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.