Editor’s note: As part of a 2009 University of Cuenca student project, Silvia Lara collected comments from a cross-section of Cuencanos about their impressions of North American expats. At the time, the best guess was that there were about 1,500 expats living in Cuenca, less than half today’s number. A sampling of the comments she collected were published in CuencaHighLife in November, 2009 (To read that article, click here). Lara, who was born in Cuenca and grew up in the U.S. before returning to Cuenca when she was 17, offers an updated assessment of what Cuencanos think of expats. Lara is currently studying for a graduate law degree in London. She updated this article from one posted in April 2015.
By Silvia Lara
“What do you think about the North Americans who have moved to Cuenca.”
Many of the feelings about English-speaking expats that I reported in 2009 have not changed. Others, however, have as more expats have moved to Cuenca, and because Cuencanos have had more time to meet and get to know them and to consider their impact on the city and culture. I am putting my findings into three categories.
GOOD FOR CUENCA
There is strong agreement among Cuencanos that the gringos have been very good for our community. Expats have played a part in making our city more international and more sophisticated.
The arts are strongly supported by expats. Friends who are artists tell me that their work is more appreciated by foreigners than by locals, and they are able to make a better living because of sales to expats. A friend who attends most symphony performance says that often, as much as half the audience is gringo. Some expats have become actively involved in the culture, opening art galleries, performing with choruses and orchestras, and directing and acting in dramatic productions.
Many expats participate in volunteer activities that help the community, either through non-profit organizations, churches or private initiatives. They help in such causes as providing meals to poor school children and offering companionship to orphans. A friend who works with a domestic violence program says gringos have been a god-send to her center.
All of us have noticed that restaurants are much better and offer more variety than they did a few years ago. I should point out, however, that much of the improvement in the restaurant scene is because of Cuencanos who have returned from overseas, bringing with them what they learned abroad.
Expats have started new businesses and provided jobs to Cuencanos, improving the economy for all of us. There are dozens of new jobs for tour guides and “facilitators” that didn’t exist before the foreigners arrived.
Most important, many Cuencanos have made friends with expats and have been exposed to new ideas and new viewpoints on life. I understand the value of this because my mother is from the U.S. and my father is from Ecuador, and since I have lived for many years in both countries.
Almost all Cuencanos have seen the “ugly Americans.” There are not many of them but they leave a strong impression, unfortunately, once you have made their acquaintance. I have seen them throw fits in government offices, stores and banks because the cashiers didn’t speak English. All my expat friends are embarrassed by them.
A question many Cuencanos ask is, why do seriously sick and handicapped gringos come to Ecuador? I don’t mean to seem insensitive, but most of us believe that there are some expats who should simply not be here. Cuenca is not a handicap-friendly city (I don’t know of many Latin American cities that are). Although the infrastructure has improved in recent years, it does not approach North American or European standards. Ultimately, it is very sad that sick people choose to leave behind everyone and everything that is familiar to them; with our strong family traditions, Ecuadorians cannot understand this.
The subject of overweight gringos comes up frequently among Cuencanos. We wonder, with all the education and advantages North Americans have, why they can’t they get their diets under control. Ecuador offers many choices of healthy food as well as opportunities for exercise. Our advice to expats: take advantage of them and get in shape.
The question asked most frequently by Cuencanos about expats is: why don’t they learn Spanish?
Although I could have included language under “negatives,” I didn’t because many expat make a strong effort to learn Spanish and I know some who have become almost fluent within a few years of living here. It is unfair to make a blanket judgment and I don’t. We Cuencanos are impressed with any expat who makes a sincere effort to learn and use Spanish, no matter the level of proficiency.
However, it must be pointed out that a large percentage of expats seem to make almost no effort to learn the language. This seems strange to us since tens-of-thousands of Cuencanos have traveled overseas, not just to North America, but to Europe, and we understand the need to learn the language of the country we choose to live in.
I have to say that the Cuencanos I know who followed last year’s April Fool’s article controversy about a Spanish language requirement, could not understand the level of anger some expats felt at the mere suggestion that they learn the language. Granted, it was a joke, and as a gringo friend told me, “all the noise came from 40 or 50 people,” but reading some of the social media comments I was truly saddened at the resistance some expats have to learning Spanish.
In fairness to Cuenca expats, research shows that the resistance to learning Spanish is much greater in other expat communities, such as Ajijic and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and Boquete, Panama.
There are many differences between expats and locals that are simply a matter of backgrounds and culture. A friend asked me the other day, “Why do the expats dress like they’re going on a camping trip, with their khakis, backpacks, tent poles, and hiking shoes. They seem to think they’re great white hunters.”
Besides dress, there are other customs that differ with culture. Most expats don’t understand the formalities of Ecuadorian greetings and departures. They don’t understand the “Buen provecho” salutation in restaurants and usually ignore it. On the other hand, expats don’t understand why Ecuadorians are usually late (I don’t either).
As I said at the beginning, the gringos have made Cuenca a better place. The cross-polination enriches both Cuencanos and North Americans. I hope it continues.