by Jeremy Mumford
Ecuador is a small country on the northwestern coast of South America. It measures 280,000 square kilometers—roughly the size of Colorado. It is bordered by Colombia on the north, Peru on the south and east, and the Pacific Ocean on the west. The earth's equator, for which the country is named, runs through Ecuador only a few miles from its capital, Quito. Ecuador's flag consists of horizontal stripes—a wide yellow stripe above narrower blue and red stripes—surmounted by the national seal. This seal contains various national symbols, including a huge bird of prey with wings outspread, the sun in the sky, a white mountain and a boat on a river.
Geography divides Ecuador into three regions, western, central, and eastern. In the west is the coast, or costa. Flat and streaked with rivers, this region is a lush, hot jungle. East of that are the Andes, or the sierra. For centuries this was the most populous and dominant region. The highest peaks fall into two ranges that run parallel to each other, north and south; between them is a long, fertile plateau, which the nineteenth century explorer Alexander von Humboldt called "the Avenue of the Volcanoes." This "avenue" and the lower slopes of the great mountains are crowded with history and human settlement. Below the mountains on the eastern side is the Amazonian area, or the oriente. While similar in climate to the costa, it has a denser jungle, greater rivers, and is in every way more isolated from the outside world. Only two percent of Ecuador's population lived in the oriente. In much of this region, Spanish is not spoken. Of the three this region has the loosest ties to the Ecuadoran state. Yet it is here that Ecuador's greatest wealth in recent times is found: its oil, its "black gold."
Ecuador's population is about 11 million. The majority are descended from Spaniards and Indians. In the last 30 years, between 200,000 and 500,000 Ecuadorans—between about two and five percent of the national population—have immigrated to the United States.
Ecuador's history has long been shaped by empires from outside, and its identity as an independent unified nation is of recent origin. Historically, Ecuador has had to struggle against both external and internal forces threatening its national identity. On the one hand, larger neighbors have at various times absorbed part or all of its territory. On the other hand, Ecuador's three regions have such separate geographical and social characteristics that a sense of common nationality is difficult.
Many civilizations have inhabited Ecuador over the millennia, but there is little continuity between most of these groups and modern Ecuadorans. Coastal Ecuador has been called the cradle of South America because the earliest evidence of advanced human society was found here. A shroud of mystery covers the first settlement of the continent. Most historians assume its first inhabitants were migrants from northeast Asia who crossed the Bering Strait and worked their way south. Others think settlers may have reached South America by sea from Japan or elsewhere. In any case, the earliest South Americans whose artifacts have survived were coastal Ecuadorans—the Valdivian civilization in Manabí province, whose pottery dates from 3500 B.C. Later Ecuadorans costeños (people of the costa ) produced finely worked gold and platinum ornaments; their descendants may have carried their pottery and metal-working skills into the Andean highlands and beyond.
While the earliest settled societies in Ecuador were on the coast, in later centuries the most powerful and advanced societies were found in the mountains. Various ethnolinguistic groups, with varying degrees of political organization, divided the highlands between them, sometimes at war, sometimes at peace.
During the middle of the fifteenth century A.D., the Inca state in what is now southern Peru began to expand rapidly under a series of gifted leaders. In the 1460s the Inca army penetrated the southern part of what is now Ecuador. The Incas were able to transform their conquered lands in a short amount of time. They built excellent roads, leading to rapid and efficient communication within their empire. And they forced whole villages to relocate, placing speakers of their own language (Quechua) on the conquered soil while moving their new subjects to where they had no roots or allies. In a short time, the Incas virtually obliterated the political entities that had preceded them in Ecuador. Although Inca rule in Ecuador was brief, a descendant of Quechua remains the most common Indian language in Ecuador.
By the early sixteenth century, the Inca conquest of what is now Ecuador was complete. Ironically, it was soon after this first foreign conquest that Ecuador had its one moment of ascendancy over Peru. After the death of the emperor Huanya-Capac, his two sons were rivals for the throne. Huascar was born in the Inca heartland of Cuzco, the child of his father's sister. Atahualpa was born in Quito, the child of the emperor and a local princess. After a grueling civil war, Atahualpa prevailed, and by 1530 the portion of the aristocracy that had settled in Ecuador controlled the empire.
It was just at this moment that Spanish conquistadors entered the picture—one of the strangest moments in the history of warfare and cruelty. A minor nobleman named Francisco Pizarro, with an army of less than 2,000, was able to conquer an empire of half a million in ten years. The civil war, which had just ended, left the army and the emperor exhausted and demoralized. With little information about the invaders, and fearing that they would ally with his defeated brother, Atahualpa did not attack the Spaniards but sought to negotiate with them. He put himself into a position where they were able to make him their prisoner; this crucial advantage, skillfully exploited, eventually allowed Pizarro to defeat and all but exterminate the Inca ruling class by 1540.
This conquest led to a 300-year Spanish empire in South America. During this period, the region known as the audiencia of Quito (modern Ecuador) was semi-autonomous but remained a lesser sibling to its larger neighbors. Until 1720 Ecuador was a section of the viceroyalty of Peru; after that date, it was grouped with what is now Colombia in the viceroyalty of New Granada.
At the time of South America's independence in the early nineteenth century, Ecuador was again a pivotal territory, and was again contested by outside powers. Two great generals shared the glory of South America's liberation: Bolívar, a Creole from Venezuela; and San Martín, a Spanish officer, born in Buenos Aires, who defected to serve his native land. Starting at opposite ends of the continent, each achieved a series of stunning victories by moving soldiers quickly and unexpectedly across mountains and jungles. After Bolívar had advanced as far as Quito, and San Martín took Peru from Spain, the two generals met in Quayaquil—the chief city of coastal Ecuador.
That meeting in 1822 between the continent's two greatest heroes has become legendary. Nobody knew how the great talents and plans of the two men would accommodate one another; and no one knows what they said to each other that day in Quayaquil. But after the meeting, San Martín left South America forever, while Bolívar became known as the continent's liberator. Historians from the southern part of South America charge that Bolívar denied San Martín reinforcements he needed, thus forcing his abdication. Northern historians, siding with Bolívar, say San Martín simply recognized Bolívar's superior greatness. In any case, an Ecuadoran city was the point where two movements of liberation met and where the continent's destiny was decided.
