Last weekend I had the pleasure of spending time in the community of San Clemente, a small town in Imbabura that houses an indigenous community of 175 families. This specific community is part of the Caranquis, one of the most resilient groups in Ecuador, whom have fought long and hard to maintain and gain rights.
Ecuador still has a very large population of indigenous people. It would have been impossible for me to return to the United States feeling like I experienced the Ecuadorian culture fully if I hadn’t had the opportunity to be a part of one of these communities. I am more than grateful that these families opened their doors to me, because I can now say that I am no longer oblivious to their strengths, beliefs, kindness, or their suffering.
On our first day, the community greeted us with a great variety of foods that the women in the community had cooked for us. Before we began eating, we all joined hands and thanked Earth for having provided all the food in front of us. The link that the community has with their God Pachamama, which stands for Mother Earth in Quechua, became evident right away.
The first night, I joined my host family for dinner that included the most delicious foods that I’ve had thus far in Ecuador, and also got to know a lot more about their culture. The older son has just started completing his third semester of college, and as soon as I asked what he was studying, the mood began to change. He told me that the government has started to pay for some young indigenous people to attend college, but they limit their areas of study and in the end they don’t get to pick a major. He is studying industrial engineering, which is his words, “only teaches me how to exploit earth…it teaches me how to violate everything I believe in.” He constantly argues with professors regarding the things they say or teach about resources, and sometimes he’s forced to stay quiet because they threaten to fail him. On one occasion, he described an encounter that he had with a professor, in which he told him: “when you are starving to death, earth won’t feed you, your degree will.” His response: “everything that we are, all that we eat, all that we raise, it all comes from earth. Without it, we have nothing.”
As of 2008, the New Ecuadorian Constitution assures equal rights to the Indigenous people, but that night, in a tone of sadness and indignation, Indi said to me, “there is still so much hate and discrimination. They have paid for me to go college, but they’ve tried to kick me out. They mock my beliefs, and look at us as if we were uncivilized creatures. Still, I’ve been the first person in my class every semester. The only thing that keeps me going is seeing the looks in their faces when they find out it’s me.”
One of the most impressive things about their community is their sense of union. They have “mingas” once a week, sometimes more depending on the needs of the community. These “mingas” are community projects where they help those in need, or contribute to the community as a whole. They’ve built houses for those who have lost them or never had them, they’ve built roads, bus stops, and community gathering centers. Whatever the community needs, the men in the community build, without compensation or pay.
Their community still relies heavily on traditional medicine, and the next day, we went on a tour of the town’s medicinal garden. My host dad hadn’t said much since we arrived, but that day he found out that I was a nursing student when I began asking questions during a birthing demonstration that the community’s midwife presented. That night he told me that he was studying to be a doctor. He works at a clinic in Ibarra, the town where the community is located. His main goal is to get the people from the community to receive care at the clinic, and not just rely on traditional medicine. Although he is a devoted believer of traditional medicine, he also thinks “Western” medicine is important. His biggest struggle is reaching out to the people in the community and getting them to understand that accepting Western science doesn’t necessarily mean abandoning traditional science. He also explained that the indigenous community faces discrimination when they decide to receive care at these clinics, which I’ve witnessed myself in the clinic where I work. They wait the longest, or don’t get appointments, or the healthcare workers complain of their “smell” and “heavy clothing”. For this reason, many of them refuse to go to these clinics, because they want to avoid the humiliation and mistreatments. He goes to school two days a week and works at the clinic the other two days, and he says his presence has really helped and encouraged the community to come to the clinic. However, on the days he’s not there, everything goes back to normal, and he has to hear more stories of mistreatments and discrimination against his own.
There is a clear culture of oppression and discrimination in Ecuador, against their very own. They suffer when seeking healthcare, schooling, public services, all basic human rights. And even with all the suffering, this community doesn’t dwell in what they lack, but rather celebrate all the things that they do have. I found myself wishing I had all the things this community has, their sense of community with each other, their drive to fight for their rights, their connection with Earth and everything that comes from it, and a deep spirituality that allows them to overcome everything else. When they welcomed us on the first day, we walked into a room that had a sign that read, “Todavia Hay Esperanza.” When the weekend was over, I felt hopeless in us as human beings and all the oppression and discrimination that we’ve created in the world. And at the same time, most of me felt hopeful. Most of me felt like faith, and community, and optimism, and love still exist somewhere, in the very heart of those who have been oppressed and mistreated. There is still hope.
I’ll be back some day.