Santa In Church

“Papa Noel” or “Plata Noel”? Twelve Questions for Expats this Christmas

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.

[color-box color=”gray”]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…[/color-box]

QUESTION #2:  How many negative aspects of NA culture are being brought to the Indigenous children as well? How many negative stereotypes are being promoted?

Without doing anything to negate the really good intentions of the people involved, I feel compelled to talk a bit about the elements of cultural blindness that seem to have been exhibited. This all started when I saw pictures and read Posts on Facebook describing how the events had unfolded.

The first image that jumped out at me was of a string of tiny Indigenous children lining up to receive a gift of cookies and candy from a large white person. I have been to other community functions, not Christmas-related, where similar things have happened.

At another pueblo, a white man with beard was dressed up as Santa, Papa Noel. He first gave gifts to the elders, then to the kids. Though not an imposing figure, still just the act of lining up to receive bounty from a white guy implies a hierarchy that smacks of Colonialism.

Standing in line, waiting your turn, and then being told something affirmative while being granted a gift (that is identical to every other kid on line) sends a message; if I am polite and well-behaved, wait my turn and then be thankful, this big creature, so foreign to me, will give me something frivolous for nothing.

candy bags at christmas
Captured from Facebook; Fair Use for educational purposes

Many of these events were requested by Indigenous community members. And it’s likely they organized the lines and other orchestrations. What I’m reflecting on is the unconscious symbolism that occurs on both sides that, if considered a bit more deeply, could be done differently in the future.

There are a lot of us expats who have been involved in the social and psychological sciences and the arts and are aware how visual cues reinforce hierarchical thinking. I believe WE are the ones who need to set the pace to reduce the damage. We can start with being cognisant of how much space we take up in relation to our Host Culture.

In some, not all, of the events, another race/culture comes to bestow a blessing, telling the people they have value once they accept the gift. I had to cringe. That white Santa Claus is not one of their own. It communicates a distinct separation, not only in appearance, but in access and affluence. One post made it clear their parents hadn’t been able to offer such largess in eight years! But these strangers could.

In the absence of continual contact, we’re essentially Ghost-like and indistinguishable one from the next. More than 60% of expats moving to Cotacachi are gone in a couple of years. Considering it takes a couple of years to get comfortable enough with the language to even venture outside of your comfort zone to make contact, you can get an idea of the lack of integration that prevails.

So once a year, some predominantly unknown white faces materialize, distribute gifts and disappear. We ARE Santa Claus; a Bigger-Than-Life symbol of periodic reward dependent upon acceptable behavior. We come on schedule, and it’s ours, not theirs.

Typically, the expat initiator/sponsor is someone with a personal investment in the particular community but not necessarily. More often than not he/she is approached by an Indigenous adult who, hearing of how it works, wants such largesse for his/her community. Let’s face it, folks, no matter what we do; to the impoverished we are resources.

For many of us, largesse is exactly how we express our connections; it’s a cultural thing and they pick up on it.

[color-box color=”gray”]QUESTION #3: If language were not a barrier, wouldn’t we be able to express our connection with the Indigenous in many more ways than just giving gifts and money?

This invitation to experience this aspect of our culture is a logical gateway for inclusion. But does it really work that way? In a number of Facebook posts, I noted that during the meal time, the expats were seated and served separately after milling together in groups of their own kind.

Granted, the Kichwa, in honoring guests, DO at times set them apart and form “receiving lines” for them. My point is, we can make suggestions in planning that do not reinforce separation by being willing to “meld” with the larger group.

To me, the regimentation of the event and its rare occurrence sends kids the message “That’s what we can expect from Gringos, and on a certain day of the year.” Where are they the rest of the year? My hope is that this piece will be seen as a call for a living relationship with our Host communities rather than Christmas-giving as a yearly obligation as it has become in the U.S.[/color-box]

QUESTION #4: Why can’t we make Christmas a continuation and logical expression of our ongoing relationships with the people rather than a token expression of our affluence? (Could it be because we no longer do this with each other?)

Too many comments on the Facebook posts talked about how the Givers were the ones who received the real blessings of the day. Yes, that is the painful truth.

[color-box color=”gray”]QUESTION #5: Who is all this really for?

