You learn to replace peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, fries, and sloppy joes with decadent fruits. Mangoes first because you don’t have to leave the house to savor them, even though they wake you up with bangs on the zinc roof in the middle of the night. You learn that sapote is your favorite, a plump sphere, brown lining on the outside filled with a bright orange gunk, succulent and sweet, which gets stuck to the spaces between your teeth. Guaba is another treat you beg your uncle to bring when he comes home from work. It’s a long and skinny enclosure of flexible green bark. The only edible part is the lining of the seeds inside: white, fuzzy, and savory. You learn when the vendor who sells ciruelas from a rickety cart usually stops by your street. They look like tiny mangoes but taste nothing like them. At first you’re not sure how you like them: red and ripe or green and citrusy. You decide there is no point in choosing, because you will devour both.
Your mother tells you that you must never forget this is not the Yoni. “Be careful with those short-shorts,” she says. But it’s hot enough that spools of sweat form as soon as you get out of the shower, as you get out of bed, as you walk a few feet to the corner store. You learn that those shorts aren’t just shorts. They will define you; the vecinos will whisper to each other. You will be the gringa slut who doesn’t know that fifteen-year-old girls can’t dress in shorts on the streets because men will acknowledge it. You wear jeans that stick to your legs like gooey face masks. It’s hot and taking them off feels like pulling tinfoil from leftovers. But you learn that shorts are a message, to strangers, to relatives, to neighbors, that your parents don’t want you to send.
You ask why you live in Ecuador but use currency from the United States. They tell you the shortened version: The economy collapsed a few years ago and the Sucre, the currency used from the 1880s until 2000, became worthless. Ecuador adopted U.S. dollars. Out of all the currencies in the world, somehow they chose that one instead of the neighboring sol from Peru or the peso from Colombia. A relief because learning a conversion rate would have been annoying. All around you people sell fruits, ice cream, and a taxi ride for just a dollar or less. The bus from Milagro to Guayaquil is only 90 cents. Everywhere you hear dólar, dólar, dólar.
You accept there is a different type of poverty in your hometown. There are fewer beggars than the ones at the highway exits back in Connecticut. But children, your brother’s age, even younger, sell candy, cigarettes, and lollipops. Have they ever stepped inside a school? Who taught them how to add and subtract? Did they have to do conversion rates when they were six years old with their parents’ help a few years ago? They walk behind their parents, or alone, in front of banks with lines of humans surrounding the block, hoping someone has a craving for gum. The pitch of their voices goes up so they sound younger than they actually are. At first it shocks you that the corner stores in your neighborhood are manned by kids younger than you. Then it becomes another facet of life in Milagro. In this small town, everyone works, even children.
Some people in Ecuador, you learn, are filthy rich. An enclave of the rich separate themselves from the poor by a river and bridge. You pass by Durán, always in construction, where the gutters are open for weeks on end. It’s a town on the side of the highway covered in a grey coating of concrete. Across the bridge, to the right, is Samborondón. Gated communities and men with guns are at each entrance. The first time you visit, you think of Florida. Lines of palms trees, malls on each side, and a sudden rare gringo sighting: McDonald’s. The first time you visit, you hear an accent you’ve never heard before. It sounds like the tone of superiority. You’ll learn this is called speaking with a potato in the mouth. Hablar con la papa en la boca. The accent of the rich. This is where you will go to school. You will traverse between your small town, about an hour away, cross Yaguachi, then Durán and arrive in Samborondón because your padre promised your madre that history would not repeat itself. You have no idea what it means to be the other, yet.
You learn to incorporate phrases into your vocabulary. The first one that clicks is “pueblo chico, infierno grande.” Small town, big hell. One day, after you’re done listening in on classrooms in Spanish at a local school in Milagro, you walk home with a friend. He has his left hand over your shoulders and you walk side-by-side. He is not your boyfriend. You will never kiss him; you have no plans to do so. When you get home, your mom already knows who you were with at 3:37 p.m. Her uncle called to let her know. Your mom tells him, “So what?” She knows he’s your friend. But she still tells you: “You see, this is what it means to live in a small town. There are no secrets.” Your dad then tells you he has eyes everywhere and will always know your whereabouts. You shrug because you don’t care. But the gringa in you is annoyed because everyone minded their own business in the Yoni.
