Sometimes I forget I’m in Ecuador. Most days are pretty standard. I eat oatmeal for breakfast, just like I did back in the States. I still drink coffee twice a day (but it’s instant. I have come to accept this sadness.) I go to school every day just like I did back in Berkeley, though I’m a teacher instead of a student. I still take the bus to get around. I still spend most of my time with Americans and we still sometimes do American things like hang out at a real coffee shop or drink red wine or watch When Harry Met Sally. I still use American money and sometimes buy American snacks like M&Ms. I still speak mostly English because I teach it and my host family wants me to speak English with them. There are a surprising amount of similarities between my life here and my life in the States. Some days, it’s easy to feel like I’m not in a foreign country.
Then I go somewhere like Otavalo, and I can’t not think about how foreign Ecuador is. Otavalo is a lovely town about 1.5 hours outside of Quito. Surrounded by quilted green mountains and looming volcanos, it is home to about 90,000 people. Each Saturday, there is an enormous market in the Plaza de los Ponchos and the surrounding streets where vendors sell everything from Andean jewelry to alpaca scarves and blankets and socks and sweaters and mittens, to lovely hand-made leather and wool purses, to vibrant tapestries, to traditional clothing and hats, to chickens and rabbits and cows, to silly keychains and stuffed animal cuys and alpacas. Otavalo’s market is actually the second largest indigenous market in the Andes. You wouldn’t believe how much color the place has. Visually, the market is stunning. You can buy things there that you just can’t find in the States.
Not only are the products sold in Otavalo completely different from items sold in the US, but the people in Otavalo are markedly different from the quiteña population. Quito is home to mostly mestizo (mixed indigenous and Spanish) Ecuadorians; many foreigners from Venezuela, Cuba, and Colombia; a decent amount of Americans, Canadians, and Europeans; and a small population of indigenous Ecuadorians. Though as a white, tall female I definitely stand out in Quito, it is nothing compared to Otavalo. This is because Otavalo’s population of 90,000 is mostly indigenous, whereas in Quito the indigenous presence is not nearly as strong. Indigenous peoples in Otavalo have a distinctly different appearance than those who live in Quito. Though both tend to be shorter, with darker skin and longer hair (both women and men!), the way the otevaleños dress is more striking. Men wear cotton pants in neutral colors. Atop their heads sits a felt fedora hat, usually in dark blue, grey, or green. Their outfit is topped with an alpaca poncho that reaches their thighs. Women generally wear white blouses with intricately hand-woven flowers along the top of the chest line and around the shoulders with mantels of lace around the collar and bell sleeves. These gorgeous blouses are tucked into wrap-around long black skirts, and secured around the waist with the most colorful fabric belts I’ve ever seen. Their hair is often braided into a single thick plait or wrapped like a tail behind their head in more colorful fabric. The shoes look like close-toed fabric sandals. Many women pile fabric on their heads as a way to keep their faces shaded from the harsh Ecuadorian sun. I was so taken by the way the women dressed that I dearly wanted to (but didn’t) buy one of their white flower-woven blouses. Standing there in my American Eagle jeans and a Forever 21 sweater, I was in awe of the unique and beautiful attire that the otavaleños make by hand. I wanted to take pictures, but ever since I’ve had people take pictures of me without asking, I haven’t felt right about photographing other, “exotic” people. So pictures from Google images will have to suffice.
Surrounded by people like this, I am reminded of something one of my favorite professors said in my History of the Colonial Americas class that I took during my final semester at Cal. It was something like this: “The idea that native peoples of the Americas ceased to exist in the aftermath of Spanish colonialism is a myth. Indigenous peoples are still very much alive to this day.” I think that many people think of “the Native American” as something of the past, but they are very much something of the present. Otavalo is proof of this. Inhabitants of small towns surrounding Otavalo have practiced their trade for centuries. The pueblo of Peguche is famous for its textiles. The weavers have used the same practices for hundreds of years, still making gorgeous and vivid tapestries by hand out of alpaca wool using dyes they create themselves. In Cotocachi, artisans have been creating hand-made leather products for centuries. The traditional dress, ancient Andean flute and other musical instruments, and the language of kichwa to this day form part of the daily lives of otavaleños.
That isn’t to say that a town like Otavalo is the norm in Latin America; many indigenous individuals and populations were wiped out by Spaniards. As a student of Latin American History, I often had to read about the horrific things that European colonial administrators and clergy members of the Catholic Church inflicted on indigenous Americans. From forced labor on haciendas and ingenios de azúcar; to extraction of the finest natural resources like silver, gold, and wood; to coerced conversion to the Catholic religion and murder of those who refused; to rape of indigenous women and the purchasing of young native girls by Spanish officials; to the frequent bans on use of indigenous languages and death from forced participation in colonial wars and from European diseases like small pox and the influenza, native peoples were horrifically abused by European colonial settlers for hundreds of years. Millions upon millions of indigenous peoples died at the hands of the Spaniards.
And yet, native resistance still occurred. From massive uprisings like Tupac Amarú in 18th century Peru against Spanish colonial rule to the smaller day-to-day acts of resistance such as still practicing their ancestral religion in secret and still teaching children their native languages, indigenous peoples in the Americas have a long history of struggle to preserve their traditions and ways of life in the face of great hardship. Though I was only able to see the visible aspects of the indigenous culture in Otavalo (dress, music, language, artistry), I imagine that many of the deeper aspects of culture like values, belief systems, world views, and so many other things still retain at least some of what they were prior to European colonial influence. Seeing a town like Otavalo, whose people have endured Spanish colonialism and yet conserved many of their own cultural traditions, gave me hope for others struggling to this day to preserve their unique cultures in the face of globalization, oppression, and marginalization.