Canadian researcher says that despite good intentions, Cuenca expats help sustain a racist class system that oppresses poorer Ecuadorians

Jul 2, 2015 | 37 comments

By Liam Higgins

According to Canadian university professor and writer Matthew Hayes, Cuenca expats are unwittingly promoting a racist caste system established centuries ago in Ecuador by the Spanish. Hayes’ analysis appears in the article, “’It is hard being the different one all the time’: gringos and racialized identity in lifestyle migration to Ecuador,” published in Ethnic and Racial Studies, in April.

Matthew Hayes

Matthew Hayes

Hayes, an assistant professor of sociology at St. Thomas University in Canada, writes that, “North American migrants to Ecuador, the majority of whom are racialized whites, are coming to live in a highly racialized environment, one very different from their homes where their whiteness appeared invisible and/or irrelevant.”

As a result of their whiteness, Hayes writes, expats tend to associate with upper and middle class Ecuadorians, many of whom are white or light-skinned themselves. It is not necessarily the intention of expats to oppress lower classes, Hayes says, and, in fact, many of them try to fight the status quo, but their efforts often backfire. “Surreptitiously, and often despite good intentions, North Americans in Ecuador are participating in a white racial project, carried out by the elites of Cuenca against the lower classes …”

Many of the 69 expats that Hayes interviewed from 2011 to 2013, said that, by appearance, they stood out among the native population, and felt like the “other” for the first time in their lives. The “otherness,” Hayes write, creates a level of anxiety and discomfort among expats who employ a variety of approaches to integrate into the local community. Nonetheless, Hayes writes, expats “elaborate new identities within the context of an already racialized social order, where whiteness represents the colonial elites.”

chl expats1

Cuenca expats at an El Centro cafe.

An example of an expat attempt to integrate, says Hayes, are efforts by some to “self-police” the gringo community with the intent of reducing bad behavior among other expats. He cites a mass email sent by Cuenca bookstore owner Lee Dubs in April 2103, warning of the impact of the “ugly American” on the image of all expats. Hayes suggests that such efforts are based on outdated, racist thinking from the U.S. that minorities should keep their own members in line, and that is bound to ultimately fail.

In Dub’s email and elsewhere, Hayes said he heard constantly changing versions of the same stories about gringos misbehaving in banks and supermarkets, usually involving expressions of anger that the locals couldn’t speak English. According to Hayes, repeating such stories, with disdain for the violators, was a way for some expats to express their support for Ecuadorians. “‘Ugly American’ narratives allow North American migrants to symbolically separate themselves from their racialized belonging to whiteness and gringoness, cleansing their own transnational relocation and cultural acclimatization,” he writes.

In addition to efforts to police their own community, Hayes sites other expat efforts to integrate into the local culture, including participation in community and volunteer events, that he sees as often being self-serving and condescending toward locals. He writes: “While outwardly an attempt to diminish social distance, integration narratives and practices were also guided by a desire to ‘fit in’ and diminish the perceived phenotypical non-belonging that so many of my participants said was jarring for them.”

Hayes also discusses “stratification” within the expat community itself, as some members refuse to join the self-police department, or make the effort to integrate into Cuencano culture that other expats feel is necessary.

CRITIQUING THE CRITIQUE

Wallace Ingram, former Federal Reserve System economist and professor at three U.S. mid-western universities, gives Hayes’ article a mixed review. “As far as its major point goes, I don’t have a disagreement,” he says. “Like a lot of journal writing, though, it’s limited in scope and, in this case, follows the writer’s preconceived views of class and race. His favorite adjective seems to be ‘racialized’ which is one of those fuzzy academic words that allows for a lot of imprecision.”

Ingram, who has been visiting Cuenca since the mid-1990s, says Hayes is overly critical of expat efforts to fit in. “I think the people here deserve credit for attempting to integrate and I think many of them have had success, and I also think they have made genuine contributions to the city,” he says. “If you want to see expats who make no attempt to fit in, go to Ajijic or San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. I recommend that Dr. Hayes take that trip.”

He adds: “The article seems to take the viewpoint that society in Cuenca, in the sense of class, is static, and this definitely is not the case. Since my first visit here, I’ve seen enormous changes, like those that happened in the U.S. during the civil right era. If the education system keeps improving, I see a lot of this class business going away within a generation or two.”

Former university administrator and writer Sylvan Hardy agrees with Ingram that the article’s scope is limited.

One major omission in Hayes’ research, Hardy says, is the impact of returning Ecuadorians on Cuenca. “Estimates are that about 25,000 have come home during the time that 3,000 or 4,000 North Americans have moved to town, and their influence has been far more powerful than that of the gringos,” he says. “Even though many of those coming home would be associated with the lower class, they have acquired upper class tastes, skills and attitudes that tend to break down the old class distinctions. This, obviously, would not fit neatly in the article’s framework.”

Hardy continues: “You can apply a racial or class critique to almost anything, but sometimes you miss the bigger picture when you do. It’s like having tunnel vision.”

 

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