaragua, to name two that I´m familiar with. The expats seem to think that because they are Americans (or Brits or Aussies) that they are special and deserve special treatment. The American anthropologist Chester Telmann, calls the condition the “gringo bubble.”

It is not fair to make generalizations and I know many expats who are active in the community and who are dedicated to learning more about the culture they live in. For those who keep their eyes and heart open, life here is extraordinarily rich.

My complaint is against the expats who do not reach out to their adopted country and culture … and who do even notice that there are as many young gringos in Cuenca as there are old gringos. Much worse, they don´t bother to get to know the Ecuadorians who were here long before they arrived and will be here long after they are gone. To these folks I say, break out of the bubble or, as my friend calls it, the “gringo cluster.” In other words, get a life.

And oh yes, lose a little weight and learn Spanish.


Ashley Armstrong is an archeology graduate student at the University of California – Berkeley. She is currently working on an excavation project in Challuabamba, northeast of Cuenca.