Independence Day with an Ecuadorian Family

Well, I’m about to start my second week of classes.  And I’ll begin that week here by giving gratitude for teaching materials that are comprehensive and easy to follow, and for the patience of my students and supervisors.  I teach two two-hour classes five days a week, and three one-hour conversation groups three days a week.  My two classes are Advanced 1 &2.  These are levels 6 and 7 of seven levels in the “Sufficiencia,” a certification of basic proficiency in English required for almost all university degrees.  After completing the Sufficiencia, one can continue through three more Academic levels, to complete a second certification of proficiency. My Advanced 1 class is comprised of nine university students between 18 and 23 – seven women and two men.  And adult professionals constitute the Advanced 2 class – three women and eight men.  Can you guess which one I like more, so far?  Adults are much easier to teach because they actually care and understand the practical application of what they are learning, though they keep me on my toes with lots of questions every class.  I also look forward to this class as an opportunity to interact with adult men, who constitute a demographic that, otherwise, I would not likely spend a lot of time observing or learning about and from.  My conversation clubs will commence this week, so I cannot comment on them yet.

And now, a little information about the university, since I was embarrassingly uninformed before coming here.  La Escuela Politécnica Nacional is the second oldest university in Quito.  As the name suggests, it specializes in the sciences.  I work in the Centro de Educación Continua (Center for Continuing Education, CEC), the classes in which are open to degree-seeking students and the general public alike.   The student population of the whole university is about 6,500, and CEC serves about 4,000 of them.  The center also offers classes in French, German and Mandarin.  There are approximately 160 English teachers, nine of us new this term.  The directors try to keep an even mix of foreign teachers and native Ecuatorians, and there is also a variety of ages.  I expected most of the teachers to be my age, but they really represent many stages of life and many backgrounds – not only purpose-seeking 20-somethings like me, who have no teaching experience at all!

This first week was a short one because Friday was a holiday.  Actually, Wednesday, Aug. 10 was Ecuador’s Independence Day, but Friday was the observed holiday.  I went with my host family to another small town about 45 min south of Quito on the way to Latacunga called Lasso to visit some aunts and cousins of my host mom.

House in Lasso

Her two sisters were also in town: one from Italy with her husband and son, and the other from Chile.  We left our house at 8:30am and didn’t come home again until almost 9pm.  There were about 20 people in attendance at this family reunion of sorts: two branches of the family tree proceeding from my host mom’s mom and her sister.  After passing time chatting and playing soccer, we ate a meal of potatoes (“baked” on a grill over open flames), grilled steak and three or four kinds of sausages. You should know that here, anyone who has space on their property to accommodate it will have a cancha(field/court) for playing soccer.

Me with host mom posing in front of Cotopaxi

Then we waited a bit more, before 13 of us piled into a truck to drive up to Cotopaxi.  From our stopping place, we hiked up a small hill where we had a clear view of the snowcapped volcano.

And my last comment for this installment is about family.  Ecuadorian, or Latino families are exceptionally warm, affectionate and close-knit.  This is one thing that most Americans know about Latinos, if nothing else.  In the US, we care about our families, to be sure, but nowhere near as much as they do here.  Never in Latin America would you hear the saying, “you can’t choose your family, but you can choose your friends,” as a justification for ignoring family ties.

As I commented in a message from my trip here last summer, among the first five questions you will be asked upon making a new acquaintance are: How old are you?  Are you married?/Do you have a boy/girlfriend?  And, do you have children?/Do you want to have children?  Now, obviously, the people here care more about family relations than we Americans do, but I hypothesize that the deeper explanation is one of identity.  Latino people identify themselves as parts of family units, not as independent individuals.

Host mom with mom and siblings

You all know that Americans are compelled by our sense of rugged individualism, and this makes us comfortable with identifying ourselves as self-sufficient, independent people.  We love our families and friends, but we could survive without them if we had to, right?  This is also why Americans are so averse to admitting loneliness.  We are educated to see ourselves in a relationship vacuum.  You’ll also notice that what do you do? is not in that mix of introductory questions.  Again, this is because profession is less important to defining a person, in contrast to American’s preoccupation with defining ourselves through our work.  And that, in turn, draws on the individualist spirit of self-made men with puritanical work ethic.

Latinos are not this way.  Relationships mean everything.  An expat friend of mine in her 20s commented that people often express sympathy with her presumed loneliness when she tells them she lives by herself.  When people ask me if I’m married or have a boyfriend and I tell them “no,” they immediately assure me that I will find one here, because “it’s important to have a companion.”  It is uncommon for young adults, particularly women, to live on their own before their mid-20s or before they are married, whichever happens first.  And those who study in the university appear to remain in their parents’ homes for the duration.  My host brother and sister both live at home; host brother, who is 24, with his mother, and host sister, who is 19, with us.  Both work full time.  On the whole this does not seem so different from the US.  The principal contrast is simply the lack of desire to move out.  Most American young adults aspire to leave the nest and establish their independence as soon as they are able to support themselves.  Here that motivation is not so strong.

So as to not sound like I’m becoming jaded about my own culture, I’ll add that my limited observations suggest to me that because the gravitational pull of family is weaker for Americans, we may be more deliberate about cultivating close relationships beyond our families.  Also, I want to add the simple and obvious disclaimer that these are just my observations and that you can be certain that I’m oversimplifying things.  And I welcome comments, in agreement or disagreement, from others who have traveled in Latin America or come from it.

That’s all folks!  Thanks for reading.

3 comments

  1. Heather · · Reply

    Oh darling cousin! I love this insight into families. Ours is an interesting one to be sure. This made me feel worlds better about living at home! Love you kiddo!

  2. Nancyruth Mack · · Reply

    Rachel — Good to hear what is going on in Ecuador and your classes are going well. Your host family must be so happy to have you with them for awhile. I know you love being with them. It was fun to read about their attachment to home and family as contrasted to our rugged individualism — generally speaking, that is. And that’s what visiting other countries is all about — appreciating the differences. All is well here. Sunny has done one of her inner portraits of her Papa (grandfather, my Dick) and we went to the framer to pick out the matting and frame. I can hardly wait to get it on the wall.
    Much love to you, Nancyruth

  3. Great blog Rachel. It’s good to experience another culture through your intelligent and thoughtful eyes. The American introduction talk – ‘What do you do?’ is somewhat tiresome to me after many years of doing many things….the relationship focus is more interesting…eg., who ARE you. I’m not defined by what I DO anymore! Hope you continue to enjoy teaching…it’s a good thing to DO. Love ya.

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