Four months into this journey and the questions continue to loom over my head and in my heart. Right when I think I have found some clarity, I am hit with more information that leads to more questions not only about this diversely beautiful country, but also myself.
November came and went, and while it brought me opportunity for peace, it also brought moments of discovery and learning. As part of the Rostro program, we have a retreat every 3 months to learn, reflect, grow in community, and explore the country. Our 3-month retreat was north in the sierra; we began our retreat in the indigenous community of San Clemente de Ibarra, at the base of the Volcan Imbambura. There, in the clouds, surrounded by greenery and the cool sierra air, it felt like a dream, when really it was a time for us to all be awakened.
Each day was filled with learning – learning about Andean culture and spirituality, learning about the differences between la sierra y la costa, learning about medicinal plants, learning how to prepare certain dishes, learning about agriculture and living off the land, learning about the systematic oppression and racism that effects indigenous communities in Ecuador, learning about Mama Pacha and our connection to the earth, and so much more. Much of the Andean culture and spirituality is literally rooted in the earth – these communities would not exist and continue if it were not for that connection. Something that was emphasized was que compartimos la vida con Ella. The earth provides healing, provides nourishment, provides peace in the vistas, and she literally breathes life into us. This connection – or eco-spirituality – is woven into Catholicism, since the country of Ecuador, like most of Latin America, has deep roots with the Church.
As we ventured into Quito, more discovery on Ecuador´s history came forward. The founding of Quito has a long story that involves the Inca (of Peru), the indigenous from Ecua´s sierra, and the Spanish colonizers. While many sights of the city appear as though they belong in a Spanish village in Europe, it is surrounded by the mountains and stands above water that flows underneath it all. The city goes from North (developed, historically old), to South (underdeveloped), and it lies in the shadows of the mountains. This visual serves as a reminder that though the city might look Spanish and identify with a new Quiteno identity, the land on which it stands reminds us of its indigenous history… The Historic District of Quito serves as a prime example of the history of colonialism in Ecuador. Many of the churches like San Francisco and La Compania exist because of the spread of the Church through Franciscans, as well as Jesuit missions. While these churches are visually grand and breathtaking, the insides feel particularly cold when sitting with the unsettling truth of how they were built on the backs of slaves brought down from the northern province of Esmeraldas. One more visual that brought a big question forward was the barbed wire and barricades that still remained around the President´s Palace and the Plaza. That Plaza has served as a beautiful reflection and landmark for the power of the people in Ecuador, as it has served as a gathering place for marches and rallies, for sharing ideas and community. But now, given the most recent paro, it holds a different truth, the hurting of the people and how the government turns its back and ignores the needs of those groups that are historically oppressed. Confronting these truths is necessary and just when uncovering the identity of Ecuador.
These truths demonstrate the split in the identity of Ecuador. Does it identify more closely with the sierra or costa? How much is indigenous culture seen in the picture? Does colonization get brushed under the rug, yet again? Who keeps getting ignored and oppressed, and why? How does the institutional Church come to terms with its own history of injustice? Who benefits from this all?
The questions don´t end here. While the sierra and Quito brought much historical context and understanding forward, it also forced me to confront some of the personal questions that have been bubbling within me. How do I hold my own identity here in Ecuador? Standing in La Compania in Quito, I found myself reflecting on my own relationship with colonization, indigenous ancestry, and even immigration, the hurt I feel deep inside... How am I looped into all of this?
As a Latina in Latin America, I have found comfort in many areas of the culture, many things look, sound, taste, feel familiar to the reality I grew up in as a second-gen Mexican-American in Chicago. But at the same time, I have found some barriers for connection based on those very facts; my birth and upbringing in the states, English and Catholic education –my privileges, which at times, I´ll admit, are difficult to sit with. Sometimes a meal or a conversation can connect me back to my own Latinx heritage, but my positionality with Rostro de Cristo (a US-based foundation) in a community of 10 that is predominately white is quite the contrast. I find myself questioning where I “fit in” most, if I can even at all. My skin and heritage´s language sometime tell me that the comfort I feel with a neighbor because of the relationality in food, music, and familial culture is a good thing because its much like what I feel with my family at home and it is what connects many people in Latinx communities. But the fact that I live in la casa de gringas makes me shiver, since growing up that word was never an identifier I used for myself. These questions, discomforts, and realizations are not necessarily new in my life, they are simply coming forward in a different way because of my living experience here and now.
