Ecuador national treasures: The Three Marias (Las Tres Marias), or the Singing Sisters from Ibarra
By Wendy Jane Carrel
Every older adult is a treasure.
I am blessed to encounter many such treasures.
Here’s how I got to meet Ecuador national treasures Las Tres Marias, The Three Marias, senior singing sisters from Ibarra.
I was at Quito’s new airport waiting for the driver. A car pulls up, a man in a starched white shirt jumps out and with a lot of enthusiasm waves. Lo and behold, it’s Luis, an Afro-Ecuadorian. It’s the first time we have met. He is going to accompany me for a site visit to a luxury senior living home and then to my hostal. On the way to my appointment I ask where he’s from. Ibarra, he replies. “Do you happen to know The Three Marias?” I ask. The stars are in alignment: of course he does, and he can make the arrangements and drive me to meet them!
So a few days later, Luis picks me up in the La Floresta area of Quito for what will be a long, yet amusing, day trip.
First stop, the Otavalo market where we will ask and ask for one of the sisters through Luis’ Afro network. The market is huge and extends for several blocks. It takes over 30 minutes to locate Maria Gloria’s place on the sidewalk. All of a sudden (I was beginning to wonder) there she is with a huge grin on her face.
Maria Gloria travels every Friday and Saturday by bus (over an hour, sometimes two) from her home in the Chota Valley to sell produce from her garden, usually plantains, avocados, and guyabitos. I found her to be open-hearted, humble, and gracious. She is also unabashedly honest. “We are products of colonialism. We have always been slaves, first of the Jesuits, and then racism.” How did you learn to sing, I asked? “My parents taught us to sing when we were children, and my father played in a band.”
We say good-bye to Maria Gloria in Otavalo and head for Chalguayacu in the Chota Valley, way past Ibarra. Ibarra is the largest town on the way to the Colombian border. When we arrive in the village (approximately 2,000 inhabitants and completely Afro-Ecuadorian), lots of kids rush to surround the car. And there beside the car, on the sidewalk, are Maria Rosa Elena and Maria Magdalena Pavon.
Maria Rosa is 75 (not confirmed) and the oldest. She sells liquor out of her home. Every Saturday morning she takes a bus to purchase the liquor in Ibarra. She doesn’t say more, other than she has a husband.
Maria Magdalena is a curandera (a healing person) and has diabetes. I found her to be a gentle soul. She likes to go to the senior center each weekday to meet up with about 40 others. The senior center is not open on the weekend, otherwise we would have made a point to stop there too.
The sisters have never studied music. Their homes (all on the same street) have no running water and the tile roofs don’t appear to be sturdy. They love to travel and told me they wish to be invited to play in Cuenca. In 2012, Ecuador’s Ministry of Culture bestowed upon them the Bicentennial Medal of Cultural Merit for their unique style of music.
On the way back to Quito, a bonus. Luis brings me to meet his wife Silvia and daughter Alexa who live in a village down the road from Chalguayacu. Luis shares a flat with other family members in Quito during the week. He hopes to move his wife and daughter to Quito soon. As you can feel from the photo, they have sweet energy.
The links below introduce the music and the Chota Valley of The Three Marias…
Note: There are 1.2 million Afro-Ecuadorians. Their ancestors have been in the country since the mid-1500’s. Click here for a brief, well-written history about them.
Wendy Jane Carrel, M.A., has been based in Cuenca while researching health care options in Chile, Ecuador, and Mexico for the last two and a half years. She has lived or worked on four continents in over 40 countries. She is the author of WellnessShepherd.com.