If we don’t ask, this will become embedded in the way our culture relates. Isn’t there a better way to express gratitude to our host communities than reinforcing culturally damaging stereotypes?

In NA you make sure EVERYBODY gets a gift that they can call their own. Individuality is important; personal ownership is the end goal of life. This doesn’t even take into consideration that monetary or other perceived values have become a competitive thing.

Kichwa, on the other hand, which is largely true with all of Ecuador, is a Collective culture and that means the well-being of the community takes precedence over the well-being of the individual. It is the community that distributes (with a certain amount of leeway for individual families to provide and distribute above and beyond the community’s norm) based on energy flowing to where it’s most needed.

The kinds of thinking that go on with our Christmases are a reflection of a completely different view of the world based on affluence, excess and obligation. Excess is barely something in the vocabulary of the Indigenous communities here with the exception of grown foodstuffs.[/color-box]

QUESTION #6: Is Christmas now about true extended-family sharing in honor of the birth of Christ or is it an expression of excess?

The Pueblos were flooded with cookies and candies in proportions that none of the kids get to see all year. The packages of cookies and candies in many cases were bigger than the kids’ heads! Also, Jesus doesn’t even give gifts like these.

Another aspect is that the kids living next to Gringo compounds get the goodies. Other communities, more distant, have not this degree of access. Now, to other pueblos it becomes desirable if not mandatory to seek involvement with the expat community in this way so they too, may provide for their kids.

[color-box color=”gray”]QUESTION #7: How do we contribute to the disruption of the natural balance here?

Each kid gets to consume more sugar in a couple of days than they have access to all year. Is it hard to guess every morsel is consumed by someone/thing because waste is not in their vocabulary either? I don’t see sugar as a gift. It is a path to diabetes which has grown exponentially throughout Ecuador in the last 20 years.[/color-box]

QUESTION #8: What are we spreading, our culture or our poisons?

When every kid in the community has a bag of goods, there’s no need to share. One of the bags pictured would easily circulate amongst five or more kids. What are we teaching them?

This sudden shift in reality only occurs once a year. Much to the expats’ credit, many programs go on that help support the schools and improve irrigation and other concerns of living. We and they need more of this.

[color-box color=”gray”]QUESTION #9: What if, instead of having white folks bearing gifts once a year and distributing them to the children and elders, we approached MANY neighboring Indigenous communities and found out what they need and want and rotated through them?[/color-box]

QUESTION #10: What if, instead of distributing unhealthy tokens of caring we put together funds for such things as irrigation, running water and emergency necessities for the families?

[color-box color=”gray”]QUESTION #11: What if we had the elders of the communities do the distributing? And what if the shared celebrations were reflections of ongoing relationships rather than anonymous honored guests popping in and popping out on a schedule?[/color-box]

QUESTION #12: What if we were sideline supporters rather than focal points and dropped the idea of spreading this kind of experience altogether?

These are some of the deeper cultural challenges we face and questions we must ask ourselves and each other before we do what we’ve been enculturated to do. For the Gringo; throw gifts periodically to express our generosity. On the Indigenous side; aspiring to embrace the trappings of affluence.

If we, as expats, are part of the problem, we need to recognize it and seek a way to meet the existing culture where it lives rather than in terms of what we’re comfortable with and used to.

If our name continues to be “Plata” we are the cause of it. And for those exclaiming on Facebook they couldn’t wait for this year, let’s hope they didn’t.

22 Responses

  1. Yes, right on, very accurate, insightful, and disquieting – everyone who reads the article will change something concretely that we do, at Christmas and the rest of the year! Thanks for this!

  2. Thank you for this thoughtful and thought provoking article. I still live in NA, have travelled to Ecuador and could very easily see my future as an ex-pat. The questions you raise here will be in my mind as I continue to travel and if I find myself living somewhere south of the border in the future, and I find them equally important to consider while still living in the US.

  3. Wow! What a great breakdown of what the non-Spanish speaking gringo looks like to the local Ecuadorians. Yes, some gringo groups (HIKE sp?) are wonderful and more would be nice. Always wondered what these “Santa” forays were supposed to accomplish? Always seems to come back to the same old thing: Learn the Language Please.

  4. Here are some possibilities in response to the questions. These are not criticisms but rather an attempt to provide information which may be helpful for consideration.

