The picturesque Ecuadorian city of Cuenca sends a steady stream of immigrants—legal and illegal—to the United States looking for employment, and whose remittances fuel both the city’s survival and growth. However, in recent years Cuenca’s beauty, moderate climate and low cost of living have attracted foreign retirees immigrating to the city for permanent residence. This influx carries a mixed blessing to the natives of Cuenca, and to returning workers who barely recognize their old home.

Immigration in Cuenca: Trading a Bread Winner for a Baby Boomer

The picturesque Ecuadorian city of Cuenca sends a steady stream of immigrants—legal and illegal—to the United States looking for employment, and whose remittances fuel both the city’s survival and growth. However, in recent years Cuenca’s beauty, moderate climate and low cost of living have attracted foreign retirees immigrating to the city for permanent residence. This influx carries a mixed blessing to the natives of Cuenca, and to returning workers who barely recognize their old home.

As its most productive residents seek higher wages in the United States, the Ecuadorian city finds them replaced by American retirees

Cuenca, Ecuador is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A city known for the four rivers that run through it, and for its laid-back, historical charm. The city has also become a peculiar example of the challenges and injustices surrounding the immigration debate both in Ecuador and abroad. The province of Azuay, which includes Cuenca, has the longest history of immigration of any region in Ecuador. The city has seen its population demographics change significantly in the past 10 years, with Ecuadoreans moving out, and American and European retirees moving in.

When Miguel was 14, his mother left him in the care of his 19 year-old sister and traveled to the United States. But it wasn’t for vacation. Miguel’s father had left the family soon after Miguel was born, and Miguel’s mother’s job as a waitress was not paying the bills. Miguel’s mother journeyed from Ecuador through Mexico, crossing the border in a truck where people were stacked like bricks. She made her way north to Chicago, where she found work at the Kraft factory. For 10 years, she sent money back to Ecuador, but was not able to return for a visit due to her illegal status in the United States. The money that came from Chicago enabled Miguel and his sister to pursue a private university education, something that would have been out of their reach had their mother stayed in Cuenca. When she came back, she hardly knew her then adult son.

This is not an unusual story in Ecuador’s third largest city. Alexandra, who lives in a community outside of Cuenca, is married and raising three children. She and her husband own a restaurant and a small store, but to get by Alexandra relies on financial assistance from her father, who is working in the United States, and from her mother, who is working in Italy.

According to INEC, Ecuador’s statistics bureau, more men than women leave Cuenca to work abroad, primarily traveling to the United States. Remittances, or are the second highest source of economic inflows to Ecuador, after petroleum exports. The money sent from relatives living and working in the United States has spurred a construction boom in Cuenca and provided capital for new small business ventures. For the many tourists who visit Cuenca’s historic churches and Incan ruins, the large, empty houses are the only visible sign of a mass exodus. Some houses are inhabited by the family members left behind. Daniela’s husband, a lawyer by training, has been washing dishes in New Jersey for the past two years. With the money he has earned, he has built a house and has sent his 10-year old mentally-challenged daughter, Stefanie, to a private special needs school. The money has been put to an important use, but as Daniela points out, “Stefanie cries for her father every night.”

In the immigration debate in the United States, the economic benefits from remittances and the human sacrifice of immigrants looking to provide for their families are often lost in the confrontations between political powers on the national level. In Cuenca, with little industry compared to Quito and Guayaquil, the move abroad has become a tried and tested way to earn substantial income and to build savings. Raúl – also a Cuencano – spent five years in New York. He learned more Greek than English because he spent those five years working as a bus boy in a Greek restaurant. With the money he earned in the United States, he was able to build a home and buy a car in Cuenca, and now runs a taxi service. Raúl boasts about his success, and expresses deep gratitude to the Greek-American family that owned the restaurant.

Raúl and other former immigrants who have returned to Cuenca have plenty of opportunities to practice English back home. What makes Cuenca unique from other immigrant bases is that the city has an immigration problem of its own. Due to a low cost of living, relative safety, and beautiful, historic cobblestoned streets, American retirees whose savings were hit by the 2008/2009 recession are moving in ever increasing numbers to Cuenca. According to Cuenca High Life, a website for expats living in Cuenca, Ecuadorean immigration statistics reveal that in 2008 only 44 North Americans residing in Cuenca held residency visas. As of 2011, that number is closer to 1,000. In 2009, Cuenca, Ecuador was rated the “Top Retirement Haven” by International Living magazine, claiming that retiring couples can live like royalty, in large homes with a maid for just $17,000 per year. 

The retirees, primarily American but also European and Canadian, are buying prime real estate along Cuenca’s rivers. Smart cafés, restaurants, and cultural venues are springing up around town for the growing number of gringo residents and international tourists. An email listserv called “Gringo Tree” connects the expat community in Cuenca for events. Locals complain that prices have risen since the arrival of American retirees. Yet the baby boomers are making a contribution to their new home – opening businesses and giving English lessons. For the time being, the retirees and the Cuencanos seem to be living in harmony.

The arrival of foreigners may have generated new business opportunities in Cuenca and stimulated the economy, just as immigrants from diverse backgrounds make myriad contributions in the United States. However, there is something unsettling about the entire dynamic. As Cuencanos are leaving their hometown to come to the United States in search of more opportunities, Americans and are moving to Cuenca to benefit from low costs of living, the moderate climate, and the charming ambiance. Americans enter Ecuador for tourism for 90 days without fees or hassles. And immigration visas for pensioners are not difficult to come by after paying a fee of $200. An immigrant visa from Ecuador to the U.S., however, is virtually impossible to obtain without the support of a U.S. Citizen petitioner, after paying a non-refundable $420 fee. In some ways, it is incredible that Cuencanos do not seem resentful of the rapidly increasing gringo population or of the Americans’ wealthy lifestyles, given that many Cuencanos fear their relatives abroad may be in legal danger.

Cuenca is a beautiful, unique city, one that deservedly should be enjoyed by the international community. But one hopes that its new foreign residents and visitors are not losing sight of the reasons so many of their native neighbors are leaving. Indeed, closer ties between Cuencanos and foreigners living in Cuenca could bring a more informed and multidimensional perspective to the immigration debate. Politicians in the United States argue that immigrants cost the government additional money, but the Ecuadorean government also bears costs associated with tourists and American retirees who benefit from the same public services as Ecuadorean residents. Arguably, a more open, informed immigration policy will bring more economic development to Ecuador through remittances than bureaucratic U.S. or NGO funded development initiatives. Cuencanos should also be sure to put remittances towards productive initiatives like promoting their traditional artisan products abroad, rather than buying imported goods with the money sent from the United States. Cuencanos could also make the most of the gringo presence, and Americans could become more integrated in their new community. The two groups could collaborate to develop and sell relevant goods and services for foreigners and tourists. For the time being, however, Cuencanos continue to have mixed feelings about the United States: a land of opportunity that has taken their relatives away, and a land whose own economic woes have brought a new type of neighbor.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.