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I am finally sitting down to write a post about the school in Estero de Plátano. Pretty much the most frustrating part about working in the comunity is the injustice provided by the poor education system.
Recently my fellow fellow and I decided that we should take attendence of the teachers. In about 3 weeks of our recording the attendence, we found that about 3 days registered a full roster of teachers. That means only 3 times did all 4 teachers show up. I´m not too familiar with the policies in Ecuador regarding showing up, but I would like to think that this poor attendence rate wouldn´t be alowed. But that is the problem. Who finds out? noone reports it to the district, no one calls out the teachers. So Jacqui and I decided to do just that.
After asking some of the members of the padres de familia what they thought should be done, we decided to bring up the issue at a meeting. It started with one of the parents saying they were unhapy with the attendence. That was my cue to announce what we have recorded.
The teachers of course were defensive, upset, and disrespectful.
It feels as if the teachers are not often called out for when they aren´t performing, and when they finally are, they are taken aback. Screaming at parents who were trying to back our suggestions to find a solution, even causing one of the parents to walk out, has not helped come up with a solution. In fact it has left a stale energy at the school when ever Jacqui and I teach.
But what can we do? we have thought about writing directly to the district bringing along parents to call for action. Maybe that is the only solution we have. But what will that mean? will Teachers get fired, leaving the already short staffed school even more undersaffed?
I often question my teaching at Viña del Mar. To be honest I think teaching English is a waste of time. The students need to work on strengthing their own language in the classroom. Plus most of the students wll never use English in their life. Maybe we should have been using our time instead to work on the system.
I guess as the school year wraps up I think what we have been able to provide a more positive classroom experience. The kids weren´t yelled at or abused (once while we were teaching one of the teachers next door proceeded to beat a child to the ground with a ruler. parents suggested we take pictures if this ever happens again) and asked to be creative for t least one classroom period a week. Maybe that´s the biggest contribution we could have done.
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The past couple of weeks have been particularly stressfull for a couple of reasons: a disasterous meeting with teachers and parents, people getting sick, and even the death of a newborn baby. But lets not dwell on these issues for now. Lets take the time to appreciate the fact that most of my readers have been able to shower comfoably today. That there likely has been reliable electricity around. Both of which have been scarce in Estero de Plátano recently.
It started with the water. After the pump got messed up somehow from the water system, the community has had to take other means to get water to wash and bathe in. Most people have decided to bathe in the river. It´s wonderful and you almost never do it alone because the neighbors accompany you and you get to play around with kids! The only problem is after the water went out, people have been getting sick. Luckily it has rained enough so I could bathe with rain water because I am getting skeptical that a shared bathtub isn´t helping the community health especially with a bug going around!
Electricity has also been sketchy this week. So, with no water and no light the communinity has to figure things out. But when it rains well you have to sit it out!
All this has me thinking about th upcoming Ecuadorian elections on Sunday February 23. Most of the campaign parties claim they want the same things. Drinkingable running water, and better electricity. With all the growth that has been goin around the coast of Ecuador, I hope basic needs will be enhanced. I think only time will tell. Galera, the next town over has been out of water for about a month and there are rumors that they will be getting water soon. Mabe that means Estero is next. Until then, we have to make due with what we have.
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It´s 7:45 pm. I had just had my dinner and I was laying on the couch half asleep when a young mother asks for me. ¨Andre, puede ayudarme con un deber?¨ Excitedly, I accept to help her with her homework assignment. We walk over to her house and learn she is to write a mock ¨Solicitud¨ an official document requesting something. I have writtern officios and solicituds before in Estero de Plátano and believe that this is an actual helpful homework assignment. As we walk up the stairs to this young woman´s house, being carefull because there is little light, i notice that her dad is home. Her parents welcome me in their home appreciative of my help. after getting the greetings out of the way and respectfully accepting whatever they have to offer me, we began to work.
At last weeks meeting with the Grupo de Jovenes, I had been talking about getting the group to be leaders in the community, and to take charge of projects in the town. I have full confidence that with a little push from us, they can get what they want out of the community. In this meeting I asked what they wanted for the community and write it down on a peice of constuction paper. Jacqui will then use her great artistic skills to paint these desires on the back wall of the biblioteca. The youth want an internet cafe (Cyber), a park, better (more reliable) teachers for the school spanish books in the biblioteca, and more including a pizzaria, better men (jajaja!) and a better discoteca.
