Editor’s note: Beginning in 2008, students at the University of Cuenca have conducted surveys of what Cuencanos think about North American and European expats and their impact on the community. The survey was repeated in late 2021. Graduate student Silvia Lara, who was born in Cuenca but grew up in the U.S. before returning to Cuenca when she was 19, offers an overview of the most recent survey.
By Silvia Lara
“What do you think about the North Americans and Europeans who have moved to Cuenca?”
This is the question I asked 100 Cuencanos in a 2019 student project at the University of Cuenca. I repeated the survey in late 2021 and received similar answers.
Many of the feelings about English-speaking expats that I reported in earlier surveys 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 a positive addition 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 presentation and 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, offering companionship to orphans and paying for medical treatment for those who cannot afford it. 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.
Some 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.
Although some jobs have been lost as a result of the pandemic, they seem to be coming back and expats are supporting these.
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 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.
A number of respondents to the survey say they are surprised about the response of some expats to the Covid-19 pandemic. Some foreign residents seem to believe in conspiracy theories about the pandemic and vaccines. One Cuencano says he knows two foreigners who think space aliens are responsible for the virus — and we thought norte americanos were better educated than Ecuadorians!. Even as these crazy ideas have been proven wrong during the course of the pandemic, many expats continue to hold positions that are not shared by Ecuadorians and are not supported by science.
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 very good at it 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.
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-pollination enriches both Cuencanos and North Americans. I hope it continues.