Amidst all this reflecting and questioning of identity, I find myself feeling a little bit like the country of Ecuador. We are both in a period where identity is something we are searching to redefine. Its multi-faceted and layered; there is a mix of inter and intra given the roots we have, the present we live in, and the future we want to create for ourselves. Not everything is always clear, but the self-discovery still continues.
As one of the leading producers of oil in Latin America, Ecuador is known for cultivating and cleaning its own oil; for this reason, a general subsidy on gasoline was placed, so citizens were paying around $1 per gallon. However, this past month on October 1, the President, Lenin Moreno, removed the subsidy on gas which sparked the price to $2.25-$2.50. For a country where the weight of the dollar differs, this price change carries a lot of weight for citizens, rich, poor, and everything in between. Subsequently the next day, the bus and taxi companies and workers hit the streets and began striking. For a car that might generally cost $15 to fill, or a bus that costs maybe $100, that would now be more than doubled, and the workers and companies cannot manage gas prices that belong in the US, a country that does not cultivate nor cleanse oil to the level of Ecuador.
Since workers and companies were striking, buses were not running, less taxis were on the roads and the few that were had higher fares, people could not get to work, and school had been cancelled across the country. And so began nearly two weeks of unpredictability. Life here is typically taken day by day, however, with Ecuador in paro, this shifted to taking things hour by hour, as a morning might start off normal, followed by an afternoon where organizers and citizens took to the streets, and an evening where some protests ended in violence or looting.
The movements that showed the greatest power and unity was that which was led by the indeginas from the sierra, the campesinos from the campo, the poor and migrants living on the margins. These are the groups that the removed subsidy affects most, these are the groups that really cannot afford the increased prices because of their places within society. But these are also the groups of people that the nation of Ecuador has been built on.
The indigenas laid the foundation for society; their strengths in mobilizing and uniting communities showed during the paro. The seat of the President was moved from Quito to Naranjal, an area close to Guayaquil. This move sparked the mass mobilization of the indigenas to march from the North down to Guayaquil. Parents, community leaders, university students, artisanal workers, and campesinos, gathered in cars, trucks, on horseback, and by foot to march and protest the removal of the subsidy, along with the mistreatment and injustices they have faced. Historically, the indigenas in Ecuador have been used as scapegoats for issues, and they have also lacked resources and full citizenship. (Not until the 90s did they receive the right to vote.) They are people of power, of beauty, of spirituality, of unity. They are a people who through this march were demanding recognition and dignity.
They alongside the campesinos cultivate the food that is gathered at everyone´s tables (rich and poor). The poor and migrants in Ecuador also do the work that is considered to be at the bottom. And while these groups continue to support themselves by doing work that has supported the nation, their repayment was this betrayal – this removal of a subsidy that has allowed for them to live. But groups of people who depended on that subsidy to barely get by, now felt betrayed, even more alone, and nearly incapable to support the survival of their families. These are the groups most affected.
Generally, an individual commuting from an outskirt community into the city of Guayaquil, might make roughly $400 a month. With the removed subsidy, they now have to pay about $1 roundtrip to get to work, 6 days a week, whereas before they would pay about $0.70 roundtrip (bus fares were raised $0.10 during the paro). So in a month, this individual now lost about $30 on transportation alone (if a spouse worked, it doubled). Now imagine this individual supports a child who also needs to take the bus to school; that’s about $20 deducted, doubled if there are two children. Add in school fees and the increased prices for food, and a family is left with nearly nothing. A removed subsidy for gas affects everything.
Food prices increased and food variety in tiendas were limited. Staple items like papas, huevos, and guineos now doubled in price. And items from the sierra like broccoli, cauliflower, and choclo (corn), were no longer available. The tiendas in my neighborhood only had produce that is cultivated here in la costa, and those items were more expensive than usual.
During this nearly two-week period, households and individuals found themselves frustrated and anxious as their daily lives uprooted. Initially as a non-Ecuadorian, I found myself frustrated and inconvenienced as I could not rely on the bus, walked to and from work a couple times (2-hour roundtrip), and couldn´t find an ingredient I wanted. But as time went on, I felt myself growing in understanding for the history of politics within this country, growing in frustration for the injustices that were taking place, and growing in community and solidarity with my neighbors through conversation.
