How Working In Ecuador During The Venezuelan Crisis Helps Me Understand The Central American Asylum Seekers
“Señorita! Puedo preguntarle sobre—”
“Ah, lo siento, no hablo español!” (“Sorry, I don’t speak Spanish!”)
Conversations during my first few months in Ecuador often took this tune: brown-skinned and dark curly-haired, I certainly looked the part. But I didn’t yet speak it.
Once my Spanish grew conversational, I could answer the confusion — somewhat. Always in a cab, the taxista would begin his string of rapid-fire questions, beginning with, “Where are you from?”
“Canada,” I’d respond with a knowing smirk, expecting the next comment.
“But I was born in Pakistan,” would be my eventual answer and the driver’s quizzical expression would shortly dissolve out of sight.
I spent two years living and working in Quito, Ecuador, never had my identities challenge me, or take on new meaning, as they did during my time living in South America.
There were, of course, strange — and comedic — blips in this journey. My first friend there, who I met through work, was Indian, and we took on the label of desi gringas together. Desi, the general grouping of South Asians, and gringa, women foreigners in Latin America. Or so we thought.
“You don’t want to call yourself gringa,” my friend from Costa Rica told me one day, stifling back laughter. Gringo and gringa, she explained, were “annoying white people from the U.S.” We dropped that label quick.
A foreigner, but not white, brown but not Latina.
I was slowly falling in love with Latin America but I craved something familiar. So, I took refuge in Quito’s desi restaurants. Surprisingly, there were several.
There was Sher-E-Punjab, the biggest one that always came up first on Tripadvisor searches, with its fancy decor, cloth napkins, and smiling waiters. I’d have to reassure several times that I did indeed want my food “extra, extra, extra picante” (spicy) because I was Pakistani and could certainly more than handle it. It was important to add “extra” many times because Ecuadoreans add tomate de arbol — or the tamarillo fruit — to their aji, or hot sauce.
Then there was the one owned by Pakistanis, where the chefs added literal sugar to their mild curries, I assume to make them more palatable to both Ecuadorean and gringo palates.
Finally, there was the one by my workplace, which was, in all honesty, quite average, with most patrons rarely ordering Indian food, opting instead to sip on cervezas and eat a fast-food staple, papi pollo (fried chicken and fries).
I returned often because of the woman who owned the place. She had fled her abusive husband in India almost a decade ago, working as a cook and chef in many different countries before eventually settling in Ecuador.
She lived above the place she owned and had learned Spanish simply by getting to know her customers. She was so happy to speak to me in Urdu-slash-Hindi every time I came in.
On one of my early visits, I asked the restaurant owner why she had chosen to stay in Ecuador. She smiled, then replied with a laugh, “Because they don’t think we’re terrorists here.”
A decade ago, under the former government of Rafael Correa, Ecuador ended visa requirements for foreigners, earning the credit of having one of the most lenient visa policies in the world. Many South Asians, including many Indians and Pakistanis, as well as people from the rest of Asia, Africa and the Middle East, began migrating to the equatorial country for the first time.
According to Ecuador’s National Immigration Office, while only 92 Pakistani citizens had entered Ecuador in 2006, shortly after the policy came into effect in 2008, 178 had entered. By 2010, 518 — an increase of 550 percent in just four years.
Just last year, the UNHCR applauded Ecuador for its then-new Human Mobility Law — which regularized status for all refugees, asylum-seekers and trafficking victims — but it now appears that the new government of Lenin Moreno is set on reversing many of these policies. Blaming an influx of Venezuelans migrating to the country, it still stands to be seen what this means for migrants to Ecuador from other parts of the world.
While I met many migrants from many places in the region, such as Cuba and Colombia, it wasn’t till more Venezuelans started arriving in 2017, that I became aware of a changing tone in the country.
I was taking Spanish classes at a local university in Quito, one of them a conversational class with a fiery, expressive professor who was half-Colombian and half-Ecuadorean. Always impeccably dressed, she led our class — often just me and another young woman from Norway — with no structure. Instead, she would incite class discussions on hot-button topics from abortion to the death penalty. It was hard to place where her own opinions lay, as she wove in tales of everything from family members kidnapped by guerillas in Colombia, to the first time she snuck out from under her Catholic mother’s eyes to go party at a discoteca.
On one particular day, she started off class sharing news of a taxi driver murdered in the country by a passenger. The man who had stabbed him, she explained, was Venezuelan.
“Since Venezuelans have started arriving here,” my professor started off slowly. “Crime has gone up.”
I sat there stunned, unable to string a sentence together in Spanish — or any language for that matter. This story would be the topic of discussion in my grammar class the next morning, where my other professor implied the same. I began noticing headlines from local papers, eyeing newspaper vendors as they snaked through Quito’s traffic, and their use of the same alarmist tone about Venezuelan migrants.
For the restaurant owner from India, along with many other migrants from around the world, Ecuador was a chance to start over. The country that is Latin America’s largest refugee-hosting country became their refuge.
Elsewhere in Latin America, thousands from mostly Honduras and Guatemala are currently fleeing their homes, hoping to escape poverty and violence by seeking asylum in the United States. Their own governments have long been allied with the country they hope to reach, with the United States having backed military dictatorships and coups there. These coups are as recent as 2009 in Honduras, and as early as 1954 in Guatemala. The migrants stay stranded, having been met with tear gas by U.S. border patrol agents, amidst threats of deportation.
Before the migrants had even reached towns bordering the U.S. in Mexico, where thousands are still awaiting their destiny, U.S. President Donald Trump made inflamed remarks against them, chastising the caravan as one “full of criminals.” Residents of Tijuana, Mexico have also marched against the migrants’ arrival — with even Mayor Juan Manuel Gastélum echoing Trump’s comments.
As I follow their journey, I often flick through my Canadian passport, stamped with visas from Latin America and the world: my own family immigrated to Canada when I was two years old, leaving Pakistan forever.
Getting my Ecuadorean visa with my Canadian passport my first year was as simple as gathering my forms and picking it up four days later. By my second year, it required several more trips, many more forms, and a couple hundred dollars more; I got it four months later. The lines and wait times had multiplied: many were Venezuelans who may not receive visas at all, in not four days or even four months.
I think about these Venezuelan migrants, fleeing Central Americans, the Indian woman, about my own experiences.
I’m finally reading Eduardo Galeano’s “Open Veins of Latin America,” the classic 1971 literary indictment of five centuries of pillage and plunder on the continent. Galeano once said: “We must not confuse globalization with ‘internationalism’…We know that the human condition is universal, that we share similar passions, fears, needs and dreams, but this has nothing to do with the ‘rubbing out’ of national borders as a result of unrestricted capital movements. One thing is the free movement of peoples, the other of money.”
Despite the despair in his writings, Galeano remained hopeful all throughout his life. On this (open) vein, I probe: What if we never had to escape to find refuge?