By Gerard Alvarez
Patricio Matute is building his dream house in the Ecuadorian Andean mountains near Cuenca, thanks in part to the 10 years he spent working at a boat canvas factory in Ronkonkoma, New York. The two-story, Swiss-chalet-style house will have a swimming pool, a soccer field and an outdoor kitchen sheltered by a red tile roof. A trout stream runs in front of the property.
Matute’s home, 20 miles east of Cuenca, isn’t even the most impressive one that immigrants on Long Island are building in the area. Some look like small hotels, rising four stories high next to the mud houses their neighbors inhabit. Dozens of the big homes dot the Andean mountainsides outside of Gualaceo, a town of 10,000 people.
Millions of immigrants from Ecuador and throughout Latin America have headed to the United States and Europe in the last few decades in search of the storied American dream. But for many, the dream will be realized only when they return home to the houses they build with money earned in the United States.
The area around Cuenca, including Gualaceo, is the most popular region for returning Ecuadorians, according to real estate experts. “Cuenca has always been magical for Ecuadorians,” says Marco Lopez, a real estate consultant in Quito. “Even those who are from other parts of the country want to live in Cuenca. This holds true for Ecuadorians living overseas too.” Lopez says that 30% to 40% of real estate sales in Azuay Province are to returning Ecuadorians. “They keep the market very healthy.”
Lopez adds that there’s a misconception that North American and European expats are a major driver of the local market. “They buy property but are really marginal in the overall picture. Of course, the gringos like to think they are having a major impact in the market but they really aren’t.”
The more luxurious homes feature large tinted windows, upper-floor balconies and grand entrances flanked by pillars. Many are half-finished and empty, waiting for their owners up north to earn enough to complete them. Often, it takes years.
While not all the homes are mansions, they are still far better than what the average Ecuadorean can afford.
The money the immigrants send home also helps their families survive, paying for food, clothes and schooling in a country where many workers earn about $200 a month. Natives of Gualaceo send home an estimated $80 million a year, said Murillo, who is assisting Lucero’s family.
Many of the migrants go to the United States illegally because visas are difficult to obtain.
Murillo said it is common for the estimated 1.5 million Ecuadorean immigrants in the United States, including thousands on Long Island, to eventually return home to enjoy the fruits of their labor.
“Everybody wants to go back to their roots, to their families,” he said.
One reason is that their lives in places such as Patchogue often can be dreary and summed up by one word: work. Commonly they will hold two full-time jobs, starting work as early as 7 a.m. and finishing at midnight or later.
“You work like a burro, but you return like a king,” said Matute, 30. “You have your mansion waiting for you.”
He said his house will cost about $120,000, including the property. He still has to work in Ecuador to pay for it, and holds a few jobs including selling bottled gas. He expects it to be complete in November.
Beyond their new houses, the immigrants return because they miss their country, their culture, their family and friends. Back home, they feel, their lives are richer.
Juan Pablo Jadan had a job as a waiter at upscale restaurants such as Louis XVI in Patchogue and Tellers in Islip. But he recently returned to Gualaceo after 20 years.
“I got very tired of the United States,” Jadan, 38, said in Spanish. “Something in my heart told me to come home.”
He said many of his friends had been on Long Island when their elderly parents died in Ecuador, and he didn’t want that to happen to him.
Murillo noted that not everything is perfect when the immigrants return to Ecuador. Many find their savings quickly evaporate, and work opportunities are sparse.
Some end up returning to the United States, Murillo said. “It’s a cycle.”
“The United States is like a maximum-security prison,” Jadan said. He said many Latinos feel isolated in the United States because of discrimination. “Here in my country, we are in paradise.”
Photo caption: A home built by returning Ecuadorians in Challuabamba, near Cuenca.