Student Blogger Study Abroad

Decolonizing Education: Indigenous Communities in Ecuador

A group of women dressed in white blouses with long black skirts sit on the floor of a banquet hall in Ecuador.

Each semester, one student from each HECUA program abroad takes on the role of student blogger, sending regular dispatches from the field. Emily Haus will be HECUA’s student blogger for the Community Internships in Latin America program this fall semester. Emily is a junior at Hamline University, majoring in Spanish and Sociology. Read on for Emily’s reflection on a recent field visit to Cotachachi.

Last weekend, we had our third and final salida de campo, or field trip, to the Imbabura province in Ecuador, which is north of Quito by about three hours.

We stayed with indigenous host families in Cotacachi, which was by far the coolest part of the weekend. Because it was Semana Santa, or Holy Week, many of the families were taking part in festivities. In most of Latin America and Spain, Easter is celebrated for a whole week, with special mass services, processions, and events. It was really cool to be in Cotacachi because the processions mixed traditional Catholicism with regional indigenous practices. Each community within Cotacachi had their own float and section in the procession, and instead of watching the parade happen, community members walked with their section. The photo at the top of my post shows Kichwa women from the community of Santa Barbara performing a traditional dance during that celebration.

A group of people dressed all in white with straw boater hats walk in a Semana Santa parade, playing wooden flutes.
Flutists in front of their communities’ float. Men tradionally wear all white on Friday of Semana Santa.

When we are in Quito, I don’t tend to see very many people who are wearing indigenous clothing or men who have the traditionally long Kichwa-style braid. When I do, it seems that these folks are marginalized in terms of their employment options. Granted, this is only what is visible to me as an outsider who does not know the inner workings of indigenous culture or Ecuadorian society, but colonialist ideologies and racism are still definitely in play.

You can see this clearly when you look around in Ecuador: at celebrities and TV anchors who have pale skin, and advertisements which feature white or mestizo models. You can see that the vast majority of vendors on the bus and the street tend to have darker skin. This is largely a result of the Spanish colonization in Ecuador after the Spanish conquest, which resulted in colorism (valuing lighter skin tones), forced Catholicism, the introduction of diseases which killed large populations of indigenous people, and the slavery of indigenous people as well as Africans. We, as Americans, tend to glorify Spain as a hub of “culture,” and while Spain does indeed have richness to offer, it is important to remember that the Spanish invasion of the Americas is now considered to be the first large-scale genocide of the modern era, with eight million indigenous people killed during the Spanish conquest.

After seeing and hearing about indigenous peoples only in regards to the discrimination that they face and the violence they have endured throughout history, it was extremely beautiful to spend time in communities in which indigenous people are thriving. Cotacachi has 45 separate Kichwa communities, where the majority of people wear traditional clothing and uphold indigenous ideologies which value community and the earth, which in Kichwa is Pachamama. These values were evident in the lively family meals, the cultural presentations, the processions, and the way that community members interacted with one another.

A very important part of Kichwa culture in Ecuador is the idea of Sumak Kawsay, which is Kichwa for live well, and equates life to the nature. This concept that we are nothing without the earth was featured on murals in both Cotacachi and Otavalo, and can be seen in the way of life of the Kichwa communities that we stayed in. It is a concept that I think many people in the world have forgotten. We are nothing without nature, and we need to change the physical and mental hierarchies that we have created which place humanity and ideas of “development” above protecting and caring for the earth.

During our stay in Cotacachi and Otavalo, I have realized that I need to work hard to decolonize and re-order the hierarchy in my mind to better serve the earth and communities around the world.

Sumak Kawsay-inspired mural depicting the connection between humanity and Pachamama.

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