Tomás Gómez

Tomás is the straight man, a tourism promoter in Don Juan and owner of Hostería Camare, whose family has been protagonists of organizing the community and reconstruction work of the Bellavista neighborhood of Don Juan. Tomás has been the solidarity neighbor who having escaped by his nails a segment of his hostel, by pure gumption has been lifting up his business while at the same time lifting up the morale of the community and managed to move heaven and earth so that his friends and customers collaborate to satisfy basic needs for the people affected in Don Juan. Tomás is a born leader, knows all his neighbors, their stories, the myths and the legends of Don Juan and the links with other external organizations. He has also motivated multiple communitarian processes in Don Juan and now he is also shouldering the proposal of A mano Manaba.

Rut Román y Esteban Ponce

We are an Ecuadorian couple moved to and fro by the currents of life. We emigrated to the US in 2001 because the PUCE in Quito communicated to us that our doctorate work couldn’t be completed thanks to a university reform that made it illegitimate. The cherry on top was the morning that we woke up to find out that the little money we had saved in the bank had disappeared in the hands of a ghost called “feriado bancario (bank holiday)”. We, just like 2 million other Ecuadorians, left our country because there was nothing here for us. The university of Maryland offered us a full scholarship (for each of us) to conclude our PhD in Latin-American Literature. In this way we found a chosen family within latinos with whom we lived for eight happy years. The alliances and complicities which are knitted during graduate school are for life. After graduating and working in American University in D.C. we moved to Virginia leaving family behind, not only Alejandro, our only son (in those days also in college) but also “the family” built with Dolo Lima, Cari Gonzalez, Silvia Mejía, Mariano Vales, Luciana Donato, Vivianne Salgado, Omar Karaman. Friends and family in spirit with whom we had drank, eaten, and enjoyed the camaraderie of holding each other close under the forced tension of a doctorate. In Virginia we discovered the rural south of the US, a calm space, similar in tone to the Andean mountains which we missed. Esteban never accepted the possibility of always living, retire, and eventually dying in that country. Esteban was being called by Cotopaxi, Antisana, Chimborazo. The taitas urged him to return.

And that is how in 2013 we returned with research funds from Prometeo. We had decided that rural life was our thing, that countries are more authentic, diverse, and real in their rurality rather than in their huge urban concentrations where differences have been erased and local culture has ceded to globalizing franchises.

Returning to Ecuador

Manabí was our destination, I was bringing a research proposal directed towards a reading and listening of manaba oral tradition as literature, evading the folklorization or hierarchies imposed by the academy. Esteban, on the other hand, was inquiring about the equinoccial condition as a constant element in the cultural product of the country. We worked in Manta with the ULEAM, an institution tragically alienated from regular university doings, where we found honest allies as Nixon García, Rocío Reyes, Amalia Reyes, Narcisa Rezavala. Even though we had the support and effort from these friends, our efforts succumbed to institutional resistance and, after completing the Prometeo period, a stable link with the university in Manta was closed. It was then when we were called from Guayaquil to support the University of the Arts. We headed in that direction with all our belongings, as we have always done: we installed ourselves like we were to stay for 20 years in that place. Guayaquil and the University of the Arts were an intense experience, full of challenges, immense joy and camaraderie. The friends we left behind in Guayas: Norberto Bayo, Aaron Navia, Jorge Gómez Rendón, Andrés Landázuri, Paulina Briones, Arturo Muyulema, Jorge Izquierdo and others marked profoundly our academic experience while at the same time enriched our legacy of friendships which are for life. These same friends saw us on on our way to Don Juan, Jama. It was march 15th of 2016, after two and a half years of building our home in Don Juan, that with a heavy heart we presented our resignation to that fantastic cultural and artistic project that is the University of the Arts.


