The long journey to the U.S. and back to Ecuador of a young Cuencano following his heart

May 30, 2021 | 8 comments

Leonardo Loja is 43 years old. In the course of our conversation about his life, he never mentioned taking a vacation. He is a farmer, and farmers know that their crops are wholly dependent on them every day of the year.

Born in Cuenca; Loja spent his childhood working on the generations-old family farm in San Joaquin, first pulling weeds and fetching tools before graduating to selling produce in Cuenca, five miles away. He learned as a young lad that if you do not farm, you do not eat; he also learned to love the toil of working with the earth, and the bounty of reward. He knew this was his destiny and he was satisfied.

And then came the drought.

Leonardo Loja

Loja’s father had recently retired after a career in service to the community as a police officer. Although his pension was small, he was confident that a casual job and careful planning would see his family through until the children’s careers took root on their own, and that they would all share a comfortable life together. It was 1999: as good a time as any to plant one’s entire savings in the bank, like seed stock … the money was in sucres. In a single year, the year of Ecuador’s great banking crisis, it all dried up and was scattered to the wind.

Along with thousands of others; a lifetime of savings and years of planning sank under the mud of corruption and economic collapse — and so began the Great Migration out of Ecuador.

Leonardo was 21 years old when he entered the river of impoverished Ecuadorians flowing north. As the oldest of seven, he had a responsibility to provide for his siblings and felt he could best succeed by toiling in the fertile fields of the U.S. After months of hardship and harrowing encounters with bandits, he made it all the way, a major feat on its own.

While investigating his new turf in upstate New York, he wandered into an A&P supermarket, part of the first chain of grocery markets in the U.S., but to a young Leonardo, it was like visiting a sun-glazed parlor reserved for hungry guests in heaven.  The moment he walked through the sliding glass doors he was welcomed to the most beautiful scene ever; pyramids, bustles, stacks, and columns of glorious produce, he was overwhelmed.

“It was the most wonderful site I had ever seen!” he said. He had never seen such beauty; every vegetable and herb was displayed as if they were sacred, each allotted a special place to highlight the respect due it. He was awe struck and decided then and there that this was his calling. “They did not want to hire me at first but I reapplied every week until they got tired of me bugging them, and gave me a chance.”

When he began working the produce section, his job was to mop up spillage and fetch supplies for others. In the evenings he would write down the English names of his stock to teach himself the language and then attended a community college to finish his education. When he left, after nearly 12 years, he was the local A&P Produce Dept. Manager with a support staff of 25.

Loja returned to his family in Cuenca in the fall of  2011. His sister, a manager for a Coral hipermercados, helped him secure a job assisting gringos anxious to replace the appliances and supplies they left behind. His command of English and Spanish was a huge asset to the store and he was well rewarded; he was assigned shifts all hours of the day and evening. He again was working the long hours of a farmer, only now he was working with the new crop of gringos flowing south. “It was fun,” he said. “I like how organized gringos appear to be and how open they are to new experiences.” He would have stayed forever, but there was a budding desire in his heart to grow his own life in his own way — with his first love. After six years he planted his own seeds, he opened Leonardo’s Landscaping; a full-service nursery.

“The pandemic has encouraged folks to pay closer attention to their surroundings, and having a beautiful garden is a great place to start. I am doing my part to create an environment that will help us overcome the hardships we face every day.”

I am always impressed by those who endure staggering hardship with faith and determination to harvest the rewards with hard work and a strong heart. We often overlook just how difficult life is for many Ecuadorians — and give slight recognition of their heroic effort. These shining stars in our community whose beam of light is as soft and fragile as a single seed can lead us to a sunrise certain to come. We should honor them for their effort and respect them for the goodness they carry to us.

Leonardo Loja is a shining example.