A key theme threading throughout The Ecuador Reader is diversity amid the quest for unity
The Ecuador Reader: History, Culture, Politics
Edited by Carlos de la Torre
and Steve Striffler
2009, Duke University Press
Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole
AMONG the most significant contributions to The Ecuador Reader, the interview with Nina Pacari – the first indigenous woman elected to the National Assembly and, thereafter, the foreign minister – stands out for exemplifying the challenges faced both by Ecuador’s fragile political institutions and of compiling a collection of this kind.
Pacari speaks of the strange alliance between the indigenous movement and the government of the populist colonel, Lucio Gutiérrez – one that ended in tears, and the indigenous movement’s expulsion – in terms that demonstrate how Ecuador appears to defy conventional political logic because of its diversity and recurrent instability.
If there is one insight into the engine of Ecuadorian political and cultural development that stands out above the rest from within this individual contribution, and also this collection in general, it is about how the search for an authentic national identity has bedevilled the country’s leaders since colonial times, and how this has become interwoven with transnational influences as it experiences the familiar impact of globalisation.
For example, Pacari reveals to Carlos de la Torre, one of the editors of this reader, how entering the coalition with Gutiérrez, was, among other things, seen as a means of raising indigenous consciousness and confidence. She states:
“We were able to shatter the stereotype of the incapacity of the indigenous people, and that is an accomplishment. We achieved an important objective; the indigenous people recovered their self-esteem.” [p. 279]
De la Torre and co-editor Steve Striffler have met the challenge of summarising the country’s almost unmanageable diversity by embracing it, and The Ecuador Reader is one of the better introductory volumes in Duke’s superb Latin American reader series, even if it seems shorter than others. Spanning the years before the arrival of the Spanish in the early 1500s to the present, the anthology addresses colonialism, independence, integration into the world economy and the fractious 20th century.
It is full of voices from the past and observations from the present, both political and cultural. José María Velasco Ibarra, the archetypal populist, hails the “Heroic People of Guayaquil”; Pablo Palacio, the founder of the avant-garde novel in South America, writes about “The Man Who Was Kicked to Death”; we learn about the popular press satirist Pancho Jaime, who was assassinated in 1989; and even how to make traditional Quiteño-style shrimp.
A contribution of particular note that addresses the key underlying theme of this reader is that of Jean Muteba Rahier, who explores the interplay between the country’s first black Miss Ecuador and national identity. As Muteba Rahier notes, the simple question of how a black woman could represent Ecuador that was asked across the country following her selection moved rapidly into larger and more complex issues of racism and gender in a society whose identity has been fashioned by a white and white-mestizo elite. In the complex constructed imaginary of “Ecuardorianness”, there has been no place for Afro-Ecuadorians, who have remained invisible – true aliens and, as such, non-citizens.
The surprise choice of Mónica Chalá as Miss Ecuador in 1995 turned this mythology on its head, and prised open a national debate about issues of racism and national identity. Muteba Rahier examines the reactions and unease of Ecuadorians to the development, and explains how it represented a logical and responsible decision by a pageant jury responding to greater transnational influences. Globalisation – and not a celebration of the contribution made to the country by Afro-Ecuadorians – best helps to explain the surprise decision. Muteba Rahier writes:
“… it is quite clear that her election proclaims the standards and valuies of postmodern Ecuadorian society, which are strongly influenced by transnational ideals produced in the postindustrialized societies of western Europe and North America. In these powerful centres of production of televisual and cinematic images, the black female body is as much commodified as the white one. It is not invisible anymore.” [p. 345]
It is a fitting observation on a society that has elements that are both unchanging yet in constant flux, and how visibility is very much in the eye of the beholder.
Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books