Race-work, Race-love

More on Race & Racism in Ecuador: The Role of the University.

In Uncategorized on July 2, 2013 at 8:47 am

“The challenge throughout has been to tell what I view as the truth about racism without causing disabling despair.” ~ Professor Derrick Bell

One of my favorite quotes of all time. Indeed, the idea that racism is a permanent part of our global society, one that blemishes our rose colored lenses of the world, can be quite troubling because we are not readily given the tools to understand racism, let alone live with it, let alone combat it. But if it is permanent, how can we combat it? Here, again, Professor Bell reminds us that “temporary peaks of progress” do occur when we combat racism and it is important to engage in these struggles, but always be aware that there is always another fight looming ahead.

This is no different in Ecuador, although the effects of racism and White Supremacy may be experienced differently. Dr. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva says that if we want to understand racism in the US, we should look at the case of Latin American racism and racial construction. It is popular to believe that racism does not exist in Latin America and that for some regions, Black people don’t even exist so how can there be racism? It sounds very much like the US, doesn’t it?

Still, each country has its own history that is still interesting to explore. In Ecuador, I still see how deeply entrenched White Supremacist values are here and how they are expressed. For years, I have been noticing this even in the areas of food. Below are a few examples.

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For those of you who think that I’m exaggerating, it’s ok for you to think that way. You are not racial analysts and you may still have to develop tools to do so anyway. But for those of us who are these are important pieces, artifacts, if you will, to consider in order for us to understand how race and racism operates in this part of the world.

Cultural celebrations also provide important clues to how race operates in Ecuador. For years now, I have been fascinated by the celebration of the Mama Negra. Visiting Latacunga, the town where the celebration is held, I was able to speak to various people about their understanding of this celebration which viewing it through a US lens, could be perceived as a celebration in Black Face.

The story goes that Latacunga was largely inhabited by slaves and a woman, a Black woman, fed and took care of the Black population. More than just a caretaker, she also helped liberate the Black population. I was told that the celebration of the Mama Negra is to celebrate her and to remember the freedom of slaves in this part of Ecuador. I have read, however, that there are two historical stages in this celebration. The first was a reverent one, one that was deeply respectful of the African and Native influences of the Latacunga culture and people. The second stage occurred when Black and Native people were becoming too powerful and the celebration became more of a mockery of that history. Today, La Mama Negra is depicted by a white or mestizo man dressed as a woman and who paints his face Black.

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To understand this some more, I have collected some books and other reading material. I hope to ask more people questions about this. While I do see this through a US racial lens, I am certain that there is more to this than meets my eye. But the questions remain: if this was truly a celebration of Blackness, why not actually use Black people as representatives? I am told that only public officials are allowed to march and represent La Mama Negra- so why not make a move to include more Black Ecuadorians in government positions?

So many questions, and hopefully, I can answer some of them in my lifetime.

There is some hope, though, and I see this largely coming from the university sector. As I traveled through Ecuador, I have noticed that its President has a particularly nationalist agenda, one that claims to be more ethnically conscious in order to instill pride in Ecuadorian culture and people. It is a nation that largely identifies as Mestizo and about a 10% Black population. Universities that I have visited in Quito displayed posters promoting racial and ethnic diversity. We heard from higher education officials that there has been an increase in the Black and Indigenous populations in colleges and universities here in Ecuador.

But, if Dr. Bonilla-Silva hints to those of us in the US to look to Latin America when it comes to race, then I would point Ecuadorian universities to the US higher education system when It comes to racial diversity. A “personal enhancement” perspective on race and culture (learning the language and other cultural aspects) must also be met by “institutional advancement” (creation of inclusionary policies, increasing more people of color in education and powerful positions). As we see structural racial diversity policies erode in the US, my hope is that other countries do not follow our example.

The truth hurts. But it is important to always sharpen our racial lens and tools to prepare for the next battle.

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