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Race Relations In Quito

From the time of the Spanish arrival in Quito, race relations have been a troublesome topic. The racial hierarchy imposed during colonial rule has left its legacy on the modern city.

Although you will see some immigrants from Asia, North America and Europe, most Ecuadorians are descended from Spaniards, Africans, the native peoples of the area, or a combination of the three. European heritage still carries prestige with it, and some quite├▒os take great pride in their particularly illustrious surnames or in being able to trace their ancestry back to Spain. As a result of the historical wealth and power enjoyed by Ecuador's white population, the crowds in Quito's fanciest restaurants, stores and clubs are disproportionately fair-skinned.

The vast majority of Quito's population, however, is composed of mestizo, indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorian people. Especially for the indigenous and black population, discrimination is an everyday issue. Employers frequently favor light-skinned people. Afro-Ecuadorians, many of whom moved to Quito to escape grinding poverty in Esmeraldas and the Chota Valley, are often stuck doing menial labor. On the relatively rare occasions when the Ecuadorian media portrays indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorian people, it is usually done in a negative light. Darker-skinned people have been kept out of some Quito clubs, and the police unofficially engage in racial profiling. Black and indigenous travelers from foreign countries are far less likely to experience this sort of racism than are black and indigenous Ecuadorians.

Political correctness has never really caught on in Ecuador, and racially-derived terms are frequently thrown around. Sometimes these expressions are meant to offend, but often they are used playfully among friends; context is incredibly important. Cholo and longo are used negatively in reference to indigenous people, as is the more offensive indio (the polite term is ind├şgena). Negro can refer to Afro-Ecuadorian people, but it is also often applied jokingly to the darkest-featured person in a a family or group of friends. Similarly, anyone with even vaguely Asian features may be called chino.

Some of the old racial system is melting away, however. Quito has become a vastly more cosmopolitan place in recent decades, and indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorian people have become more assertive about their rights. The younger generations also seem less race-conscious. There is more dating across racial and ethnic line today than a generation ago, and many young quite├▒os, whose parents were told not to go out in the sun for fear of developing darker skin, now head off to tan at the beach any chance they get.

By Nick Rosen
A staff-writer here at V!VA's offices in Ecuador, I came to Quito after having worked on public health and development projects in Africa. Naturally,...
14 May 2010

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