After independence Ecuador joined with what are now Colombia, Panama, and Venezuela to form a nation called Gran Colombia. Once again Ecuador was made a lesser section of a larger unit. But centrifugal forces pulled the nation apart. When Bolívar's chosen successor, the Ecuadoran Antonio José de Sucre, was assassinated the union collapsed and Bolívar left for Europe.
In modern times the uncertainty of Ecuador's national identity, with regard to its powerful neighbors, has persisted. In 1941 Peru seized in war more than one-third of Ecuadoran territory in the south and east. Most of this land was thinly inhabited Amazonian forest; and most of the people living there had little sense that they were Ecuadoran to begin with. Although Ecuadorans have never forgiven the seizure, their government at the time signed a treaty legitimizing it.
As well as being threatened from the outside, Ecuador's national identity is threatened by deep internal divisions. The country's three regions feel little affinity with one another. Each is markedly different from the others in geography, ethnic makeup, accent and language, and culture.
The people of the costa are descended from Europeans, Indians, and—in the northern state of Esmeraldas—from Africans. But not much traditional Indian culture survives, and very few speak any language other than Spanish. They inhabit a land that is sparsely populated, flat, fertile, and covered by a dense tropical forest that resists cultivation at every step. Most live in great poverty. Many poor people own their own land but few become rich off it. Many farmers practice a primitive slash-and-burn agriculture, seldom pushing the encroaching jungle more than an arm's length away. In temperament the costeños are thought to be cheerful and egalitarian, giving little thought to the future. Led by the firebrand politicians of Quayaquil, the costeño political inclination is liberal, if not socialist.
The sierra is a very different land—dry, mountainous, and crowded. There is fertile land on the Andean plateau but not in abundance. The people are mestizos and Indians, many of whom live in ancient, traditional villages. Many serranos speak the Indian language Quichua (descended from the Quechua of the Incas) and some speak no Spanish. The soil in the sierra is of poorer quality than that on the costa, but the methods of farming are more sophisticated and it requires less struggle to keep the land in cultivation. Families may have farmed the same plot of land for many generations. Unlike on the costa, there is a strong sense of social hierarchy in the sierra, where one family may have run the village and farmed the most fertile land for a hundred years. There is also a greater tradition of handicrafts such as weaving in the sierra than the costa. The temperament of the people is believed to be far more serious, even melancholy, than on the costa. Politically, serranos tend to be conservative.
The third region of Ecuador is the oriente, the Amazonian rainforest. This region is far less populous than the other two, containing just two percent of the national population. Like the costa, it contains dense forests but the soil is far less fertile than on the costa, and the farming is primitive or non-existent. Most of the people of the oriente are Indians living in traditional communities. Many preserve an ancient economy of hunting and gathering. About half speak neither Spanish nor Quichua and have little affinity with either the mestizos or the Indians to the west. Far less than either the costeños or the serranos, these people have little sense of themselves as Ecuadorans. With transistor radios, this has changed but only slowly.
Traditionally, the uncontested dominance of the sierra held Ecuador together. The sierra held the bulk of the population, the costa was lesser, and the oriente was mere territory to be owned. Recently, however, this situation has begun to change. According to John Martz in Ecuador: Conflicting Political Culture and the Quest for Progress, recent decades have seen a gradual but continuous population shift from sierra to costa. In 1875 the sierra had three times as many inhabitants as the costa; by the 1970s the two regions were approximately equal in population. The fertile areas of the sierra, however, continue to be more crowded than almost any area of the costa.
As the two regions have become equal in population, their political rivalry has become more serious. Each side is unwilling to accept a leader from the other. Furthermore, the oriente is rising slightly from its subservient position. Since the early 1970s Ecuador's greatest wealth has been its oil, which is nearly all under the soil of the oriente. While the local people have so far received little benefit from this, they have been forced to become more aware of the outside world as foreigners and Ecuadorans have plunged into these forests to drill for oil. As serious oil spills threaten the ecology and even the survival of the people of the oriente, they have begun to claim a voice in national decisions, consideration for their way of life, and a share of the wealth of their land. Indian groups have even sued Texaco, the oil company whose pipeline has spilled an estimated 17 million gallons of crude oil into the forest, in United States court.
Ecuador's 11 million people are descended from Spaniards, Indians, Africans, and other Europeans. About 40 percent of the country is mestizo, or of mixed Indian and Spanish ancestry, and 40 percent is Indian. Traditionally, Indians are at the bottom of the social order, are less likely to own their own land, and work at the most menial jobs. In traditional communities, whites and mestizos call Indians by first names, while Indians must treat whites and mestizos with deference.
Identity as an Indian or a mestizo has less to do with ancestry, skin color, and features than with social identity. On rare occasions people move back and forth between the two communities. An Indian may move to the city, improve his Spanish, and wear mestizo clothes; or a mestizo may return to his grandparents' village and the protection of the community, and adopt Indian clothes and habits.
THE FIRST ECUADORANS IN AMERICA
Until the 1960s very few Ecuadorans immigrated to the United States. In the late 1960s, however, Ecuadorans began to emigrate in large numbers. The 1990 census found 191,000 Ecuadorans in the United States, but there are so many undocumented Ecuadoran Americans that the true number is much larger. The Ecuadoran consulate in Manhattan estimates there are 300,000 Ecuadorans in New York and New Jersey, and 500,000 in the United States.
Several factors helped cause this large immigration. First, United States immigration law changed. Before 1965, national quotas on immigrants strongly favored Europeans; after that year, changes in the law made it easier for Latin Americans and others to immigrate. Furthermore, emigration was physically easier as air travel became affordable to ordinary people for the first time in history.
Another factor in Ecuadoran emigration—which, unlike those mentioned above, was specific to Ecuador—was the land reform of the mid-1960s. In 1964 Ecuador passed the Land Reform, Idle Lands, and Settlement Act. An attempt to end the feudal system that had existed in the sierra for centuries, the law redistributed land from absentee landlords to the peasants who farmed it. According to Ecuador: A Country Study, this act improved the lives of tens of thousands of poor Ecuadorans, and brought a measure of social justice to the countryside. But it also shook up what had been a stable society, causing far-reaching and unpredictable changes. Without credit or experience, many new small landowners had to sell their land. Peasants left the land their forefathers had farmed for generations. Large sections of the population left the serrano countryside for the cities, the costa, and foreign lands such as Venezuela and the United States.
