Cuenca: Part Two

[For readers of my other blog, Velissima,  this is a copy of the post earlier today.]

Cuenca, I have such mixed feelings about you. I will say, to start, that if you are traveling in Ecuador, you must see Cuenca. Visually it is a mix of colonial Spain and the Vatican. 52 churches scattered around the city punctuate this impression. As I wrote in my last post, Cuenca is beautiful and the people and markets are splendid.

But this trip is about checking out places to park my caravan and pitch my tent, and Cuenca, which comes highly recommended, and seemingly affirmed by a seemingly endless stream of immigrants from northern climes, was high on the list to check out.

And that is probably the biggest problem. How does a 500 year old Ecuadoran City, built on Spanish conquest and colonialism, settled into decidedly conservative, conventional ways and institutions, accommodate this new invasion by new colonialists? In some ways, too well. In some ways, everything changes.

Too well? As a recent article in Cuenca Highlife, a local English language newspaper reported about “urban renewal” in the Historic District; “. . .the cost will be born by working Cuencanos, many with incomes well below [that of] the ‘economic refugees’ who have relocated from North America.  Plaza San Francisco [the site of one such development] is a microcosm of global inequalities, and draws attention to the inherited advantages of those of us born into social positions that have historically benefited from exploitation of non-European workers in former European colonies.”

The money is arriving, according to another recent article, from big investors who see the future of Cuenca as a comfortable enclave community for gringo retirees and escapees. The tramway now being built to relieve the central district of traffic and fumes from old buses, has so far put 200 local enterprises out of business. One doesn’t have to have been to Bangkok or Mexico City to see where Starbucks will be setting up shop. Some of us may only have $1300 in Social Security, but that is still an order of magnitude more than local working Cuencans, who are being driven out of the historic center by rising rents and gentrification.

The city was born of colonialism, as the author of the Highlife article points out:

[The] cultural wealth, however, has come at the expense of other cultures, which have been marginalized. The built architecture of Cuenca is the product of one of two activities: either manufacturing exports (quinine and panama hats) that exploited people in rural areas of Azuay; or from large haciendas, especially sugar cane producers in the temperate valleys of Paute and Yunguilla, which also exploited rural workers. Rural workers, or campesinos, in Ecuador worked in relations of dependence and without pay until the late 60s or early 70s, right around the time current American retirees may have bought their first house.

The local indigenous population does have an ongoing, albeit, uneasy presence in Cuenca. The markets, including Plaza San Francisco, cite of the currently debated gentrification. “Plaza San Francisco has long been the interface between the rural and urban worlds of southern Ecuador — a place where poor rural workers have come to supplement their incomes by selling to urban middle classes.” The indigenous vendors, and urban poor, as well as the working class, stand to lose with the ongoing development:

The potential to increase the value of San Francisco and surrounding areas is what has led the Bank of International Development — a division of the World Bank — and the Ecuadorian central government to provide funds for municipal intervention in the square.These interventions are intended to increase economic activity and boost growth, but as in all such projects, the benefits fall very unevenly. Plaza San Francisco provides a local example of how tourism and development projects affect actual people who are being ‘developed.’

I highly recommend reading the article in its entirety, because it is a succinct explanation of the new colonialism of development and gentrification that too many western immigrants to developing regions wittingly or unknowingly precipitate and participate in.

The fact is that though we want to think well of ourselves and the financial benefits we bring to places, it is important to be aware of our impact. I can’t resist one more insight from the article:

The displacement of the popular mercado also reinforces the racial hierarchy of the current global division of labour. North Americans in Cuenca do not support racial hierarchies, however, displacing the popular market will also lead to a phenotypical whitening of Plaza San Francisco as it becomes a transnational social space oriented towards the tastes and imaginaries of North American and European tourists and lifestyle migrants.

This, then, is my first and strongest objection to Cuenca as a place to live. Cuenca is a beautiful place built at the expense of indigenous peoples. The lovely religious and colonial architecture is a direct repudiation of the spirituality and aesthetics of these people. What is loved by the immigrants with fat wallets is the ongoing, never ending legacy of Pizarro. We may offer aid and assistance, and want to do the right thing. Volunteering to teach English is welcomed, and deeply ironic. In the end we are 21st century colonialists continuing a 500 year project pretty much unbroken, bringing what we think of as progress and enlightenment, some of us even bringing protestant proselytizing. All the time wanting to improve our own lives at the expense of the natives.

I meant this as a summing up, but it has turned out into a long attempt at explaining the role of migrants from the historic colonizing countries to former colonies, in an ongoing project of colonialism. This could actually could be a sufficient reason on its own to resist the charms of Cuenca. But, of course, I have more to say on the topic. In my next post.



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