I saw them the first week I arrived in Riobamba. I was on the bus, idling at a red light. She was standing on the street median in the shade of one of the palm trees. A baby rested in the crook of her arm, its face buried in her breast. She seemed to be reading the faces of the passengers in the cars, or watching her own reflection swivel and disappear with the changing light. She was sweating and rocking the kid in her arm in slow rhythm.
At the head of the median a young guy, short, dark black hair, a little facial hair, in an Ecuador jersey and shorts. Above him, in varying degrees of flight, machetes. They didn’t catch the light in a special way or seem especially sharp at first glance. They acted as extensions of his hands, rising and falling where he wanted them too. Even when he dropped them it was purposeful.
A month later, I returned with my microphone. I sat down with him on the same median where I had seen him a month before. I learned that his name is Jimmy. He´s twenty years old. The young woman and baby who I had seen out the window are his girlfriend and baby. This is just the first part of this project. I have another, better quality (audio and content) interview I´m producing right now. The audio is all in spanish, though below is a transcript in english so you can follow along.
This piece aired on Escuelas Radiofonicas Populares del Ecuador, my apprenticeship host here in Riobamba.
My name is Jimmy Arteaga. I´m 20 years-old and I´m from the city of Quito, Ecuador and I learned at ten years-old, ten years ago. I learned with a friend on the street. I slept on the streets. I ran away from home and I was really hungry. And my friend said to me, “Take these balls and stop beneath the traffic lights and make enough for some food.” And I made enough. And from there, since I made enough to feed myself, I liked it. Whenever I needed something I could go out to the traffic lights and made enough to buy the things I wanted.
I started with balls when I did this and I said, “I can already do this with two. I want to do it with three balls.” And I took three balls. Then I said, “Three balls is too little.” I wanted four and after I wanted five. Now I can do it with six.I have three machetes. That´s not good enough for me. I have to learn until I can do four or five. As people see more art, they give more.
My family doesn’t like it but I don’t live for the words of others. I live for mine only. And I like it to do it and my family isn’t going to make me do something I do don’t want to do.
Yes, right, it’s dangerous but also I make more money from this. But fear? No, I don´t have fear. I can have fear if I hurt myself. I’ve hurt myself a lot of times but after I don’t have fear. Why would I have fear?
Here, I live alone. I have my girl and my son but they live in Quito with the father of my girl. I live here alone and rent apartments because I stay here but I still travel to them. Her family has money. They’re all cops and cops make a lot. Why do they need my help? I help because later I don’t want them to tell me I’m an irresponsible father.
In reality, I do this for the money. I have my needs. I have to pay rent. I have to live. I live alone and so that I´m not home alone I leave and distract myself a little, come and talk to my friends out here.
There are times when people are really stressed, really discouraged, all of them and they see here and see what we do and the kids, the kids are really happy and for me that’s effective. I also do this because I see the people, I get to see them happy. I like when they tell me that the kids are happy.
For all the world, this is hard, learning is hard, while you are getting used to it and learning, and then it becomes easy. Have two hands and two feet. Have a complete body. Have a complete body and you can do this. And the mentality, because you have to take three machetes. With this, I learned numbers, to use math, to use numbers…
I´m going to do this for another 5 years and then I have to look for more work because I can’t retire with this. I´m going to do 5 more years and then I´m going to look for a job, I don´t know what. I´m going to be productive. I´m not going to be an old man with a cane, hanging out with the malabaristas.
We are free. All of my brothers are free. There are times that the police, not so much here but in other places, they say you can´t do this, this is bad. They take it really badly. But no, we also eat, sleep, and we also have to live. And to live you need money, because I can’t live without money. The message I want to give is let us…let us show you what we know.