A couple weeks ago, we went to Motorcycle Diaries, a film about Che Guevara’s motorcycle journey (which actually turned into a hiking journey) with his friend Alberto Granado through South America. The film portrays the awakening of Ernesto Guevara’s revolutionary ideals. He is a sympathetic character, sympathetic to the impoverished miners he meets in Chile, the disenfranchised indigenous people of the Andes, and the lepers he works with at a colony in Peru
The movie ends with the end of his six month voyage. So the entire thing is pre-revolutionary Che. The Che you see in the movie is just becoming aware of the injustices of monetary inequality and exploitation. He is driven by principles. And he acts on them, talking with the impoverished, volunteering at various locales. It was humbling. I left the movie feeling like I’m not doing much to actually help people.
On Monday a couple weeks ago, my police were busy fighting some sort of demonstration, so none of them were there. And since two of my civilians were also absent, I had two people in class, Natalia and Lourdes. I talked with them for the entire two hours about Ecuador’s poverty, about Bush, about economic greed, and about revolution.
I asked about wages in Ecuador. I’ve had trouble understanding the fact that the middle class makes about two to three hundred dollars a month. If such is the case, how can people survive? Why aren’t they depressed? How can people own cars? How can they send their kids to high schools that cost $140/month?
They explained that many people can’t really deal with it, that the situation is worsening and that the middle class is getting poorer, and so, many are leaving Ecuador. Recent figures show Ecuador’s unemployment rate improving but such improvement is due to the fact that so many people are leaving. They’re going to Spain, the US, Italy, Chile. Almost everyone now has family abroad; and those family members send some money home.
Still, when you go into a poor neighborhood or city in the US, I explained, you know it. The property isn’t taken care of, people are depressed and angry and hostile. Why isn’t that the case here?
“We are used to it,” they explained. We know how to live with it. On the coast, it’s even more odd. There is more poverty, and people are even happier. There, they have fish, bananas, pineapples; they can live off the land, so they don’t worry too much about the future.
From what I’ve seen in my classes, this is true. The people from the coast are always laughing. They’re happy and they’re funny, but I know for a fact that they don’t make much money. Actually, one of my students from the coast, who is a maid in a hotel, is going to be a single mother sometime next summer. She has her moments where she’s a little down, but by the end of every class, she’s joking and laughing more than anyone.
I asked a few of my policemen the other day about money. They told me that a policeman’s wage in Quito is $300 a month. They work 12 hour days. They don’t get paid overtime. They often work during holidays and festivals. Here’s the pay scale: In some districts, the police eat lunch in a policia cafeteria, so they deduct $70 a month from their wages. If you have a wife, you earn another $28 a month. For kids, they add $8 a month. Every year, you get a $5 raise, and every 5 years, you get a $45 raise. Diego, the one explaining it all to me, openly told me he gets $360 a month. He has a wife who doesn’t work outside of the home, and he has two kids. For a family of four, they have $360 a month. That’s what I’m making as a “volunteer.” He told me that every once in a while, some police will accept bribes because the wages just aren’t enough to live on. He’s a really good guy. I’d like to think he hasn’t ever accepted a bribe, but I can understand why he would.
My Spanish teacher explained it this way: the economic situation here is horrible. The cost of living in Ecuador is higher than any other country in South America. Government corruption is rampant, and the economy is worsening. But it’s like people are drunk. They all know something is really wrong, but they walk around in this sort of drunken dream state. So to an outsider, it may not appear that people are as bad off as they are.
She also explained that there’s not a lot of unity amongst Ecuadorians. There is still a lot of racism, and there’s no strong sense of national identity. “We haven’t had a strong history. We haven’t suffered a unifying tragedy,” she said.
Back in my two-person English class, Natalia and Lourdes also lamented a lack of unity. The corrupt, the political elite, and the privileged classes have worldwide unity. They are organized. Their motive is to make money, and they work efficiently toward that end. The people, on the other hand, are not unified.
There is a scene in Motorcycle Diaries where Che Guevara at his birthday party speaks about the lack of unity amongst South Americans. We’re all mestizos, he claims.
Literally, mestizos are people of both European and Indigenous descent. Symbolically, mestizos are those who are both disenfranchised indiginas and power-yielding European conquistadors. And if all those mestizos realize that they can rise up, well, there’s your revolution.
This recent education of mine concerning the poverty of Ecuador has been both inspirational and depressing. On the one hand, my conversations with people here (both Americans and Ecuadorians) give me hope that some sort of unity is possible and that a revolution here or even in the US is possible (and by revolution I mean change – widespread social and political change). On the other hand, in the US, money-hungry national leaders like Bush get re-elected.
I’m no Che. I’m not actually willing to dedicate my life to political revolution. But I can certainly do more than I am doing.