Who are all these gringos, anyway? A sociological examination of Cuenca´s growing expat community

Apr 6, 2011

By Dr. Lee Dubs

Fact: North Americans are currently migrating in large numbers to Ecuador, and especially Azuay Province, where Cuenca is located. First Question: Why? Second Question: Who are these people?  Not everyone has the same motives, of course, but the principle reason for the migration in most cases tends to relate to the economy “up there” and the much lower cost of living “down here.” In other words, most have come because it’s cheaper to live in Ecuador. The first question has been answered in most cases.

Now let us turn from Why? to Who? I am going to categorize us, with the realization that it is only for the sake of convenience, and that some do not fit a specific category or may even overlap categories. From my perspective and experience, however, most of us do fall into a single category. The following are opinions based on a few years of talking with and listening to a lot of newcomers. 

First, the migrants fall into two large categories that can be sub-divided:  people who are retired and those who are not. By retirees, I refer to those who are older and probably drawing or close to drawing Social Security income, although there are some who retired younger. Let us look first at three sub-groups of North American retirees.

Retirees
• First, a minority who came here primarily because the Latin American lifestyle and culture appeal to them or, in some cases, because they married Ecuadorians. Many of these North Americans measure their time here in years and even decades. Some have Ecuadorian passports. They have blended in by speaking decent Spanish and having mostly Ecuadorian friends. They tend to live unobtrusively in Ecuadorian neighborhoods, where they interact with their neighbors. They are comfortable people who enjoy living in Ecuador. They rarely show up at gringo functions and you will not meet most of them unless you spot them and introduce yourself at some citywide cultural event. They are fully integrated into the culture and think of themselves more as Cuencanos than as North Americans. To them, “home” means Ecuador.

• Sizeable numbers of North Americans have come to Ecuador in the past couple of years because they read or heard that it is a less expensive locale than their home country and because it has other advantages, such as good weather, healthier food, quality medical care, and friendly citizens. Once here, they found that they liked it. In this second group are people who did research to learn about Ecuador before making the move, often making an exploratory trip or two first. Most “norteños” in this category had previous foreign travel or residence experience. Perhaps they had not previously thought seriously about retiring in a foreign country, but this is more affordable and has other benefits. A few have come from North American settlements in Mexico, Costa Rica or Panama, where they report that they became dissatisfied with the “Little America” mentality. A few moved here from other parts of Ecuador; in some cases they express concern that presumptuous gringos had created friction with the locals. Overall, these newcomers to Cuenca study Spanish, make friends with Ecuadorians, and live a comfortable and generally contented life. While they enjoy socializing with North American friends, most show limited interest in attending large “gringo events.” Like those in the previous category, they prefer to blend in. They have found satisfactory residence – whether a small apartment or a top-floor penthouse in a high rise – and they are here to stay. They have adjusted. This is probably the largest category of migrants from the north.

• There is a third group of retirees in Azuay. They also came here because it is cheaper, but it was a move they saw as a necessity rather than a preference, and some are not happy about it. Often having little or no foreign travel experience, they usually read blogs and sales pitches about Ecuador before making the move. Many took one of the for-profit promotional tours sponsored by individuals and organizations. Some naively accepted as fact much of the shill they heard or read on blogs and in magazines that urged them to come, without questioning the motives of the writers. These North American migrants had never planned to live in another country and they came to find a retirement lifestyle which they wanted back home but could not afford. Those who blame their government for their plight are wont to verbalize their anger or frustration to any English speaker around them. Some are quite insecure here and are eager to find or create a more comfortable American culture abroad, even forming or joining groups and associations of compatriots. When they must deal with Spanish-speaking locals, they rely on translators, body language, or speaking English slower and louder because they cannot effectively communicate in the new language, a fact which may increase their longing to socialize with and to live close to other English speakers. Many of them complain – especially on blogs or at gringo gatherings — about most things Ecuadorian.  These folks tend to look forward to attending any gringo event they can find. There are some opportunists and ego-driven “leaders” who exploit those who are insecure by offering walled gringo developments, by helping them find areas that are filling with North American immigrants, by creating social events and associations for them, and by offering blogs loaded with the “right” information. The migrants who eventually decide that Ecuador is not the place for them and who go back “home” are primarily from this category of North Americans. Those who were beguiled into buying an overpriced home or inflated real estate when they first arrived are often forced to sell it at a loss when they move, adding more fuel to their fiery angst.

Not Retired
Generally younger immigrants, these are not traditional retirees and are not yet at the Social Security threshold, usually in their 40’s or 50’s. Why are they in Cuenca? Reasons vary.

• An increasing number of non-retirees (and some retirees) is composed of what I call “camp followers,” those who have followed the flow of retirees with the goal of making money. Various private businesses and consultants are springing up as fast as business cards can be printed. Others came to “inverter,” seeking an opportunity to gain a financial return on an investment, frequently involving real estate sold to norteños. A few receive kickbacks (politely called “comisiones”) by telling newcomers which people they need to go to for services and even which social events to attend. Some in this group show sensitivity to the culture and try to be good citizens, while others are unconcerned because they feel superior to the locals anyway. The objective of the camp followers is to make money, and there are newcomers willing to hand it over for information and a degree of comfort. 

• There are also those who come with the goal of establishing a retail business, sometimes while supporting a family. The increasing number of inquiries from North Americans regarding business opportunities demonstrates that this is a growing category. Some current businesses in Cuenca that are run by gringos tend to encourage additional entrepreneurs.  Among such established businesses are the California Kitchen, the Kukaburra Café, the Carolina Bookstore, Curves, the Eucalyptus Restaurant, and the Inca Bistro & Lounge. Interestingly, most of these preceded the gringo invasion and were not a result of it.

• Most non-retirees, however, came to Ecuador for the same economic reason as listed under Retirees above: it’s cheaper to live here. The majority of them are not camp followers who came to increase their income; they are here just to live on their resources in this inexpensive part of the world. They are not yet drawing Social Security income, so they have obtained one of the alternate visas. A few may try investment or business ventures later. 

• Many younger North Americans have come here with an alternate purpose. There are parents seeking a good place to rear their children, missionaries with a message to disseminate, and volunteers in a variety of fields, often medical. They tend to be less obvious than the retirees and camp followers who seek visibility.

• Finally, there are those who do not really fit any of the above categories, and we can only speculate. Some seem to be here to reinvent themselves and create a new personality; others are on a mission to feel important, perhaps for the first time in their lives; a few may be avoiding their home country for reasons known only to them; some may even be in witness protection, for all we know.

Many do not care to articulate why they are here. This “non-category” is best left alone.

We may all be here for different reasons, but how we react to living here will determine the future of local North American-Ecuadorian relations, something important to most of us who live here. We did not come here by invitation; we chose to move here, making it our obligation to substitute for some of our North American ways of thinking and acting. The old saying about “When in Rome” in no way implies that the Romans must adjust to the newcomer. We have already seen how cultural and personal ignorance — and arrogance — have resulted in a negative Ugly American image in some countries and even in parts of Ecuador. Ojalá we do not see the same situation evolve here in Azuay.

Lee Dubs first came to Ecuador with the U.S. Peace Corps in the 1960s. Following his service, he was a university professor of modern languages for many years in North Carolina. He and his wife, Carol, moved to Cuenca in 2003 and established Carolina Bookstore on Calle Hermano Miguel. Lee can be contacted at cld941@yahoo.com

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