Postcards to Oxford: Hello from Ecuador
June 24, 2012
Since 1999 Mike McQuaide, Oxford College professor of sociology, has been a regular visitor to Ecuador and introduced the country to dozens of Oxford students. His popular course Social Change in Developing Countries takes students from the classroom to the Amazon Basin in Ecuador's Napo province, where they spend their spring break living in Rio Blanco, an indigenous Quichua village, interacting with local residents and observing customs firsthand.
As the recipient of the 2012 Rackley-Gregory Grant for Faculty Development, McQuaide, along with his wife Stacy Bell, Oxford College senior lecturer in English, returned this summer to Ecuador for a different kind of visit. From the longstanding relationships developed in arranging the course on social change each year, McQuaide had become aware of a phenomenon he wanted to research further:
Silvia Sanchez is an Ecuadoran woman who helps us in making arrangements each year for the spring-break trip to Rio Blanco. From her I heard about and became interested in the experience of those who live in what are called sending areas. These are parts of the country where, because there are few opportunities for employment, there are large numbers of families whose adult children leave the country (often for the United States) to find work. These areas are net exporters of young adults.
The remittances that these young-adult workers are able to send back to their families and villages are very helpful, but the families pay a price in both emotional and financial terms. To get their children out of the country and to a receiving area-an employment center-they must often rely on agents, referred to as coyotes, who agree to escort the young adult safely and successfully to the receiving area. The fee can be as much as $15,000, a nearly insurmountable cost for most families, so they borrow what they can from their extended family. If there is a shortfall-and there often is-the coyotes negotiate the balance as a loan at usurious rates-sometimes as much as 8% per month. When a family cannot make the payment, the coyotes often seize their assets or even coercively remove younger children and force them into a kind of indentured servitude. This is a medieval system-nothing more than peonage.
I wanted to hear the stories of these families and speak with them personally. With Silvia's help with translation, we visited five remote towns in Ecuador's Azuay province, where we met with sending families and conducted interviews. I am gathering these narratives and working on best ways to present these very powerful and moving stories.