Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Favorite Ecuadoran graffiti

For a fairly conservative culture, Ecuador has some awesome graffiti.

Traditional Inti Raymi mask.

"We don't want development. We want to be free."

No love

"Don't see whores where there are just women."

Someone painted a portrait of this tree.

Insane in the brain.  I love the creature there.

"Transsexuals fight"

"519 years of scars" (since 1492).  South America bleeding.

Monday, June 25, 2012


Thomas Hardy has a great description of what distinguishes unbroken folk traditions from revivals:

A traditional pastime is to be distinguished from a mere revival in no more striking feature than in this, that while in the revival all is excitement and fervour, the survival is carried on with a stolidity and absence of stir which sets one wondering why a thing that is done so perfunctorily should be kept up at all. Like Balaam and other unwilling prophets, the agents seem moved by an inner compulsion to say and do their allotted parts whether they will or no. This unweeting manner of performance is the true ring by which, in this refurbishing age, a fossilized survival may be known from a spurious reproduction.

Personally, I draw a different distinction. I find that revivals have some kind of logic to them. My old Morris team used to tell the audience, “The sticks represent the spirits of the earth, the handkerchiefs represent the spirits of the air, and the bells represent the spirits of the other world.” It made a good spiel, but it's way too tidy to be true. We have no idea why Morris dancers started using those particular things. People add stuff they like, and eventually you get a hodgepodge of things that no one remembers the origins of.

Today I saw the summer solstice festivities in Otavalo, Ecuador, also known as San Juan or Inti Raymi. The solstice doesn't mean a lot at the equator – the day and night are each 12 hours every day of the year – but they surely do celebrate it anyway. It began this morning when a bunch of folks in rainbow masks carried a figure of John the Baptist into church, and it's still going strong. In between there have been parades, a bouncy castle, and a lot of corn products. Currently folks are having a city-wide street party playing music and dancing in circles. A gang of teenagers playing melodicas, flutes, and guitars just jogged by my window. Sorry, Mr. Hardy, but these people appear to be having a blast.

Watching a folk tradition that was totally new to me, my mind was full of questions:
Why are those guys dressed in drag?
Why are conch shells a traditional instrument so far from the sea?
How come there aren't any female musicians?
Why are there tentacles on your hat?

If Ecuadoran folk tradition is anything like the ones I know, the answer is probably, “Um, I'm not sure.” Which makes perfect sense.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012


Who counts as Native American in the US is very different from who counts as indigenous in Ecuador. In the US, it's something kind of rare, kind of special. Americans love to tell you about how their grandmother was part Cherokee.

Here 7% of the population is straight-up indigenous, and 72% has mixed indigenous and European ancestry. People here with glossy black hair, sharp cheekbones, and russet skin mostly identify as mestizo. Whether you're read as indigenous or mestizo seems to depend mostly on your dress, hairstyle, and language rather than your physical appearance.

Here there is no Tribal ID number, no process of enrolling in a tribe, no affirmative action, no casino profits. If you marked “indigenous” on the census with only 1/32 Quichua ancestry, people here would laugh at you.

Family in Otavalo

In Massachusetts, 90% of the indigenous population died of smallpox in the first two years of contact with the English, and more were killed in clashes. (Ecuadorans are shocked when I tell them this. Here, the Spanish valued indigenous people as slave labor rather than trying to exterminate them.) The fact is that being Native American means something very different in a country where those people were almost wiped out than where they now constitute most of the gene pool.

At the daycare where I volunteer, another American brought in some coloring sheets for the kids. They had pictures of Disney characters, including an Indian from Peter Pan, half-naked and grimacing as he aims his bow. “Look,” she told the kid who received it. “Un indio.”

I didn't want to cause a scene in front of the kids or the teacher, but I wanted to ask her, “Did you think about the fact that every one of these children is descended from indigenous people? Did you think about the fact that “indio” is an insult tossed around on the street here? Did you notice that the teacher in the next room wears her hair in a long tress? Have you observed that growling and shooting stuff are not common pastimes here? Have you observed that four-year-olds absorb every scrap of information we give them? Do you realize you're teaching them more than fine motor skills?"

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Babywearing in Ecuador

In much of Asia and Africa, people carry heavy things on their heads. In Latin America women use a rebozo instead. It's a rectangle of cloth that can serve as a garment, sunshade, or carrier:

And of course, it's the classic method for carrying kids. You see a lot of kids with their parents in Quito. A lot of people can't afford daycare or stay-at-home parents, so they take their kids to work with them. You see people, especially indigenous women, selling things in the street with kids tied on their backs.

While the rebozo is traditionally hand-woven wool, modern Ecuadorian mothers favor other materials. The one above has Strawberry Shortcake characters printed on it. A lot of women just use polarfleece blankets.

