Don’t Call Me Puerto Rican, I’m Ecuadorian

I get bothered when people wrongly assume my family's heritage.

by Janill Briones

When I was in 7th grade, our principal asked me, my best friend Tatianna, and another friend if we wanted to ride on a float in the Puerto Rican Day Parade. The three of us had the highest grades in the entire 7th grade, and since we were all Hispanic, we were given this opportunity.

“I don’t think I want to go,” I told the principal.

He looked at me oddly. “Why not?” he asked. My friends were looking at me, waiting for a response.

“Well, I’m not Puerto Rican, so I shouldn’t be on the float if I’m not Puerto Rican.” I was afraid I might sound a bit childish, but I felt that I had to stand up for my heritage; my family is from Ecuador.

“But that doesn’t matter,” he said, “The only thing that matters is that you’re Hispanic.”

We’re Not All the Same

That bothered me even more. It was as if the principal, who’s White, was saying that all Hispanics are represented by Puerto Ricans, or that all Hispanic cultures are the same. We all speak Spanish, but that doesn’t make our cultures identical.

It’s bad enough that when people meet me, they often assume I’m Puerto Rican or Dominican. By wanting to include me as a non-identified Ecuadorian in the Puerto Rican Day parade, I felt that my Ecuadorian heritage was being made invisible.

“No, I don’t want to go. You should just find someone else.”

I didn’t go to the parade, but Tatianna and my other friend did, along with another girl who took my place; all three are Puerto Rican.

Proud of My Heritage

It might have been fun to be on a float in a parade, but I don’t regret passing on it. I was able to stand up for the country that defines part of who I am. Both sides of my family are from Ecuador, and every couple of years, we visit our family there. I take pride in my Ecuadorian heritage.

There is an Ecuadorian Day parade in Queens in August. It’s not as big a deal as the Puerto Rican or Dominican parades, where stars like Jennifer Lopez join in and celebrate. Our parade is mentioned once on the 11 o’clock news and that’s about it.

I like to watch the small floats go by, though. It feels nice being surrounded by a whole bunch of other Ecuadorians, some waving huge flags of yellow, blue and red. It’s my community.

I feel that my heritage and my family’s traditions get ignored when people assume I’m Puerto Rican or Dominican. But it’s true that Hispanic countries have some similarities.

It was Spain who conquered the Native American Indians in much of Latin America—the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America and South America. For that reason, Ecuador, like Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, is mostly Spanish-speaking and the people practice Roman Catholicism.

My mom is especially religious. She prays every day, and when I don’t want to go to church, she starts rambling on about how my cousins in Ecuador love to go to church.

Kenly Dillard

Water Fights During Carnival

When I go to Ecuador on vacation, Mom has me sit through a velorio; that’s basically a reunion among family and friends where everyone sits around a bunch of saint statues and prays. Sometimes it’s for somebody who died, sometimes just for the well-being of our families. It’s incredibly boring because I’m not that religious, but I go through with it for my relatives.

Like many Catholic countries, Ecuador has fun during Carnival week, around the end of February. Mom told me that in Ecuador, everyone plays games and people sometimes throw water out the window onto bystanders below. They also throw powder at each other’s faces and hair.

The Andes and the Amazon

But Ecuador’s geography and history are different from that of both Puerto Rico and the DR, which are Caribbean islands. Ecuador is in South America, straddling the equator and lying between Colombia and Peru.

If I’m lucky enough to get a window seat on the flight to Ecuador, I get to see the country’s landscape: the snow-capped Andes mountains and the Amazon River.

When we go to the beach on the weekend, I look at the Pacific Ocean and envy the Ecuadorians for their clean water and their empanada and ice cream vendors. It’s so much better than the beaches we have here in New York.

There’s a restaurant at the beach that serves delicious ceviche, which is cold, spicy seafood marinated in lime juice. At home, Mom cooks mostly fish dishes, too, like fried fish and fish soup.

Some people (usually Dominican or Puerto Rican) have said to me that if I don’t eat rice and beans, I’m not Hispanic. But that’s not what we eat—and of course I’m Hispanic.

Dad Says We’re Better Off Here

Ecuador’s population of nearly 14 million is ethnically mixed. There are more than 10 different Indian groups, as well as White (mostly Spanish) and Black Ecuadorians. Mestizos, who are a mixture of Indian and White, make up 65% of the population.

I think that I have a Mestizo background, though I don’t know for sure. My family speaks Spanish, not an Indian language like Quichua. My grandfather from my mother’s side has blue eyes, like some Ecuadorians do. Most of us have brown eyes though, and my dad’s family has darker complexions, so I think it’s likely that some of my ancestors were Indian.

My father came to the United States to find work soon after my parents got married. After a couple of years, my mom was able to join him here. Since money was an issue back in their day, they had to work hard to put food on the table. My dad says that we’re better off here than in Ecuador.

A Few of Us in Williamsburg

Over 50% of the people in Ecuador either live in poverty or are really close to it. Like most immigrants, Ecuadorians have moved to the U.S. to make a better life for themselves. Ecuadorians now make up 43% of all South Americans in New York, and 5% of New York City’s Hispanic population.

That’s more Ecuadorians than I expected when I first started my research. The part of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where I live seems to be made up of mostly Blacks, Orthodox Jews, Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, though I do know a few Ecuadorians in my building and a few others in the neighborhood.

There are many more Puerto Ricans and Dominicans than there are Ecuadorians in the New York area. Put together, they make up over half of the Hispanic population.

Since there are so many Puerto Ricans and Dominicans in New York, they’ve become an important part of the city’s life and history.

Puerto Ricans especially have been in New York for a long time. Puerto Rico is actually a part of this country; it became a commonwealth of the U.S. in 1952.

Between 1945 and the 1960s, huge waves of Puerto Ricans immigrated to New York, mostly looking for better opportunities and employment.

The Dominican wave of immigration to the U.S. didn’t happen until 1961, when the dictator who ruled the DR was killed and it became easier for Dominicans to leave the country. Thousands of Dominicans came to New York, for mostly the same reasons that Puerto Ricans did.

It makes sense that Puerto Ricans and Dominicans have a big New York presence, but we Ecuadorians may be catching up.

A Secret Mini-Battle

Last year, while I was working on my Halloween decorations and my brother Ronald was playing on his Playstation 2, he told me about school that day. His teacher asked the class to name as many Hispanic countries as they could. He said that, to his great shock, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic weren’t the first ones that people named.

“Yo, I couldn’t believe it; they were like the last ones that were named. I was mad happy,” he said, turning back to his game.

After he told me that, I felt happy, too, even though Ecuador wasn’t the first country named, either. It felt like we had won a mini-battle that nobody else knew about. (Maybe I just have an ill mind).

Belonging to a small community does have its positive side. I could consider myself a rare species. I do get a thrill out of knowing that people never know I’m Ecuadorian until I tell them; it’s like my secret identity. And I guess what really matters is that I know where I’m from.

We all speak Spanish, but that doesn't make our cultures identical.
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