Saturday April 16th of 2016, 18:50

That day had been espectacular, the greenery of the rainy season in Manabí shined with the contrast of the intense blue from a cleared sky. José Luis and Antonio, the master carpenters from Tabuga, had worked the previous 2 weeks with Esteban placing the shelves that held our library of 4000 books. They devoted that day to brushing cabinets, sand down cuts, and polish the last blemishes of our old furniture (some could confuse them for antiques, but they weren’t; they were just old furniture, pretty but old, bought in flea markets in Virginia and brought with the migrating container in which we carried that accumulated life through our gringo years).

That afternoon, when the carpenters, the plumbers, the construction workers had left, it was 6:30 pm, the hour to relax in Manabí. At that hour the neighbors get together in front of their houses, pull out a chair and they sit under a shade to chat up, people watch: greet and be greeted. That accumulated capital during the day is one of the rewards of living in a town that has no hurry, owes no one, nor is behind on anything. By that time, Esteban, bent on placing the last book on the tallest shelf of the library, found himself in the motlier corner of his study propped on the ladder, he heard me calling from the garden to help me with the laundry basket that I had just gathered up. Esteban came out to carry the basket, filled with clean laundry and smelling of sun. As we walked on the trail back to the house, it started: first lightly, then constant and finally brutal, savage. The worst or best thing that I had seen in my life: the privileged spectacle of a 7.8 earthquake which erases any recognizable contour, unifies bodies and disappears coordinates. An unrepeatable event (we hope) that happens outside of any reasoning by  which our pathetic species assimilates nature.

No one can pretend to know if there is a reason for these events to happen, no one can ascertain if there is something that stops or pushes an individual to find safety, no, there is no one, there is nothing, and I have no quarrel with that. Or the inverse. Everything is matter and that “everything” is what we felt shaking, first slowly, then, when we said, “it’ll pass, it’ll pass” and it didn’t pass, that everything started to gain strength, like a great dog that awakens and shakes, and the more it shakes the more it enjoys what it ejects, and like that, as a bug on the surface we were all shaken off: plants, trees, the house, us, we were all part of this everything that shook without bad intentions, or good ones… without other intention than that of shaking… matter shaking whole and one with it: there is nothing more. 663 deaths, 35000 houses destroyed (ours included) and millions of dollars in economic losses are the rational quantifying ways the human species uses to make sense of an event that has none.

The only explanation is to be found in how we respond to what happens to us.  Truthfully, what one does explains nothing, but gives meaning to that which has none. An “that” is life, with or without earthquake.

How did we arise?

One afternoon amidst the mud, the rubble and the destruction, after we had lifted up columns to salvage  plates and furniture from the collapse, Alejandra Cusme -my manaba sister- and I found ourselves overwhelmed by the immensity of what we had to lift up, clean, rebuild… In that moment, we decided to take a break, get away from so much disaster.  So we put on our  swimsuits headed to the beach. We took Domingo with us (the pet donkey of the house) we loaded his satchels with books and toys that had arrived as donations and we headed down to Don Juan, that was the beginning of our commitment.  During those weeks in which  volunteers, public institutions and the solidarity from everyone poured in with help, food, water and things to share, we realized that this collaborative spirit was something fundamental if we were to go beyond the crisis.

James Madden

James arrived in Don Juan in April 2009, as a Peace Corps volunteer from the US. He started to work with the community at once. Along with  the people from Don Juan, he  transformed an abandoned tourist office into a library, his most successful project. For over a year, James and his neighbors opened and managed the library, which had it’s hours, it’s everyday doings and a nice collection of books and games. This small place became a safe space, educational and fun.

In 2010 James continued living in Don Juan, then he met Rut and Esteban. They were vacationing in the same community and James showed them the famous library. They swore to return one day…. In June 2013 James left Ecuador leaving his dear library in the hands of his neighbors. He hadn’t heard from Rut or Esteban, though they had already been planning their return for years!.

In 2016, after the devastating  earthquake, the three of them met again in Don Juan.  James had returned from the US to help his neighbors and check on his house. Seeing it was destroyed, along with  the library, James decided to donate his plot to the rebuilding effort. Along with Rut and Esteban they began talking about a new organization that could revive the children’s library and other social projects: Fundación A mano Manaba…