Unlike US parents, who have heard about SIDS a million times and are always checking that their child is still breathing, Ecuadorian parents often cover their children entirely with a polarfleece blanket. You'll see a woman walking along with a large bundle in her rebozo, with perhaps a little foot dangling out the bottom. Ultraviolet radiation is very strong at this altitude, so the blanket is probably keeping the kid from getting burnt.

I'm pretty sure there's a kid in there

While Americans tend to buy special baby carriers, even if they're going with a simple rectangle, Ecuadoran women seem to use any convenient piece of cloth. The babies are all very chill about it.

One does see the occasional child in a stroller or a storebought baby carrier. Most young children are carried in arms, which seems inconvenient but maybe doesn't have the negative connotation of being an "indio". And while I see plenty of men carrying children, I've never seen one use a rebozo.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Adult life, seen from age 5

My five-year-old Ecuadoran host sister has some new paper dolls. She has just heard that Jeff and I met through dancing, and she wants to reenact this. Her interpretation of how people meet and shack up is fascinating.

She dresses her paper doll and commands me: "You be a boy who wants to dance with her."

I hold up some paper clothes to be a boy. They dance with her paper girl. After several dances: "Now she wants to go home, but you ask her to wait."

"Don't go home. Wait!"

"Okay. Now you have to say, 'I want to live in your house.'"

"I want to live in your house."

"Okay, let's go to my house. But there's a crocodile."

"Ahh! A crocodile! We have to jump over it."

"Okay." (The dolls jump over the crocodile.)

"Now we go home." (They go to a sofa cushion.) "Now you say, 'I want to sleep with you.'"


"You have to say, 'I want to sleep with you.'"

"....I want to sleep with you."

"Okay. They sleep in the bed." She lays the dolls side by side and covers them with her hand. She waits silently a few seconds, then crows: "Kukuriku! It's morning."

"Good morning."

"Now you make me breakfast while I put on new clothes."

"Okay. Do you want eggs? Toast?"

"Eggs. I'm going to wear this short dress so you can see my pretty legs."

This repeated for a few sleep-and-breakfast cycles, then she staged a wedding. I don't remember it happening quite like that, especially not the crocodile.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

What's not working here

In college I spent a semester in Denmark partly because I wanted to see what a really well-run society looks like. And it was extremely civilized: people had good free health care, good free education, pleasant public spaces. Studies consistently rank Danes the happiest people in the world. There were few rich people and few poor people. Other than the xenophobia, it was almost an ideal nation.

And Ecaudor, too, has a lot going for it. People here are mostly polite, friendly, and involved with their families. The weather and natural environment are beautiful - it possibly has the most biodiversity per square mile of any nation. It has the potential to be a really delightful tourist destination.

And yet things aren't going so well here. 10% of the country lives on less than $2 a day (adjusted - that's what $2 would buy in the US, not what it would buy here). There are thousands of street children whose parents are dead, imprisoned, deported, or who abandoned their kids. Picketing, purse-cutting, and muggings are rampant in the cities, making them unattractive to tourists. Every house has a wall around it with barbed wire or broken glass cemented at the top to stop housebreakers. Even the grocery stores have security guards. People don't trust the police much anymore since they went on strike and held the president hostage in 2010. People were looting stores and the police did nothing. Freedom of speech is not a right here - people have gone to prison for criticizing the president. Bus accidents are more common here partly because mechanics will rent functioning parts to bus companies so they can pass inspection - then they take them back and reinstall the faulty parts. Firefighters don't always have functioning equipment, and recently there was a case when firefighters refused to show up to a fire. If you go to a lawyer, many will ask "how much help" you want - i.e. if you just want their legal services, or if you will also pay them enough to pay off the judge. Bribing the police is also common.

It makes me realize what difference a well-functioning government makes. It makes me think charter cities are a pretty good idea. Not that Ecuador is a failed state - it does have a decent level of functioning, just not as good as I was hoping for.

The other night we walked in a charming colonial street where families stroll, eating pastries and listening to traditional musicians. A girl with a dirty face, about seven years old, walked up and down begging for money to buy bread. (To be fair, at one point she was doing this with her mouth full of chicken kebab, which made it less convincing.) Eventually she tired of the routine and began playing with pieces of a broken bottle.

I left the street sobbing, furious with the adults and the systems that had abandoned her. The US foster care system is flawed, but at least we have an option other than the street. At 10 pm that girl should be in bed. She should be going to school in the morning. She should have parents who don't let her play with broken glass.

I kind of knew this is what I would see. I wanted to see a developing country to know how most of the world lives. And a lot of it is horrible. Which is why I want to change it.