An Ecuadorian friend of mine pointed out that Ecuadorian society is still a caste society based on skin color. The lighter one’s skin color, the more elite he/she is perceived. Although I’ve made the same observation myself, I wouldn’t share it with my Ecuadorian friends, out of fear of offending them. I know my friends wouldn’t appreciate having a foreigner point out to them the lingering racism and caste structure of their society. I certainly wouldn’t respond well if someone made such a comment about the US, even though I’d know it was true. (Perhaps it’s like making fun of families, of course you can make fun of your own, but if someone else makes the same joke, the humor is lost and you’ll defend them). Race is a delicate topic wherever you are. In Ecuador I find it even more so
I took a recent trip with a group of people to a rural village three hours north of Quito. It wouldn’t have taken so long if the roads had been paved the entire way. Furthermore, the roads twisted and turned up mountains and down them, up and down. Since it’s located on the equator, the sun in Ecuador is incredibly powerful. It shines down at 90 degrees. During our whole trip, we sat in the sun soaked van, burning hot. Once we arrived, Marcos, the driver and I struck up a conversation. He had slathered on sunscreen the entire trip, generously reapplying every 20 minutes or so, like you’re supposed to. In fact, watching him made me feel guilty for not applying enough. I knew when I got back to Quito I’d be red, like a lobster. I couldn’t help but make a wise crack about his excessive sunscreen use. He laughed and joked back. Little did I know our joking would lead to serious business about race in Ecuador….
Marcos says to me, “well, you don’t have anything to worry about.” I laugh, still in joking mode. “Oh sure Marcos, nothing to worry about—I could sit out here all day and not get burned.” Then I say, “You’re the one who looks dark…you probably don’t have to be as careful in the sun as I do.” He says: “What are you talking about, I have to be extra careful!” I reply: “It’s true, you’re probably just as vulnerable. Anyone can get skin cancer.” Marcos: “Oh skin cancer…I could care less about skin cancer.” Now I’m muddled up. “What’s with all the sunscreen, then?” Marcos clears it up: “I don’t want my skin to get darker.” I couldn’t believe it. This whole time I thought Marcos was vigorously applying and re-applying his sunscreen as a health measure. Marcos is not black, (he is not Afro-Ecuadorian), but he does not have the fair skin of the elite class either. Rather, he is “mixed” or mestizo, along with the vast majority of the population, except for the 20-40% indigenous, 10% “white” European segments, and 10% Afro-Ecuadorian. (Although, technically these other groups are “mixed” as well-- i.e. they are not “pure”). People here would most likely describe Marcos’s skin as canela, or “cinnamon.”
Marcos went on to say, “I don’t want to get black because people get scared.” “Really?” I ask. Really? I’m not sure how “black” Marcos would actually turn. I’m sure he would get a dark tan but was he afraid people would mistake him for an Afro-Ecuadorian? Plus, it’s interesting that he felt people would actually fear him as a “black” man. He continued on: “Yeah, you’d never know these things-you’re completely white.” Okay, can’t argue with him there. Perhaps it’s naïve but I ask, “So you really think you get treated differently when you have darker skin?” “Claro” he says. “Of course I do….otherwise I wouldn’t be soaking myself with SPF 80, would I?” Again, I can’t argue with Marcos. His comments are insightful about how race is perceived in Ecuador.
Marcos’s anxiety over being black due to the fear he will instill others makes sense given the popular discourse of race and delinquency here. Based on my informal/casual observations of media or conversations in social settings, I sense that Afro-Ecuadorians are more commonly viewed as “problematic” than any other racial group. They are the most marginalized group in Ecuadorian society, without a doubt, more so than the indigenous community because they are a much smaller segment of the population. And despite their marginalization, Ecuador’s indigenous community is internationally known for its powerful rebellions in the early 1990s. Positive media coverage of the black Ecuadorian community most often focuses on the star soccer players of the national team. I’ve seen many exposes of the poor rural community of Chota, Northwest of Quito, where all the black soccer players come from. Although Ecuadorians take great pride in their starring forwards, these same players would be treated completely different under other circumstances. Chances are good that if the starting forward were walking down the street at night in Quito the sidewalk would clear around him….
Marcos is not the only person I have heard express worries over being “black.” Even my friends, who mostly belong to the upper class and are largely “white,” comment on skin color. It is all in good fun, but I have witnessed people playing around with a friend who is a bit darker than the rest. They call this person “mono” (monkey—the derogative name for people from the coast, since they tend to have darker skin) and other comments. In no way is it meant to be a racial slur or insult, the person does not get offended—it is meant to be funny, and indeed, these comments are received with humor. But perhaps it’s an indication that race is on people’s minds and that being dark is not celebrated—and in fact, that it’s the stuff of jokes.