People´s rights were being violated as their access to work, safety, education, and resources was being blocked. Quite literally, major roads and bridges connecting Duran to Guayaquil were blocked off by police, military personnel, and giant trucks and road blockades. These blockades prevented the indigenas to continue their march, as they could no longer pass into certain provinces or cities. Protesters found themselves being teargassed in Guayaquil, the city of Quito looked like a warzone, 13 indigenas were killed, school children went half the month without the guarantee of safely and easily getting to school, and some adults sat impatiently in their homes, while others walked 3 hours into Guayaquil to get to work.
Finally, after 12 days of what seemed to be endless uncertainty and speculation of things getting worse (Would the country go into recession? Would things ever be "normal" again? Would people migrate out like in Venezuela and Colombia?), talks were opened between the President, his cabinet, government leaders, and indigenous and other special group leaders speaking on behalf of their communities and the citizens who were most affected by this. The talks were mediated by Ecuador´s UN ambassador and were televised nationally for what lasted around 5 hours. Though I did not watch all of it, what I did see were well-spoken testimonies and grievances shared by the indigenous and community leaders, and on the other hand, defensive responses from the President. After the dialogo and what seemed as though nothing would change, the President revoked Decree 883, which meant that his removal of the subsidy on gas would no longer take affect and that gas prices would return to $1.
What followed the next day was uncertainty on whether or not President Moreno would actually sign the order – he did eventually. And now, the country is seeing a progression of "normalization" as buses and taxis are back on the road, fares are back to normal, school is back in session, and people can go back to work. Slowly but surely food prices and variety are also being normalized. However, what people have found to be more difficult is the drop in the economy; local business owners and working people who went nearly half the month without income are scrambling to make up for their losses (Ecuador lost over $2.3billion during the paro).
The country is slowly trying the get back to the "normal" it longed for. But normal does not always equal just, and while the subsidy is back on gas, it is important to recognize that
people´s rights and dignity were violated and are still being violated. The power of these people (especially those on the margins here in Ecuador) refuses to be silent, and this paro is evident of that.
I do not share this information to cause fear, nor to bring pity or judgement towards this nation, rather, I share it as a means of transparency as news reports on this situation might have only been giving one narrative. I share it as a reminder of the US´ influence on Latin America, especially since this removed subsidy came soon after President Moreno met with Trump.I share it to also explain that the neighborhoods where I live and work were cooperating and safe. I share to emphasize that as a non-Ecuadorian, but Mexican-American global citizen, I am meant to learn, to understand, and to recognize that I do not know everything. And with all that, I also share the following links from trustworthy sources and news outlets:
Con manos abiertas, with open hands, is how my camino or journey began, and it is how I intend to have it continue. This journey began July 12th with a 10-day orientation in Boston.There, I and 10 of my fellow community mates declaredour big Si to spending this next year serving as a volunteer with Rostro de Cristo to accompany the people of Guayaquil and Duran Ecuador. This Gran Si could only be said and felt with open hands to a life-giving, faith-filled, communal journey that no one could predict. Our 10 days in Boston were filled with team-building activities, intercultural training, trauma-informed care and empathic listening training, as well as time for self-reflection and prayer on a 2-day silent retreat. Those days were jam-packed and every movement was thoughtfully led by one of our staff directors, volunteer alum, and organization partners. And while those first few days together as a community felt somewhat awkward, we all felt an amazing connection through our common yes to the camino ahead.