Once Ecuadoran immigration to the United States began, it accelerated through a snowball effect. More than anything else, what makes emigration possible is having contacts in the new country. As immigrants send money home and encourage others to join them, the immigrant community builds on itself, causing its own growth. Ecuadorans come to the United States in many ways. Many immigrate according to the rules and procedures laid out by United States law: a close relative or a prospective employer petitions for them and they wait in Ecuador until a visa becomes available. But this means complex paperwork and often years on a waiting list. Others follow the correct procedures but stay illegally in the United States while awaiting their papers. Still others follow no legal procedure, but live in the United States for years without documentation. These may smuggle themselves across the border without papers—either by foot from Mexico, or by boat into Puerto Rico. Most often, they fly in with a limited-stay tourist visa and never leave. A study done in New York found that undocumented Ecuadorans are one of the three largest groups of illegal immigrants in the city (Deborah Sontag, "Study Sees Illegal Aliens in New Light," New York Times, September 2, 1993, p. B1).
Many people make their living by helping Ecuadorans immigrate illegally. This is one industry where nationality counts. Immigrants from different Latin American countries may read the same newspapers and watch the same television shows, but for immigration help, Ecuadorans seek out other Ecuadorans. Immigrant smuggling ventures usually involve people who are all from the same country, even from the same city or village. There are businesses that advise Ecuadorans how to answer questions so as to obtain a tourist visa, and others that simply sell green cards. There are shipping workers who smuggle Ecuadorans as stowaways on commercial vessels. There are even businesses that falsely guarantee success in the INS green card lottery (Deborah Sontag, "You Don't Need a Tout for This Race," International Herald Tribune, June 21, 1994).
Ecuadoran Americans come from every part of Ecuador. In the early period of immigration most came from the northern and central sierra, including the area around Quito. Later, large numbers came from the costa. During the early 1990s the largest numbers have come from the southern sierra, near the border with Peru. An estimated five percent of the Ecuadoran states of Cañar and Azuay immigrated to the United States.
The majority of Ecuadoran immigrants come to one destination: New York City. According to the 1990 census, 60 percent of Ecuadorans live in the New York area; the second-largest group, ten percent, lives in Los Angeles. This concentration is due partly to the snowball effect mentioned above: the more Ecuadorans there are in one place, the more will come there. It is also due partly to New York's unusual hospitality to immigrants. New York has always been a city of newcomers, and in recent decades the city's growth has been largely dependant on immigrants. At a time when public opinion all over the country has turned against immigrants, including legal ones, New York has not followed suit. City officials emphasize getting illegal aliens into the taxpaying mainstream, not deporting them or denying them services.
Ecuadorans in New York cluster in neighborhoods, usually in the same ones where other South Americans live. The greatest number live in the borough of Queens, especially in the swath of northern Queens covering Astoria, Jackson Heights, and Flushing. Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights is lined with Ecuadoran travel agencies, restaurants, and telephone and money-wiring services. Signs in local bars advertise South American soccer matches on cable television. Another group of Ecuadorans settled in the Bronx, in the Morris Hills and Highbridge neighborhoods north of Yankee Stadium. Still other Ecuadoran neighborhoods are found in Brooklyn, in New Jersey cities such as Newark and Jersey City, and in working class towns in Connecticut.
Acculturation and Assimilation
Like most immigrants, Ecuadoran Americans are ambivalent about assimilation. It eases the difficulties of immigrant life, yet it steals what remains of home. New Ecuadoran immigrants do not tend to embrace a new American identity to the extent that some immigrant groups do. Many return home after a few years, or hope to do so. For those who stay, however, assimilation is difficult to resist. Older immigrants often complain that their grownup children speak better English than Spanish, marry outside of the community, get divorced, abandon their religion, and ignore their parents.
Part of the assimilation that Ecuadoran Americans experience is not toward mainstream American culture, but toward the culture of the Latino American community. For instance, in Mexican American families a girl's fifteenth birthday, or quinceaño, is an extremely important occasion. She will wear a white dress and attend mass, surrounded by her friends in formal, matching outfits. Her party afterwards may be the fanciest occasion of her life before her wedding. Her parents will spend a lot of money, may even hire a live band. This custom has never been a common one in Ecuador. Among Ecuadoran Americans, however, it has become current, just as it is among other Americans of Latino background ("Today I Am a Señorita: In Latin American Tradition, the Quinceañera Marks a Girl's Transition to Womanhood," The Record [Bergen County, New Jersey], February 2, 1995, p. D1).
One difficult issue related to assimilation is whether or not to become a naturalized U.S. citizen. Only a minority of Ecuadoran Americans do so. Those who are undocumented aliens cannot become citizens, of course, and even those who have legally obtained a green card must wait five years before they are eligible to become citizens. However, even of those Ecuadorans who are eligible for citizenship, no more than 20 percent choose to become citizens. The number for immigrants generally is 37 percent (Deborah Sontag, "Immigrants Forgoing Citizenship While Pursuing American Dream," New York Times, July 25, 1993, p. 1). This is partly because the naturalization process can be intimidating, involving a battery of paperwork, an English language test, and obscure civics questions such as: "In what order did the 13 original states enter the union?"
Furthermore, many Ecuadorans see U.S. citizenship as a betrayal of their own country. Recently, Ecuador began to permit expatriates to become citizens of other nations without losing their Ecuadoran citizenship. On an emotional level, however, many Ecuadorans feel uncomfortable swearing allegiance to the United States. Naturalization and assimilation, however, can be a defense against the discrimination that Ecuadoran Americans experience. Immigrants venturing into the wrong neighborhoods may be beaten by assailants shouting "Speak English!" (Ann Costello, "Ecuadorian Immigrants Finding Obstacles in Their Path," New York Times, October 3, 1993, Section 13WC, p. 23; cited hereafter as Costello). Many English-speakers have negative stereotypes about Latinos: that they are stupid, lazy, and destined for low-status jobs. A mother whose son joined the army and received advanced training in electrical engineering was proud that he had disproved a city official, who once told her Ecuadoran immigrants were good for nothing except being dishwashers and waiters (Ken Yamada, "A Dream Dies in Desert Sand: Queens Family Mourns Soldier Slain by Mine," Newsday, March 2, 1991, p. 12).
