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Splintered Hearts: The Women of Rural Ecuador—Visit Field Notes
How do we help each other across cultures?
“It is the greatest of all mistakes to do nothing because you can only do a little.”
— Sydney Smith, writer & cleric, 1771-1845
Driving, we are held by huge peaks. North of Quito, we stop in the verdant farmland of rural Ecuador for baños, fotos, and some maté de coca—that is, bathrooms, photos, and coca tea to temper our high-altitude headaches. There is a series of faint gasps, complete awe, as we step, one-by-one, from the little bus and face what the locals call Taita Imbabura, “Papa” Imbabura, a 15,000-foot volcanic mountain. He’s resting now, but you can see how he blew off a lot of stone and steam 14,000 years ago.
How easy it is to feel small, vulnerable, insignificant in size and time, yet also embraced, never quite alone in this landscape where mountains follow you everywhere. In Spanish, a range of mountains is called cordillera from the root for ‘cord.’ This chain of volcanic peaks is ultimately part of the sprawling American Cordillera that runs all the way to the Brooks range of Alaska, branching out to push forth the Rockies, the Cascades, the Sierras, and my own Coastal range, the Trinity Alps, hemming fog along a narrow strip of Pacific, keeping my redwood home green and wet.
Looking at Taita Imbabura, protective and tacitly potent, reminds me that I once lived 40 miles as the crow flies from Mount St. Helens. From my mailbox, I could watch her sputter and breathe, coughing up ash, the old girl staining a bib of snow all winter. She’s resting now, too. Cordillera, cord, yes, the mountains are connected in some deep, enduring way. I think, umbilical. I think, all people emerge from a common thread. There are many names for the thread—some say, mother or mother earth, others god orthe father, others atom or cell,dark energy or pure magic. Doesn’t matter the name, the thread is there and we all cling to it.
Distant, watching us arrive, each child is smaller than my thumb, my camera a tiny window through which they enter my life and grow large. The bus stops, and several sets of eyes, like flecks of polished mahogany, peer up at us. We’re at a pale terracotta building at the heart of this village. The children dissolve into side streets, and we’re led through 12-foot high, carved wooden doors that suggest something important waits inside.
We enter a classroom where 6 women sit in a row. Unexpectedly, my mind flashes an image of cormorants lined on a half-sunken limb, bronze faces angled in the air, reflecting little shafts of sunlight—the storms, the adversities they’ve flown through, transformed to radiance.
Who are these women? We’re told they are indígenas, mostly indigenous women of this village in the northern province of Carchi,Ecuador. All have been touched by violence, discrimination, or economic despair—but that’s not what defines them. As we talk through our translator, we understand they are wives and mothers who began as almost invisible girls, now turned social architects building a new community that their children will one day lead. I’m not exaggerating. The poetry isn’t in what I’m saying but in what they are doing.
Today each woman will share her testimonio, her private story. We’re colleagues, mostly US natives, with ChildFund International, and we’ve come to see our Early Childhood Development (ECD) program in action, to learn from these local women. We want to understand if our initiatives really are transforming the lives of children and families. We want to gauge the impact of our donors’ charitable gifts in the field so we can collaborate with our donors when we’re back home to expand the program’s reach.
Waiting for our dialogue to begin, I consider the mountains far beyond us, propping up the sky and listening. How many human voices have they heard over millennia, and what did the voices speak of? A saying comes to me, “Women hold up half the sky,” the best sentence Mao Zedong ever uttered. In truth, some women hold up all of the sky for their families.
In the doorway, other ears listen—a toddler in a monochrome jumpsuit and khaki cap flashes us his round, red cheeks and small, serious mouth, looking more Chinese comrade that tiny Ecuadorian. He sways in the massive threshold, his balance on two feet a tenuous effort, before his abuelita, his grandma, takes his hand and leads him away.
Children. The good news about decades of humanitarian efforts to reduce child mortality around the world is that, yes, more children today are surviving. The new challenge is that about a third of the world’s children are only surviving, not thriving, so we’re at a critical juncture. As a world community, if we don’t help families raise healthy children—physically, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually—we’ll have a planet with more problems and fewer sources for solutions. Worse, more than 200 million young children today won’t have a chance to discover their own potential.
My parents drilled into me that I could be whatever I want to be with hard work and high sights. Unfortunately, that’s not true for countless children, particularly those living in poverty. A child can’t set her life loose and fly if she lacks nutritious food, clean water, a safe environment, effective parenting, quality education, opportunities to play and explore her capabilities, and other basics that we take for granted. No, a child can’t fly if he starts life in hole so deep and narrow that he can’t unfurl his wings.
