Ecuador Culture: Lessons for the expat and Christmas with Indigenous neighbors

Posted on December 20, 2016 • Filed under: Culture, Ecuador, Social Issues

“Papa Noel” or “Plata Noel”? Twelve Questions for Expats this Christmas
written by Russ Reina / / expat/opinion

Let’s talk about the Christmas messages, we the expat community, may be sending to our Indigenous neighbors, and in turn, how some of them may be embracing negative aspects of our North American culture without even realizing it.


I’ll use Cotacachi in the Northern Sierra as example. The town itself has a population of about 10,000, with another 40,000 living in surrounding rural Pueblos. The vast majority of those Pueblos are Kichwa. In the 1990’s more than 90% of those communities in the Cotacachi area were in abject poverty. We’re talking about 20 years of recovery which barely makes a dent on the psyche of the populace. Today, rural poverty countrywide is about 25%, the majority of whom, once again, are Indigenous.

My estimate is there are somewhere between 400 to 500 full-time expat residents in the area. A number of these expats live amidst or nearby rurally located Indigenous communities in Colonias or Gringo gated communities. Some live in houses nearby the rural communities and not within separated Colonias. Most live in Cotacachi proper or close by.

For those living in town, daily life provides consistent contact with both Ecuadorians and Kichwa. It’s fair to say that the expats who take the time to learn Castellano have the most contact. There is a core of about 50 expats (my estimate, possibly exaggerated) who have made real effort to have more than superficial contact with the Indigenous; they have a tendency to stay out of the mainstream Gringo life and gravitate toward the Natives.

There are enough English-only-speaking Gringos around so that, in the 3 1/2 years I’ve been here, more and more people move to Cotacachi without feeling the need to learn Spanish. This alone is changing the perception that our Ecuadorian neighbors hold of us as a group.

There are literally hundreds of small Indigenous communities in the surrounding rural areas. Only a few of them have expats living nearby. Only a small proportion of those primarily NA residents have interaction with their neighbors; for the most part, their lives are centered in their gated communities or homes punctuated by forays into town or elsewhere.

The vast majority of our rural neighbors have never seen an expat on their home turf. Such a spectacle only occurs when the kids come into town, and for many, that’s a rare experience. So to most of the Indigenous kids, expats are a novelty.

Because we are physically so much different – literally towering over them compared to their own adults, and our complexions are quite light in comparison — we are creatures of a different order.

Here in Cotacachi, Indigenous kids whom I’ve never met before frequently come up to me in the streets and call me by the name I share with my fellow Caucasians, “Plata.” That’s money. It’s not a question or a request; that’s who I/we are to them.

Many years ago the Indigenous had some pretty horrid experiences with people of our kind called Conquistadors. They lived in a completely different level of affluence, wielded ultimate power of life and death and had access to the country’s resources based upon the enslavement of the people whose blood was part and parcel of the land.

But this is not ancient history. Up until the 1960’s one form or another of the “Obraje” system — what amounted to indentured servitude based on debt — was still active for many workers in textiles and agriculture. The “Duenos” (owners) were white.

Remember, Ecuadorian society is basically stratified: Caucasians, followed by Mestizo (mixed Native and Spaniard), then Indigenous, then Blacks. Whether we recognize it or not, expats by color alone sit at the top of the totem pole. Whether we like it or not, we are associated with the dominating class.


Gift-giving for Christmas time is relatively exotic to Ecuadorians and has even been more slowly introduced to the rural Indigenous. The idea of “Papa Noel” (the equivalent of Father Christmas or Santa Claus) is beginning to catch on with the upper classes. I’ll go so far as to say, however, that 90% of the small villages around Cotacachi have not even heard of the concept; especially of gift-giving. Once expats start arriving nearby, however, the idea begins to take hold.

This past Christmas season (2015) there was a surge of support in the expat population to spread some Christmas Cheer. Broadly, Indigenous community member(s) and neighbor expat(s) come together and a plan for distribution of gifts to the children is devised. The call would go out to bring something wonderful to the impoverished community children. That is generally how the “events” were characterized.

QUESTION #1: Must the qualification of poverty be involved in order to attract enough interest from the expat community?

To so many North Americans, of whom I am one, guilt plays a huge role in the mechanics of gift-giving at Christmas time; we’ve been wired to think of the poor, but especially during this time of year! Sure, Christmas is about sharing, but we have been conditioned to look at it through the prism of economics.

Predictably and without judgement, the call attracted a lot of people who generally don’t have a whole lot to do in their day-to-days with the Kichwa. Still, it attracted many open hearts for the originators to work with. Conceptually, this is a wonderful thing, but I found myself asking… View further questions and read full article


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