    Q.1. It’s less us and them if everyone is involved in giving and receiving.

    Q.2. If everyone is giving and receiving, we minimize a stereotypical faux pas. Also, donations given to community leaders to distribute may be desirable, and maybe an equitable division of these processes is best for the community.

    Q.3. Integration usually builds on a casual daily basis, rather than immediately. It is correct to say that a daily effort must be made, even if only by, and especially through, daily interaction with the community. This is most easily done through simple communication accomplished when running daily errands such as getting fresh bread from a bakery or using other daily services.
    Part of the problem of mindset that must be dealt with to achieve this goal is the issue of stocking up on things so that one does not have to leave their home until the next time they stock up. Leave that mindset behind and be willing to go with a daily foray for fresh bread or coffee or something in order to start building better social connections. A simple daily walk may even help to start this process as you find new, interesting people and places to visit on a regular basis.

    Q.4. With better development of community ties through daily contact there will be, to quote the author “a continuation and logical expression of our ongoing relationships with the people rather than a token expression of our affluence.” This is something that can and often does occur within gringo communities as well, but requires time and effort. Is there a better plan for your time and effort than getting comfortable with your community?

    Q.5. It’s for the community. Otherwise, I can’t comment on the points made with this question because I’m not so certain that things are really as clearly delineated as was presented.

    Q.6. Is an extended outreach possible, conducted by the Kichwa community leaders, such that a little bit of share and share-alike extends beyond the immediate community to be a bit more equitable and avoid jealously? Softening the boundaries of where gift-giving occurs makes a lot of sense.
    The traditional extended family sharing occurs with ‘family’ who we meet and have regular contact with on a daily basis. However, when the same people are the only ones who have contact with the gringo community, don’t they benefit disproportionately to those who aren’t in regular contact with gringos? To ameliorate this issue, daily communication of your own by making your own walking route and contacts will expand the number of people who benefit by being in contact with gringos. Goodwill should not just be directed at a favored few; give others a chance to show their good side as well.

    Q.7. Quality and portion control.

    Q.8. This may instead be a question of extent. Is largesse the extent to which we need to take things within our host culture? There may be an issue relating to adequate generosity vs. overwhelming generosity within the host culture, which is related to other perceptions of a person’s self-conception (both giver and receiver) and negative images of prosperity.
    It’s a complicated matter, and I advocate caution with largesse. Western notions of ‘enough’ and ‘largesse’ may have to be tempered a bit here. In fact, although largesse may generate goodwill, it also generates jealousy. Largesse is therefore best handled by allowing community leaders to distribute in their own manner rather than having the donors distribute.

    Q.9. This might be asking too much of a lot of people, and to me seems to be too often advocated. Instead, I think a daily walk routine which allows different gringos to know different people and groups of people is more plausible for the majority (and life-improving).

    Q.10. Giving money is also often advocated. Without accountability I don’t advise it. Giving funds through accountable organizations that provide full transparency of how they use the funds (to the dollar) would usually be the best way. Besides, we sometimes prefer to know what we’ve given rather than wonder, which is why transparency is necessary.

    Q.11. I think this is what I was getting at above. I wrote responses as I read each item.

    Q.12. De-centralizing does make the events less about us and more about all of us.

    1. Thanks All for your comments!
      Corbin’s response brought up a number of important points. The one that really stood out to me was this:
      “the issue of stocking up on things so that one does not have to leave their home until the next time they stock up. Leave that mindset behind and be willing to go with a daily foray for fresh bread or coffee or something in order to start building better social connections. A simple daily walk may even help to start this process as you find new, interesting people and places to visit on a regular basis.”
      This is a terrific observation on lifestyle differences and a great idea for a way of being that makes more intimate contact unavoidable. He’s basically talking increasing your exposure. “Is there a better plan for your time and effort than getting comfortable with your community?” he asks. No!
      The reality is that these are skills the average expat must cultivate (or be taught) to mirror what comes naturally (through enculturation) to the Indigenous. In fact, once I saw it I recognized that this is precisely the thing I DON’T do. It is truly a foreign concept to me to be other than goal-directed when it’s time to provision myself. I can see what I’ve been missing.

