We met at the end of August, 2019 sitting side by side in Row 18 of the Aeroméxico flight which departs every morning from Quito to Mexico City. Mine was seat C, on the aisle. Although she had been assigned the middle seat, she did not take her eyes off the window seat, where her 5-year-old son, Juan, was sitting. Her white blouse went well with her two-piece suit: a skirt and blazer, both grey. Her black hair was nicely braided. She was wearing a pair of long gold brocade earrings. She wore black high heels and carried a large leather purse of the same color. Juan had her elegance: at his young age he was traveling in a suit and a tie. A few minutes before the plane took off, she looked at me, sighed, and—filled with nervousness—said, “This is the second time I am on a plane, but not the first time I am traveling to Mexico.”
Luz de América was 38 years old when I met her. She was born and raised in San Antonio de Quisapincha, one of the rural parishes of Cantón Ambato, a province of Tungurahua, Ecuador. Because this is one of the poorest cantons in the country,1 everyday life has turned increasingly precarious, certainly for peasants who, like this woman’s parents, make their living by farming. “La tierrita (the land), this gives very little money so I learned to work with leather,” Luz de América told me. Like many other artisans in Quisapincha, she learned how to mould, to sew, and to paint leather to make shoes. Her rough and scarred hands revealed her daily effort in cultivating the land and working with leather; an effort that did not result, however, in a decent income. Working every day, she earned $170 a month, which barely covered her living expenses.
It takes four and a half hours by plane to cover the 3,100 kilometers that separate Quito from Mexico City. During those hours in the air, in the most unexpected way, Luz de América remembered and shared with me her first migratory experience while simultaneously experiencing, at that very moment, how the second one began to unfold.
Two years ago my husband left. He lives in Queens. He paid off a coyote who crossed him. In Quisapincha, people know how to get there. That’s how I left the first time … On that occasion, we were supposed to meet in New York, and then we were going to bring Juan.
In January, 2018, Luz de América entrusted the care of her son to her mother and left “por la chacra” (through the fields). It took her more than 6 weeks to reach Mexico by land. She left undocumented and guided by the same coyote that had guided her husband. That is how she crossed a part of the same route that we were to fly over: Colombia, Central America, and southern Mexico. By land she also crossed the border between Mexico and the US, and even advanced into US territory until she was stopped. Confined in a detention centre, she suffered the same as so many other millions of undocumented migrants: “They punished us by taking us to cold rooms, ‘iceboxes’ which were colder than the moorland,” recalled Luz de América. Held incommunicado and punished, she was detained for more than six months, until she was deported to Ecuador.
Chained hands and feet, she returned on a deportation flight. That was her first plane ride. Luz de América was certain that she would emigrate again, but she was not sure when. She did not want to suffer the “punishment of the icebox,” nor to leave Juan again. So she hesitated, while her husband in Queens insisted that she had to try again. He said that this is how the clandestine journey works, that it does not always work the first time, and that the coyote would give her two more attempts to cross until she finally reached the US.
Between her own doubts and the external insistence, something unexpected happened. In November, 2018, Mexico eliminated the visa requirement for Ecuadorians. This meant that Luz de América could travel, not as an undocumented passenger, but with her passport in hand; not clandestinely by land, but by plane, so that she would reach Mexico in four and a half hours and not in six weeks. The change in the visa policy coincided with something else: the increased numbers of unaccompanied and accompanied Central American migrant children arriving in the US
The US has a legal limit of 20 days for the custody of minors in detention centers. In the face of the massive arrival of children, something exceptional happened. In order not to violate the time limit established by law, detained undocumented mothers and their children were released before the legal limit was reached, with the requirement that they appear before an immigration court. Their undocumented status did not change, but certain undocumented mothers and their children were in this way allowed to enter the U.S.2 In fact, a month and a half before Luz de América begun her journey, her sister-in-law and her two minor nephews flew to Mexico and managed to reach New York.
Because the migratory context was exceptional and promised a more accelerated and apparently less risky transit, Luz de América decided to leave for a second time. The same coyote who guided her on her first attempt organized her second trip. He gave her a series of written instructions in addition to the advice that her sister-in-law gave her. That is how she knew beforehand that one of the biggest challenges she would face was crossing with her son through immigration control at the airport in Mexico posing as tourists. Luz de América had to face an immigration system that a priori discriminates against certain bodies on the basis of racialized constructions. She had to fool that system by appearing to fit into the category of tourist and not into that of potential migrant—although this is what she was—in order to consummate her migratory project, which was no less than her life project.
