According to indexmundi.com, Ecuador’s ethnic groups break down roughly as follows:
72% Mestizo (mixed Indigenous and White (Spanish colonizers))
7% Montubio (a rural peasant class found on the coast, which recently became an ethnic classification as well. I still don’t understand this very well, nor do I know much about this group other than what I just read here.)
I would say it’s generally understood that there is a hierarchy to these categories: Whites and Mestizos have the most status/power, Indigenous and Montubios have less, and Afro-Ecuadorians have the least. Let me recount a few anecdotes that I find revealing about race relations in Ecuador…
1. As Prepared At Home
There is a popular Ecuadorian fast food chain called Menestras del Negro. This roughly translates as “The black guy’s lentils.” It’s important to note here that the Spanish word negro (pronounced NAY-grow), means black, as in the color black, or a black person. It does NOT have the derogatory connotation of the English word negro. So the name of the chain is not really problematic in and of itself. However, you might have other thoughts when you see their logo:
EVERY North American that I have had a conversation with about this establishment is HORRIFIED by this image, and immediately comments on how racist it is. Interestingly, every Ecuadorian I have had a conversation with about this establishment doesn’t see anything wrong at all. In fact, one Ecuadorian friend, a lawyer, attempted to give me a language lesson to explain that the word negro in Spanish isn’t racist. Which I already KNEW. I asked him to describe the logo. He said it’s a black guy. I asked what’s in the black guy’s hair. He thought about it, and then his eyes got HUGE, and he said I was right, it IS an insulting logo, and he had never noticed it before. (He is also thinking about filing a class action lawsuit on this, but that’s another story for another time.) My point? This is a well-known image all over the country here, and no locals (that I know of) even notice it.
One of my Fulbright friends who taught in a town 2 hours south of Quito was mugged a couple years ago. By two black guys. When she told her local friends and colleagues about it, many of them asked if (or assumed that) the thieves were black. My friend started lying and telling people that two mestizos robbed her, because she didn’t want to perpetuate racism. (Relatedly, when I was recently robbed, no one asked if the criminals were black, but a few people insisted that “they must have been Colombian.” I’m not sure why, but my reaction is they got my purse – does it really matter WHO got it?)
3. It’s All Relative
Among a group of friends, it’s quite common that the darkest skinned person will have the nickname Negro or Negra, even if they are not ACTUALLY black. And the person with the smallest eyes will often be called Chino or China, even though they are not ACTUALLY Chinese. It’s a way to identify a friend, and is somehow a bonding term, a way to show inclusion in the group. (I will admit I have referred to my old salsa teacher as El Chinito, but he actually IS half Chinese and half Ecuadorian, so I feel like that’s a little more accurate in his case.) In a similar vein, two or three of my Afro-Ecuadorian friends have taken to calling me Negrita. Obviously I am NOT the darkest skinned person among our group of friends – not by a long shot. Although I do kind of love the ridiculousness of my new nickname.
4. Blacks Are In Style
A suuuuuuuuper popular salsa song this year, sung by a Colombian group, is called “Los Negros Estan de Moda,” or “blacks are in style.” Ironically, the first time I heard this song was during an English summer camp for teens on the coast, most of whom were Afro-Ecuadorian. The theme of the camp was Black History Month. During our campfire party the kiddos played this song, and went CRAZY. In fact, every time I’ve heard this song in a dance club, the black patrons seem to LOVE it. I do see how the lyrics promote black pride, but I’m still not sure how I feel about it. But I guess, as a white person, it doesn’t really matter how I feel about it.
5. Who Can Get A Taxi At 4am
Once, after a night out dancing, a group of friends came back to my place to continue hanging out. Around 4am, when most of us couldn’t keep our eyes open anymore, some of them were starting to settle in to sleep on my couch. They were welcome to stay, but I asked why they didn’t just take a taxi home. One of them said “We’re 4 black guys. We can’t get a taxi at 4 in the morning.” Oh. That stopped me in my tracks, because I NEVER would have even considered that being a problem. But it is. Wow. I just don’t usually have to think about things like that. (I ended up calling one of my regular taxi companies to order two taxis to take everyone home. But I still went outside with everyone to make sure the taxi drivers would accept the four guys.) I have also chatted with taxi drivers who have told me they will not pick up certain would-be passengers (i.e., blacks and Cubans).
6. Savage Rhythm
By now it’s no surprise that I go salsa dancing a TON. There are a handful of salsa clubs in Quito, and I regularly frequent many of them. One of the clubs, Ritmo Salvaje, is what one of my Afro-Ecuadorian friends refers to as “la casa de los negros.” It’s the black salsa club. When I go there, I am usually one of only two white people in the entire place (the other being my friend Maggie). I wanted to check it out when it opened last year because my friend Frank (an Afro-Ecuadorian) and his brother own the place. So Maggie and I went. Frank was so happy to see us, but I will say it felt like I was in a cliche sitcom scene: two obviously-out-of-place white girls stumble into an all black club, the record screeches to a halt, and all of the black people stop dancing to turn around and stare at the terribly lost foreigners. Okay, I’m exaggerating. But it felt a liiiiiitle bit like that. I also felt like I couldn’t ask anyone to dance, because it would play into the stereotype of white women “stealing” black guys. Plus I just didn’t really know anyone to ask, besides the owners, who were too busy WORKING. So the first few times I went, I didn’t dance a whole lot. But they play great music, and Frank is always so happy to see us, so I have returned. And the more I go, the more I’ve met people, so that now I know a few of the regulars and get asked to dance much more than before. I’m still usually one of only two whites in the whole place, and I still feel like some people look at me like I don’t belong there, but I feel a lot less uncomfortable going there now.
Dancing here is unlike any other salsa club I know. People don’t do a lot of showy moves and turns, but instead tend to dance very closely, emphasizing their hips. And everyone knows how to MOVE. They FEEL the music. They ENJOY the music. It’s not technical, it’s not robotic – this is salsa de la calle (street salsa). They play a lot of salsa urbano and salsa choke and salsaton, which I love. And when a particularly popular song comes on, the whole place just ERUPTS – everyone belting out the lyrics and dancing and radiating sabor. And when they play an occasional bomba song (a musical/dance style from the Afro-Ecuadorian population in northern Ecuador), everyone goes crazy. And when they play reggaeton – it is a sight to behold. (An R-rated site to behold, but it’s incredible.) I don’t think I will ever ever EVER find a place like this anywhere else that I live. I feel very fortunate that I have the opportunity to frequent Ritmo Salvaje now, and try to soak up the experience.
Patrons at Ritmo Salvaje tend to get several large bottles of beer (or a whole crate of beer) to share. But instead of each person drinking their own bottle from the stash, they will all share one bottle at a time, using one or two plastic cups. One person pours some beer into a cup and drinks it, then dumps the remaining foam on the floor. Then they pass the now-empty cup to a friend, who pours a little beer, drinks it, and tosses out the foam. I used to think this was gross, but now I see it as just one more example of how communal Ecuadorian culture is (as opposed to U.S. culture, which is very individualistic). I haven’t yet figured out if this sharing and dumping of cups is more of a racial phenomenon, or more of a coastal phenomenon, or more of a small-town culture phenomenon. But this is the only club I’ve been to where everyone is dumping out their cups on the floor all night long. Which means that the floor becomes quite wet, until everyone is eventually dancing in puddles of discarded beer foam.
And THAT is why my shoes were completely soaked after a night of salsa dancing.