Sitting in a row, the women are a study in contrast. Some faces seem pure Inca, others more defined by Spanish features, and a few are reminiscent of the native people of my California redwood coast and could pass for Yurok or Hoopa. Their clothing is a confluence of traditional and contemporary, alpaca sweaters with blue jeans, native skirts with button-up shirts.
Once women who struggled alone, now they are friends, collaborators. They’ve been trained to understand ECD concepts, they’re raising healthy children, and they’ve volunteered to be ‘trainer-mothers,’ teaching other mothers and mothers-to-be what they have learned. This pass-it-forward approach is what makes ECD initiatives cost-efficient and sustainable over time.
My wireless headset sputters static into my ears, waiting for their words through our translator, Marcos. It’s odd, as these women’s stories will pour into me in a male voice. The women huddle, exchange glances and a few words in whispered Spanish. One woman agrees to begin. She’s perhaps 40. She perches on the edge of her chair, adjusts a jacket around her full body, tucks an ebony strand of hair behind her ear, and speaks low and calm.
“I was hurt as a girl by my mother and then by my husband. This I thought was normal,” she says. “Also, my mother, I saw her abused many times by my father. So my first two children, I hit them. I worked long days, then came home, and they would not behave how I wanted, so I abused them.” This mother looks away, brushes a knuckle at the corner of her eye, composes herself, and faces us again. “Another woman came to my house and said ‘you abuse your children—it is wrong.’ At first, I was angry, but then I could see her children were more happy. She told me about meetings that ChildFund offers here, so I came, and there were these other women, and I learned.”
After she finishes speaking, another woman begins. She has short hair and wears a white cardigan, her hands interlaced in her lap. She is unmarried and childless. She became involved in the ECD program because she was concerned about her nieces and nephews—they were very small and thin. “I thought I could learn and teach the women in my family.”
A third woman with deep, ruddy skin and a silky pony tail follows with her story. She is a mother and a grandmother. Her husband threatened her if she kept coming to the ECD program meetings, but she persisted. She eventually left her husband, and now helps her daughter raise her granddaughter. “Violence never helps a child,” she explains, “violence only takes the child’s spirit away.”
Listening to the women, I remember the slender book of poems in my backpack, a certain line by poet Elana Bell that goes, “We are inside the dream of a God who’s forgotten us.” I search each face and wonder if these women have felt that way. It's a farming region here, so long days are spent on others’ land until they return home to their first jobs as wives and mothers, a few hours of sleep, then gone again in chilled darkness. Among their hands, so many fingers are darkened by sun and soil, little arcs of dirt under nails, the land always with them.
More women speak, projecting a quiet grace—their Spanish a kind of simmering, a warm rhythm, filling the room. We bob our heads, affirming what we hear. I scribble sentences from the various testimonios:
“I didn’t know to talk to my children when they were little, since they could not talk to me. I thought children should be quiet. Now you see this boy, he’s my youngest, 4 years, see how he talks and talks. I think he is very happy talking.”
“My husband said it was a waste for me, a woman, to learn. I thought I was being a bad wife, but no. Our children began to grow healthy and strong. My husband, he can see the difference. Now he comes to some meetings also.”
“I always loved my children, but I didn’t understand that that some ways of loving are better than others. Giving proper foods, for example, is important for the child’s mind to open. Healthy food is one way to love your child.”
“My heart is full of splinters, but I learned it is strong, it can love beyond pain.” Ah, her pain has turned her poet!
“I learned that to play is how children learn to use their hands and eyes and bodies. To play is also good to make the bond between a mother and child strong. You see, it is not a waste of time to play.”
“Did you know that watching your mother be abused by your father can affect the way you grow when you are a child? I did not know that; now I do.”
“I never thought about being happy. Life is meant to be hard, I thought. But no. Life is very short, and to be happy is important. I cannot always be happy, but I try to be less sad so that my children can be more happy.”
“It’s better to lose a day’s work to take your child to the clinic. Some illness may not kill a child, but it may secretly harm his brain.”
“We forgot our songs, how to sing to our children. I needed to learn to sing to my children, and now I also sing for me.”
“I admit I locked my children in our house while I worked. Sometimes they hurt themselves. I saw my daughters were growing old and sad without their mother.”
“I feel blessed. This program, these women, I know so much love. My life, I feel it is blessed.”
As each woman talks—one tipping her head to the side and leaning forward, another flashing her eyes from faces to floor to faces to floor, still another crossing her arms over her midriff as if to protect her vulnerability—I watch my colleagues. We’re cocking heads and leaning in, we’re looking and looking away, we’re crossing our arms. Unconsciously we’re mimicking the women’s bodies, gestures, the physical reality of what they are saying. Our bodies don’t need a translator to understand each other.