  5. Our group assists Casa Maria Armor/Mujeres con Exito, an association that offers shelter, counseling and job training to victims of domestic violence. We collect money from expats for Christmas gift cards and presents for these victims. However, we do NOT distribute them…the Christmas bags of a toy, book, toiletries etc. are given to the mothers by the Association so the mothers can give the gifts to their children. As these mothers are sometimes resented by their children for leaving their abusive fathers and shunned by their families this is one small way to empower them. This year, through the generosity of expat women women who donated beautiful handbags, the Association will give the children a purse filled with toiletries for their mothers.
    I agree with the thoughts and suggestions in this article. I hope expat groups will find ways to assist our poor in Ecuador without giving the wrong message about helping each other.

    1. My piece was an illustration of one event that brings out a slew of unconscious reactions in North Americans. Besides Birthdays what do we have culturally as ritual, celebration and community connection? Here in Cotacachi, some sort of public celebration and opportunity for interaction with your neighbor, church, clan or barrio is going on all the time. Parades are a way of life. We seem to save all this energy for ONE OR TWO BIG EVENTS A YEAR and are happy to get it over with. Oh, here comes my cynicism but the point is, we, and I include myself, have to work a lot harder to recognize how our automatic reactions are out of place in other cultures. Empowerment to us means something a whole lot different to our Host Culture than it does to us and the onus is on us to do the adjusting.

  6. An excellent article and so true. Good to perceive our placements and giving with how ones around us see us. I applaud this author and his insights. And pushes me even further to work on learning to speak Spanish well here since this is my now chosen home country and as in the USA ones need to learn to speak English to navigate well, it is true here too. I have become too complacent with an English speaking landlord who translates and takes me about places. But when it comes to his family and my wanting to communicate, I become frustrated as do they with our desires to share more. Thanks again for pointing out how we are perceived here. Well done.

  7. Since I do not possess any expertise in the cultures of Ecuador, in particular the indigenous Quichwa (Note: there appears to me to be several spelling of the name of the indigenous people and, having been unable to ascertain the correct form, I am going with that spelling which seems correct to me), my musings must be presented as anecdotal rather than based on some qualified study. That being the case, I have the following observations about the ideas presented by Russ Reina (whom I affectionately refer to as “the firestarter”).

    QUESTION #1: Must the qualification of poverty be involved in order to attract enough interest from the expat community?
    As our friend Alberto often replied when I asked him if we could do something in conjunction with our export of Ecudorean handicrafts…”depende”. Poverty is but one of the conditions that attract the involvement, interest or compassion of foreigners. (Just a personal note: I dislike the term expat…I am an American living abroad and as such, I am and will always be a foreigner wherever I land, but never an expatriot). The operative question to me is: “What is my part in the culture in which I am currently engaged? The primary points of reference to me are 1) Language, 2) Morals 3) Mores 4) Customs and 5)Traditions. Perhaps the latter 2 are best combined.
    At best, even within our native culture, we are islands afloat in a sea of humanity. In my opinion, we delude ourselves if we believe that we truly understand others within that culture let alone a culture that is significantly different. At best we catch a few glimmers of understanding of some ideas or beliefs we share. It is difficult to divorce our own self-serving interests from that which is truly a compassionate humanitarian action. That being said, poverty, particularly the poverty of children is a fairly universal magnet that draws the impulse to “make things better”. That assumes that the responder themself is not mired in poverty which makes a compassionate response more difficult. Do we always respond appropriately to poverty? I doubt that. Then again, perhaps, depende. The fact that we are touched in some way, even if only casually, seems to me to be the opening of a door that can lead to knowledge and, perhaps, more appropriate responses. If we have no response, we have no opportunity to mitigate circumstances.
    QUESTION #2: How many negative aspects of NA culture are being brought to the Indigenous children as well? How many negative stereotypes are being promoted?
    Who is the arbiter of which aspects of a culture are positive and which are negative? Which stereotypes and according to whom?
    It seems to me that the first rule of interaction with another culture, particularly if one is seeking to benefit that other culture, is to take a page from the Hippocratic Oath: First, do no harm. Perhaps, even before that step, we might consider who is to say that our actions provide a benefit. Good intentions do NOT assure good outcomes!

