Illegal: a true story of love, revolution and crossing borders [book serialization/ Ch.5]
I'm a journalist for publications such as The Guardian, Vice, The Diplomat and Narratively and my first book, a memoir, came out just over a year ago [Amazon link]. It's won numerous awards and sold thousands of copies. And now I want to give it away. This is the sixth installment [Prologue | Ch 1 | Ch 2 | Ch 3 | Ch 4] and every few days I'll give away another chapter/ section. From the back cover:
A raw account of a young American abroad grasping for meaning, this pulsating story of violent protests, illegal border crossings and loss of innocence raises questions about the futility of borders and the irresistible power of nationalism.
Where the Sun Rises [Chapter Five]
Lucía held my heart, but my attachment to my new home was much deeper than just a romance.
My Spanish was improving and I was having real, complex conversations which helped connect me to the place. One of my favorite linguistic idiosyncrasies was rather simple: how people used the word ‘vecino’ or ‘neighbor.’ People called almost everyone vecino, whether they lived on the same block or worked in a restaurant across town that they visited once a month. Basically, anyone you recognized became vecino or often veci for short. People began to greet me on the street by calling out veci; and it started to feel as if these people really were my neighbors.
Each night, I returned briefly to English, when I taught a conversation class at the university and began by casually asking my students whatever I wanted to learn about.
“What is happening tomorrow?” I might ask.
“Tomorrow Day of Dead”
“Right, tomorrow is the Day of the Dead. What do you do to celebrate?”
The students were no longer children but they were still just as excited to practice their English and tell a stranger about their customs. “Yes. Tomorrow is the Day of the Dead. We will drink a purple drink, and make food for our dead. We eat with them.”
Another day I might pass a protest in the street and then that would be a topic in class. Or whenever I saw something I wasn’t sure about in my daily life I would bring it up.
“Why did I see so many goats in the market today?”
“It’s Friday. Goats come on Friday.”
“But why? Why are they here? Can you buy something from them?
“Yes, yes. You buy their milk. They give it you fresh and—“
Another student interrupts “And it good luck. Very healthy.”
Soccer games were always a big deal. An easy way to get my students to talk was to ask them about Ecuador’s national team.
“Is there a game this weekend?”
“Yes! Ecuador plays Brazil!” everyone would answer, their voices competing to tell me about the game.
“If win, we go World Cup.”
“Good. If we win, we will go to the World Cup.”
The university was secular but almost all my students were Catholic. Latacunga was heavily influenced by the Church and was socially conservative. On the city’s warmest days it was almost shorts weather but exposing that much skin—male or female—was taboo. Likewise, premarital sex was something shameful, and theft often provoked vigilante justice.
The indigenous communities that surrounded the city were especially trusting, and occasionally people took advantage of that. Shortly after I arrived two men started selling fake property deeds in these villages. When they were caught, the entire community walked them into the mountains, buried them up to their necks, returned home and called the television station in Latacunga to send a crew out to the site. It was a warning.
My new city was a fascinating place; while it was the most socially conservative place I had ever lived, it was also the most politically radical.
The political apathy that was so prevalent where I had grown up on Long Island was nonexistent in Latacunga. People fought for what they believed in, and it seemed they usually won.
A few years before I arrived, the government decided to build a jail at the edge of the city in a neighborhood called San Felipe. As the prison walls were rising, so was local opposition. Residents began blocking roads to prevent more supplies and heavy machines from entering the construction site. The complex was nearly completed but the residents refused to lift their siege and demanded the government spend more money for education and less for incarceration. And they won. What began as a prison became one of the nation’s first publically funded universities; the Universidad Técnica de Cotopaxi (UTC).
As I began to peel back my first impressions as an outsider, I started looking for reasons to never leave. I began volunteering at a government program designed to make street kids into school children. I also quit my job at the private university and moved across the city to the new public one in San Felipe.
Each day, after I finished lunch, I walked to INNFA (Instituto Nacional del Niño y la Familia / National Institute for Child and Family) to supervise a hundred children finishing their own midday meal. In Ecuador, children of poverty-stricken families were often forced to go into the streets to work. On the coast, child labor on banana plantations kept prices down, and according to INNFA statistics, it also helped give the nation the highest rate of child labor in Latin America. Within the city of Latacunga, most child workers sold candy or flowers in the street. Others shined shoes or begged for change. INNFA sought to give an alternative by providing food as well as a place to play and study each afternoon for any child who regularly attended morning classes.
After lunch, the children washed their own dishes then streamed outside to play. There was a row of half-buried tires that they ran over or crawled through. Older kids hung from monkey bars or swung from the ropes of a swing set that had lost all of its swings. Most days someone would grab my hand and pull me to the basketball court. The children would drag a large rock or tire and set it apart from the metal pole of the basket on each side to form two soccer goals. The space was small, and the surface pockmarked with wide gaps, but each day fifty children ran wildly around chasing the ball and laughing. I played soccer when I could and had as much fun as anyone out there.
Other days the smaller children would surround me and yell “¡Salta! ¡Salta!’—Jump! Jump!” They would use both hands to grip one of mine and when they jumped I would lift my hand and pull them even higher so four- and five-year-olds were ‘jumping’ above my own six-foot frame.
