Illegal: a true story of love, revolution and crossing borders [Ch.19]
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 twentieth installment [Prologue | Ch 1 | Ch 2 | Ch 3 | Ch 4 | Ch 5 | Ch 6 | Ch 7 | Ch 8 | Ch 9 | Ch 10 | Ch 11 | Ch 12 | Ch 13 | Ch 14 | Ch 15 | Ch 16 | Ch 17 | Ch 18] and every few days I'll post another chapter. 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.
Crossing Two: November 17, 2006
Home, again [Chapter Nineteen]
Upon returning to Latacunga, I squeezed my body and duffel bag into the small drafty room that Lucía had begun renting a few months earlier. Within a couple of weeks we found a great new apartment together. A bedroom, bathroom, living room and even a nice kitchen just for the two of us right in the center of the city. At $110 a month, it more than doubled what I had been spending on rent, but it was worth every penny. I was happy. We were happy. Our landlord, who lived downstairs, assumed we were married because the local culture was socially conservative and it would be unthinkable for us to be sharing a bed otherwise. Every morning when we crossed paths on the stairs, he would ask how my wife was, and I would smile at the thought of it.
By now I had a wide circle of friends and couldn’t walk for long without stopping for conversation or spontaneous activity. On my way out to the market I ran into a former student and chatted for a few minutes. Just as he left, I saw Ana walking down the block so I waited for her. I hadn’t even made it off my front step.
“Have you been to La Mama Negra?” she asked me.
“Of course I have,” I told her, surprised that she would even ask. “I’m pretty sure we hung out there together for a bit early on last year?” La Mama Negra (the black mother) is a celebration of the city’s founding and continued existence; a prayer asking the volcano gods to spare the city in the next year. I’m not sure who decided that the volcano gods want a wild, drunken parade every year, but it’s become one of the nation’s most spectacular parties; everyone knew La Mama Negra.
“No, not that. That’s just the finale. The real Mama Negra,” Ana said, shaking her head and giving me a smile. Ana was proud to be from Latacunga and never tired of explaining its idiosyncrasies to me.
“There is a ceremony to begin this year’s celebration right now. The parade is just a party for the city, but there’s a lot more to the story. Come on and I’ll show you.”
Lucía was studying with Veronica and I decided I needed a break from unpacking the last of our things, so I went.
We walked to a hill overlooking the city; there were hundreds of costumed people dancing to the sound of a brass band with a very loud horn section. “All the people on the right were characters in the parade last year, all the people on the left will be in this year’s parade,” Ana explained over the noise. “Legend says that la Mama Negra was a black woman who prayed to the virgin during the last eruption, and the lava flowed around her. The highest honor of all is to paint your face black and dress up as a woman, but everyone else here represents something that is part of the story.”
I nodded. I had heard this all before, though I was still a bit perplexed. Latacunga was generally a hostile place to homosexuality and cross-dressing; though it was also a place full of contrasts I never fully understood. I pointed out the irony during my first Mama Negra but none of my local friends ever thought it strange—it was like the ice cream garbage truck all over again.
“What are those? And what’s he doing?” I asked, pointing to a group dressed as giant birds pecking randomly into the crowd and a man walking around and sharing a bottle of liquor.
“That bird was common in Latacunga a hundred years ago, but it’s extinct now. The men with the square hats are supposed to be Spanish soldiers; they help get everyone drunk.” Ana smiled as a new thought hit her. “Hey, did you know that the municipal building was made from pumice?”
“After the last eruption everything was destroyed and when they rebuilt the city they used pumice [a rock formed from cooled lava] as bricks. The municipal building here is the only one in the world made entirely from a volcano.” Her eyes were grinning.
“From destruction, creation,” I said.
Ana smiled and patted me on the back before launching into the rest of the characters.
After Ana taught me about the past, I came home and heard the sound of a new nation echoing off the sidewalks. “Get the rats out of congress,” demonstrators chanted as they streamed by our front door. Rafael Correa had won the election and would soon be inaugurated, but the Citizen’s Revolution was not waiting for a ceremony. There were countless marches in the streets in support of the president-elect and his ideas. This new army had already started collecting signatures for a vote on rewriting the constitution, and there was no stopping the train of momentum that had been building for years. Given that Correa vowed to dissolve Congress, nearly every traditional politician had become his sworn enemy. With almost no political support, it was becoming obvious how he would push through his reforms: on the street. Change would still be forced from the bottom up, but now different sectors of the movement would be united in the most unlikely of places—the presidential palace.
True to her word, Lucía took me to visit Correa. Her mother, Mayra, knew I had aspirations to be a journalist and set up an interview for me. I got dressed up, and even bought a nice shiny pair of shoes before we took a bus to the capital at dawn.
A cluster of reporters were setting up on the sidewalk in front of the office tower that was serving as Correa’s temporary headquarters. Inside the lobby one of the aides to the president-elect told us, “Mr. Correa will be traveling to Bolivia shortly and any appointments he had for the day will need to be rescheduled.”
Lucía lied. “But we have come all the way from Lago Agrio. My mother is Mayra Acros, and she is a friend of the president. She was the candidate for Alianza Pais (Correa’s new political party) in Sucumbíos. She made this appointment for us.”
“Wait one moment, please.”
When the aide returned a few minutes later he told us that the president-elect was on a tight schedule due to an unexpected trip. He would take some questions from the media on his way out though and would like to reserve the first question for me.
I didn’t think I could sell an interview of a single question so I declined but Lucía and I stuck around anyway. We had come all this way and I at least wanted to see him, so we joined the group of reporters outside.
Forty-five minutes later he walked out. The reporters all immediately perked up and competed to shout questions at the president-elect. Lucía and I were close to the door and amid the initial bustle Correa walked swiftly toward us. He must have recognized Lucía from the campaign; he smiled and nodded his head to her, then he turned to me and shook my hand as he said “Nice to meet you,” in English.
While I never did get a private audience with Correa, he did have an appointment with me. I don’t imagine that leaders of nations meet with fugitives of their borders very often, as this was shortly after I snuck into the country.