    QUESTION #3: If language were not a barrier, wouldn’t we be able to express our connection with the Indigenous in many more ways than just giving gifts and money?
    Oxford Dictionary suggests that there are somewhere between 250,000 and 750,000 distinct words in English. The ratio of English to Spanish is, in all probability, somewhere in the vicinity of 2 to 1, English versus Spanish. The point being, even if one perfects their understanding and use of a second language, there exists difficulty in subtle shades of meaning inherent in the language alone. When one adds the subtlety of cultural shadings, experience, morality, mores and unstated learned behavior, it is amazing we can communicate at all. Having said all of that, the primary question to me is: ”What is the connection being sought?” I am neither Ecuadorean nor, additionally, Quichwa. I have interacted with individuals within each community for six or seven years. I have met those whom I liked and those whom I respected and those of whom neither is true. I suspect that, conversely, some of those whom I met either didn’t like or didn’t respect me. Pretty much like the rest of my life. In none of these instances was there an exchange of either gifts or money except in the course of normal commerce. So what am I to take away from this vis-à-vis Russ’ question? Neither poverty nor language was a factor in my experience.
    QUESTION #4: Why can’t we make Christmas a continuation and logical expression of our ongoing relationships with the people rather than a token expression of our affluence? (Could it be because we no longer do this with each other?)
    Why just Christmas? Why not daily life. While I am not Jewish, my understanding of the definition of the word “mitzvah”, is an act committed with no expectation of reward. If that is correct, perhaps we should all borrow some mitzvahs from our Jewish friends and neighbors.
    QUESTION #5: Who is all this really for?
    I revert to my previous statement / question. It is difficult to divorce our own self-serving interests from that which is truly a compassionate humanitarian action.
    QUESTION #6: Is Christmas now about true extended-family sharing in honor of the birth of Christ or is it an expression of excess?
    Expressions are often in the eye of the beholder. Who am I to define someone else’s beneficence as excessive?
    QUESTION #7: How do we contribute to the disruption of the natural balance here?
    Sorry. What, exactly, is the “natural balance”. If that is a metaphysical question, I confess I will probably always remain ignorant of what the question means. If not, pray tell what the natural balance is represented by?

    QUESTION #8: What are we spreading, our culture or our poisons?
    Beware the “Law of unintended consequences.” As I wrote earlier, “First do no harm”. What I think is beneficial, the folks I am seeking to benefit might well feel it is intrusive, objectionable or even downright nefarious. Some of the worst consequences suffered by inhabitants of various countries around the world have been wreaked by what at the time appeared to be efforts to improve their lot.
    You say vase I say vahz. Who is to say which is “right”?
    QUESTION #9: What if, instead of having white folks bearing gifts once a year and distributing them to the children and elders, we approached MANY neighboring Indigenous communities and found out what they need and want and rotated through them?
    WOW! Hardly know where to start. I guess I would say that the Peace Corps model has the roots of a place to start. How well it works in practice seems to me to be somewhat hit or miss, but that may in part be due to the fact that individual human beings are entrusted with executing the plan. None of them are robots and as such, results are bound to vary. It is much easier to construct a plan on paper than it is to execute one. Where does one start. There are a number of people in the foreigner community who dedicate substantial time, effort and resources to integrating with and helping Ecuadoreans including those in the indigenous communities. How would one go about offering more opportunities to others to participate. What constitutes involvement?
    QUESTION #11: What if we had the elders of the communities do the distributing? And what if the shared celebrations were reflections of ongoing relationships rather than anonymous honored guests popping in and popping out on a schedule?
    Not to cast aspersions on any community leaders, but my experience is that they too are humans with all of the range of favorable and unfavorable characteristics possessed by the rest of us. How does one guard against misapplication of resources? Favoritism? Nepotism and all the other little isms?
    QUESTION #12: What if we were sideline supporters rather than focal points and dropped the idea of spreading this kind of experience altogether?
    Why must life be binary? If some find Christmas donations to be there cup of tea, who am I to arbitrate against them? By the way….just a personal observation…anecdotal not scientific…if the number of Ecuadoreans I have observed snacking on ice cream, meringue, chips and other junk food, both Quichwa and others…are an indication of the quantity of sugar consumed, one need not worry about the addition of Christmas candy as it is a mere drop in the proverbial bucket.