Each of the different regions of Ecuador has its own cuisine. Perhaps the most distinctive and highly prized Ecuadoran dish, or what most closely approaches a national dish, is the ceviche of the costa. The dish is consumed in many regions of Latin America, but Ecuadorans claim to have invented it. Ceviche is raw seafood marinated in the juice of citrus fruits and served cold. The acidic juice causes a chemical reaction in the meat: it toughens it, keeps it from going bad, and changes its flavor. Ceviche can be made with many different fish in lemon, lime, or even orange juice; but shrimp is most commonly used. The ceviche may also have vegetables such as onions and peppers, and roasted peanuts may be sprinkled on top. This dish can be found in any Ecuadoran American restaurant.
Besides fish, the other staple food of the costa is bananas. Ecuador was one of the original "banana republics," depending utterly on banana exports. Bananas have always been at the heart of lowland Ecuadoran agriculture and cuisine and are a major part of the diet both in the costa and in the oriente. There are many costeños in New York, and these New Yorkers eat a lot of bananas. A wide variety of bananas grow in Ecuador: guineos (the yellow bananas known in the United States); magueños (short, plump red bananas); oritas (tiny bananas); platanos (green plaintains for cooking). These and others are all available in South American specialty groceries and are prepared by Ecuadoran Americans in many different ways—whole, sliced and pulped, raw, boiled, fried, and baked.
Where costeños use bananas, serranos use potatoes. The potato, which was first domesticated by ancient Andean farmers, has been a staple in the region ever since. Like the banana, the potato has many forms in Ecuador, and is prepared in many ways. Ecuadoran Americans from the sierra must seek out specialty groceries to find the various different potatoes they are used to. Besides potatoes, serranos also love corn, which can be eaten on the cob or in tamales. Much of serrano cooking takes the form of soups. Before the Spaniards came, Ecuadorans did not have ovens so they boiled a large part of their food. This custom has continued. The ordinary Ecuadoran meal will center on a sopa or caldo —a thin soup with potatoes and other vegetables and meat.
The ordinary diet in Ecuador has very little meat. One traditional meat is the cuy, or guinea pig. Many Indian families in rural Ecuador keep guinea pigs, which they kill and eat on special occasions. The meat is delicious, but there is very little of it. Ecuadorans in the United States have trouble getting cuy meat. But beef, chicken, and pork are more affordable in the United States than in Ecuador and have been more widely incorporated in Ecuadoran American cooking.
In Ecuador one of the most popular drinks is chicha, a fermented liquor from the yucca tubor. In villages in the costa, the drink is still made by women who chew the yucca up and spit it out. Chemicals in the saliva help to ferment the yucca. In the United States, this drink is difficult to obtain. Most Ecuadoran Americans drink wine or beer. Ecuadoran Americans still drink their coffee in the traditional way, which requires boiling the coffee down to a thick sludge known as esencia and bringing it to the table in a small pitcher or bottle. It is then blended in the cup with hot water, milk, and sugar. The final product has an odd, burnt taste quite different from the coffee most Americans drink. Ecuadorans prefer it.
Music is an important part of Ecuadoran culture. The Ecuadoran sierra, along with Peru and Bolivia, is the heartland of Andean music. This is an ancient and highly evolved musical style, mainly played by Indians. Like all American musical forms, it has European and African influences; but musicologists believe that Andean music in its most basic form has remained the same since before the arrival of the Spaniards.
The essential components of Andean music are winds and percussion. The wind instruments are flutes or panpipes—a row of pipes of various lengths attached together; the percussion is drums and rattles. From the Spaniards, Andean Indians adopted string instruments: some violins, but more often guitars and small ukulele-like instruments. With these instruments, musicians produce a sound that is both emotional and danceable. The mood, carried by the winds and strings, is generally plaintive, even melancholy. The percussion carries the music forward at a steady pace, inviting dancing. The typical musical group is large (six or more different musicians) and is usually all male. To those unfamiliar with it, Andean music can sound monotonous with slight variations on a theme by the flutes. But to those who appreciate it, the long Andean song is a hypnotic exploration of a musical idea.
In recent years there has been a renaissance of traditional music throughout the Andes. In the past, traditional music was a local phenomenon, and musicians were seldom heard outside of their own region. Today, recordings of traditional music are widely available, groups tour, and certain musical groups have become famous throughout the whole Andean region. For instance, the Bolivian group Los Kjarkas won a wide following throughout Ecuador when they toured there, and their songs are now widely played in Ecuador. The listening public, both in the cities and countryside, has become more sophisticated about traditional music. Certain songs have become standards, and are played throughout the region. Panpipes from the southern Andes, called zampoñas, are becoming popular in Ecuador.
Traditional Andean music has also become popular in the United States. Many Ecuadoran Americans of serrano Indian background perform in traditional groups, often with Peruvians and Bolivians. Some play on university campuses and in halls, but many more play in the streets and subways of New York and other cities. Such groups may tour in a bus to play in the streets of different cities: with their long, straight hair, homburg hats and brightly colored serrano ponchos, they create a spectacle anywhere they have not been seen before, and may earn good money in spontaneous gifts. These musicians wear working clothes that emphasize their Indian background but that they would probably not wear at home, either in New York or Ecuador.
Traditional Andean music is by no means the only Ecuadoran music. Even in Ecuador, that music is less popular than so-called musica nacional, a style of music that uses amplified and electronic instruments, and blends elements of traditional and popular Latin music. This music is played at weddings and other festivities, and is also called sanjuanitos, after the festival of San Juan. Ecuadorans in the costa play a musical style closely related to the coastal Colombian cumbia style, with strong Afro-Caribbean influences. While traditional Andean music is Ecuador's most distinctive cultural export, Ecuadoran Americans at home are more likely to listen to sanjuanitos or the various other Latin styles that have come together in the Latino American community.
The most important holiday for Ecuadorans is August 10, the anniversary of the primer grito or "first cry" of independence in Ecuador and South America. In New York this day is Ecuador Day and is marked by a parade on 37th Avenue in Queens. Ecuadoran New Yorkers also participate in the Desfile de Hispanidad, a parade of Latin American immigrants on the day before Columbus Day.
Many Ecuadoran Americans also celebrate the festivals of the Christian year, such as Christmas, Carnival, and Holy Week. In addition, individual saints have their festivals, which are associated with certain towns or regions of Ecuador. The feast of Saint John the Baptist (San Juan), celebrated on June 24, is of special importance to Otavaleños, and is celebrated by all-night music and dancing throughout the northern sierra. The feast of the Virgin of Carmen, on July 16, is marked by people from the town of Cuenca. Among immigrants, these religious holidays are generally celebrated in private and with friends, and not in public festivals as in Ecuador.
