Becoming Cuenca

Americans Abroad vs. Americans in Cuenca

Sep 25, 2022

In July, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, Gustavo Arellano, wrote about Ugly Americans living overseas. It was a follow-up to the newspaper’s lengthy article earlier in the year where many in Portugal are tired of Americans overrunning their country. Portugal has become a hot spot for American expats.

Addressing Americans in Mexico, Arellano said, “I have no issue with people who leave their homelands for a better life elsewhere — vaya con Dios, and all that. But that’s not what’s happening with this new generation of expats. They’re emblematic of the type of people I call California quitters: privileged people who want all of the easy and none of the hard and decamp for what they think is the better life at the slightest hint of inconvenience.”

For my wife, Joanna, and me, that is our fear. We are guests in Cuenca, Ecuador, and we worry that the bad apples can ruin it for everyone. As Arellano said, “That they’re ending up in foreign countries and living large while their new neighbors struggle is terrible yet so apropos for the type.”

Our good friend Elizabeth in Cuenca (in the photo above with Joanna) agrees: “UGHly indeed!” That was her response to the Los Angeles Times piece. She and her husband, Ralph, moved from western North Carolina to assimilate and be part of their new community and country. Elizabeth has the same concerns that despite there being around 10,000 expats in Cuenca, the small minority can make it bad for all of us.

That is one reason I have an entire chapter in my book, “Una Nueva Vida – A New Life,” dedicated to Cuencanos. Prior to my book, their voices had not been heard. Everything out there had been written and posted by Americans, Canadians, Europeans, and Australians. It was only their opinions and thoughts about Cuenca. The full picture was not being given.

The first question I asked the dozen Cuencanos was their feelings concerning foreigners living in their hometown. Ten-thousand expats (an estimate) is less than two percent of Cuenca’s population, but it is a good number to have an influence on things.

Especially if they are Ugly Americans.

Diana is a Cuencano mother. Her business as a facilitator has her interacting with expats on a daily basis. She has no tolerance for the unhappy Ugly Americans moving to her city.

“I think people come here with too many expectations,” she said. “They think that Cuenca is just like the United States, but with a lower cost of living. But there are some who move here and are not happy because their monthly income and savings are not enough to live here.”

Arellano concurs about these types of Americans: “They’re completely different from immigrants, which some of these expats insist that they are. But the differences between the two seemingly similar groups are as varied as those of a refugee and a tourist.”

Our friend, Diana, is tired of the ethnocentric and selfish attitude that some bring to her city. “They ask, ‘Why don’t we speak English?’ ‘Why isn’t there peanut butter?’ These people are going to be unhappy anywhere in the world.”

“Do not have too many expectations before moving here,” Diana adds. “Enjoy it here. If you do not have anything nice to say, then don’t say it. Support our community.”

Cristina has her own business and deals with expats quite frequently. She says there are a good number of foreigners who are ethnocentric and that does not sit well with her. “There are expats here who want Cuenca to be like their country. Do not expect the same things here as you had in your country. Be open to what is here,” said Cristina. “It is different here. People are more polite than many who move down here. We should be treated with respect.”

That attitude carries over to how they want to be treated. “There are some expats who want preferential treatment,” Cristina said. “Maybe, we give it to them because of our colonial past. There is a fear of being colonized again, but that is not right.”

“If you go to a new place, you should learn the basics of our language,” she said. “I know expats who refuse to speak Spanish.” This confuses and frustrates Cristina. “Cuencanos want to help you to learn our language and culture,” she said. “Do not live in a bubble.”

She added, “I will go to the United States and speak English. But when these people come here, they want me to speak English.” The double standard truly hurts her.

Joselin is a Millennial, who teaches economics at Universidad de Cuenca. “I have heard expats say that Cuenca and Ecuador are uncivilized places, backwards places. They say they cannot find many commodities,” Joselin said. “Being part of Latin America, these expats think Cuenca is a dangerous place.”

Remember: These Cuencanos are talking about a small minority of the expats in their hometown. As the Jackson 5 sang a half-century ago, “One bad apple don’t spoil the whole bunch girl.”

The huge majority of expats (I hate that word) in Cuenca have the opposite attitude of what Arellano wrote about Americans in Mexico and Portugal.  They have a different frame of mind than the Americans Arellano talked about in his Los Angeles Times article. We are trying to assimilate and be part of the community.

And contribute.

There are many who are giving back to Cuenca, including Des Dizney (distant relative of Walt), who runs the Cuenca Soup Kitchen. In 2018, Americans Des and Bill moved to Cuenca. In no time, they were involved with Cuenca Soup Kitchen.

Her leadership has helped expand the Cuenca Soup Kitchen way beyond what a stereotypical soup kitchen does. It starts with the screening of the needy. Once accepted, there is a process to get food to the most in need.

Cuenca Soup Kitchen worked with a nutritionist for balanced meals. “We always give rice and beans,” Des told me. “Lentils are our number-one choice as they are inexpensive, and they cook really fast. Other beans take too long to cook. We try to be culturally sensitive and look for long shelf life.”

