By Robert Bradley
It was clear from childhood: J.T Neira needed a bigger piece of the sky. It surely wasn’t that he did not enjoy his hometown of Cuenca, but he knew there was a whole world to see, and he wanted to be part of it. And so, at an early age, Neira took a bite and moved to “The Big Apple”, New York City. It suited him well and he stayed for 20 years.
Still, it was not easy. The cultural differences between Ecuador and the U.S. spanned miles of language barriers that required bridging. Attention needed to be given to the distinctive characteristics that separated the cultures in other ways, as well.
Ecuador clutched firmly to the traditions of close family values and religious fervor while New York was a blunderbuss booming, “Anything goes. Come get your share!” It was a narrow catwalk that required agility, compassion, and the patience to blend two cultures.
Neira loved it. To this day he considers himself not a Yankee, but close. Instead, he describes himself as a New Yorker, a citizen of the world. In fact, he was never particularly fond of the name, Yankees since he’s is a Met’s fan.
Neira gobbled up the spices and colors in the melting pot he read about as a child. He was awash in fresh ideas carried across continents; he was cleansed of old notions and ideas. He was cosmopolitan and proud of it. His love for humanity, in all its guises, was thrilling and lovely. He was also proud of his accomplishments.
Neira’s career bloomed. His position working for America’s largest newspaper organization, Gannett, offered him an entree into the diversity of cultures in new and exciting ways. He was well on his way up the corporate ladder when it all went awry.
Neira was sent to prison.
It all began six years ago. He was returning to NYC from Cuenca, where he visited his ailing mother. It was nothing serious, he had a wonderful visit, and he was anxious to return to work. When he boarded his plane on Friday afternoon, he carried a portfolio of business projects he would be discussing with his supervisor at Gannett on Monday morning. When he departed the plane he was distracted, still immersed in his projects, when an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent approached him demanding to see his papers. Neira thought nothing of it; he was legally able to work in the U.S., had been a resident in good standing for 20 years, and had all of his documents in order and on hand. Unfortunately, all of that was not good enough.
He was snared in a “trawl net of brown skinned people” in which all are taken and none are released. The arresting agent said his papers looked fake. He was booked at JFK airport on Friday evening at 10 p.m. He became an inmate in a Federal prison in Pennsylvania at 6:30 a.m. Saturday.
He was held captive with 15 others for eight months.
Neira’s passion for process and compassion for others became his calling. He quickly realized that the major “crime” most of his fellow inmates faced was the inability to speak English — they needed an advocate and Neira picked up the challenge. He recalls one case in particular.
“A Cuban fellow had just landed at JFK. He had suffered a few scrapes back home and was looking for a fresh start. Unfortunately, he was caught in an ICE dragnet, and was imprisoned in a perpetual cycle of bureaucratic wrangling. Cuba would not take him back because he had a light criminal record. The U.S. would not accept him because he had a record, period. This poor guy was languishing in prison with little hope of ever being discharged simply because there was no one assigned to his case that was bilingual. When I recognized his predicament I realized that many more were incarcerated simply because of their language skills. I decided to take action.”
Neira became the prison librarian.
Within a couple of months, Neira had earned the trust of the prison guards who allowed him to schedule appointments with the other prisoners to discuss their case and help their quest for freedom. Over a dozen of the cases he handled were settled simply by having a bilingual speaker explain to the judge, and the prisoner, the facts. Most had their charges dropped. In the case of the Cuban, whose case was muddled by two prior convictions, Neira petitioned the Mexican government to accept him. They did. Today the man is free.
When Neira’s case was finally called, the judge took all of five minutes. “What were you thinking?” chastised the judge to the shamefaced ICE agent. “You never even filed a single charge against this man! Sir, you are free as of this minute. I apologize on behalf of the country.”
When he was released, Mr. Neira called his supervisor at Gannett. He was told his old position had been recently filled. Instead, a new position, as supervisor to his old, was waiting for him along with a new office and his old secretary.
He was on the job of several years before he returned to Cuenca in 2016 to care for his mother.
Neira is best known in Cuenca for founding a book club for Enlgish-speaking expats sponsored by The Inter-American Center for Popular Arts (CIDAP). His committed belief that cross-cultural understanding is best achieved by shared learning, and that reading together would kindle fresh understanding of cross-cultural imperatives.
Since its founding in 2016, over 60 expats have participated in what has become one of CIDAP’s more successful ventures to incorporate understanding of cultural differences…and similarities.
Earlier this year, Neira assumed the lead role of Director for Keep Cuenca Beautiful, the organization charged with graffiti removal and the beautification of El Centro. Under his leadership, the number of volunteers has swelled dramatically, and the bond between cultures, both in trust and accountability grew stronger — although most projects are on hold during the pandemic.
Lastly, it was Neira who directed this writer’s GoFundMe campaign that covered medical expenses and literally saved my life.
Neira personifies the spirit of commitment and regard for others that makes Cuenca such a special place. As some of you know, he is facing his own medical emergency now and needs and deserves our full-hearted support.
Please contribute to the J.T Neira GoFundMe project.
I asked J.T why he dedicated so much time in service to others. He replied: “When all is black, there is a solution: have a purpose, and practice it daily. You will not live forever; so you must prepare others to take your place.”