When I asked this young student (part of the grupo de jovenes) what she was soliciting, she responded books in the biblioteca. GREAT! I thought. Immediately her father, a very politically active man in the town took charge and told her how she should write the document. Essentially this man is always writing officios. I realized that I wasn´t needed. (Although the student was more eager to have me help her rather than her father)
I know the town is perfectly capible of getting what they want without us volunteers. Except they aren´t confident in themselves. And I can understand. Being in a place that is easily looked over, strategically ignored, does not make for an optomistic enviornment. I am reminded of my struggles in the Bronx, New York. A place that has great potential but is essentially ignored. Fortunately if you look hard enough, there is optimism. There is hope. That is what I want to give to Estero. To share with the community that change is possible and they, not volunteers, are the ones that can obtain it.
Now that this student has hand-written a mock document asking for more books in spanish, I will type it up, and send it to different organizations. Also, since they are learning to make these documents at school I will help them write more, always being encourging, to get things they want in the community.
Our time here is almost up. But the grupo de jovenes will still be there, they can make sure that the small projects get done.
I am hopeful and optimistic.
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There are days that you feel you aren’t doing anything and there are days that feel like you have too many activities on your plate. These past couple of weeks have been very busy which is exciting! Here are some of the projects and activities that we have been working on!
1. People have been coming up to me to help make oficios (official documents that usually plead for collaborations, donations or actions to foundations and associations or even the government). I have been happy to help make about 3 so far! I usually try to get the people asking me for this help to come up with the letter on their own, and I help fluff it up and type it on my laptop!
2. This year I came up with the idea to have a thanksgiving meal for the “grupo de jovenes” (as they like to be called as to not exclude high school students who do not receive the beca from Yanapuma). They loved it! I bought the food, and even though I wanted to help cook, they refused to have me help much further siempre esta ayudandonos! (you’re always helping us!) They just wanted me to relax and enjoy the arroz con pollo that they made. YUM! It was their first thanksgiving being that the holiday isn’t practiced in Ecuador, but they loved the idea of giving thanks.
3. We got the electricity running in the computer center (this probably deserves its own post it was an interesting process). However there are only 3 computers functioning. Not enough to serve an entire community eager to learn computación. Also, the fact that there is no internet brings some of the people to believe that there is no purpose for the centro de compos other than playing games. I am hoping to get the grupo de jovenes to take initiative and make oficios to different organizations and internet/phone companies for this cause. There is already a group interested in doing just this! Also before we open the computer center we have to make it organized, otherwise the kids will destroy more of the computers by fighting and not sharing (I had to shut down the computer center the first night we opened it because it was so disorderly)!
4. I was asked to go to the university in Esmeraldas to receive desks for the elementary school. I was honored to be asked to help in this task! We were able to get 50 new desks constructed by students studying mechanics at the university. A huge help. It was also my first time going to the University in the city of Esmeraldas, thinking about having a trip to the university with the grupo de jovenes, funding that project might be tricky though. We shall see!
We have been doing a lot! Unfortunately due to camera and computer issues I have no pictures to show. Hopefully I can get my camera repaired or replaced soon. But funds are low as some of these activities have been costly!
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Many of my readers have been asking and waiting for my post about being queer in this small community in Ecuador. This post will attempt to answer some of those questions. I also hope to use this to help myself understand how I am feeling. Most of us on my side of the rainbow will know that these self-reflective posts can be overwhelming, stressful and have the tendency to make us all feel alone. So I will write this post with that in mind. Please note that as a man, my experiences will be different from that of a woman who may be going through similar queer struggles. Well… here goes!
“Soy gay y que” is the slogan of a hard working and outrageous ice cream seller. The seller often sports a lavish wig, tight dress and pillows to define his curvaceous body (namely to give himself a bigger, almost satirical butt). He works along many coastal cities and cantons in Esmeraldas, Ecuador and it’s always a happy site for me. Unfortunately, I can’t distinguish if the whistles and catcalls from various men and women are to insult or provoke him.
It’s hard to believe that my time in this beautiful, small community is almost half-way up. I have gotten to know many people and with that, begun to understand the rich culture of this particular community. When people ask me if the community is homophobic (I will use this to equally apply to transphobia and biphobia for reasons I will write about below) I would say yes, but it’s different. For example, the ice cream seller does well at his (I will use he but I must admit I do not know this person’s preferred gender pronoun) job by using his sexuality (and in his case gender identity) as a gimmick. This does not mean that queerness is accepted by the community. The word maricón (equivalent to the US term faggot) is used daily in many forms for different reasons by kids and adults. (Think “that’s so gay” in the US.) Unfortunately, every time I hear the word it feels like a bit of my soul is being attacked. This often makes me feel unsafe to be open about my sexuality.
Before coming here, I was told by a former fellow that the community is very “forgiving” and tolerates different people. After all, there are two openly queer folks that live in my community. That wording in itself is very problematic as no one wants to be forgiven or tolerated for who they are but rather accepted and loved, unconditionally. From my interactions with these two queer people in town, I gather that they find it hard to live here. One often talks about the town being very ignorant and on one occasion she* tried to explain the differences between being gay, bisexual and transgendered which she learned while living in Guayaquil, Ecuador’s biggest city. But, many think these terms are one in the same. (I must point out that even in the United States, I have found people with more exposure who refuse to acknowledge differences in these identities.)
