Notes: Both interviews were conducted in Spanish. All quotations included in this cultural biography were translated from Spanish into English by the interviewer. The interviewee graciously expressly consented to the use of her real first name and the first initial of her last name in the publication of the interview.
Self and Cultural History
Cecilia J. was born in Guayaquil, Ecuador, where she was raised and lived until moving to the United States seven years ago. Her mother Bricela and father Luis are both from the rural province of Manabí (Bricela from the town of Canuto and Luis from the town of Manta). They moved from Manabí Province to Guayaquil, the largest city in Ecuador, in their early twenties. Cecilia noted that it is very common for people from the rural provinces of Ecuador to move to Guayaquil or Quito in search of better opportunities (especially employment) but that the reverse (people moving from Guayaquil or Quito to the provinces) rarely occurs.
Cecilia has one brother on her mother's side but because her father and mother never lived together (Cecilia indicated that they never wed) and since she has only seen her father twice in her lifetime during brief encounters (both of which took place when Cecilia, who is now in her forties, was in her early twenties), she does not know whether she has any brothers or sisters on her father's side of the family. Cecilia was close to her maternal grandparents, both of whom passed away approximately seven years ago, but she never met her paternal grandparents for the reason previously mentioned.
Cecilia self-identifies as Roman Catholic. During the interview, she made a point of informing me that her mother is a devout Roman Catholic and attends mass almost every day. Although Cecilia herself only attends mass on an "occasional basis," her Roman Catholic identity is very important to her overall individual and cultural identity. Cecilia attended a private primary school and public high school (colegio) in Guayaquil, from which she graduated; her high school graduation represents a significant achievement in her life.
When asked about the cultural values, beliefs and practices shared by her family and primary cultural group, Cecilia explained that her family has been the "nucleus of her life" and that most important values, beliefs and practices in her life are in some way related to her family. Important family traditions include holiday and religious celebrations and the family reunions associated with them, especially Christmas. Other important cultural beliefs shared by Cecilia and taught to her by her family include the desire to help others (especially family members), maintaining a positive outlook on life in the face of difficult circumstances and staying "united" with her family. She learned these values and beliefs both implicitly by observing those around her and explicitly through the instruction and encouragement of her parents and in school. "That is how they taught me," she explained. Cecilia insists that these beliefs play a central role in her life today.
Cecilia currently works in the accounting department of a medium-sized company in Miami, Florida. When asked about her interests and hobbies, she listed the following: (1) being a good person spiritually, (2) spending time with and helping her family (which she can only do now when she returns to Ecuador for visits or by sending money from abroad), (3) shopping, and (4) working. Cecilia flatly admitted "I'm addicted to work" and pointed out that since most of her social structure revolves around her family, and since all of her family is in Ecuador (she is, as she put it, "alone in the United States"), she is focusing on her professional self during this stage of her life. She stated that her primary goal right row is establishing financial security for herself and helping to support her family in Ecuador through regular remittances sourced from her earnings from work.
Cecilia is rightly proud of her accomplishments, among the greatest of which she tallies overcoming the absence of her father throughout her life, being able to help her family by sending much-needed funds from the United States, and making it into and graduating from public high school in Guayaquil, which involved a competitive admissions process. Cecilia's experiences with language learning have been complex and at times frustrating. Although she was required to study English for three years in high school, all instruction took place in Spanish by instructors with limited English proficiency themselves and the program emphasized reading and writing over speaking and listening; consequently, Cecilia did not acquire more than a basic level of proficiency in English from her classroom-based learning (in her own words, "I didn't really learn a lot"). Other than her three years of high school English, Cecilia has never taken formal foreign language classes. She noted that she prefers learning English in situ by practicing with native speakers, yet she has struggled to achieve even intermediate proficiency despite having lived in the United States for more than seven years mainly due to the fact that Miami is a predominantly Spanish-speaking city so her opportunities to practice English are limited; moreover, she does not feel compelled to learn English in order to succeed professionally in the United States and so lacks motivation to further her language studies. Cecilia said that she "considers learning English to be a serious challenge," especially since she must learn both conversational English and the specialized language used in accounting for her job. Nevertheless, Cecilia's lack of English proficiency does not appear to have substantially limited her employment or economic opportunities in the United States considering that she earns a decent living in her current position in spite of her limited English skills.