Ecuador is a bilingual country. Spanish is the country's primary language, but it shares its position with the Indian language Quichua.
Most Ecuadorans speak Spanish. In the costa, few people speak anything else. In the sierra, Spanish is also the dominant language, spoken with a very different accent from on the costa. However, in traditional Indian communities in the sierra, the first language is Quichua, although they may also speak Spanish. Quichua was the language of the Inca empire, and was carried to Ecuador by Peruvian populations whom the Incas brought in to consolidate their position. Many of the Incas' subjects learned Quichua as the language of government and trade. Ironically, the Spaniards continued the spread of Quichua; Spanish missionaries taught Christianity in the Quichua language, prompting other Indian communities to learn it. In the sierra, Quichua is the only surviving Indian language. It has several dialects, and is no longer mutually comprehensible with the Indian language of Peru, called Quechua.
In the Amazonian oriente, about half the Indians speak Quichua. Their ancestral culture was destroyed by European diseases, and the survivors were gathered together by Spanish missionaries. The rest of the Amazonian Indians speak the languages of their separate tribes, such as the Shuur and the Achuar. These more traditional groups live mainly in the southern part of eastern Ecuador.
Nearly all Ecuadorans who immigrate to the United States speak Spanish. Only a minority of immigrants come from traditional Indian communities, and they lack sufficient numbers to maintain a Quichua-speaking community. But while Ecuadoran immigrants cannot avoid Spanish, the same does not hold true for English. The cohesive Ecuadoran American community allows many to avoid learning fluent English, even after ten years or more in the United States.
Family and Community Dynamics
Ecuadorans have two models of family life: the Spanish and mestizo model, and the Indian model. In the first model the father rules the family. He has few responsibilities at home, spends much of his leisure time away from his family, and is tacitly permitted to see other women. The mother does the work within the family. Children are taught to be obedient to their parents. Daughters are allowed little freedom outside the house. In the Indian family, on the other hand, husband and wife have a more equal relationship. The wife plays a greater economic role and has more decision-making authority within the family. Sexual infidelity is socially unacceptable for either spouse.
Mainstream American society, meanwhile, exhibits a third model of family life. The position of the two parents is relatively equal, there is more sexual freedom than in either style of Ecuadoran family, and children have great freedom and independence. As do all immigrants, Ecuadoran Americans must grapple with the cultural differences in family life between their home and their adopted country; and they must decide whether to resist or to embrace American norms.
Many Ecuadoran Americans believe that child-rearing in the United States is too lax, and they worry that the culture will be a bad influence on their own children. The children themselves experience culture shock at the freedom and informality of American childhood. But some Ecuadorans seek out American norms of family life. One woman filed an application for asylum in the United States, saying that she would be in danger from her abusive husband if she went home. She felt protected from him in America, but was afraid that if she went back to Ecuador he could hurt her without fear of punishment because the authorities would not object to a husband disciplining his wife. If they were divorced in Ecuador, she feared that the state would grant him full custody of their two-year-old daughter (Dan Herbeck, "Asylum Request Here Might Set Precedent," Buffalo News, January 3, 1995, p. 1).
Immigration inevitably brings change to family life, whether one accepts or rejects it. This is due not only to new cultural norms, but also to the ways in which immigrating separates and rearranges families. Often men immigrate alone leaving their wives and children in Ecuador. In this respect, Ecuadoran immigrants differ from other South American immigrants, among whom women outnumber men. Such men may plan to get settled in the United States and then send for their families, or they may intend to return home after earning some money. Often such immigrants will first send for their older sons, and only later for their wives and other children. In working-class Ecuadoran neighborhoods in the United States, there is a predominance of men. For the same reason, many Ecuadoran villages are currently made up mainly of women (Costello, p. 23).
Some immigrants, however, are young single women who may have a freedom and independence they would not experience in Ecuador. Among the community of immigrant Indian street peddlers from the Otavalo region, for instance, there are single women. Alone in an American city, they have a more free and independent life from the one they would have at home with their families. Interestingly, these women tend to be more culturally conservative than single Otavaleño men, and less likely to adopt North American clothing and values (Jonathan Kandell, "Shuttle Capitalism: an Ecuadorean Indian Community Turns a Traditional Craft into a Tool for Cultural Survival and Takes it to the Street Corners of the World," Los Angeles Times Magazine, November 14, 1993, p. 30).
The Ecuadoran American community's most important institution is the regional association, established to unite fellow-immigrants from the same province or town. For the Ecuadoran, loyalty to village, city or region often looms larger than national loyalty. An Ecuadoran may identify himself first as a resident of the city of Ambato, second as a serrano, and only third as an Ecuadoran. Outside of New York, an immigrant may join an organization for Ecuadorans generally; but in New York, where there are many Ecuadorans, an immigrant will join an association of his hometown or region. These associations, many of which have very little formal organization but join in federations with those from other regions, are a vital part of immigrant social life.
Regional associations allow immigrants to surround themselves with others who not only share their country and language, but their cultural background, their regional accent, and even perhaps friends in common at home. They provide an extended family to immigrants who may be homesick or lonely, a pool of credit for an immigrant to start a business, and an informal channel for news and information as well as gifts and money. Mail may be slow, there may be no telephone at home, but at any given moment someone from the club is about to visit or return from Ecuador.
One important outward function of a regional association is charity. Individually, Ecuadoran immigrants send money to family and relatives. They join regional associations partly to extend this generosity beyond their family. Regional associations send large amounts of money to Ecuador every year—to schools, libraries, youth sports clubs, orphanages, and soup kitchens. One fundraiser will be to renovate a hometown church, another to bring a sick child to the United States for an operation.
The associations use a variety of fund-raising techniques, including raffles, fund drives, and radio promotions, but the most popular method is the fund-raising party. Members will rent an appropriate space, perhaps a community center, dance-club or South American restaurant; or they will convince a community businessperson to let them use the space for free. They will advertise the event in community newspapers and with flyers in Ecuadoran neighborhoods and businesses. The party will have an admission price, often between $10 and $15, and will feature food, drink, music and disco-style lighting. The band will be Ecuadoran, and will play a mix or traditional Ecuadoran folk music, romantic ballads, modern Ecuadoran dance music, and other Latino music. Those who dance to any one variety of music will probably not dance to the others (Evelyne Delori, "The Function of Voluntary Associations in the Ecuadoran-American Community in the New York-New Jersey Area," senior essay in anthropology, Columbia University, 1992).