Much of my undergraduate research has been on Queerness in Latin America (specifically the Caribbean). Theoretically, I was prepared to tackle traditional patriarchal understandings of queerness, particularly the notion splitting male homosexual identities into a “passive” and “active” sexual position between men. Forgive me if I direct this to a more scholarly path but to those interested please read Stephen O Murray’s, Latin American Male Homosexualities to start (and if possible direct me to more current texts!) Murray claims that an assimilation of a globalized understanding of male homosexualities have allowed people to venture away from the “top” (active) and “bottom” (passive) identities. This allows for more men in Latin America to identify as gay. My experience has showed me that there hasn’t been that assimilation of the globalized understanding of male homosexualities in this particular community. Therefore, here, in the there is still a top-bottom dichotomy distinguishing bottoms as gay. (Note: I don’t believe in this dichotomy. It seems to be some sort of system attempting to normalize and make people comfortable, which I am not interested in!)
I was once showing pictures of my family to some friends in the community when a video of my brother dancing Salsa with his boyfriend popped up. Half of me wanted to shut the computer off (because I didn’t want to out my brother), the other half was curious to see what the reaction would be. I introduced the video as my brother dancing salsa with his boyfriend, and after treating the moment as nonchalantly as possible, I was asked which of the two was “the gay”. I pretended that I didn’t understand that they were really asking who was the top and who was the bottom and said that they are both gay and in a happy relationship. After a brief awkward moment, the women I was talking to tried to joke it off and ask when my brother would come visit so they could try and sway him. After adamantly claiming that my brother had no interest in women, I felt comfortable telling them that although I have a girlfriend, I too have had relations with men. Unfortunately they thought my girlfriend had directed me away from homosexuality… not what I was intending.
Interestingly enough similar things happened when I showed pictures of my mom and her partner. “This is my mom and her girlfriend” I said and after a brief moment of trying to understand what I had just said, they brushed it off complimenting my mom’s good looks and how young she was. Again, I must point out that in the United States, I get similar reactions (sometimes more direct disbelief) when I share that my mom is a lesbian so this isn’t much different.
One of the worst incidents for me was when a traveling circus arrived to town. Everyone was excited about this event as the kids and adults were sure to enjoy the night of humor. I was unprepared as the clown started by using the term maricón at least 20 times in the first 10 minutes. I tried to ignore it but when the clown used it to explicitly denounce homosexuality I had to leave. I was furious for many reasons. I have always been vocal against this type of hate-speech, my friends know this too well as many times I had to walk away and call out guests from different events at my own college, when I sensed homophobia.
When people ask me if I feel safe here, I say yes. Although I am sure some people are aware of my queerness (for example, I have been walking around with my toe-nails polished and I openly hang out with the only other openly queer members of the community), I have never felt threatened. When I experienced hints of homophobia I can easily correlate it to worse examples I have experienced back home. So when people ask what it’s like to be queer here, I say it’s tough, but it’s not particularly worse than in the United States.
I still hope that I can be a resource to queer youth here in this small community, but that can only happen once I directly come out and express that I am there for them. For that reason I have decided that I will be more open. One thing that I have done was explain to certain people that “maricón” was a very bad word and that it is offensive. I even told a little girl, after warning me that my painted toe nails could turn me into a maricón, that I could paint my toe nails if I wished and girls could do whatever is traditionally separated for men to do as well. I also told her that the term she used was ugly and not to use it. Some people have learned to not use that disgusting word around me which makes me feel more welcomed and safe.
I hope this answers some questions! Sorry if this post is too long, jumbled indirect, but this needed to be written down. I couldn’t include everything but if there are more questions please, don’t be shy!
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Last night was my current host mother`s birthday. I decided to bake her a cake (from scratch!). It was yummy and I thought it would be a good gesture. She is one of the most hard working women in the town, probably one of the most hard working women I`ve ever seen. Yesterday, on her birthday she helped her husband construct a house for a pig that they will soon raise up to eat, pretty much cleaned an entire section of a beach on her own all the while still finding time to take care of household chores. It has been a great pleasure living in her home and baking her a cake was the least I could do to show my appreciation. So as the tears fell from her face, I sang happy birthday holding the chocolate cake in hand, using a regular wax candle instead of a birthday candle. I asked her to make a wish and blow out the candle, her husband, six of her children, some neighbor´s kids, Jacqui and myself watching. It was heatwarming. As I gave her a big hug, I wondered what she wished for.
This post is for her. A warrior woman.
This post is for all the warrior women out there.