It is not all food that the Soup Kitchen offers. They make kits of women’s hygiene products. “We bring a mother and her daughter in and educate them about health hygiene. Many know so little,” said Des.

Diapers are a big part of helping out needy families. And to be environmentally responsible, they are distributing GelWear diapers. The Ecuadorian product is reusable diapers with a completely biodegradable cover and liner that are made from sugar cane waste and bamboo.

Volunteers (many are expats) have been knitting hats and sweaters for needy children. Currently, the volunteers are working on layettes for newborns.

American Garry Vatcher fell in love with Ecuador in 1987.  His love has spilled over in Cuenca as he founded and runs Fundación Hogar de Esperanza. The vision of Hogar de Esperanza is an improved quality of life for those affected by chronic illness with a focus on HIV.

Garry is beloved by Cuencanos and expats. The man truly has a heart of gold as he has given of himself to his new homeland.

He posted on Facebook his philosophy about giving back to his community with his organization: “Giving people incentives. We have a rule. Do you want support? Then you have to show us you are trying to make changes!  One of our requirements is that those who receive food MUST attend a workshop if they are physically able. Each Thursday and Friday, we have workshops on crafts and sewing.”

He added, “There are extra costs to this, but the benefits are amazing and life changing. We do not want dependents; we want people to find a way out of their situation.”

I am not tooting my horn when I say I am giving back to my community, too. Maya Angelou said, “I have found that among its other benefits, giving liberates the soul of the giver.”

We can give time. We can give our expertise. And we can give our love. For me, it is my four decades of being a journalist. It may be my best asset, so I am using it to the fullest to give back to my community.

Seriously… What does that cost? As I see it, only time. Because of that, I am the Asistente de Información Pública (Public Relations Assistant) for Orquesta Sinfónica de Cuenca. This position is en gratis.

I am a Contributing Journalist for the English-speaking online newspaper CuencaHighLife. On top of that, I am writing articles for YapaTree (Formerly known as GringoTree).

My articles for CuencaHighLife are to highlight and publicize the great people and organizations of my hometown. The most recent include an article about a fantastic metalworks artist, an Ecuadorian who has a lovely small gourmet foods store, an Ecuadorian couple who probably serve the best sushi in Cuenca, a talented Spanish guitarist who is about to produce a new CD, and helping a neighborhood raise money to have more outdoor murals by the famous Cuencano artist, Eduardo Segovia. Of course, I have written several articles about our great symphony.

The point is none of us can ever run out of something worthwhile to give. And many expats are doing that in Cuenca. This is a special city.

Most of us have truly assimilated. The Swiss psychologist and genetic epistemologist, Jean Piaget, believed that there are two basic ways that we can adapt to new experiences and information: assimilation and accommodation.

Assimilation is the easiest method for most expats in Cuenca as it does not require a great deal of adjustment. Through this process, expats add new information to their existing knowledge base, which is usually life experiences in the United States.

Many times, the expats reinterpret their new experiences in Cuenca so that they will fit in with previously existing information. We have to adjust to the culture as in many ways it is different than what were used to.

For most North Americans, they go to one huge grocery store for all of their food. In Cuenca, it may take three or four stops to get everything we need. It is an adjustment, but the rewards are great. Joanna and I get very fresh fruits and vegetables at Mercado 27 de Febrero. We get many of our groceries at Comisariato Popular, which is like an old A&P grocery store. The two of us go visit Luis Villacis at Luvimar for Asian food products and imported cheeses. Just down the street from Luvimar is Distribuidora Cosecha 93, where we get our wines.

For some of our meats, we order it from a farm just outside of Cotacachi. There are excellent cheeses produced in Imbabura province, so we have them ship it down to us occasionally.

Another example is owning a car. Launched in 2013, ValuePenguin provides in-depth research and analysis on a variety of financial topics. Last month, they said the rate of car ownership in the U.S. had been trending upward. They found that 91.55 percent of American households reported having access to at least one vehicle in 2020. Basically, every expat in Cuenca was in that vast majority when they lived in the United States. We loved our cars and being “independent.”

Flip that percentage for car ownership in Cuenca. I would bet the ranch that 91.55 percent of expats do not own a car. It is probably higher than that. Just like a huge percentage of Cuencanos, walking is the preferred way for expats to get around.

If it is a long distance, we can opt for an affordable taxi. To a T, expats prefer forgoing owning and driving a car to walking or hailing a cab.

There are expats who have bought electric motor scooters while others are getting around town on a bicycle. Cuenca is a very European-like city, so we have adjusted, assimilated to the norms at three degrees south.

If you move here, you will probably be doing the same thing. It is a different lifestyle in Cuenca. And it is one that almost expats embrace. That is why we are here.

A lot more information on life in Cuenca can be found in my book, “Una Nueva Vida – A New Life.” Some say it is the most thorough book out there concerning moving to and living in this beautiful city.

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Salud, mi amigos.

Una Nueva Vida – A New Life

- by Stephen Vargha

There are over 80 professional-quality photos shot by me to give you a clear ‘picture’ about life in this historic mountain city.