Unstable Identities

Transposing emblem by Mavi Romano

Each of our identities settles within the limits of a tradition that involves habits, legacies, a piece of history, and very often a political ideology originating in the collective acceptance of certain events interpreted by a power group. To question or think about the limits of our understanding of the world is advisable for our mental health as it comes up in different moments of our lives when we confront situations that differ from the ones we consider normal from the point of view of biographical origins. Nevertheless, it is distressing to observe how critical thinking is a politically dangerous exercise in increasingly globalized societies and has declined due to all kind of social, political and religious definitions. This is, together with the overwhelming power of technology, breaking up the way we are in contact with others and ourselves. The world seems smaller today.

Another possibility for us is to turn to pure speculation even at the risk of losing our own identity. In The Immortal[i] the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges tells about the voyage of a Roman soldier who longs to taste the waters in the river of immortality. His identity, over the course of the pages, ends up merging with the one of the mysterious character that was determined to follow him until one day he recalls himself as the writer of the Odyssey’s verses.

I asked him what he knew about the Odyssey. The practice of Greek was arduous for him; I had to repeat the question.

Very little, he said. Less than the poorest rhapsodist. One thousand one hundred years have passed since I invented it.[ii]

To be something, to be someone is simply to be. Immortality implies being able to be everything, but then our memory would dissipate with the inexorable passing of time – as the wind erases traces in the desert – and we would no longer identify with any experience or event that was associated with our identity in the past. 

Nobody is somebody, a single immortal man is every man. Like Cornelio Agrippa, I am a god, I am a hero, I am a philosopher, I am a demon and I am the world, which is an exhausting way to say that I am not.[iii]

Travelers are commonly identified by the place where we were born and stayed until we started our voyage. That place is marked by our accent. “I am a Spaniard” is the easiest answer I can give to a taxi driver that takes me to a destination in Quito. “Return the gold that you stole” was the reaction of a young student at the campus of the Central University of Ecuador when I was asking the group he was with about the location of a building.

Living in countries where we were not born may be disadvantageous in some aspects. However our understanding grows in several ways as we simply compare livelihoods and cultural horizons. In Italy’s different university system I learned about the common origins of my mother language and a new world view. By trying to speak a new language, I experienced political conflicts between Castilian and Catalonian cultures in Barcelona. I was a philosophy student and a teacher of comparative Spanish in Austria. I was part of the country’s environmental management and worked as a consultant on micro-economic projects at the UN. These and other circumstances took me to Latin America. I came with the dream of implementing environmental projects. It collapsed.

We run up against political ideologies that promote an external development model. It is about a model that depends on the extraction of minerals such as oil, gold, coal or coltan, and the privatization of natural resources such as water and territories. This model is very linked to technological investment and the destruction of nature and local, ancestral traditions. It intends to create wealth by satisfying rising demand for raw materials in urban areas of the so-called first and (also) third world, to the detriment of the ecological and social well-being of the inhabitants in the exploited territories.

In Ecuador the development model adopted by the current government is based on a mestizo, urban, one-party socialist ideology that harms many indigenous communities throughout the country. Over the last eight years, as the country has increasingly collaborated with China, the deforestation rates have grown due to new mining and infrastructure projects – mainly roads to carry the minerals. This model goes back to the original age of industrialization; it is often supported by countries like the US and China and is repeatedly described as a form of neo-colonialism in African and Latin American countries. It shows how an identity is instrumentalized by a powerful elite and defended by a population group expecting an improvement in their standard of living. This results in the conduits of commerce coming from abroad and the acculturation of local urban, rural and indigenous populations.

Another unfortunate case is the imminent destruction of the Quitu-Cara and Incan heritage in the historic center of Quito due to the construction of the subway’s infrastructure, which is being funded by the World Bank. This center was, together with the historic center of Krakow in Poland, the first to be declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO on September 18, 1978.[iv] “We are adding different classes and cultures. We will have all the populations, all cultures,” said the architect and researcher Diego Velasco Andrade during a guided tour of historic places in Quito.

The destruction of the cultural memories by powerful elites leaves us isolated, insecure, transitory, foolish, empty and deeply unstable as the model breaks down. Mavi Romano



[i] J.L. Borges, “El Inmortal” in: El Aleph, Emecé, Buenos Aires, 1957.

[ii] Op. cit., p. 14. Translated by Mavi Romano.

[iii] Op. cit., p. 16. Translated by Mavi Romano.

[iv] Source: Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quito#Historic_center