Abuelita’s Hands and other Reflections on Colonialism

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It lives in their bodies. Just look at Abuelita’s hands. She’s winding a dirty shoelace around the joints of her fingers, bent inward, an intricate cat’s cradles. They meet in the middle of her palms, the knotted roots extending from her knuckles. Like an exotic flower reeling in its dried petals.

This is how we find her, in the middle of a craft project without trajectory: cutting cardboard into strips with a dull kitchen knife, stripping and lacing strings together, shifting mounds of quinoa on the base of her walker. Sometimes she’s speaking beneath her breath, to God, she says.

Those hands attempt to pick up cups of tea, bowls of hot soup, and shawls draped over chairs or pooled on the floor. Magdalena tells me they have raised calf, washed dishes, cultivated and cooked vegetables she was never allowed to eat. They have stroked her daughter’s hair, Magdalena, the only indigenous girl at school. They used to tell her to go home.

“You won’t be exploited like us,” Abuelita would tell Magdalena when she would return from school crying. Us: her mother and father, their mothers and fathers, their mothers and fathers. Decades and households later, colonization sat on their shoulders, rested on their permanently arched backs, and in between the tendons of fingers. It sat on their lips, beneath foreign words they were forced to learn, are still forced to learn; a language I am learning and speaking without a thought about how it found its way here.

Months ago we’re sitting at the kitchen table when Pedro gets a call.

“Chismes,” he spits into the receiver before walking out of the room. When he returns he looks tired. It’s the beginning of the school year and a new teacher has walked out of his classroom and stopped picking up his phone. He doesn’t want to teach indigenous children. Magdalena isn’t shocked and she tells me so with the microphone between us.

“Before they would force you to work for free. Now they refuse to say your name right,” or they refuse to teach you. “They,” are mestizos. And what was done in the fields, Magdalena says, can be done in the market, in the streets, in the schools, at work. The psychological, social, and emotional abuse doesn’t end.

Jerry Kloby writes in the ‘Legacy of Colonialism,’ development problems exist as a result of, “the destruction of indigenous social relationships and productive economic practices, as well as the evolution of various patterns of relationships that were established during the era of colonialism.” Patterns. Like the little indigenous girl no one wants to teach, or the hiked prices of livestock for her people, or the buck-toothed indigenous minstrel in the telenovelas.

Ultimately one of the greatest underdevelopments of Ecuador done by Colonialism has been to its social infrastructure. The symptoms of this social sickness introduced by colonization are seen in all aspects of Ecuadorian life, in all its intangibles. Labor is an idea, but the day to day interactions in the workplace are real. Education is an idea, but what and if we’re taught are real.  Exploitation is an idea, but Abuelita’s hands are real. And they can barely lift a plate, barely lift herself from bed. At night I hear her speaking, like she does during her projects, to God. I don’t know what she’s saying, in a language that no one teaches. I don’t know if he’s listening, to a people that have fought and are still fighting.