California State University, Long Beach
Inside CSULB Logo

Human Development’s Rae-Espinoza Leads Students in Ecuador Through June 23

Published: June 15, 2009

Human Development’s Heather Rae-Espinoza is currently leading a dozen CSULB students in Ecuador to find out why and how children adapt.

The three-week course, which began June 1 and runs through June 23, compares the experiences of various cultural groups in Ecuador to those in other cultural settings such as the U.S. and other Latin American cultures, explained Rae-Espinoza, who joined the university in 2007. Taught in Ecuador from some of the highest Andean peaks to one of the surf capitals of South America, students will be immersed in children’s lives through working in programs in an indigenous Andean elementary school and an urban coastal orphanage. “To understand the context of children’s development, we will take trips to understand the country’s ecology, economy and culture,” she explained. “Readings and class discussion will present theoretical frameworks to use for understanding both fieldwork and other diverse childhoods.”

CSULB students are visiting such landmarks as the City Museum and legendary marketplace La Ronda in Quito, South America’s biggest handicraft market in Otavalo, the Piscinas Modernas hot springs in Baños, home stays in Guinadel and a visit to Cuenca, founded in 1557 on an existing Inca settlement.

Their next scheduled stop comes in Ingapirca, meaning “Inca fortress” representing the center of the Incan empire in Ecuador, then Cajas National Park with its 250 lakes and its 125 species of birds. The trip continues to Fe y Alegria, an orphanage in Guayaquil that houses children without family. The class will contrast the luxury resort town of Salinas with the village of Montañita, known throughout Ecuador as the best South American beach for surfing. (“It is a nexus for people from all over the world,” she said. “I just hope there isn’t a full moon or else we’ll be there at the same time as the fire dancers from Columbia.”) The class winds up in Piqueros and the Isla de la Plata ecological preserve known as “the poor man’s Galapagos” for a day of snorkeling and whale watching.

The class fits into Rae-Espinoza’s overall research into how culture alters the way the humans develop. She received her B.A. from New York’s Hamilton College and both her M.A. and Ph.D. in anthropology from UC San Diego, the latter in 2006. The topic of her doctoral dissertation was “Devoted Abandonment” which described what happens to émigré children who stay in Ecuador after parents migrated for jobs in the U.S. and European Union.

Developmental theories might predict that these children would be deeply troubled by their parents’ departure but her research held a surprise. “These children were not traumatized,” she said. “Yes, problems arise when there is inadequate substitute parenting, but that the same thing could be said for the U.S. My research challenged the passionate assumptions of disaster. The need for physical contact to sustain love was not borne out, at least in Ecuador. Geographic distinctions do not limit physical connections and this class will challenge those theories. I want this class to use cultural knowledge to understand all humankind better and not just Western humankind.”

Photo courtesy of Heather Rae-Espinoza
Pulling a boat on to the Ecuador shore.

Rae-Espinoza is introducing her students to one of the most ecologically diverse nations on Earth.

“Ecuador is the size of Colorado with a wealth of uncatalogued animal species and natural resources coupled with political corruption that compels emigration,” she said. “Bananas, roses, petroleum, and shrimp all come from Ecuador, but the wealth they generate goes into only a few pockets.”

Her students will encounter globalization’s impact on Ecuador’s children. “Because of their parents’ absence, these children will probably end up knowing more about the international debt structure than I do,” she said. “They will know how long each one of them has to work to pay off their share of the international debt. They are very aware of their position in the global economy.”

The opportunity for students to put their boots on the ground is invaluable in overturning stereotypes, Rae-Espinoza argues. “It is important to challenge developmental theory and to come to our own understanding of how children develop. That is the value of travel,” she said. “As scholars, we focus so much on differences, it can be difficult to see the underlying similarity between people’s development. Travel helps to get rid of some of the exoticizing we do to other cultures. I want my students to be able to see for themselves how children develop in other cultures and not just take my word for it.”

Rae-Espinoza thanks the Human Development Department and the College of Liberal Arts for their support. “The dean has been wonderful,” she said. “There has been airfare support as well as backing from the Center for International Education.”

One of the most important things she hopes her students retain from their Ecuadorean adventure is an appreciation for the nation’s ecological as well as human diversity.

“The country may be small and compressed but that makes it possible to evaluate contrasting values at close proximity to each other,” she said. “It is simply a beautiful country where it is hard not to want to go everywhere.”