Originally published on MatadorNetwork.com Click the link and comment, mofos!
WHILE I WAS traveling north on the Ecuadorian Pacific coast last month, I met a group of local artisans in the town of Súa who work with natural materials and, through their community organization, educate youth on Afro-Ecuadorian culture. They weave, sew, carve, collect, and create traditional instruments from resources that wash onto shore or grow in the mangrove forests surrounding town.
The space they’ve been using for a decade is rustic at best, and without any help from the government, they’re struggling to make ends meet as artists. Due to a chance encounter with the in-country project director for the Heartful Giving Project, an international development organization, the group have been able to launch a crowdfunding campaign that wraps up on August 1. They’re raising money to build a sustainable community art space to work, teach classes in, and use as a showroom to promote positive tourism in Súa. Read more about the campaign at theheartfulgivingproject.com.
When Spanish conquistadors first landed on Ecuadorian soil, they were so astonished to be greeted by indigenous leaders adorned with precious emeralds that they named the region Esmeraldas. Centuries later, the name still suits it. From its stretch of the Pacific to the dense, endangered mangroves that spread north toward Colombia, and hills feathered by palms and other flora endemic to the Chocó biogeographic region, Esmeraldas is recognized throughout Ecuador as the “Green Province.” But despite its wealth in natural resources, the area remains neglected in terms of basic infrastructure and vastly marginalized at the expense of its 70% Afro-Ecuadorian population, the greatest concentration of blacks in Ecuador.
Ten years ago, Alphonso ‘Toto’ German and a group of his friends formed Manglares de Súa, the Súa Mangrove Center, and set out to work in this bamboo, wood, and straw space gifted to them from its previous owner. “He gave it to us — not the government or municipality — under the condition that we use it for the people and for the arts. These are traditional handicrafts incorporating natural materials from our Green Province. We want to present a better space to attract positive tourism to Súa.” Their income is seasonal with the (meager) influx of tourists that overflow from the nearby surf and party city Atacames during peak months, but they also sell through the fair-trade company Adonya Imports. From left to right: Ismael, Cesar, Alphonso ‘Toto,’ Antonio, Edwin, and Martin.
The first thing I noticed upon walking onto the uneven dirt floor of the community art studio were crafts wet from the rainfall of the night before. The roof is made of layered banana leaves punched with huge holes over time, and a slight breeze streams straight through the shelter’s walls. “I’ve made everything. This guitar, by hand. That marimba, by hand. Those maracas too. When it rains, it leaks through the holes in the roof and destroys our work.” Though it’s beautiful and relaxed, the center is clearly no longer suited to meet the artists’ needs.
Súa is all flip flops softly smacking the dirt road or occasional concrete sidewalk laid out in the pattern of a honeycomb. Black men drive blue taximotos along the seaside promenade, and since it’s Saturday, couples stroll along its cove-like stretch of beach. The water is a translucent green stretching toward a blue band at the top, held at each end by high cliffs where mangroves grow. The trees are seriously threatened due to overproduction of the town’s #1 export: shrimp. I ask Toto what he thinks the new center will do for Súa: “We’re relaxed people, but the situation is bad for the kids. They drink a lot, work hard, then drink. The next day it’s the same. With this [he gestures to the pavilion around us] we can play music and dance. That’s what the people really want.”
“I’ve always been buena onda with everyone in town. I’ve always wanted to better Súa, and my community in general.” Walking along the beach, it was clear that everyone knew and respected Toto. A young single father of two girls, Toto never set foot in any kind of learning institution and relies on seasonable income to support his family. Throughout our interview, he spoke softly, passionately, and only averted his gaze once. “I’ve never really told anyone that, just now, to you.” It was clear that, though I’d spent most of my life organizing for social change movements, Toto had more spine in his left pinky than most people I’ve met have in their whole bodies.
The marimba is the xylophone’s great, great African grandmother, made of different materials in the regions it has passed through over time. Most in Ecuador look like this, thick bamboo tubes tied to strips of African palm tree trunk that resonate with a light echo when hit with mallets. Accompanied by shakers, call-and-response singing, and a traditional dance called currulao, the music creates a wandering, joyful ambience. Afro-Ecuadorians descend from the 23 slaves that escaped from a shipwreck in 1533, those who escaped via the Colombian jungle, and those who were brought over from Spain. For many Esmeraldeños, marimba music is the ultimate expression of freedom.
This is a type of Spondylus, a sign of wealth, sacred power, and a form of currency for the pre-Columbian peoples of what are now parts of the Peruvian and Ecuadorian coasts. The ancient trade route runs through some of South America’s best Pacific beaches, where you can buy shells like this from early-rising collectors.
Walls are eroding away with the help of a devastating termite infestation.
Ismael talks to neighbors from the inside of Manglares de Súa’s art center.
Toto learned to weave coconut tree leaves into all sorts of forms as a kid from his elders. He taught the other members of his organization, but besides them, no one else in town knows how to create traditional dress or make marimbas. With a better space, they hope to host classes for local kids, and stir up a kind of renaissance in Afro-Ecuadorian culture.
I grew up in a single-parent household in New York City, but as my mother is a music-obsessed Ecuadorian immigrant, the sounds of obscure Afro-Latino bands coming from our stereo and the feel of traditional, handmade instruments became the stuff of the familiar for me. There are a few famous marimberos from Esmeraldas that are known as ‘The Greats’: Papá Roncón, Remberto Escobar, and Escolástico Solís Castillo.
In May of this year, Súa’s mayor, Freddy Saldarriaga Corral, hired foreign engineers to pave over a lot of wild land and replace it with a concrete park. They were bulldozing trees when Martin (pictured above) and other members of Manglares de Súa began assembling to halt construction, or at least express their discontent over the changes. No one in town was consulted over the park, and the destruction of tropical vegetation right in front of the cultural center came as a complete surprise. Thanks to the organization’s protest, three trees were spared, but that was after police arrested Toto for “disrupting the peace.” Behind the melodic sounds of the marimba in Súa, a concrete mixer can always be heard in the background. Here we see the site wrapped in green plastic.
I ask Toto if there are any blacks in power in the national (or even local) government to appeal to for the needs of Esmeraldeños. “No. None. No blacks in power. They stomp on us! [He enacts this with his right foot.] We’ve always been marginalized. The government doesn’t help Esmeraldas; they’ve always neglected us. All of these places — Atacames, Muisne, Tonsupa, Esmeraldas, Súa — they’ve abandoned us all. Afro-Ecuadorians just try to survive.”
I spent a lot of time taking macro photos at the seashell table, fascinated by the itty-bitty galaxies that seemed to gather there. These are the exoskeletons of marine mollusks that drifted onto shore, each one marked by its own exclusive history of waves, sand, and time. It was strange to visit this poor town studded by such beautiful things that just happened to be lying around.
Toto brings it home as the sun begins to set over Súa: “I don’t do anything industrial. You see the kids selling in Atacames or Montañita — they buy those industrial materials and sell jewelry made with them for more. They’re cheap and rot. These [gesturing to the crafts above] are made by hand from natural materials only found in Súa; each is one-of-a-kind. This is natural, from here and only here. It’s made to last, and made with love.”