The women tell us that all their children are ‘registered,’ grandchildren too. Two days ago, I wouldn’t have understood the significance. Yesterday we learned that a man in another community refuses to register his girls, ages 2 and 4. Unlike our own country, where a birth certificate is automatically generated and a new life is made real on paper, here parents need to register their children’s birth for them to legally exist. It’s usually men who avoid the process, who, we’re told, may not want to incur financial responsibility for the children. It’s often girls who go unregistered, though sometimes boys, too.
I never considered the need to legally exist. I thought the sheer presence of my body taking up space, displacing water in the bathtub, making cloud-breaths on cold mornings, and leaving rosy lip prints on a tea cup were sufficient to confirm, ‘Yes, hello, I’m here!’
When I think of children having innate rights, I never expected that the most basic right of all, the right to exist, in one’s own community and country, is one that would need to be passionately asserted. The woman sharing this story yesterday curled her hands into fists that she softly pounded in her lap, explaining, “ I told this man, if you do not register your girls there will be no school for them, no medical care, no extra food from the government, because, you see, this family is having hard times since the man does not work, only the wife.”
A program consultant with our group explained to us that without the birth certificate created through the registration process, children are also vulnerable to abduction for the purposes of foreign adoptions or child trafficking for forced labor and the sex trade. The translator converted her information to Spanish. It was news to us, but the women nodded, knowingly. The soft-fisted woman, her hands finally open as if two cups she’d emptied, finished with, “I told the man if he loves his girls he must give them a name and register them.”
That’s when I understood the deeper twist to this dilemma: children who go unregistered often also go unnamed. What? A nameless child? I asked for clarification through the interpreter because it seemed impossible that a parent wouldn’t assign a name to his child. At the very least, there had to be a name so the parent can get a child’s attention or have some way to speak about the child to others or even to think about the child. Human beings are not only defined by opposable thumbs but by our penchant for wanting to give everything a name.
We name places and things, we name animals and birds, we name the kinds of rocks we skim on a lake that may have different names depending upon our language and culture. Right now I think, Lago Sandoval, Sandoval Lake in the upper Amazon of Peru. The name summons the lake, brings back to me a rich memory of a rainforest, steamy air, scent of sweat, the constant buzz of cicadas, and the surprise of palm-sized Blue Morpho butterflies, opening and closing their luminous wings. Wow, all of this out of a name while I sit thinking in a classroom in rural Ecuador.
Every word we utter is ultimately a name: wind, cloud, volcano, sorrow, love, which could be amor or cariño in Spanish and in Quechua, munay, though munay describes a range of emotion broader than what we call love. I try to imagine myself without the name my parents gave me. Would I be someone else without a name, or with a different name, say, Elizabeth or Soledad? There’s the paradox about naming: words—names—open the world to us while simultaneously forming a lens that limits. Maybe being nameless has more possibilities? No, I’m certain, children need names even more than birth certificates. To hear your name called is to have your life affirmed, to know you matter.
A small face appears in the doorway. The toddler again. His mouth is now agape, in a perfect ‘O,’ as if paused in mid-thought. He surely hasn’t learned the words gringos or Americanos, so doesn’t know how to name our little group of visitors taking photos with electronic gadgets, though he’s probably already heard iPhone. Our necks are craned to look into the screens of our phones and cameras, checking the images we’re capturing. The boy probably assumes we are a permanently hunched-over people with hyper-active thumbs. I smile, others see him and smile, and he wobbles back out of sight. When I see him again, I’ll say, como se llama, what’s your name, and hope that he or his abuelita will have an answer.
In the courtyard, waiting to leave, there’s another toddler in a pink alpaca cap, her body bent over as she focuses intensely on a piece of string by her foot. A grey poodle trots along a wall lost in the dog-world of smells. A Rufous-collared sparrow pecks then scratches at a crack in the pavement. Sunlight through a railing falls in a complex pattern over the child, the dog, the bird, as if to make a wholeness out of these three loose parts. Perhaps the wholeness is only in how I will remember this moment—this peace, the ease of these three, fully absorbed in the same yet individually separate moment. Suddenly the toddler topples onto her bottom, deciding whether to cry. The dog’s head pops up and turns to the child. The bird bursts straight up on brown wings and becomes sky. We are all changed by the child. Briefly we are in her moment.