Besides the regional associations, Ecuadoran Americans rely heavily on a range of services within the community. They depend on Ecuadoran groceries, restaurants, travel agencies, telephone services, and undertakers: the patchwork of services that make sections of Queens a little Quito, where one never has to feel like a foreigner. One of the most important of these services is Spanish-language banking. New York banks are notoriously unfriendly and will refuse to open accounts for those without much money, a job, or a social security number. Banks such as First Bank of the Americas, a Colombian-owned bank with branches in Queens, mean a great deal to Ecuadoran immigrants.
While Ecuadoran American community institutions are important, they do not aim to embrace every aspect of life, to keep their members separate from society, or to replace American government in the lives of immigrants. Regional associations do not undertake to provide work or housing for new arrivals, as the institutions of some immigrants from other countries do. Ecuadorans are not insular, and willingly seek out the benefits and services of society at large. For instance, 11 to 12 percent of Ecuadoran American families receive government welfare benefits (George Borjas, "Refugees More Likely to Be On Welfare," Minority Markets Alert, December, 1994).
Ecuadorans play soccer, popular throughout Latin America; and young Ecuadoran Americans play football, basketball, and all the other games played in American high schools. But the games at which Ecuadorans truly excel are net games: tennis and especially volleyball. Unlike in Olympic volleyball, with six-person teams, Ecuadorans play the game with three-person teams, and with a net over nine feet high. Each player must cover a lot of ground, and jump high. Without spiking, volleys are longer. The game is very arduous. On summer Saturdays, Ecuadorans play at Riverside Park in Manhattan's Upper West Side. Though Ecuadorans are shorter on average than most Americans, non-Ecuadoran challengers do not fare well in these hotly contested matches (Eric Pooley, "Sports: Little Ecuador," New York, September 16, 1985, p. 32).
Ecuadorans are about 95 percent Roman Catholic, and five percent Protestant. However, the proportions of the two faiths are slightly more equal among immigrants to the United States.
Over the centuries, the Roman Catholic church in rural Ecuador incorporated elements of Indian religions. In the sierra, and especially in villages, Ecuadoran Catholic practice centers around fiestas honoring the various saints' days of the Christian year. Individuals in the community make a religious commitment, known as a cargo, to sponsor these fiestas. They proceed upward through increasingly complicated and expensive affairs, to make a name for themselves as leaders of the community. These and other traditional practices have less to do with Catholic dogma than with ancient Indian customs.
In recent decades, evangelical Protestant missionaries have converted many in Ecuador, especially in the countryside and urban slums. These missionaries, mainly of North American origin, have had the most success in the southern sierra, including Cañar, Azuay, and Chimborazo provinces. In Chimborazo province, nearly 40 percent of the population was Protestant by 1980. During the 1980s and 1990s the southern sierra provinces contributed the largest number of Ecuadoran immigrants to the United States. For this reason, the number of Ecuadoran American Protestants is a greater proportion of the whole than among Ecuadorans in general. Furthermore, many Ecuadorans associate the United States with the Protestant missionaries who originate there, so Protestants are more likely to emigrate than Catholics are. There are no reliable statistics on this subject, but some community members estimate that one-third of Ecuadoran Americans are Protestant.
Employment and Economic Traditions
Due to the lack of hard statistics, it is difficult to generalize about the employment patterns of Ecuadoran Americans. Also, the community has a more diverse economic profile than that of other Latino immigrant groups. Mexican and Central American immigrants, for instance, have generally come from the working class; immigrants from certain South American countries, such as Argentina and Chile, have come largely from the professional class. Ecuadoran immigrants, however, come from both classes. Ecuador shares with other South American countries the problem of "brain drain" emigration: Ecuadorans who graduate from universities, often in a technical field such as engineering, come to the United States hoping for a more affluent lifestyle. But there are also large numbers of Ecuadorans for whom emigration is simply the only alternative to grinding poverty at home.
Many Ecuadorans join the immigrant underclass of greater New York. They work not just with other Ecuadorans, but surrounded by other arrivals from Latin America, Asia, and Africa, often without a shared language. They work in the garment industry sweatshops, restaurant and hotel kitchens, and taxicabs. They frequently must work for less than minimum wage. Accustomed to a more activist labor movement at home, Ecuadorian Americans have often taken a lead in union organizing, but face frustration.
Another group of Ecuadoran Americans consists of the entrepreneurs. Many immigrants with initiative and capital start businesses catering to the Ecuadoran community. These include Ecuadoran restaurants, travel agencies, and telephone and money-wiring services. Such community-oriented businesses also provide jobs for other Ecuadorans.
A third group of Ecuadorans contains the professionals. Of all the immigrants, the members of this group occupied the highest status in Ecuador, received the most education there, and are often the unhappiest in the United States. Immigrating with great ambitions, they meet great disappointments. To resume their profession in their new country, doctors, lawyers, architects, and social workers must receive new training and pass new tests. They must become fluent in English even to begin this process. In the meantime, they must support themselves in a country where their savings from home have little buying power, and must often take menial jobs such as cleaning houses and waiting tables. Many never succeed and permanently enter a lower social class. Those who succeed tend to be the most assimilated of immigrants and participate the least in community organizations (Suzanne Bilello, "Here, Suddenly, I Am No One," Newsday, July 9, 1989, p. 1).
The Ecuadoran immigrants who have made a unique contribution to the American economy and society are the Otavaleño Indians. Living in the northern sierra near the modern town of Otavalo this group has for centuries preserved its economic role: textile weaving for sale to outsiders. Even before the Inca conquest, Otavaleños produced wool clothing and peddled it throughout the region. When the Spaniards came, they enslaved the Otavaleños and forced them to weave Spanish-style clothing in obrajes, or forced-labor workshops. After the end of slavery, white landowners kept control of the weaving by means of debts owed them by the weavers, which were passed down through the generations.