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Upon my arrival to Estero de Plátano in August, I have been trying my best to not be looked at as just another volunteer. To be honest, there have been many volunteers sent to work in the community through Yanapuma, the Minerva Fellowship even the Peace Corps. For that reason I wanted to set myself apart. I might have had some advantage by not looking like other gringos and not speaking Spanish with a gringo accent. However, I’ve never felt more part of the community than on a particularly sad event. Sadly, there have been two deaths in the community in October. Although I didn’t know the two men that died, I felt the need to make myself present. Even though funerals are not fun events, it is an important way for people to honor their loved ones that have passed.
I didn’t know what the funeral would be like but I knew I was expected to be there. We marched up on a hot sunny day (Sunny days have been few and far between recently as the rainy season appears to have come early with aguaceros almost every day) to the currently used cemetery and to my astonishment the old man’s casket was not placed on the truck for the journey. Instead, people took turns drinking aguardiente (an intense anise flavored sugar cane liquor, cheap and very strong. Try it with fresh toronja or in a small plastic shot glass!) and carrying the casket on their shoulders. As soon as I volunteered to help carry the casket, I knew I had gained the trust of the community. Sure I was one of very few sober able bodied people in the group; I had helped make the journey to the cemetery a success, ensuring a proper burial. Furthermore, I found myself trying to make myself available for people who needed to be consoled. Whether it was a warm hug, sending my condolences, helping recite the rosary, or even helping a man up after tripping, I knew my presence was appreciated.
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The Minerva fellows were recently asked to send some pictures of ourselves “in action” at our volunteer sites. This has been a bit troublesome to me because it makes me think about our purpose here in Estero de Plátano. Jacqui and I have been here for about 3 months and it’s hard to figure out what our “in action” looks like. Sure we teach English in the elementary school, sure we work every day with high school students in the library, but I believe most of our “in action” is about living and trying to find things to do.
One day I was on my way to the school to teach English where I saw a young boy trying to push a wooden raft into the river. “André ayudame!” he cries. Of course, I just had to help this kid (who could not be more than 5 years old). So I drop my bag, throw off my shoes and head into the sand pushing with all my might. When we got the raft into the river, I could see the child’s appreciation. We parted ways, embarking on our separate days’ adventures. Even though it was morning I couldn’t help but feel like I had done my job. For a brief moment I helped make this kids day a little bit easier. I wish I could have taken a picture of this.
Even though I am still not sure of my usefulness here in Estero de Plátano, I am relieved when asked to do small activities. Just recently I was asked to participate in helping the community bank create an official document. I was thrilled! “Finally! This is why I am here!” I thought to myself. I arrived to the next community bank meeting ready to take notes, and to my pleasant surprise, I wasn’t exactly needed. They showed me the document that they have been working on and all they wanted me to do is make sure it looked right. It did.
I often run into people who ask why I am here. It’s always tricky to answer but I usually say “I live in Estero de Plátano, and I work with the community there with whatever they want me to do.” Sometimes people don’t understand and I resort to telling them that I work with High school scholarship students and teach English at the elementary school, but that is just a small part of what we do here!
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I know it has been a while since my last post but a lot has been going on! Here is a video of me and some of the girls of Estero de Plátano singing to Prince Royce! I was supposed to be leading a Bachata lesson but none of the guys showed up and there werent many people present. So, instead we sang songs! Equally fun!
Rivers have been the center of civilization since the beginning of time; Ancient Egypt had the Nile, Mesopotamia had the Tigris, New York has the Hudson. Estero de Plátano has its own system of rivers as well. This river acts as a place to gather shrimp, a place to collect water to wash clothes, and if necessary, a place to bathe (a lovely experience I must say!) The river is an important aspect of the community. However, living across the river is not as easy as it looks.
I moved into my new host family’s humble house across the river from the main town center just last week. Life pretty much depends on the river level. If it is low enough, one could walk across it with ease. If not, you might have to take a little wooden raft across. It’s easy to get stuck on the other side. I find myself not wanting to cross over—it’s a lot of work for a novice like me. The past week I’ve been driven across the river by Kindergarteners and young teenagers because I couldn’t figure out how to manage the raft on my own. (I am determined to learn however!) This family is wonderful, hard working and fun. Unfortunately they are amongst one of the poorest families in Estero. With 4 children in high school (one a becado) 2 in elementary school, and 1 studying in University, education is priority. However, this is very costly. In fact since moving out of their old home last April, their new home is not finished yet. More specifically, the roof is partially missing, there is no door to close everything out and there is no toilet. BUT they are working on it, little by little. I am excited to be living with this family, hoping my monetary contributions ($9 a day) will help the family in how ever way they need, however I can’t help but believe that I will gain much more from them, in the six weeks I will share with them.
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