We travel and stop, travel and stop. Right now we’re stopped on a mystery road off of the Pan American highway. I scan distant trees for birds, and notice shaken limbs and lurching silhouettes. As I lift binoculars, I see the trees edge a school and an empty field. Panning the foliage, there are children in school uniforms, navy and white, climbing into dense, green crowns. From the top of their world, they are releasing white birds, one after another, that swoop and dive to ground … no, paper airplanes! Immediately I’m launched into a memory of my younger self, the sensation of shaping paper into a plane, scraping my small crooked fingernails along the folds to form sharp creases. I’m smiling: so many engineering efforts, failed designs and paper cuts, daring climbs up other trees, such joy in a flimsy flyer that for a little while stayed aloft.
Slowly, the little gods of paper, mostly boys but a few girls, clamber down, bouncing on branches, then jumping free, landing with a roll, human origami unraveling. Small children wait below, running in circles around the trunks with their arms outstretched, heads tipped back, eyes aimed up. These little ones are flying. Above, Black vultures glide on invisible thermals then tip sideways, flashing their silver fingers over the children, their shadows combing leaves and hair. This is not a dark image, the vultures spiraling low, this is an image of lightness, buoyancy, possibility. A vulture can fly for six hours without flapping her wings. Children can fly on imagined wings until the teacher comes to call them in, until someone tells them they’re rooted in the earth, and they turn to paper.
Being so close to the equator, when we stop at a house nestled in a sprawling patchwork of crops, I’m not surprised how maize, beans, sunflowers, and a few bougainvilleas are thriving. I’m a light-lover. I need brightness in my home, my office, even if it’s the diffused glow of a sun I can’t see pushing through fog. So, when one of the trainer-mothers, Renata, welcomes us into her home, though I feel honored to enter into such intimacy with her, I also feel as if I’m entering a cave. Her green and white house is a string of rooms without many windows. I realize immediately why I’ve seen so many people spinning, cooking, carving, washing, or standing in doorways looking out—they need that threshold of light.
Renata has arranged white, plastic chairs in circle in her living room, and our group settles in, eyes scanning the room curious and awkward. She sits in an easy chair with her son, Elias, age 4, on her lap. Above her is a sign that reads, “Dios es paz,” which even with my limited Spanish I recognize as “God is peace.” Walls hold a mix of children’s cut-outs that include a pink baby and a smiling yellow cat, a calendar, a framed document with photos, and a small crucifix. Her ceiling is covered with a green tarp, her floor is cool cement, a ruffled cotton curtain is the ‘door’ to the room behind her, which is dark. A plant on a shelf bears a single red blossom, and a puppy occasionally wanders by to sniff in the scent of foreigners. It’s a simple home with two surprises, a new washing machine in the corner and a CD player that plays children’s songs for Elias.
“Welcome to my home,” Renata begins, pausing to ensure the translator is following. “Thank you for coming from so far away and thank you for the ChildFund program for mothers, which has changed my life and the lives of my children.” For the next twenty minutes, she tells us about her life.
Renata has four children. Her husband left her awhile ago, and though he sometimes was ‘aggressive’ with her, it is hard without him. She takes classes and hopes to complete her high school education. She’s proud to have graduated from our ECD program and nods toward the certificate on the wall. She cares for an aging father. Her mother died, but shouldn’t have, because the proper medical care was in another community that they didn’t reach in time. She leaves home before 5 a.m. to work at someone else’s farm, then comes home to tend her own crops and feed her family. She was abusive to two older children, verbally and physically. One is a mother now, a good mother, she emphasizes, also in the ECD program. Tears shimmer on her high cheekbones. She’s being specific, detailed about her actions, and I pick out the words for ‘hit’ and ‘hurt,’ and then “palabras terribles,” terrible words. Twice she refers to herself as ignorante, and cries harder when she says, “pero ahora sé, entiendo,” that is, “but now I know, I understand.”
I wonder if I would invite a group of travelling Ecuadorians into my home. I feel invasive, a bit of a gawker, but also empathic, somehow meant to be here. How healing for me would it be to share, out loud with strangers, what has hurt me, how I have hurt others, what I have learned, and what gives me hope? So my responsibility, what I must do, want to do, in this sparsely lit room for Renata, is listen and witness. What I feel as Renata speaks is the double-edge of knowledge, the freedom and the burden it bears. Knowledge is a burnished feather that lifts a body up, but the gravity of what’s been done in the past, the awareness of how awful each of us can be at times, tries to bring the spirit back down.
Elias grabs a colorful, illustrated pamphlet, part of the materials that Renata uses as a trainer-mother to mentor other women out of a cycle of poverty-driven inexperience, illiteracy, neglect, and likely, depression. Several times, patiently, she slips the pamphlet from his hands and sets it on a table, rubbing his back with her palm while she speaks. Feeling watched by so many eyes, Elias gives up and buries his face in his mother’s shoulder.
