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Voices - Columbian Refugees in Ecuador

The Professor: Helping educate South American women

By Levi Butts

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A woman uses a hand mattock to break rocks near
an old ruin on the hillside near her village.

Professor Alexandria Flores, skilled trilingual language instructor, political, social and environmental activist and author, humbly agrees to sit down for an evening interview in little coffee house in Quito, Ecuador.

The young professor has had an admirable career as an instructor, international studies coordinator, essayist and activist.

Many American and Ecuadorian universities would happily hire Flores in a heartbeat yet, with all of the qualifications, papers and proof, the professor is still, after a series of appeals, unable to receive approval for the Ecuadorian equivalent of a doctoral studies degree.

Why?

Professor Flores is a woman. Ecuador, like Colombia, is an extremely male dominated society.

Typically, women are not promoted within businesses, receive far less pay than their male counterparts and are often victims of sexual harassment and other workplace related sexual misconduct.

The results are low self worth, low self-esteem, depression and tired acceptance of a perceived inferiority forced upon them by their male counterparts.

Life is especially difficult for refugee women.

According to Flores, they are easy prey for those who would take advantage of their lack of money, perceived social value and limited power.

Police forces and the governments running them consist primarily of machismo men, says Flores.

Therefore, there is very little legislation passed to protect women and more often than not, crimes against women are rarely investigated. When cases are investigated, offenders are rarely convicted.

Cases of police brutality against women with rape or mistreatment allegations are also common.

It is to the point, says Flores, that many women fear even going to the police when something happens.

Flores indicates that the issues facing women in the machismo world are extremely complex and stem from a lack of education and confidence among young women.

She says, "Women [in rural areas mostly] are not seen as adults until they are married."

Adolescent girls get married and have children, and then the husbands disappear or move to another city, says Flores.

She indicates that only 10-15 percent of women in Ecuador remain married or have a spouse who is active in the raising of children and the paying of expenses.

"Women are not valued as adults, especially in small towns, and so as girls they learn that they are not equal to men and that men are providers," says Flores.

This archaic mindset creates a host of social issues for women and helps to create the continuation of this vicious circle of injustice and persecution.

"Education is the key," says Flores. "It provides these [South American] women with the skills and the confidence to be self-sufficient rather than depend on men to provide for them."

Flores indicates that her goal is to alter the girls’ mindset, to help them feel good about themselves and be confident as the strong and intelligent young women they are.

The rural Ecuadorian girl and the female Colombian refugee are in very similar situations.

They are vulnerable and often invisible components of a male dominated society.

Flores has worked very hard to make her way in the machismo world and continues to work each day to help women and girls achieve their potential, regardless of the extreme social pressure.

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An aerial view of Quito streets highlights local
business advertising.

Professor Alexandria Flores is an Ecuadorian language instructor, humanitarian and activist. She is also a nationalist who, like many of her colleagues, is very critical of the United States of America.

Walking the streets of Ecuador one sees many culturally unique aspects of the nation.

There are artisan markets and street ven- dors. There are a thousand sights to see, yet one cannot help but notice that Ecuadorian cultural epicenters tend to live in the shadow, sometimes literally, of multistory American fast-food restaurants.

Professor Flores discusses one of America’s biggest exports: cultural perception, or, as she calls it, "information trash."

America is seen as the good place, she says. The KFC, the McDonald’s and the Burger King are much larger than Quito’s most lav- ish upscale restaurants.

When one spends a few minutes at one of the several two story KFCs in Quito, an inter- esting phenomenon appears.

One does not typically see common people coming in for some Kentucky Fried Chicken. Rather these fast food restaurants cater to some of Quito’s most well off businessmen. Adolescent boys in the upper middle class, wanting to impress their girlfriends may take them to Burger King for dinner.

Flores explains the five-star fast food phe- nomenon.

"America is seen as an indestructible com- munication and cultural power," she says. American companies do not just export American goods; they first export certain ideas.

According to Flores, these ideas create a market for goods and an overall decrease in Ecuadorian nationalism. In Ecuador, American is perceived as better than Ecuadorian.

A wealthy youth will pay an average Ecuadorian monthly income, around $285, for Levi’s jacket or pair of pants.

The sentiment is, "The poor buy Ecuadorian."

A middle class Ecuadorian, in hopes of impressing guest, might go buy an American brand lamp for their house, says Flores.

Does it matter that the lamp is made in China and sold at four times the regular cost?

Converse tennis shoes, also made in China, but seen as very American, cost around $80 a pair.

Ecuadorian upper-middle class youths jump to buy them, says Flores.

Why does the "America is better" idea exist? Flores answers the question with a term she may have coined, "information trash." She says American companies create these perceptions with countless advertise- ments.

Some advertisements are bold and clear while others are inconspicuous. She says, giant and omnipresent, Coca-Cola and Pepsi billboards cover the Andes Mountains and the surrounding countryside.

Ecuadorian pub- lic school text- books contain Ecuadorian children dressed in Tommy Hilfiger smil- ing contently as they eat their Big Macs.

Other pictures show students who appear Ecuadorian looking cool at The Gap.

Flores says that this information trash creates a market for American goods while destroying national pride and cultural identity.

Flores argues that American compa- nies have created a "white America on the hill" complex in the minds of many Ecuadorians.

"They have stopped valuing them- selves and their culture," she says.

Sitting in a small Ecuadorian café across from a supersized two story McDonald’s, watching men in silk suits line up at the door, the profes- sor’s argument is hard to deny.

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