In the Kichwa language the phrase “yanka shimi,” means a useless language, one that is often used by mamas and taitas when referring to their native tongue with their children. Many of the younger indigenous population are encouraged to only speak Spanish in order to assimilate into mainstream culture. There are also no Kichwa classes in Ecuador’s public education system.
My host family and my immediate family from the United States are both confused on why I would choose to learn Kichwa. What I have discovered is that a language’s value is not determined by the size of the population that speaks it, but the fervor in which students are eager to learn it. Practicing a new language is sign of solidarity, an interest in indigenous history, a desire to communicate with their elders, an acknowledgement that their stories are meant to be heard.
My Tuesday morning language class consists of two students and my teacher, Lucmilla. The class goes at a steady pace, each morning we embrace each other’s presence fully, the sun streaming in as we start. There is an openness and fluidity within each conversation, whether in Spanish or beginning to transition into Kichwa, where we have the liberty to discuss any topics that have a personal significance. The simplicity of it all is what brings me the most joy, we are three people sitting at a table with roots in three different countries, questioning the meaning and implications of the social constructs of the country we currently find ourselves in.
For me, this is the first time I have ever learned a language starting from zero as an adult. Spanish and English have always been playing in the background in my home, but I have never consciously sat down to devote time to a new language. The first day we formed short sentences in Kichwa I brimmed with child-like excitement when all the words we learned separately magically formed a coherent sentence.
When the strike or “el paro” began in early October, the community that I had become familiar with was filled with uncertainty. President Moreno’s austerity measures, among other things, would eliminate decades of fuel subsidies and raise some fuel prices 120 percent, followed by the increase in the prices of transportation (which include buses, taxis, and shared rides or “colectivos.”) In turn, the cost of daily living and most goods and services would continue to rise. What became clear to me was that the people of “el pueblo” were going to proudly voice their demands until they were fulfilled by the government. The increased price of the bus fare affects the indigenous and working population in Ecuador and signifies more than an economic policy: it is a sign of disrespect towards the backbone of this country.
Overnight, my reality becomes confinement to my home with occasional market runs and cautious walks around my immediate neighborhood. Most mornings I spend out in my front garden reading for hours. When strolling on the main shopping street near my house, the air is always tense, the same buildings creating a façade that nothing has changed, but the spirits of the people are now low. Neighbors no longer greet one another; there is a dread in people’s eyes wondering when and if this will ever end. Mis vecinos (or neighbors) rarely look up from the ground, each one heading directly to the supermarket to stock up on basic supplies once the market’s shelves begin to look barren. The possibility of a food shortage makes this issue present for everyone- the whole country is a part of it whether they expect to be or not. In my house, videos of the violent protests play on a never-ending loop and create a cloud of anguish and sadness about the current state of the country and lives lost. As an outsider, observing the footage from marches, it is challenging to distinguish which news sources are reliable, if any. Sitting around while others are sacrificing so much makes me feel impotent. These stirred emotions and frustrations are the start of embracing curiosity, asking people who have spent their whole lives here about their perspectives and identifying my own inherent values.
Exchanging experiences with other fellows becomes increasingly important to educate ourselves and make sense of the situation- a community to vent to. Through this constant support system, it becomes obvious to me that my adaptation to “el paro” differs from other fellows in rural communities living with indigenous families who are at the forefront of these marches. For instance, many indigenous communities turn off the electricity and water to encourage all members to actively participate in the protests. I live in the city of Ibarra, in a smaller neighborhood that remains relatively safe in spite of the confrontations in surrounding areas.
These two weeks have become a time for me to check up on others in my Global Citizen Year program, bond with my kind host family, and connect with friends and family back home. My host family always made an effort to keep me updated on the news and shared information as they gathered it.
In the protests, women and children lead in the front to attempt to reason with the military. At first I am surprised how common it is here for young children to attend protests. My language teacher Lucmilla reassures me that, “the youth must learn by living what it means to have conviction to advocate for the rights of the people.”
On Sunday, October 13th, 2019, the country feels a sigh of relief and disbelief when the president announces the repeal of Decree 883 instituting the increase in gasoline and diesel prices. Furthermore, a commission is established to draft a new decree that is “mindful of the needs of the poor.”
Ecuador’s streets are now at peace, but the people’s souls have felt unrest. The country has seen the racist and derogatory terms that have been used in the media to target the indigenous and immigrant populations. They have felt the disregard from those in power, but there has also been a reinvigorated spirit about being part of “el paro.”
To conclude, I will leave you with a Kichwa saying. I might preface that I am not always the biggest fan of corn which is sprinkled into almost every Ecuadorian dish, but this saying may have changed my mind about it. “Runakunaka sarashnami kanchi,” the men and women are like corn, united. Even if you try to take off kernels bit by bit, the husk of the corn still remains. Unity in number is about inviting people from all different social groups to fight for a common cause, to derive strength from an accumulation of knowledge and experiences, and to remind ourselves to focus on humanity with compassion.