If she made it through immigration control, the rest seemed comparatively simple. She and Juan would be guided to the northern border, and they would turn themselves in to the US immigration authority. If all went well after they were released, they would arrive in New York in a few weeks. The path seemed clear. Yet, while still in Quito, she had a warning. The immigration agent who was stamping her passport for departure, after asking her where she was going, warned her: “You won’t be able to enter Mexico.” Ignoring this, Luz de América took her passport. She knew that there was a reason for the warning: “My passport is stained, because I was deported. That’s why the policeman told me that. But I’m sure I’ll get to cross,” Luz de América insisted, in a tone of voice that could not hide her nervousness and fear.
In her purse she carried everything she and her son needed: her smartphone, a Mexican cell phone sim card, enough cash to cover expenses along the road, some candies, and Juan’s toys. Luz de América was not easily deterred from her search for a new life. Neither poverty, nor migratory restrictions, nor warnings of state controls had stopped her. Her strength came from her life experience, a strength that allowed her to reveal her weaknesses. As she recounted her life, she paused. She was silent, her body contracted, because she found it hard to remember the sorrow she carried. Her eyes filled with tears as she remembered what she had suffered while in detention, far away from her son. She held her hands very tightly, almost as if she was praying, when she imagined herself crossing the desert and carrying her son in her arms. She told me she was afraid, afraid to cross borders. But acknowledging fear does not mean lacking courage or bravery, and that was exactly what gave her substance.
45 minutes from landing, Luz de América asked me a favor. The flight attendant had given us the Mexican immigration form we were supposed to fill out when entering the country. It was only then when she confessed to me that she had only finished second grade and consequently barely knew how to read and write. Together we completed the form, and in less than no time we landed. When the plane stopped, Luz de América smiled at me again, and said, “I’m a bit scared. But, with the help of the Virgin, we will cross.” With her steady strength, she took Juan by one hand and grabbed her purse with the other. They got off the plane. I was close to them, close enough for Luz de América to know that I was there in case I could help her. I wished with my presence to give strength to a woman who hardly needed it—who had never stopped fighting for her life and who was walking in front of me on the verge of another battle.
The line to reach immigration control did not take long. She and Juan went first. Luz de América approached the checkpoint and handed her passport and her son’s to the Mexican immigration officer. There was an ebb and flow of questions and replies. They exchanged a silent dialogue of gazes. Juan, without any real idea of what was happening, waited at the side. Grabbing his mother’s hand, at the age of five, he was the greatest source of strength that woman needed at that moment. I witnessed from afar what perhaps no one else realized: how the vital power of that woman from Quinsapincha—a peasant and artisan, who could barely read and write—was in fact the real passport that allowed her to cope with border control. Without further ado, the Mexican immigration stamp was inked on her “stained passport,” and with that the ill omen of the Ecuadorian immigration agent came to nothing. She and Juan entered Mexico.
I imagine her smiling. I hear in the distance perhaps her sigh of deep calm because the first challenge has been overcome. Luz de América took her son, and they just kept on walking without stopping.
I have no doubt that the vital power that enabled Luz de América to enter Mexico also allowed her and Juan to cross Mexico, to traverse the border, and even to surrender to the US immigration authorities. Her strength will have surely allowed her to care for her son in detention. At the moment when she left Ecuador, as mentioned, it was very unlikely that she and Juan would have been deported. Therefore, after several weeks they may have been conditionally released, allowing them finally to begin their journey to New York.
Between the end of 2019 and the first two months of 2020, Luz de América and Juan will have begun to decode everyday life in Queens. Certainly she will be working at some of the many jobs that the informal market of that city holds for undocumented migrants like her: highly precarious jobs, without any social protection. Together with her husband, the three of them will probably be dwelling in some small place in Queens. Maybe it is a crowded place, where they have to share their lives with several other Ecuadoreans or other Latin Americans, who like them most probably are undocumented migrants too.
Just as an unexpected migratory context accelerated her decision to leave Ecuador for the second time, an unexpected pandemic today is certainly transforming Luz de América’s life project in a radical way. Since mid-March, 2020, a health cataclysm has come to unveil the savage contemporary social inequality in which we, inhabitants of a global village, live. Despite the fact that borders have been sealed around the world, the pandemic unleashed by Sars-CoV-2 has not slowed down on its journey of contagion and devastation. The U.S. is today the most affected country in the world, and New York the city that has been hit the hardest, with a total of cases exceeding that of entire countries. That is why Luz de América’s voice has come back to me. Her story, an individual one, is the story of thousands of other Ecuadorians who like her, stripped of rights, pushed by the violence of poverty in Ecuador, filled with courage and bravery, have undertaken inhospitable journeys to reach the U.S. and in particular New York.