    1. What I hear as the theme of your response, Larry, is “Who knows what’s best?” It’s an extremely valuable point, and perhaps that is the theme of my piece as well. I have been handicapped by having been born in Brooklyn, during the 1950’s when NY (so I was told which has become ingrained in me) was the center of the Universe because it was doing everything “right”. It seemed true because ANYTHING I wanted I had access to. All it took was Moxie and Money and (like we do today through the Internet) had all the information I needed at my fingertips. When I left the state for college in Tennessee, and to a certain extent wherever I’ve travelled since, I felt everything was varying degrees of “backward”. Because my typical Nu Yawka arrogance didn’t play well elsewhere, I had to learn to keep myself in check. So I see myself as an extreme example of American blindness to the fact that people everywhere do things differently than I think is right or valuable or productive or sensible and on and on. So where we may agree is that I see so many Norteamericanos NOT asking your question of “Who knows what’s best?” that so much of what is rich and valuable in this culture gets written off, ignored, judged, or worse still, disparaged while we just barrel on and over the people who don’t know any better. My point is, our way is NOT the best for anyone but ourselves and we need to take a good look at whose society we live in and adapt accordingly and with sensitivity.

    1. You’re absolutely correct, Nor. Yet, they too fall into the general category of North American and they carry with them many of the characteristics of their lighter skinned brothers and sisters, including size, shape, the amount of space they take up (energetically), and, perhaps most important, attitude. I suppose, without having been more specific, I was talking about the ways we North Americans stand out in THIS crowd.

  8. Excellent article; I have to support and encourage all foreigners that realize we do not know everything; that asks people to pause to think how our actions may impact them not just culturally but personally in terms of pride and dignity.

    It is hard to determine what is right and wrong, so asking the locals, speaking to them as to how they would like to see things distributed is the best way. The locals we work with here say it is always best for Ecuadorians and Foreigners to work together side by side in presenting the gifts, items or donations. Someone else may say the differently; just like in our own society with differing points of view on most topics.

    What I know is that asking them directly (which means knowing the language) will always be helpful in determining how to interact in each situation to preserve and enhance the relationship between us and them.

  9. The photo of Santa sitting in what I imagine is an Ecuadorian mass is awesome. Talk about symbolism. I think that Santa must be reflecting on a lot of what the article talks about . Yesterday I reminded my mother in law how 40 years ago there were no Christmas trees, or lights, or other such traditions during Christmas here in Ecuador. She thought about it for a bit, shook her head and disagreed. “No, there’s always been those things here at Christmas time”.

  10. Darrell Whitmore
    After living in Cotacachi for 5 years and after reading and digesting your article based on your observations I really can’t disagree with hardly anything you’ve said .
    Our culture has made it difficult and at times impossible to relate with an open mind to a ” foreign” way of life based on the totally different cultures or traditions in our host country from what we have grown up with. We have been ingrained with the concept that our way is the civilized / educated ” way “and it is our responsibility to try to promote that idea wherever we find ourselves. I’ve developed a feeling over the years of foreign travel and residency that if that’s the way we really feel….then perhaps we haven’t prepared ourselves sufficiently to leave “home” and become a visitor in someone’s else’s homeland. We will be amazed at what we will learn from them and how little they will learn from us.

    The subject that you are addressing is a difficult one. Many “expats” are intent on “packing up” and bringing home and all the “bells and whistles”to EC and of course that includes most of their life styles and ideas of comfort that we think are essential to a good life. To a large degree these ideas, material needs and expectations reek of excess to our new host country. Usually the date on our “permanent residency” marks little more than an indication that we have been here a little longer than some others but in reality we’re still just visitors that have hung around for a while.

    last year I asked some of my Cotacachi taxista friends among other Ecuadorian friends what they thought of Christmas. Almost to a person they told me that it was not a happy time for the majority of families. The show of excess was disturbing and there was a strong feeling that that attitudes of the more recent expats was changing. A few years ago the majority of the NA arrivals made a much greater attempt to grasp some language skills….today only a very few make any conscentrated effort to communicate with the locals…..and that’s what builds relationships with the community and allows one to be respected in that community…..not handing out candy.

    Unfortunately, sometimes when we attempt to do something or give something away we build resentments unknowingly. And that doesn’t make us out as being uncaring people.

