By Lance Brashear
Though it began as a proposal by young people to attract other young people to Quito´s Old Town, over the past decade the Quito Eterno Foundation has transformed into an organization that acts on the collective memory of the city.
Many of us have seen them when we visit old town – costumed guides leading groups of people, often students, through the streets of El Centro, along their “Rutas de Leyendo” (Legendary Pathways). They also utilize drama to illustrate historical conflicts that still leave their footprint on today’s society.
Though entertaining, ultimately their purpose is to educate – to reach into the corners of historical experience — almost forgotten by most — to highlight realities that the passage of time does not necessarily require us to remember, but places a burden on us when we forget.
In a sense, Quito is like a person suffering from dementia – someone we recognized on the outside but who is confused and suffering on the inside. Quito has done a great job at restoring its outward, architectural patrimony, but seemingly at the cost of its very valuable and irreplaceable intangible, living heritage.
Most of the personalities of Quito Eterno tell about the informal history of Quito — people like the “panadera” (bread maker), the “cajonera” (the woman who sold her goods in the plazas) and the “farolero” (the lamplighter who lit the street lights at night) — who have all but disappeared, though it was not that long ago when they were part of the reality of the city.
These persons still live today in some form or another – a connection that Quito Eterno makes for those who come along for the walk.
Pablo Boada, one of the original founders of Quito Eterno says the success of Quito Eterno is precisely in its methodology. “The idea is to create a critical and reflective exercise about memory.”
Recently, Quito Eterno published “Tertulias de la Memoria,” compiled and edited by Susan Freire Garcia, documenting an exercise in memory, using a once common practice of public dialogue and discussion.
During 2011 Quito Eterno hosted four “tertulias” or informal gatherings to discuss issues pertinent to Quito, its heritage, history, and collective memory.
The word tertulia was taken from a Spanish Bishop, Perez Calama, who visited Quito in 1790 and who utilized the practice of tertulias, or has he called them, “Exercises in intellectual memory,” as a way of democratizing knowledge through open forums where opinions and ideas were exchanged. It was a format that existed even into the twentieth century but has fallen out of use.
Directed, not by Quito Eterno, but by other investigators and professionals, the tertulias were a natural extension of what Director Javier Cevallos says is the essence of Quito Eterno’s work today:
“Our work is organized around three axes: oral expression as a form of social interaction and transmitting knowledge; the creation of a citizenry around the exercise of memory; and the systemization of our work over the past ten years.”
Learning from the past
Since Quito Eterno began working ten years ago the city has seen profound changes, including the restoration of much of old town. Though it is far more beautiful now than in 2002, it has seen unintended consequences.
La Ronda, also known as Morales Street, a traditional neighborhood in old town Quito, was beautifully restored by the city during the middle of the last decade. Though the transformation is architecturally magnificent the street has lost its traditional character, as most of the traditional inhabitants have left the neighborhood, seemingly a direct result of the intervention.
Artisan hat maker, Luis Lopez, who relocated his workshop to La Ronda years ago, says that when the authorities intervened there were 200 families living along Morales Street. Today he says there are 16. They have been replaced by thousands of tourists and a robust nightlife.
“We have been accompanying the neighbors of La Ronda with a memory project,” says Cevallos, “and it is evident the displacement of living patrimony that it suffered. We do not doubt the good intentions of the authorities, but a project that is not born from the necessities and proposals of the citizens, ends up converting to an ‘event’.”
This is all the more reason Quito Eterno is also part of the newest initiatives to continue old town’s restoration. With the help of the Gescultura Foundation, San Roque, another traditional neighborhood in Quito that, established a grass-roots tourism initiative: Caminos de San Roque. It is attempting to revalue the neighborhood and its traditions for the greater community to enjoy and appreciate.
“We are supporting the initiative and cooperating with tours highlighting the traditional trades because we do not believe in cities of heritage converted exclusively into shops, restaurants, and hotels. The real heritage is complemented with ‘real’ cities, with habitants that live their daily lives in patrimonial spaces.”
Their impact of Quito Eterno over the past ten years has not escaped them. “We are conscious that, through all of the information and interaction that our work generates, we ourselves are becoming part of the living heritage of the city.”
For more information about Quito Eterno and how to participate in their activities, contact them at 228-9506 / 295-4469. Their offices are at Flores N4-21 & Junin in the central historica district. Visit their website at www.quitoeterno.org.
Credit: Miami Herald International edition, www.TodayInEcuador.com.