Finally, in the 1960s, this debt-slavery was outlawed and large amounts of land were redistributed to tenant farmers. Otavaleños finally began to earn real profits from their centuries of hard work. Otavaleños are both weavers and farmers, and they benefited from the land redistribution. They left the workshops and took their weaving home. Otavaleños were determined no longer to allow others to reap the reward from their skill and traditions. Returning to a pre-Inca model, they sent members of their own community to market their textiles in other countries. While other Indian communities practice traditional weaving, the Otavaleños are unique in their resourcefulness and success in selling their wares, without middlemen, on the international market.
In small factories in or near Otavalo, the Indians make heavy wool sweaters, ponchos, hats and blankets, all in bright colors and traditional designs. They send these clothes to Quito and other South American cities, to Mexico City, New York, and other North American cities, and to Europe and Asia to be sold in the streets. At any given time 6,000 Otavaleños, or ten percent of the whole community, live abroad as itinerant salespeople. The sellers may be the grown children of the manufacturer, who are working in the family business and seeing the world at the same time. Even if they are not related, all the people involved are Otavaleños. The profits do not leave the community.
Otavaleño street-sellers in New York, though relatively few in number (about 300 by one estimate), are highly visible with their traditional dress and appearance in outdoor shopping areas such as Canal Street. The men wear their long straight hair in braids and wear blue ponchos and white pants. The women wear embroidered white blouses, red wristbands, and heavy dark wraps around their shoulders and skirts. Otavaleño clothing is very traditional; in fact, the women's clothing has changed only slightly from the time of the Incas. The appearance that Otavaleño peddlers project helps them to sell their inventory, because it adds to the apparent authenticity of the product.
Of course, the outfit an Otavaleño peddler would wear in the streets of New York is not necessarily what he would wear at home. Furthermore, the product sold is not timeless. Each year Otavaleño street-sellers send home samples of the latest fashions, and the manufacturers make changes in style and color, even introducing new products such as headbands. Many of the street-sellers hold licenses from the city while others are unlicensed. Some sellers cannot afford the license fee while others only intend to stay in the city for a short time, and so do not buy the license. Laws against unlicensed street-selling are often only loosely enforced, but at times such street-sellers must face having all their goods confiscated by police. Furthermore, like all people who do business out of doors, Otavaleño merchants must operate within the complex society of the street. They are subject to the whims of police, the maze of city regulations, the unwritten laws of those who sell clothes, food, stolen goods, sex, and drugs, and the extortionists and predators of the street. But the international marketing of their clothes has brought the Otavaleños great rewards.
Most Otavaleños abroad ultimately return home, often to attend university and enter a profession. Otavaleños have become wealthy and influential in their home province; indeed, the mestizo community of Otavalo is poorer than the Otavaleño Indians. The Otavaleños have converted that money into education and opportunities for their children. They have refused to allow wealth to steal their culture and traditions. While most Otavaleños today speak Spanish, most also speak Quichua. They have not changed the style of their clothes as they became richer, although some have improved the materials used, perhaps from rough cotton to velvet (Jonathan Kandell, "Shuttle Capitalism: an Ecuadorean Indian Community Turns a Traditional Craft into a Tool for Cultural Survival and Takes It to the Street Corners of the World," Los Angeles Times Magazine, November 14, 1993).
One small but significant segment of the Ecuadoran American community is the Chinese Ecuadorans. People from southern China immigrated in the nineteenth century to every American country, including Ecuador. When Ecuadorans began immigrating to the United States in large numbers, after the mid-1960s, many Chinese Ecuadorans joined the migration—probably a disproportionate number compared to their numbers in the general Ecuadoran population. This was partly because the Chinese Ecuadorans had less deep roots in Ecuador than others, and had experienced discrimination there; and partly because New York, where most Ecuadorans went, had a large and established Chinese community. Today there are several thousand Chinese Ecuadorans in the United States, or about one percent of the Ecuadoran American community. Chinese Ecuadorans are more likely to be in commerce or the professions than other Ecuadorans, but in general are not demographically different from the rest of the community. Most have some familiarity with both Chinese and Spanish, but most are more fluent in Spanish. They typically live in Latino neighborhoods, not Chinese ones; most live in New York.
Politics and Government
Ecuadoran Americans are not extremely politically active. Ecuador does not encourage its expatriates to cast absentee ballots in elections at home. While taking a keen interest in the news from home (Ecuadoran papers in the United States carried extensive news and analysis of the 1995 border hostilities between Ecuador and Peru) the immigrants seldom organize around specific policy issues at home. On the other hand, few Ecuadoran Americans are U.S. citizens with the right to vote. And because so many Ecuadorans plan to return home one day, they do not concern themselves much with American politics.
One of the few legislative acts for which Ecuadoran Americans actively lobbied was the passage, in Ecuador, of a dual citizenship law. The Ecuadoran congress passed the measure in response to vigorous and coordinated efforts by the Ecuadoran American organizations—in particular, by the New York umbrella group Comite Cívico Equatoriano. Ecuadoran Americans no longer have to choose between being an Ecuadoran citizen and being an American citizen, but can embrace both sides of their identity.
When Ecuadoran Americans do take a political stand it is often linked to their region of origin. Costeños tend to be liberal, while serranos are conservative. This difference can be seen in the different attitudes in serrano immigrant neighborhoods in Queens and costeño neighborhoods in the Bronx. Yet overall, Ecuadorans from all regions are socially conservative by U.S. standards. For instance, they are among the most outspoken proponents of the death penalty, long an object of controversy in the state of New York.
In general, however, Ecuadoran Americans are a non-citizen, non-voting community, which may hurt them. Elected officials have less incentive to address their concerns than those of voting citizens. Many Ecuadoran New Yorkers live in state Assembly districts with Latino majorities; but even there, politicians focus attention on the needs of Puerto Ricans and other voting Latinos, and ignore the Ecuadoran American community (Nicholas Goldberg, "District Boosts Hispanic Clout," Newsday, June 12, 1992, p. 8). Non-citizens become ever more vulnerable as politicians across the nation advocate anti-immigrant measures. Concern over such measures is now prompting more Ecuadorans to file for citizenship.
Individual and Group Contributions
Because large-scale emigration from Ecuador to the United States began only recently, there are not many famous Ecuadoran Americans. However, there are Ecuadorans who have made a mark on American society.