We left Boston on a rainy day, waving goodbye to our directors, anxious and eager to get to the airport to finally start nuestro vida en Ecuador. And as our spirits remained high, no one could anticipate what the next 24 hours would hold. What was supposed to be a one-stop flight in Miami before Guayaquil turned into us almost touching ground in Miami before being directed to West Palm, FL due to thunderstorms and inclement weather. While waiting on the tarmac in West Palm, I found myself bonding over the concern of missing the connecting flight out of Miami to Guayaquil with the family sitting next to me. This powerhouse of a mother was flying with her 13-year-old daughter and 10-year-old twins from the UK back home to Guayaquil. After finally heading back to the Miami airport from West Palm, we all deplaned and ran to our gate, only to miss boarding by a few minutes. The next hours were filled with long lines and several phone calls in an attempt to get our group tickets of 11 rebooked for Guayaquil. Standby tickets for about 8 of us to Bogota, Columbia turned into only 6 of us arriving there before flying to Guayaquil. Coincidentally enough, the family I sat next to on the first flight also got put on the Bogota flight! However, our Rostro group of 11 was split up dramatically into 3 different arrival times in Guayaquil. I arrived with the first group in Guayaquil in the morning hours before lunch; our group was warmly and energetically welcomed by the former volunteers and in-country staff. The relief flooded our bodies after running on minimal sleep and food, knowing we finally arrived to our new hogar for the next year. However, the full relief did not come until 10pm that night when our last community mate landed. While our coming-to-Ecuador adventure was utterly exhausting and surreal, it was not completely spirit-crushing as we knew it was only a test of our resilience, adaptability, and community strength. Those open hands to the craze helped us along – gracias a Dios!
Rostro de Cristo volunteers are split between two invasion communities: six of my community mates live and work in the community of Monte Sinai, Guayaquil, while I live with four others in Arbolito, Duran. Sophie, Steph, Ashely, Chris and I are living and working together in Arbolito and the surrounding areas-communities with partner organizations. Our first few days in Ecuador were spent being oriented by the former Arbolitovolunteers, a tight-knit foursome of Mujeres Fuertes. We shadowed these ladies at the 4 different job sites before leaving for a weekend discernment retreat at a Jesuit retreat center just 3 hours west on the coast of Santa Elena. Our community of 11 reunited for a few days to reflect on our first few days in Ecuador and to communally discern where each one of us was being most called to work for the next year.
My site placement for this year is at an after-school program called Manos Abiertas – fitting right? I am placed with my community mate, Sophie, and there we work with one of Rostro´s Ecuadorian staffers, Ricardo. The Manos Abiertas program is in a neighboring invasion community called Gregorio II (a.k.a. 28 de Agosto). The students who come to program are ages 3-15 and come Monday-Thursday afternoons. After our discernment retreat, we had a day or two to go to work with the former vols. One of those special ladies, Clarissa, reminded us of something very important about the Manos Abiertas program; while it is an after-school program where students come to receive homework help, it more importantly a place where our kiddos come to "love and to be loved on." Our kiddos are welcomed every day with open arms and cariño. Manos Abiertas is rooted in 6 different values that we discuss through charlas or chats- the beginning portion of the program is dedicated to these values lessons on: confianza, respeto, responsibilidad, bondad, justicia, and espiritualidad. While some of our kids come from loving and supportive families, we have others coming from struggling homes with parents who have minimal presence in their lives. The intent of having these built-in charlas or values lessons is rooted in the hope that we can either reinforce the values being taught in some of their homes, or even fill in the gaps for students who do not receive these lessons at home.
The former volunteers´ last few days were spent saying goodbye to the neighbors who became their family during their time here, while introducing us and opening the doors and windows for us to experience that great love as well. It felt so special to witness how our neighbors could hold both the sadness of saying ciao to the former vols with the excitement of saying bienvenidoto all of us. The neighbors in Arbolito have also leaned into having manosabiertas to this experience. The kids on my street remind me every day of the power of love and laughter. In fact, they basically force me to walk and live with open hands as they beg me to pick them up screaming, "cojeme!" as I walk down the street.
In this month and a half while being here, I have realized how special this gift of an experience is. Joining La Familia Rostro allows me and pushes me to be open to a new Way of Life, one based on community and simplicity and one that pushes me to say yescadadia to asking hard questions, to making mistakes, andto encountering my fellow humans. During this time, I have said a lot of goodbye´s and hello´s explored a bit of Guayaquil, jumped into waterfall pools, eaten delicious food, felt my first temblor, had my Ecua-birthday, and danceden las calles. My days are filled with high highs, like saving a kitty from the mango tree in my yard, to low lows, like burying a dead stray pup at work. Not every day is easy, but every day is filled with moments of great grace, like the glow that comes when the sun sets or the laughter that erupts within me when we are chasing down the bus. Some days I am haunted and overwhelmed by the questions of injustice circulating through my brain, but the serendipitous moments like racing the kids in my neighborhood or sharing a coco heladowith a community mate pull me out of my head and into my heart so that I can keep my manos abiertas.