The next two hours were spent inside on homework and study. Thirty children crowded into classrooms with half that capacity and jockeyed for the small wooden chairs whose backs had not yet fallen off. The building was in poor shape: wide cracks on the concrete basketball court outside were paired with crumbling walls inside. When it rained, water dripped through the tin roof into scattered buckets and streaked down the walls, collecting in puddles on the uneven floors.
All the children knew I was different, but some couldn’t quite grasp the concept.
“¿Usted se va a su país ahora?—Are you going to your country now?” one boy asked when I walked my bike out of the building, getting ready to leave for the day.
“No, I’ll be back tomorrow,” I said, not fully understanding the question.
“I know you’ll be back tomorrow,” he said, rolling his eyes, “but how long does it take you to ride your bicycle to your country?”
Another day, I was sitting on top of the monkey bars and fielding questions from two curious girls sitting next to me.
“How long did it take you to learn English?”
“Well, in my country everyone speaks English, just like people speak Spanish here, so I learned it as a child, the same way you learned Spanish.”
She looked confused and asked again, “Did it take you a long time to learn English?”
The second girl, who hadn’t heard everything but knew we were talking about language interrupted, “Profe John, why does it sound different when you talk?”
I never got paid for my afternoons at INNFA, but reward takes several forms. Each day when I walked through the gates, no fewer than a dozen children would run up to me with wide smiles, yelling, “¡Profe John! ¡Profe John!” before giving me a hug and dragging me away. That was all I ever needed to keep coming back.
Each morning, before I went to INNFA, I taught classes at UTC—the jail-turned-public-university. ESPE was far better funded than UTC, and you noticed it right away. ESPE was located in the center of the city and near the park, where its massive mahogany doors opened up to white walls and stained glass. At UTC, which stood on the outskirts of the city where many of the roads were unpaved, a tall metal gate slid open to reveal a huge mural of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara.
My class size doubled, my paycheck halved, and books became a luxury the university could not afford—the teacher’s edition books I used, just like the student’s texts, were poor quality photocopies—but I believed in the school. I wanted to be a part of it. Free higher education was a relatively new concept in the nation, and I knew that putting my North American face behind the foreign language department would lend it some much needed legitimacy.
I took the job very seriously and tried to make up for my lack of experience by working hard. I spent extra time preparing for my classes, and whenever I could, I hung around more seasoned teachers to learn from their experience.
I was by far the youngest teacher at the university and related to my students in a different way than other professors. My pedagogy was also different. I tried to encourage discussion and critical thinking in all my classes and told my students to point out any errors I made. They were reluctant at first but soon took it as a challenge to try and stump the teacher. Often students came in with complex queries it seemed they’d spent a lot of time thinking about outside of class—and they always kept me on my toes.
Many of my students were training to become English teachers themselves and would stay after class for advice or help with their other classes. I never actually taught Fabiola, but she had heard about the new foreign teacher and waited for me after one of my Saturday classes.
“I’m working on my thesis now and thought maybe you could look at a few things,” she said in perfect English.
Fabiola lived in a house painted purple and white directly behind the university. Her family mixed cement and the concrete blocks they sold to contractors were always drying in the front. She had spent a semester in Denmark studying English, and beyond trying to perfect her thesis, I think she wanted to return some of the hospitality she received when she was far away from home. She invited me over for lunch one day after class. I’m not sure what she told her family about me, but they were incredibly kind.
“Do you play soccer?” Diego, her boyfriend, asked me.
“Well you should play on my team then. A new season is about to begin and we qualified for group C this year,” he said.
My South American soccer career lasted one game.
Unfortunately, Lucía and I got looped into a spontaneous, alcohol fueled midnight match with some friends on a concrete court after the first game. I tore some ligaments in my ankle in a collision and it took months for everything to fully heal. The truth is that I was severely overmatched on the pitch with most Ecuadorians, with or without my injury, but I was growing increasingly interested in the national sport and went to many of Diego’s games anyway, sitting with the team as a spectator.
I didn’t see Fabiola with great frequency but she always remained a good friend. When she and Diego married and had their first child they asked me to be the godfather. It was an odd choice for a couple from two rural, traditional families to honor an agnostic, single foreigner with the title, but I was happy to oblige. Familial friction over my selection came to a head when during the party, a drunken relative, whom I had never met, threw his beer on me in protest.
While the beer soaked through my borrowed suit and made the night air cold, Fabiola told me, “I don’t care what he or anyone else thinks. I want Angely [her daughter] to look up to you. I want her to have someone like you in her life.”
Long before I was deported there were people or places that could be hostile because of where I was born, but I never really noticed it because it was drowned out by friendly people and events that pointed toward a more hopeful future.
I loved teaching at the university. Sometimes after closing the door to begin class, the students would stop talking and look up for direction, and I would just smile back at them, smile at the thought of it all. Whether at UTC or INNFA, I would take deep breaths and let the corners of my mouth rise into a smile. When I took a step back it was almost hard to believe everything that was happening, and sometimes, all I could do was smile. It was a dream: waking next to Lucía and helping INNFA and UTC grow.
I'll be releasing the entire book this way but if you want to buy the paperback with Crypto-currency, email: [email protected] with your mailing address (U.S. only) and your preferred crypto and I'll respond with a wallet address and mail the book. $10 USD including shipping, limited time/ crypto only