Oswaldo Guayasamin (1919– ), born to an Indian father and a mestizo mother, has forged a powerful art that addresses what it means to be Indian, to be mestizo, to be Ecuadoran. His semi-abstract paintings are generally figurative, and feature rugged faces and bodies of Indians at work or at home; they often illustrate scenes from Ecuadoran history and express his left-wing views, his spirit of protest, and his sense of sadness at social injustice. His work is internationally acclaimed and has been exhibited all over the world.
In 1988, Guayasamin caused controversy in the United States by painting a mural in the Ecuadoran hall of Congress. One of the panels in the mural—intended to summarize Ecuador's history—showed a skeleton's head in a helmet, with the letters "CIA." Despite his frustration with aspects of American policy, Guayasamin was an Ecuadoran American during the 1950s, when Nelson Rockefeller arranged an official invitation for him to come to the United States. He lived for several years with his family in the Bayside neighborhood of Queens, New York. In 1960, however, a visit to communist China earned him official hostility in the United States, and he returned with his family to Ecuador.
One Ecuadoran American who made an important contribution to American business is Napoleon Barragan, founder of Dial-a-Mattress in Queens, New York. Recognizing that speed and convenience matter the most to some people, he sold mattresses over the telephone and delivered them immediately. In 1994 his business was the ninth largest minority-owned business in the New York area. However, some of the company's sales, as well as some of its payments to employees, were cash-only, which skirted reports and payments to the government. Barragan pleaded guilty to tax fraud and paid $1 million to the state.
Lorena Bobbitt (1970– ) was born in Bucay, Ecuador, and moved with her family to Venezuela at a young age, but always considered herself an Ecuadoran. As a young woman she moved to the United States, where she met and married John Wayne Bobbitt. During their stormy relationship, she accused her husband of beating and raping her; she severed his penis with a kitchen knife while he slept. Although her husband was tried and acquitted of rape, Lorena faced the charge of malicious wounding. As Lorena's trial approached, women throughout America protested the prospect of Lorena's conviction and Ecuadoran women took to the streets in her defense, in Quito and in Manassas, Virginia (the site of her trial). She was found not guilty by reason of temporary insanity. Although widely criticized as a tabloid media event, the Lorena Bobbitt trial forced the nation to address the issues of wife-beating and marital self-defense. For this reason, feminists welcomed it as consciousnessraising, and considered Lorena a hero.
Mario Fajardo, an Ecuadoran New Yorker, was the first soldier from the borough of Queens to die in the Gulf War.
In 1993, Ecuadoran immigrant Aida Gonzalez was named director of cultural affairs to Queens Borough President Claire Shulman; she is one of a handful of Ecuadoran New Yorkers who are acquiring power and influence in the Democratic Party establishment.
Probably the most famous Ecuadoran athlete is Andres Gomez, the world-class tennis player; many of his great matches have been played in the United States and he has been a source of inspiration to Ecuadoran Americans and all lovers of tennis. Another important Ecuadoran tennis player is Francisco Segura (1921– ), who has made the United States his home; an unorthodox but highly successful player in his youth, "Panco" Segura surprised the professional tennis world with his powerful two-fisted forehand; former tennis director at the La Costa Resort and Spa in California, he retired from pro tennis and coached both Jimmy Connors and Andre Agassi.
Various weekly, monthly, or occasional newspapers have been produced and distributed to the Ecuadoran American community in New York. Most do not last long. The monthly newspaper Amazonas, produced in Queens, falls into this category; it contains news, analysis, and opinion pieces about affairs in Ecuador, along with advertisements for local Ecuadoran American businesses.
Magazines and daily and weekly newspapers from Quito and Quayaquil are also available in newsstands in Queens, with a lagtime of several days. These are rather expensive, and do not contain local news or advertisements.
For most of their local, national, and international news, Ecuadoran Americans rely on the general Spanish-speaking press, especially New York's El Diario and Noticias del Mundo.
These papers were originally founded for a Puerto Rican readership; but in recent decades, the growing New York population of Ecuadorans, Colombians, Cubans, and Dominicans has forced the New York Spanish press to broaden its focus. These papers now contain news from various Latin American countries, as well as local news that is relevant to the new arrivals.
There are several radio shows in the New York area geared toward Ecuadoran Americans.
Broadcasts "Presencia Ecuatoriana" ("Ecuadoran Presence"), a talk show discussing news, art, sports and culture from Ecuador, hosted by Homero Melendez, president of the Tunguahua regional association on Sunday from 2:00 to 3:00 p.m.
Address: 666 Third Avenue, New York, New York 10017.
Telephone: (212) 687-9236 .
Fax: (212) 599-2161 .
Formerly WHBI. Broadcasts two shows: "Así Canta el Ecuador" ("This is How Ecuador Sings"), a music show on Saturdays at 9:00 a.m.; "Pentagrama Sentimental Ecuatoriano" ("Sentimental Ecuadoran Music-sheet"), a news, music and culture show on Mondays from 7:30 to 8:30 a.m.
Address: 449 Broadway, 2nd Floor, New York, New York 10013.
Telephone: (212) 966-1059 .
Fax: (212) 966-9580.
Organizations and Associations
Alianza Ecuatoriana Tungurahua. Contact: M. Vargas.
Address: 465 41st Street, Brooklyn, New York 11232.
Telephone: (718) 854-1506.
Asociación Chino Ecuatoriana.
Contact: Mirna Chiang, President.
Address: 3407 36th Avenue, Astoria, New York 11106.
Telephone: (718) 937-3291.
Club Social Salitre.
Contact: Gaston Sanchez, President.
Address: 421 Menahan Street, Brooklyn, New York 11385.
Telephone: (718) 366-8467.
Comite Cívico Ecuatoriana.
Contact: Srowell Ugalde, President.
Address: 7312 35th Avenue, Suite 261, Queens, New York 11372.
Telephone: (718) 476-2851.
Contact: Antonio Pinargote, President.
Address: 47 Duncan Avenue, No. 45, Jersey City, New Jersey 07306.
Telephone: (201) 332-7285.
Sources for Additional Study
Ecuador: A Country Study, third edition, edited by Dennis Hanratty. Washington, D.C.: Federal Research Division, Library of Congress, 1991.
Insight Guide: Ecuador, edited by Tony Perrottet. New York: Apa Publications, 1994.
Martz, John. Ecuador: Conflicting Political Culture and the Quest for Progress, Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1972.
Thompson, Mortitz. The Farm on the River of Emeralds. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1978.
Winsberg, Morton. "Specific Hispanics," American Demographics, February 1994.