Renata explains how she now uses a ChildFund development scale, a guide that defines the parameters of a healthy child at specific ages and stages of growth. She measures how well Elias is growing intellectually and physically, in terms of cognitive abilities and motor skills. She says, the real measure is “he is a happy little boy, and I am a happy mother.” She invites us to ask questions, and we do.
Yes, she would like to marry again. No, there are limited employment opportunities, just the farm work, but she is exploring with other women the possibility of starting handicraft businesses so they can work at home with their children near. Yes, she has become closer with her older children. No, she doesn’t have help with her father, but she prays for him.
Finally, someone asks what the most important thing is that she has learned from the ECD program and from being a trainer-mother. She closes her eyes for a moment, nodding, then opens them, her lashes glistening with emotion, saying, “I learned how to love my children better. That is the most important thing. Sometimes, with Elias, I sit on the floor and watch him play. I’m so happy then. I did not do that with my older children. I have many regrets. But I know it is better to look to the future.”
Renata sprinkles her story with certain phrases: con la ayuda de Dios, with God’s help, and salvación. I recall from my Latin that salvation comes from salvus, which is further rooted in an older word, sol, meaning whole. I scan my colleagues. We’re all tilted forward, tissues in hand, sitting in an imperfect circle that reaches around and is completed by Renata and Elias. Whole. Alone, we are broken pieces of something larger. Gathered together, we share this momentary wholeness. Sol, as a Spanish word, is sun, which comes from other roots related to shine and peace. Leaving Renata’s home, I turn and look back to see her smile and wave, shining and peaceful.
Late afternoon, we pause to explore a lake, a bowl of dark, hazel water surrounded by green parcels that roll for miles into dry hills, then jagged, grey ridges, and finally bright clouds. Two Pied-bill grebes glide away from the edge as I approach; they dive then pop up mid-lake, the black stripes on their stubby bills, gleaming. I track one cormorant across the surface to a limb jutting up on the opposite bank where about a dozen cormorants perch in a line. Neotropical cormorants, they are mostly bronzy females and a few dark-pewter males, one of whom outstretches his wings, casting the shadow of a cross angling the water. Suddenly the women come back to me, all of them sitting in a row along the white-washed wall. Yes, radiance takes many forms.
Evening comes as we go. Rumbling through little towns, we notice how the people live as much outside as behind walls. Up narrow streets, metal grills puff smoke as women roast potatoes, corn, bits of pork or pollo, their mantas pinned to leave their hands free and shoulders warm in the waning daylight. Dogs pace and fidget, excited by the smells—shooed away with wooden spoons, they keep skulking back.
Dogs, all types, wander throughout the Andean plateau, the villages and cities, the farms and hedgerows, streets full of people and cobbled nighttime roads where careening trucks won’t bother to stop. Like a parallel culture, the dogs live among the people as if other people, poorer but, in some ways, freer. Many in our group are animal lovers, and when we see matted terriers and emaciated labs, we’re brought close to tears. Yet seeing how so many people struggle and suffer, it seems a luxury to grieve so easily for dogs. It’s not that the poor don’t have animals that they love and mourn—empathy has nothing to do with income—but there must be a limit to how much despair anyone can witness and absorb.
It’s three flights from Quito to my foggy, cliff-side airport on California’s far north coast. The first plane follows a string of volcanoes toward Central America, then plunges into pure white. I doze and wake, my porthole turned blue. The sky, embracing the plane, and the Pacific swelling below are one. Air, ocean, my open eyes—all a unified blue.
Back in the States, a seven-hour lay-over in Houston is a delicious opportunity to read, though the jolt of English speaking—televisions and people bickering on cell phones—is a distraction. The Andes seem far away in distance, time, and reality. I was there, wasn’t I? Donde estan las mujeres y los hijos?
The day drifts by in the huge, airport windows, until the sun dips toward the Gulf. The sky turns dazzling and surreal, an evolving spectrum: bronze, salmon, pale pink then lavender to periwinkle to grey, heaven airbrushed to earth. A faint green blush appears, then a green flash, as the sun sets into the last scrim of clouds. Lasting only seconds, the green dissolves to dusk.
I’ve only witnessed such a flash a few times, so I open my iPad and search: ‘green ray.’ The first links emphasize rare, a mirage of photons, dust, and horizon. I start to second-guess myself—I’m tired, maybe I didn’t see it—until another source says the phenomena isn’t rare at all. Green rays may be visible most days in many places. What’s rare is seeing the phenomenon, stepping out of one’s private universe to pay attention, to look at the world and see it as it really exists.