The next phrase you learn is “los trapos sucios se lavan en casa.” Wash your dirty clothes at home. You realize this isn’t completely true. They are washed at home but people hang their trapos to dry because there are no drying machines. Washed panties are put out on clotheslines for everyone to see. Neighbors can’t help but peek. The phrase is a lie your parents and ancestors made up to pretend they believe no one knows what goes on inside other people’s houses. But everyone knows. You say hi, give the customary kiss on the cheek to someone your age you just met. He leaves and then someone tells you that the poor kid doesn’t know the father that raised him isn’t his biological father. They even know the name of his biological dad. “How do you know his business?” you ask. “Vox populi,” the person says. “Voice of the people.” Popular opinion. Gossip. You feel bad for the kid, his trapos are dirty and he doesn’t even know it.
You speak to people who have been separated from their mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers by an ocean, or a tourist visa, or by a residency petition that continues to avert them. That could have been you, if you weren’t partly a gringa. If your mom had not been born as what some deem to be an anchor baby. If your father had arrived like many of his friends to the U.S. and overstayed their tourist visas. But you learn you are lucky because your two passports mean you’ve lived with your parents almost your whole life. You do not wait for Sunday to buy calling cards to speak to your mother for an hour. You don’t wait for the father you haven’t seen in eight years to send you brand-label clothing from Italy. You don’t live with a slew of uncles and aunts. Your father is gone but you know decades won’t pass before you see him again. You do not pray for a visa to see a mother you haven’t touched since you were three years old. You learn the privilege of a U.S. passport.
You see your skin for the first time. You learn the phrase “mejorar la raza.” Better the race. It means “whiten the race” but the people that say it avoid the words “white” and “black”. Girls and women want blonde hair. You learn that white skin is coveted. You are not white and your hair is not straight. You learn to whiten the hairs on your arms with products you buy at the pharmacy. Lightening the hairs makes your skin look whiter. You’ve never felt ugly until now. The nickname of a girl just a shade darker than you, with the same color hair and texture, is negra. Black. This is her nickname. You ask: “But why?” Everyone just tells you that she is, indeed, Black. Your gringa mind wonders why it’s ok for someone’s nickname to be “black.” She seems okay with it. Happy, even. But it makes you uncomfortable. You don’t know it then but this is just the beginning of learning about one of the remnants of colonialism: the adulation towards those who are white and blonde.
The most intriguing phrase you learn is “domingo siete.” Seven Sundays? Seventh Sunday? Sunday the Seventh? You wonder how to translate this into English the first time you hear it. You think about God resting on the seventh day. But it turns out this phrase means unplanned pregnancy. God, Jesus, and the Virgin Mary. The seventh day. Your mom arrived with her seventh Sunday a month after she turned eighteen. A relative tells you someone said you would surely follow in the steps of your mother. You remind yourself to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself.
Sundays are not for church or silence.
They are for visiting the grave of your abuelos.
Eating the raspados, shaved ice drenched in gooey condensed milk and flavors in a thick syrupy liquid, outside of the cemetery. They are for eating on the concrete yard, watching the latest fútbol game on television. You learn to live with dozens of relatives nearby. They live within a mile, two miles, three miles. You hear their voices through the wooden floors while you wake on Sunday mornings. Each weekend your yard, your house, is teeming with relatives. Drinking beer. Eating cangrejos. Hosting a barbeque. In a family of eight uncles, with four living close by, parties and reunions are the norm. On Sundays you lay on the hammock and gossip with your cousins while the salsa music plays in the background from another corner of the yard.
You hate conjugating verbs in Spanish, such as “like”: gustar. It makes your mind do leaps. Él me gusta. Yo le gusto. At first you can’t differentiate between how to say I like him and he likes me. Somehow, “gustar” is an anomaly and you have to conjugate it differently than other verbs. No one can explain why. The language is what it is. This was your first language but it’s not the language you’ve used outside of your house for the last decade. People make fun of your slight gringa accent. People laugh when you can’t say a word correctly. People try to guess the word you can’t remember. You still dream in English but just as sluggishly as you learn to put diacritical marks on Spanish words, you increase the command of your first language in real life and in your dreams. You slowly embody a full-fledged ecuatoriana, but she’s still different from the girl you would have become if you had never left.
Victoria Buitron is a writer and translator with an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Fairfield University. Her work has been featured or is upcoming in XRAY Lit, Bending Genres, Lost Balloon and more.