Self and Cultural Present
When asked to describe her identity in terms of her affiliations/associations with her primary culture, Cecilia focused on her belief structure and how it has influenced her personality. She explained that she is humble, hardworking, proactive (she scrupulously avoids procrastination) and easy to get along with, and that these character traits are highly valued in Ecuadorian society. When putting those traits in a cultural context, Cecilia affirmed that "they are the same as my culture. I identify myself with my Ecuadorian culture." She denied having any traits or beliefs in conflict with her primary culture. Given the personal nature of the topic and her insistence, I did not press Cecilia on this issue, even though we know that no one shares every single value and belief with others, in any society. Interestingly, however, Cecilia later stated that living in the United States has changed her in certain ways (which will be described below).
Cecilia never planned on moving to the United States or even leaving Ecuador; Cecilia's departure from her homeland was ultimately prompted by an internet chat during which she met the man who would become her future boyfriend. In her own words, "it was love that brought me to the United States; it just sort of happened." Cecilia had heard about, as she put it, "the famous American dream" and expected to find the United States, and opportunity, waiting for her with open arms. However, she was sorely disappointed after arriving when she found out that the country she had heard about (an idealized version based on that mythical American dream) was not the same country she encountered in reality. About the "American dream," Cecilia noted that "they make you think it's true, but when you get here, you see that you have to spend your whole life paying for things. In Ecuador, we live simply but without debts." Cecilia's greatest fears and challenges involve learning English and the feeling of loneliness she often experiences being so far away from home and her family, especially given the importance that her family plays in her social system. Cecilia was surprised to find that the United States is, as she put it, "a cold country with cold people." She added that "[here], you don't even know your own neighbors. There is no real social life. There's no 'human warmth.'" To summarize, the United States Cecilia found upon her arrival did not exactly match the idealized version of the country she had in her mind before arriving.
During our interview, Cecilia was quick to point out the many differences between the cultural beliefs and practices she has observed in the United States and those of her homeland. Among the differences she highlighted are that in the United States, there are far more rules and regulations to follow, although she interprets this as a positive aspect of American culture and society. She also appreciates the high level of societal and governmental organization in the United States, giving examples such as the well-maintained roads and cleanliness of cities and towns. She explained that in Ecuador, potholes are rarely fixed and large cities, such as her hometown of Guayaquil, are much dirtier than similarly-sized cities in the United States; according to Cecilia, it is common to see garbage piling up along the streets of Guayaquil, something she has never seen in Miami. Cecilia added that in the United States, work is "an obligation, and not a joy." Although she believes that both countries share a strong work ethic, she sees working in the United States as a sort of indentured servitude required to pay off the large debts (mainly from credit cards) that new arrivals inevitably acquire (it seems that Cecilia may be overgeneralizing here based on her own personal experiences). Cecilia appreciates the cosmopolitan nature of Miami and expressed admiration for the many cultures represented here. However, since Cecilia's entire American experience has taken place in South Florida (she has never visited any other part of the country), she seems to be somewhat unaware of the fact that Miami is unrepresentative of much of the country in this respect. Finally, Cecilia contrasted the progressive spirit of the United States (she believes that the U.S. is a country "making progress and interested in advancement") with what she perceives as widespread apathy on the part of Ecuadorians, whom she believes to have it in their nature to accept the status quo; according to Cecilia, "people in Ecuador accept the current situation without wanting to make progress." These comments seem to reveal stereotypes that Cecilia holds about both her primary culture ("everyone there accepts things the way they are") and the culture of her new home ("everyone here is interested in making progress").
