I recently joined folks at a relief center waiting their turn to receive a box of groceries. I asked them about the pandemic and if they were relieved that the tide was slowly changing. Most said they didn’t notice; they would remain afraid of the future for as long as they could imagine.
A few exposed their lives in ways I could hardly bear. It was unsettling how easily the stories flowed. It all sounded so normal — a monotone so predictable that whatever came next seemed as expected as rain.
One woman casually mentioned, “I dropped out of fifth and eighth grades and stayed away for a year each time. I had to work to help support my family. And then, a few years ago, I quit university because my mother got sick. I am caring for her now and am not able to return.”
A young man from San Lorenzo recalled, “My dad rushed in and said we had to leave. He kept shouting, ‘We have to leave right now! Mom was crying, but she was not in shock, we all knew that this day would come, but we didn’t know when. As it was, we had all of fifteen minutes to grab what we could carry and abandoned the rest. We could hear the crackle of gunfire get louder and faster. Narco gangs were warring over turf and we were in the way. We came back a few days later, I don’t know why, maybe to see the ashes or something. I don’t know.”
And then I heard this story from a middle-aged couple as we sipped soda and sat in comfortable chairs.
“We were kidnapped moments after crossing the U.S. border. We hadn’t gone 100 yards before we were captured by two armed gunmen. They held us captive for 34 days in a crumpled shipping container without a window or a toilet. The ransom was $10,000, but with bank fees and interest, it will really cost us about $18,000. We had just paid coyotes $35,000 that we saved and borrowed from family members, so we were pretty well screwed. ”
They spoke of their ordeal as a recent graduate would an inflated student loan.
They made two promises; they would never separate, and that they will again make their way north. They have a huge debt to pay and see no other option.
The most common accounts were from mothers or fathers who were separated from their children for a decade or more while they strained against the yoke of hard labor, and the weeping pain of missing their loved ones.
Again and again, I heard how vital small gifts sent home — a stuffed toy or a wristwatch — wired the relationship between mother, father, and child. The parents glowingly recalled how carefully each gift was chosen; the kids reminisced how they cherished their present as if it was attached to a telegraph of affection that stretched unbroken across two continents.
My cheeks glowed as I listened. I did not know if it was from confronting the shame of my past indifference or simply the searing heat of struggle that forged these stiffed-neck people — a formal, stubborn, intensely loyal, and easy to offend society that nurtures the deep roots honoring Mother Nature, celebrates creative endeavors, and dances with transcendent pride of heritage.
This spirit has not gone unnoticed.
Andean artists have blossomed worldwide for many years, particularly in Europe. The art world has been moved, amused, and celebrated the works of Cuencano artists Eduardo Segovia, Alberto Soriano, and Eduardo A. Cervino.
The cosmic murals of the Amazonian artist, Ramon Piaguaje, gave us a fresh perspective to a land teeming with life and the people who cherish it, and Caesar Andrade Faini, from Quito, a firebrand for justice, inspired students and artists alike with his devotion to Social Realism and the dignity of those fighting against nearly insurmountable odds in their quest for equality.
There are legions of others; some, like Adrian Balseca, who is shoving us forward with imaginative installations of found objects, and the esteemed dean of “Functional Signology”, Humberto More (1929-1984), who walked us through painting, sculpture, and murals. The tremors of their creative effort will be felt worldwide for generations..
It bears repeating; get to know your neighbors, most have stories they might be willing to share with you. If you are fortunate enough to be taken in, you will learn tales that are ageless and will include a renewed respect for fostering a patient spirit, undaunted love for one another, and the rewards garnered by sheer grit and determination.