    The important thing here Russ is that your article brings to surface some important points to think about and evaluate. . And there is not better time to think about these ideas than at Christmas . …. WHAT an excellent article !

    1. Thanks, Darrell. I’m glad I had a year to refine the article. In that time I’ve come to suspect that our cultural affectations as you described are so deeply ingrained that it takes a huge impetus for a lot of us to recognize, let alone modify, our ways of thinking. I often get stunned by examples of my own cultural blindness. For me, before my behavior changes, I need to tweak my way of thinking, dropping my most familiar and comfortable view of how the world works. The world really does work differently down here! To each his/her own taste, but I’m comfortable in the student/guest role.

  11. With permission I’m including insights from a couple of people who responded to the article on the FaceBook page, “What’s Happening in Cotacachi” because they offer some valuable insights:

    GARY PHILLIPS: Russ, I would like to offer a perspective from someone who has lived here for more than 10 years, and participated in one way or another with indigenous Christmas’s almost every year. The tradition of giving bags of candy in the communities goes way back decades before we gringos arrived. It is obvious by walking through the markets in Otavalo, Ibarra, and Cotacachi and seeing huge piles of 30-40 lb bags of animal crackers stacked to the ceiling that many more people than gringos are providing Christmas treats to the children and senior citizens of the communities.

    One of the major jobs of the community president is to secure funding each year for the bags of candies that in many if not most cases is the only gift that an indigenous child will receive. The second year we were here, we got to know a painter who invited us to participate in the Christmas celebration in a very small village high above Otavalo. Linda and I and Ed and Joanne Rogers packed bags for about 60 children and seniors. The incredible hospitality that was shown us, and the Christmas presentation they presented was only matched by the gratitude that was demonstrated from everyone for the simple gifts of cookies and candies.

    A couple of years later, when more gringos had arrived, we put together a tour of four villages. About 45 people gathered together for several afternoons in our office and packed 1500 bags of cookies and candy, and 50 parcels of foodstuffs that were given to the extremely needy, as selected by the community presidents. Bob Baker donned a Santa Claus costume and we proceeded to have a magical afternoon of cultural exchange with our indigenous neighbors. I doubt that anyone who had the good fortune to participate in that event will ever forget the incredible good will, love and pure fun that was generated on that afternoon.

    One of the villages was the largest and poorest village in Cotacachi canton. I will never forget the delight shining from the children’s eyes as they received their treasures. Each village gave several dance performances showing us the pride they have in their culture. The president of one village presented all of us a huge basket of home made bread, and had tears in his eyes as he thanked us for our gifts and friendship.

    Personally, I believe more good will has been generated by expat participation in Christmas goody bags than most anything that has been done. Of course, there are many other good things that expats can do to build good will. The free breakfasts for the needy by volunteers is an amazing service. The high school scholarship fund, which I coordinated for several years and is now being managed by Patrice Baron Parent is something that I encourage every expat to donate to. It has changed a large number of lives. But the Christmas goody bag service to me represents a great part of the Christmas spirit of giving and sharing. Please don’t try to convince people that it is some kind of ugly American effort. It is just a long tradition in which many expats are now taking part, and for which the villages are extremely grateful..

    By the way, San Pedro is still looking for about $60 more to fund the 260 bags needed. If anyone want to help, I will make the contact for you. .

    DAVID SASAKI: I generally agree with Gary. Candy giving is not just a gringo thing. I would also like to make another observation. I’ve attended many indigenous events in the villages. I see very few expats at most of them. Usually the same small group of foreigners. If you want to show them you really care, you need to go to these events, in their communities, and do so on a regular basis so they get to know who you are.

    RUSS REINA A Firetender: Thank you Gary and David for your perspectives. I don’t hold to have a handle on this because cultural expression is a slippery slope. My experience with other Indigenous cultures (including Oglala, Lakota) has been their being seduced away from the strong and positive values of their own cultures by the thrill of acquisition delivered by folks who have no stake or investment in the daily lives of the people. My root question is “How can we do better to make giving more personal and in step with the actual needs of the Indigenous community?” Tokenism, both the expression and acceptance of it, happens unconsciously and my hope, as has been happening, is that people become more aware of the implications of the cultural differences.

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