Where is Luz de América? How is she? How is Juan? How are all those other Ecuadoreans who undertook clandestine journeys “por la chacra” and whose mobility was blocked by border closures amid the pandemic? How are the Ecuadoreans detainees? Those who have been punished in the “ice boxes” ? Those who are about to be deported? How are the hundreds of thousands of undocumented Ecuadoreans who are sick? How many of them have died because of COVID-19? Have they been buried? Who mourns those bodies?
From Quisapincha, Dotaxi, Cochapamba, Jima, Gualaceo, Girón, and from so many other places, Ecuadoreans like Luz de América have emigrated to the US. Ecuador has a fragile mono-productive economy, highly dependent on the international market. There, poverty and systemic inequality have not ceased to reproduce. In fact, poverty has found a niche for its reproduction in peasant and rural living. It is no coincidence then that peasant women and men, like Luz de América, have since at least the 1960s emigrated mainly to the US. Because of this the historical, social, cultural, and economic formation of this Andean country cannot be understood without paying attention to the incessant departure of Ecuadoreans abroad.
Por la chacra, por la pampa, por el camino, [through the field, through the plain, through the road] as the clandestine path from Ecuador to the US is locally known, with false documents, with a visa or without it, by air, by sea, or by land, so many Ecuadoreans have emigrated that 738,000 today live in the US, the tenth largest group of Latin origin.3 The vast majority live in New York (39%), New Jersey (18%), and Florida (11%).4 The epicenter of COVID-19 in the US is thus home to a large number of Ecuadorian migrants. Among them, many are undocumented and therefore their rights are limited; among others, their right to health.
In the US 45% of undocumented immigrants lack health insurance, which in the context of the pandemic is a major problem.5 Although in most states community clinics attend to patients regardless of their immigration status, thousands of undocumented immigrants do not have access to health care because they fear control and deportation. On February 24, 2020—on the eve of the expansion of COVID-19—the Trump administration implemented the “public charge” rule which blocks green card eligibility for immigrants who have used or whom the government believes are likely to use, a public benefit. Health care does not qualify as a public benefit. However, in the current context of criminalization and xenophobia towards undocumented migrants, the misinterpretation of this rule goes along with the fear to stop undocumented migrants from seeking medical care. In addition, raids and detentions have not stopped in the regions most affected by COVID-19, including California and New York.6 Both facts perversely exacerbate the risk of death among the undocumented population, including Ecuadoreans. These facts to some extent explain the racial and ethnic disparity among COVID-19 victims in the U.S. On April 8, 2020, health data confirmed that in New York the highest percentage of deaths from COVID-19 fell among Hispanics (34%), followed by African Americans (28%).7 That 34% is likely to include Ecuadoreans.
Along with these revealing figures, press reports show the pitiless experiences that Ecuadoreans are currently facing in New York, precisely in Queens. As an effect of the national quarantine, many have become unemployed. Some are living in overcrowded, unsanitary places, others are homeless, sick, uninsured, unable to attend health centers because they are afraid of being detained and deported. 8 Those who have fallen ill may die at home, turn into unrecognized corpses, become NN bodies, and end up in the mass grave now being built for pandemic victims on Hart Island off New York.9
For all these reasons, I cannot help but wonder where Luz de América, Juan, and all the other thousands of Ecuadorean migrants are. I want to know not so much a geographical location, a historical and therefore political location; what is the place that they occupy in the past and present of Ecuador. Where are they? is a question that arises from an incomprehensible invisibility of those thousands of men and women. In addition to this, the Ecuadorian political agenda has removed them from its priorities because for the past decades it has adopted an extreme nationalism focused on combating irregularized immigration within the national territory and strengthening border security. In lockstep, a violent xenophobic discourse has normalized within Ecuadorean society, while the media—for the most part—exacerbate the construction of the “illegal migrant” as a national threat, deliberately leaving out the history of Ecuador itself as a country of migrants.
In the midst of the pandemic, undocumented migrants have been erased from official discourse. In the US, the bill passed by the Senate to inject two trillion dollars into the US economy and help workers openly excluded the more than 12 million undocumented workers, including Ecuadorean migrants. In Ecuador, the bill proposed by the government of Lenin Moreno to deal with the ravages of COVID-19 also excluded migrants—indeed it did not even mention them, despite the essential role that undocumented migrants play in social and economic life in both countries.
