"La Ciudad Blanca"

Sofia Santos - Ecuador


February 6, 2020

Misión Scalabriniana in a local parade holding up the sign “Humanidad”, or humanity. 

The pristine streets of Ibarra, or La Ciudad Blanca, seem to support order and proud Latin American solidarity, with street names of its Incan history and one of the most diverse populations I have seen in Ecuador. Yet, if we only peel back the thick coat of paint and hear the stories that these walls have witnessed, maybe I will understand why this city promotes discrimination. Within the first week of my apprenticeship, these assumptions about a unified community were challenged.

 

My apprenticeship, once an unassuming apartment complex overlooking the city, has been transformed into a place of refuge for the immigrant population of Ecuador. 

The office building has vibrant murals plastered all over the walls with bold phrases denouncing violence against immigrants. There is a small sign underneath the doorbell that says this is a “violence free-zone.” One of my younger students tugs at the corner of my shirt to inquire what it means. There I am, watching this child transition from seeing the world as a playground to a hostile place. Misión Scalabriniana demonstrates conspicuous bravery: it unabashedly takes up space on the street, in the political sphere, and with social outreach in the nearby community.  

 

The eye-catching exterior of the building directly seeks out new immigrant families and assures them that they can find allies in this unfamiliar city. My organization, at first glance, can be divided into two sectors: social services catered to families seeking permanent residency in Ecuador and more immediate assistance for temporary residents. 

 

One tranquil morning, I am met with two identical faces pressed against our glass door waiting for me to welcome them in. Before me stands a newlywed couple with young twin boys. At my work, the day has barely begun, all of us kicking out the slumber from our systems, the water for the coffee not yet boiled. I profusely apologize to the family, imagining excuses as to why my co-workers had not made it to the office yet, and encouraging the family to drop by later. The mother looks at me level-eyed. Now I can see the sweat dripping down her face, her words stern but her eyes pleading, telling me that they will stay as long as needed until the lawyer returns. As we sit on the couch, the parents discuss how they are currently unemployed and do not have enough bus money so they walked for ninety minutes under the glaring sun from the adjacent town to reach our offices. Trying to hide my initial shock, I hurriedly call the lawyer who can often assist with these cases. She comes by within half an hour; it is not her scheduled day but working overtime is a common occurrence at my workplace. 

 

Some weekends, as I wander the streets after a lunch out with friends, I notice families treading along major highways with backpacks equal to their body weight. They may never want to relive the journey of how they got here. Merely, strangers, I fill in the blanks, assuming they recently migrated from a neighboring country, most likely Venezuela or Colombia. I connect this to the students in my workshops who also carry baggage even if it is invisible to the bare eye.

 

I, alongside my supervisor, help lead MJS, Movimiento Juvenil Scalabriniana, a youth movement within our larger organization focusing on empowering immigrant youth ages 13-22. A group of twenty or so teenagers congregates every Saturday in the back room of the Misión- here there are sounds in the background of guitar strumming, new friendships, and hope. These two hours are filled with workshops that range from how to advocate for their rights as an immigrant to discussions about sexual health with a medical professional. In one class, we learn about how to design a “performance” in public to shape art into a political message. It is fulfilling to watch our students be exposed to such valuable and diverse lessons, but it is less about the content of each class and more about what this space provides. This is a safe space in the best sense of the word. 

 

It may serve as a creative escape to temporarily forget about the difficult economic situation in their home-life. Many students have discovered a new passion for music and the arts since there is a studio filled with guitars and a set of drums accessible on any given afternoon. 

 

Through my work, I have become aware that xenophobia and hate speech are prevalent in off-hand jokes, newspapers, television, and most frequently in the privacy of dining room table conversations. Once I trained my ear to look out for this type of speech, it was everywhere, like when you learn a new word in elementary school and suddenly you cannot stop hearing it. Some “ciudadanos” or citizens of Ecuador try to reduce a multifaceted population to derogatory terms. The Venezolanos are “thieves, dirty, and dishonorable.” The stifling diction against migrants is startling and contrary to the empathy we work hard to cultivate in our movement. This rhetoric holds gravity and these stereotypes render severe consequences. In my office lobby, I overhear morsels of information on how no landlord wants to rent to a Venezuelan family and the continual rejections in job searches. 


 

My supervisor and I at a rap concert that aims to create spaces for musicians in the community. 

This systemic issue includes politicians, teachers in the presence of their students, and daily banter on the streets. After months of immersion in the city of Ibarra, it becomes apparent that there is a deep-seated hatred towards the immigrant populations from neighboring Hispanic countries. People feel liberated to discriminate against fellow Latinos but at the expense of whom? I walk the same route to work, muscle memory starts to kick in, and I perceive that many community members have a bad taste in their mouths when thinking about migrants succeeding.

 

Unfortunately, the task to create a more tolerant world falls on their shoulders as it befalls on all of us. I have gained the tools and familiarity with this topic to advocate for immigrants when I hear unkind or undeserving comments over the dinner table or amongst Ecuadorian friends. However, it should not take personal experiences to defend the migrant population, for we all have this responsibility towards building a deeper sense of local and global compassion. 

Students from el Movimiento Juvenil Scalabriniana dancing to Cumbia on the major road in Ibarra. This day was a compilation of last minute fittings and quick makeup.


Sofia Santos