Cecilia does believe that moving from Ecuador to the United States has changed her identity in certain ways: "I identify now more with the United States than my own country, especially when it comes to improving, advancing and making progress," she said. Cecilia went on to point out that she appreciates the "law and order" in the United States and enjoys the opportunities she has here to encounter new cultures, learn a new language (despite the challenges it poses and her anxieties connected to English) and earn a good living. The greatest challenges she has experienced are learning English and resisting the "temptation to go into debt to get whatever you want." Based on her repeated comments on the subject, it is apparent that the easy availability of consumer credit in the United States (which, as noted by Cecilia, is much harder to obtain in Ecuador) and the debt she may have incurred as a result (I did not ask her about this directly, as I believed it would have constituted an inappropriate intrusion into her privacy) have affected Cecilia at the personal level.
Cecilia claims that the only bias, prejudice or discrimination that she has experienced in the United States has been related to her inability to communicate effectively in English, especially when she first arrived. Until she made contact with other Ecuadorians who had already become well-established in Miami, Cecilia had difficulty finding a job because of her limited English proficiency. However, it bears mentioning that functional bilingualism is a requirement for many jobs (including most professional jobs and virtually all customer service positions) in Miami and that limited proficiency in Spanish can limit one's job prospects as much as, if not more than, limited proficiency in English. In my opinion, the fact that Cecilia has immigrated to an urban community where 70% of the population is Hispanic, and perhaps more importantly where Hispanic persons hold important power positions at all levels, has very likely insulated her from the type of bias and prejudice she probably would have experienced in most other parts of the United States. When asked why she thinks the type of discrimination she has experienced exists, Cecilia replied that it must be "due to people's lack of understanding of who [she] really [is]." She further noted that "a person can be very hard-working, but if no one gives you a chance then it's hopeless."
Although Cecilia at first claimed that living in a different cultural context has not really changed her sense of self, upon further questioning and self-reflection she agreed that she has, to some extent, adopted a hybrid identity that incorporates features from both her native culture of Guayaquil, Ecuador and her new culture in the United States. While she holds onto the Ecuadorian values of industry and humility that she so greatly esteems, she accepts that her seven years in South Florida have left an impact on her identity and her self-described cultural identity is "hardworking, a mix of Ecuadorian and American." After all, she did say that she now identifies more with the United States than with Ecuador, although she may not realize that the part of the United States with which she identifies (predominantly Hispanic and Spanish-speaking Miami) is in some ways more similar to Ecuador than it is to most of the rest of the United States.
Cecilia's advice to others experiencing or about to experience a new culture is a poignant reminder that leaving one's native culture can take an emotional and personal toll on the individual and that for many immigrants, the reality of the United States falls far short of their expectations. "They should think twice about it," she warns, "because there's no place like home. At home there are always people to help you out, but not here. And [in the United States] you have to work too hard to get what you need."
Instructor Comments: "What a revealing account of the immigrant experience! It really makes clear how much an individual's experience depends on the context in which the person lives and interacts. I think you must be correct that Cecilia's experience would be very different had she not ended up in Miami. I find it interesting that, like the rest of us, she seemed to become aware of cultural hybridity only through prompting to reflect on it.
I had some questions about the lack of a need for English proficiency at Cecilia's workplace. I suppose that she speaks enough conversational English to get by, or is it maybe a bilingual or Spanish-speaking workplace?
I think that Ecuadorian national culture is quite strong, partly because while the nation itself is a composite of richly diverse cultural roots: indigenous cultures (among which there exists great linguistic and cultural variety), African-Ecuadorian and Spanish, there is not much awareness of this diversity or maybe better to say that it is only a recently growing awareness. And, there is not a high percentage of immigrants. People identify quite strongly with being 'Ecuadorian' and can indicate very clearly what that means....as opposed to what an American might say when you ask them what it means to be 'American.'"