This perverse national denial is obscene and intolerable, given that migrant remittances have been key to sustaining the Ecuadorian economy. Over the past 20 years, Ecuador has received more than $49 billion dollars in remittances, which, along with exports and foreign investment, represent a main source of liquidity for maintaining the dollarization on which the country’s economy is based. Moreover, during the last two decades remittances represented 3.6 times foreign direct investment, which only reached approximately $13.5 billion.10 We cannot simply overlook the fact that, besides commodities from Ecuador’s extractive economy and foreign investment, it is the migrant labor force, exported abroad over the past five decades, that has sustained the economy of this Andean country.
To ask about Luz de América is to ask about the history of a country of migrants that has been stripping rights from its citizens and expelling them in silence for decades. To ask about them is to acknowledge our forgetfulness and the deliberate ways in which we have made them disappear from public life, denying them the decisive role they play in the social, political, cultural, and economic fabric of a transnational country. To ask about them is to point to a failed state, to reveal its absolute inability to protect the thousands of Ecuadoreans who have been sustaining the country and who are fighting for their lives.
As the severity of the pandemic ravages the lives of the most disposable, our forgetfulness ravages us as a collective. It is the stories and images of their lives that demand that we make present what we have wanted to make absent. I have told Luz de América’s story to share images of her journey, of her courage and bravery. Susan Sontag wondered about the political role of images in fostering a critical awareness of the brutality of our present times.11 Her reflection arose from wartime contexts. War tears, breaks, disembowels, ruins, Sontag said; that is why “being an observer means having the luck to have avoided the death that has struck others.” Although we are not currently facing a war in the Americas, the atrocity of this pandemic has turned the lives of thousands of people into a battlefield against death. This is the reality especially for those who have been confined to live in a state of defencelessness, like undocumented migrants. We cannot simply be passive, memory-less observers of the barbarity that this pandemic is unleashing. If we are able to be observers, it is because thousands of others are being killed. Encountering the stories of Luz de América can help to locate us in the present, to take on the responsibility that we as observers, not yet touched by death, have to politicize our memories and thus interrupt the reproduction of a present that wants to discard life.
La Hora (2019). “Ambato ocupa el tercer lugar a nivel nacional en índice de pobreza”. 30-01-2019. https://www.lahora.com.ec/tungurahua/noticia/1102218754/ambato-ocupa-el-tercer-lugar-a-nivel-nacional-en-indice-de-pobreza
This policy allowed many Central American and Ecuadorian mothers and children to enter the United States: Davis, John (2019). “Border Crisis: CBP’s Response”. https://www.cbp.gov/frontline/border-crisis-cbp-s-response.
Luis Noe-Bustamante, Antonio Flores y Sono Shah, “Facts on Hispanics of Ecuadorian origin in the United States, 2017”, Pew Research Center, Hispanic Trends (sitio de internet), https://www.pewresearch.org/hispanic/fact-sheet/u-s-hispanics-facts-on-ecuadorian-origin-latinos/
Noe-bustamante, Luis, Flores, Antonio y Shah, Sono ( 2019). “ Facts on Hispanics of Ecuadorian origin in the United States, 2017”. https://www.pewresearch.org/hispanic/fact-sheet/u-s-hispanics-facts-on-ecuadorian-origin-latinos/.
KFF (2018). “Health Coverage of Immigrants”, 18-03-2020. https://www.kff.org/disparities-policy/fact-sheet/health-coverage-of-immigrants.
Kim, C (2020). “Low-income immigrants are afraid to seek health care amid the Covid-19 pandemic”, 13-03-2020. https://www.vox.com/identities/2020/3/13/21173897/coronavirus-low-income-immigrants. Jordan, m. (2020). ‘We’re Petrified’: Immigrants Afraid to Seek Medical Care for Coronavirus. 18-03-2020
Robinson, D (2020). “In New York state, the black and Hispanic populations are at higher risk of dying from coronavirus, preliminary data show”, 8-04-2020.
Correal, A y Jacobs, A (2020). “A Tragedy is unfolding inside New York’s epicentric”. 9-04-2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/09/nyregion/coronavirus-queens-corona-jackson-heights-elmhurst.html
El País (2020). “Nueva York abre una gran fosa común en la isla de Hart que recibe 25 cadáveres al día”, 10-03-2020. https://elpais.com/sociedad/2020-04-10/nueva-york-abre-una-gran-fosa-comun-en-la-isla-de-hart-que-recibe-25-cadaveres-al-dia.html.
El Comercio (2020). “ Ecuador recibió USD 49 125 millones por remesas desde 1999”. 20-01-2020.
Sontag, S Regarding the Pain of Others. Madrid: Alfaguara, 2003