In study of Cuenca’s cultural traditions, a researcher asks: ‘whose culture is it?’ For many, its richness and growth is satisfying, but others are ‘marginalized’

Jul 15, 2015 | 0 comments

Editor’s note: Canadian sociology professor and researcher Matthew Hayes has studied Cuenca and the impact of North American expats on the city for several years and, last year, published an article in the academic journal, Ethnic and Racial Studies about his research. His article is titled “‘It is hard being the different one all the time’: gringos and racialized identity in lifestyle migration to Ecuador.” Click here to read it.

By Matthew Hayes

A recent article in CuencaHighLife discussing my research in Ecuador generated quite a bit of online debate, and maybe some discussion around dinner.

While it is not unusual for academic articles to generate indigestion—they are notoriously dense and plodding—it is rare for them to reach a broader public. I would have been happier with the critiques—which missed the point—had the author also asked me to explain my work in plainer English.

Matthew Hayes

Matthew Hayes

Given the headline, readers will want to know: how do I participate in a racist caste system? Since racism is a sacred evil in our culture, and since most expats I have talked with in Ecuador are openly anti-racist, it is worth a bit of friendly discussion.

Many North Americans have relocated to Cuenca because it is a city of culture. The question is, whose culture, especially given the historic diversity of the city? For city council and the chamber of commerce, the culture in question is often oriented towards Europe, particularly its architectural heritage, symphony and theatre.

Cuencano elites have long desired to bring European art to their city, copying styles they encountered while living in Paris or Brussels. This appreciation of European art is admirable in most respects, and you can see in the architecture and urbanism the success of their vision.

Yet, these traditions also marginalize others, particularly those of indigenous people, who were oppressed as unpaid, indentured servants on hacienda estates well into the 1970s—around the time some of you might have bought your first home or began your careers. Not that long ago.

Big changes are coming to San Francisco Plaza in El Centro. Credit: El Tiempo

Big changes are coming to San Francisco Plaza in El Centro. Credit: El Tiempo

During recent fieldwork in different parts of Southern Ecuador, local people I talked with referred to their condition on the haciendas as slavery. And some of you know, racist attitudes towards indigenous and indigenous-mestizo people are not rare amongst non-indigenous Ecuadorians.

Cuenca’s European-style, colonial urbanism is often described by expats as reminiscent of the U.S. in the 1950s. Yet, Cuenca is very much a modern city, undergoing a process of rapid transformation pulled by the tourism industry and its focus on Cuenca’s culture. There is big money being made in construction and real estate in what we might call the ‘touristification of Cuenca’ (e.g., the process by which Cuenca is becoming a UNESCO heritage and tourism city, something different from what it was in the past).

For the most part, we see these changes as improvements, and to a large degree, they are (think Parque de la Madre). But as in any process of transformation, there are pitfalls.

Nowhere are the pitfalls of touristification in greater evidence than in the city’s work to clear out and renovate San Francisco Plaza. During my most recent fieldwork, a few months ago, I had an opportunity to talk with several of the vendors who sell clothing there, mostly to working and low income Ecuadorians. They realized the area was unclean, that their stalls were unsightly and in some cases dangerous, and would love to replace them.

Matthew Hayes doing field work in Ecuador.

Matthew Hayes doing field work in Ecuador.

They live in outlying neighbourhoods and commute to work on public transit (the same public transit that may now increase in cost in order to fund what CuencaHighLife describes as a ‘European-style tram system,’ a system that most Cuencanos opposed). Vendors were very worried about being moved and losing their businesses, which would ruin them, since they are perpetually in debt to merchants higher up the food chain—a continuation of informal, indentured and precarious work in the countryside.

Part of the Plaza is used by day-labourers looking for work. They often remain there all day when they cannot find any, sometimes drinking, but often, just talking amongst themselves. They too will be moved, and no services are being planned to provide assistance with job training, skills development, addiction counseling, etc., as indeed, few such services are available to poor people in what remains a developing country.

Instead, Plaza San Francisco will be transformed into a European-style open square, maybe one with better coffee and restaurants that cater to tourists and wealthier residents. Poorer people in the city will be forced to move (EMUVI is building a huge housing estate on the city’s outskirts, while central buildings sit empty). Despite promises from the city that their business will be better than ever, most vendors think it will be somewhere other than where they are now. No plans have been made about temporary relocation of workers. This is an open wound in the city.

Many of these poorer residents are themselves migrants. They or their families moved to Cuenca from the countryside, especially after the Agrarian Reform of 1973. The academic literature notes that this reform was intended mostly for the large haciendas of the Northern volcano plains, and was largely avoided in the South, where rugged terrain meant most haciendas were relatively small in size. Yet, the haciendas are also highly concentrated, with the same elite families owning much of the land in multiple valleys around the Cuenca region.

The 1973 reform redistributed plots that were too small for agricultural subsistence, and that deliberately forced poor peasant workers into the cities, where there were few jobs to absorb them. Many were thus forced to seek informal work in the United States, often entering ‘illegally,’ since legal entry is much harder for poor Ecuadorians going North than for cash-strapped retirees going South.

Those who remained in Cuenca don’t usually identify as indigenous, they identify as mestizo, yet they are generally darker in complexion than the professional classes, reflecting the historical caste system of Ecuador, where European landowners occupied the cities and indigenous people worked on hacienda estates in the country-side. Until only a short time ago, they were denied basic rights—including to education.

To be indigenous was considered anti-modern, old-fashion, backward. As a result, many indigenous people in Ecuador’s South abandoned indigenous identity in the early 20th century. Today, some of their mestizo descendants wear sneakers and jeans that you can buy at Plaza San Francisco.

Much has changed, and the caste hierarchy is not always strict—there has been significant social mobility, not least due to return migration—yet its legacy remains operable and it is visible all around Cuenca.

Some may argue it is a stretch to call touristification a racial project, and certainly, it doesn’t have to be. Not all members of city council, the chamber of commerce or the main industries that benefit from touristification necessarily agree with one another, nor are they all mestizo-white. Yet the ‘Athens of the Andes’ carries with it a strong vision inherited from the landowning families, who remain very prominent in all of these sectors of Cuenca, and who owe their privileged positions to their exploitation of an indentured rural workforce, an injustice they have not yet fully reckoned with.

If we value greater fairness and justice, what can we do? For starters, we could help draw attention to what is happening at Plaza San Francisco, and push the city to come to a more just outcome for vendors and day-labourers.

But we also have to recognize that there are limitations to our individual actions. Touristification expresses inequalities in Cuenca and, indeed, all around the world. Fighting these inequalities requires political reforms that only social movements can bring about.

The people I have met in Cuenca are fascinating and living interesting lives. Precisely because they are so interesting, such lives call for reflection and examination. What we find, we may not always like. But then, that is the only way to change anything—be it in the world around us, or in our own hearts.


Matthew Hayes is Assistant Professor of Sociology at St. Thomas University in Canada.



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