Thursday, April 2, 2009

Paternalism and Arkansas State University

I’m in a small town called Salinas de Guaranda, a town known for it’s cooperative run industries. Amongst others, their soccer ball, soy, textile, cheese, and chocolate industries are all run on a cooperative paradigm. There was a religious man of some sort that introduced the idea in the mid 20th century, and since then, the town has been a beacon of good business practice. Amongst other things, they set aside part of the monies gained to send citizens to universities in Ecuador and beyond.

The town is very proud of the rapid pace at which it has become successful. That said, it is also equally proud of having done the work on its own. The religious feller is now long gone, and they’ve taken his suggestions and run with them, making Salinas a truly unique town with a truly unique, and successful, approach.

I arrive in Salinas on the heels of some friends that I met in Baños. I find my friends at one of the two hostels in town, El Refugio. They advise me, in the extra day they’ve had, that Salinas is a lovely place with warm and welcoming people. However, they also relay to me the information that it has been invaded by about 20 fraternity and sorority kids from Arkansas State University. I decide to see for myself, assuming that if there is any truth to their claim, then it won’t be hard to verify in a town of a couple thousand.

Sure enough, a few minutes later, as I make the two-minute walk into town, I cross paths with a few fellows who look like they just might not be Salineros. “Hey, buddy,” they say with a smile. “How’s it going, fellas,” I reply in English, following their lead. “That’s good to hear, man,” the second fella says, presumably referring to my English fluency. So, it’s true.

Over the next few days, I get to meet and talk with most of the 18 or 20 international business students about their mission here in Salinas. Evidently, they’ve come to volunteer in the various coops around town. They’ll be audience to various presentations which aim to describe the history, development, and organization of aforementioned coops. At the end of their six short days here, they’ll give a list of suggestions and insights about how to improve business in Salinas.

Across these few days, I’m host to conversations and situations that, to me, were saturated in a paternalistic attitude that made me want to puke. Keep in mind, I’m reading Pedagogy of the Oppressed pretty much nonstop. Thusly, paternalism is something I’ve got a heightened disdain for. Aside from the paternalism were some Americanisms that just killed me as well. Here’s a list of a few quotes and doings that caused the hair to stand up on the back of my neck.

“We’re just here to do everything we can to help.”

“We’re gonna give a family a donkey. It’s only like 80 bucks, which ain’t much. But to them, that’s a lot.”

“Before we take off, we’ve all got business cards, in English and Spanish, and we’ll hook you up.”

“I just don’t think, even in a niche market, we’d be able to sell these patterns.” This was from the final suggestion session, which I sat in on. The group plans on opening a store in Arkansas to import Salinas’ chocolate, cheese, soccer balls, and textiles. The quote came from a girl who had volunteered in the textile shop, and was obviously turned off by the colors and patterns chosen by the members of the coop. She thought they were a little ugly and extreme. Of course, it’s not like the people of Ecuador haven’t been using said patterns and colors for hundreds or years.

I walk into the pizzeria, which is the only restaurant in Salinas with regular hours (it’s open from 9 at night until midnight, and doubles a bar thereafter). Immediately, I hear the sounds of The Band’s smash hit Up on Cripple Creek in the background. It doesn’t take long to notice the five tables that have been put together to accommodate the Staters. They’ve about 25 beer bottles, 3 bottles of rum, and maybe 5 super meaty pizzas adorning the table. They know the words to the song. They’re proving it by singing, loudly. Turns out, they know the words to many other songs. They prove this by singing. Turns out, they brought their iPod into the pizzeria and decided to have a karaoke night.

“Brad’s gonna ship him his Spanish book.” Evidently, one of the most pitiful Salineros, Jiovani, was trying to learn English. Poor guy doesn’t have a bilingual dictionary, so Brad’s gonna ship him his Spanish book. That’s right, a book made for English speakers to learn Spanish.

In a day at the elementary school, I noticed some good stuff. First, the Staters were unabashedly taking photo after photo of the children. Cell phones, iTouch, digital camera, disposable, whatever. Just capture this moment. What a beautiful moment. Remember when we bought chips and those little kids were so hungry. That’s so sad. Hopefully we made their day better.

"They´ve got a washer and a drier. Blew me away."

“The kids are really smart. It´s not the kids. Smarter than the adults.”

“Juanita doesn’t know English at all. She definitely needs help.”

“Man, he must not have eaten all day. He ate so fast!” Jiovanni made a head wrap for one of the dudes with a weed leaf on it. In exchange, they bought him a pizza. Jiovanni told me the night before that eating fast is a type of statement against aristocracy. He said that people that eat with forks and knives, really slowly and with blatant politeness, are looked at with disdain by much of the youth in Ecuador. His friend was describing how he eats with his hands only, even rice, beans, chicken, whatever, to make a similar statement.

All this ranting aside, the folks that I met from Arkansas were all really nice to me, as well as to the Salineros. It seemed that they were happy with what they learned from the Salineros. They seemed to appreciate the hard work and the organization with which the Salineros ran their cooperatives. Their intentions seemed geniune, as did each and every person with whom I spoke.

I think I just have a little bit different outlook on helping people that involves the people sharing their knowledge with me. I don´t feel as if the people in Salinas need me, but it would be nice if we could share some experiences.

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