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Cuenca’s African-Ecuadorians say prejudice is ‘subtle’ compared to the U.S. but still exists

Ecuadorians of African descent are carefully watching international protests that followed the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police three weeks ago. “Of course, we pay attention to this because it affects our future,” says Nile de Aguiar, president of the Afro Movement of Azuay. “We live with the same issues as all black people whose ancestors were taken out of Africa and enslaved in white cultures. As minorities, our struggle is the same.”

Nile de Aguiar

Although 30 African-Ecuadorians and their friends gathered last week for a peaceful protest at the governor’s office on Parque Calderon, de Aguiar says there are no large-scale marches planned. “We are only two percent of the population in Cuenca so most of our work for racial justice is done behind the scenes,” she says. “We also keep in mind that there are other groups, such as the indigenous and campesinos, who suffer from prejudice in Ecuador. Like the rest of Latin America, this country is very class-oriented and the old system of European privilege still exists.”

According to de Aguiar, the 2005 constitution offers equal rights and protections to black people. “The problem, as in other places, is how the laws are applied, which is not always fair,” she says. “Even though it is prohibited, prejudice still exists in employment and education. We see it in our daily lives and our children encounter it at school.”

De Aguiar sees the George Floyd protests as part of an ongoing struggle. “It is the same movement that Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela advanced and that has made progress over the years. Most of all, we must always remember that our biggest obstacle is to change the hearts and minds of our neighbors.”

One challenge faced by African-Ecuadorians is geographical, says Carlos Iglesias, a native black Cuencano who was a university professor in the U.S. for 30 years until he retired in 2016. “Blacks make up about nine percent of the population but they are concentrated in the northwest part of Ecuador,” he says. “If you are an African-Ecuadorian in Esmeraldas or the Valle del Chota you are in the majority, which changes the dynamics of the fight for equality. You have to go to Quito to plead your case. If there was a distribution of blacks like there is in the U.S. the situation would be different.”

Iglesias agrees with de Aguiar that discrimination in Ecuador is subtle and often “behind-the-scenes.” “It is much rarer, these days, to hear insults on the streets or in the workplace and this is a big change from my memories as child in the 1960s.”

Iglesias also agrees with de Aguiar that African-Ecuadorians are not the only population facing discrimination. “Blacks in Ecuador are always aware that the colonial class system is not just cruel to us but to other disadvantaged people as well,” he says. “It was not until the 1950s and 1960s that the old hacienda system was abolished in Ecuador. It was a system of indentured servitude in which the mestizos and indigenous were at the mercy of white overlords and vestiges of that culture are still with us. It is a complicated scenario and, like a Gabriel García Márquez novel, it takes time to sort out.”

He adds: “Yes, we are following the protests in the U.S. and around the world. All black people are in this together.”