Diversity and cross-cultural issues in Ecuador

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In fulfilling its mandate to share the face of America with host countries, the Peace Corps is making special efforts to see that all of America’s richness is reflected in the Volunteer corps. More Americans of color are serving in today’s Peace Corps than at any time in recent years. Differences in race, ethnic background, age, religion, and sexual orientation are expected and welcomed among our Volunteers. Part of the Peace Corps’ mission is to help dispel any notion that Americans are all of one origin or race and to establish that each of us is as thoroughly American as the other despite our many differences.

Our diversity helps us accomplish that goal. In other ways, however, it poses challenges. In Ecuador, as in other Peace Corps countries, Volunteers’ behavior, lifestyle, background, and beliefs are judged in a cultural context very different from their own. Certain personal perspectives or characteristics commonly accepted in the United States may be quite uncommon, unacceptable, or even repressed in Ecuador.

Outside of Ecuador’s capital, residents of rural communities have had relatively little direct exposure to other cultures, races, religions, and lifestyles. What people view as typical American behavior or norms may be a misconception, such as the belief in some countries that all Americans are rich and have blond hair and blue eyes. The people of Ecuador are justly known for their generous hospitality to foreigners; however, members of the community in which you live may display a range of reactions to cultural differences that you present.

To ease the transition and adapt to life in Ecuador, you may need to make some temporary, yet fundamental compromises in how you present yourself as an American and as an individual. For example, female trainees and Volunteers may not be able to exercise the independence available to them in the United States; political discussions need to be handled with great care; and some of your personal beliefs may best remain undisclosed. You will need to develop techniques and personal strategies for coping with these and other limitations. The Peace Corps staff will lead diversity and sensitivity discussions during your pre-service training and will be on call to provide support, but the challenge ultimately will be your own.

Overview of Diversity in Ecuador

The Peace Corps staff in Ecuador recognizes the adjustment issues that come with diversity and will endeavor to provide support and guidance. During pre-service training, several sessions will be held to discuss diversity and coping mechanisms. We look forward to having male and female Volunteers from a variety of races, ethnic groups, ages, religions, and sexual orientations and hope that you will become part of a diverse group of Americans who take pride in supporting one another and demonstrating the richness of American culture. There are a number of support groups in Ecuador, including a Peer Support Network of trained Volunteers in each region, that meet a few times a year to discuss and deal with challenges faced by specific groups.

What Might a Volunteer Face?

Possible Issues for Female Volunteers

Gender roles in Ecuador are markedly different from those in the United States. Most Ecuadorian women, especially those in rural areas, have traditional roles: They run the household, prepare meals, clean, and rear children. Many women also work in the fields, run small businesses, and care for farm animals. Men also have specific roles, and “manliness” is considered very important. Although many Volunteers are bothered by these gender roles, it is important to understand them to be effective in your work.

It is not uncommon for women to receive stares, comments, and offers of dates on the street or in other situations. Female Volunteers are obvious targets because they often look quite different from Ecuadorian women. Female Volunteers must learn how to handle these situations and sometimes have to accept constraints on their behavior that male Volunteers do not face.

Male Volunteers also encounter harassment, though less frequently. If you do not drink, smoke, or like to pursue women openly, you may be teased about not being manly enough and pressured to participate in these activities. Male Volunteers who cook, wash clothes and dishes, and clean the house may seem very strange to their neighbors.

All Volunteers have to adjust to the gender norms and different ways of doing things in Ecuador. Pre-service training will orient you to these norms and customs.

Possible Issues for Volunteers of Color

Ecuador has a variety of ethnic groups, including an Afro-Ecuadorian population concentrated in a couple of areas of the country. Thus African-American Volunteers are likely to stand out more for their manner of dress and lifestyle than for their ethnic background, especially if they live in these particular areas. And since Afro-Ecuadorians are a visible minority subject to negative attitudes or discrimination, African-American Volunteers may experience similar treatment.

Volunteers of color may encounter verbal harassment on the street—especially when away from their sites in larger towns or cities. Asian Americans may be called chino or china even if they are not of Chinese descent. However, comments or jokes regarding race or ethnicity are more likely to be used in a descriptive sense than in a derogatory sense. Most of them arise from misinformation or unfamiliarity with other races and cultures rather than mean-spiritedness. You will find it helpful to maintain a positive attitude about yourself and to approach any negative comments with patience and confidence.

Ecuadorians (particularly in rural areas) tend to think of all Americans as Anglo. For Anglo-Americans who have had little experience with being the only one of their kind in a community, being the center of attention because of one’s nationality, regardless of race or ethnicity, may sometimes feel uncomfortable.

Possible Issues for Senior Volunteers

In general, older members of the community are well respected in Ecuador. Specific challenges for senior Volunteers most often are related to language acquisition and adaptation to the relatively basic living conditions of Ecuador.

Possible Issues for Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual Volunteers

While some Ecuadorians in larger cities are open about their sexual orientation, gay, lesbian, or bisexual Volunteers will have to be very circumspect with their Ecuadorian colleagues. There are support mechanisms for gays and lesbians within the Peace Corps community, but not many in the broader society.

Possible Religious Issues for Volunteers

Roman Catholicism is the dominant religion in Ecuador. Other religious groups are increasingly visible, however, and tolerance of other religions is fairly high. In some smaller communities, divisions exist across religious lines, and Volunteers need to understand these and be careful about being seen as aligned exclusively with one side or the other.

Possible Issues for Volunteers With Disabilities

As part of the medical clearance process, the Peace Corps Office of Medical Services determined that you were physically and emotionally capable, with or without reasonable accommodations, to perform a full tour of Volunteer service in Ecuador without unreasonable risk of harm to yourself or interruption of your service. Peace Corps/Ecuador staff will work with disabled Volunteers to make reasonable accommodations in training, housing, job sites, and other areas to enable them to serve safely and effectively.

That being said, Ecuador is not generally an accessible country. Places that make accommodations for those with physical disabilities are generally restricted to small areas in the largest cities. The major cities, however, do offer a broad range of good healthcare for the disabled.