On how we arrived to Don Juan

A while ago, back when we were still professors at the University of Virginia in the US, Esteban and I (Rut) would return every summer to our native Ecuador. We used to make this trip because we never wanted to set our minds on the north, we were professors of Latin-American literature, and it made sense to return to reconnect with the country, the region, and its literature. During the summer of 2012, after concluding the semester and headed to Ecuador, we had some articles waiting to be written and their deadlines quickly approaching. If we were to go, we would have to hide from family and friends to be able to write and turn-in the articles on time. We asked our friend Mercy Serrano to find us a little house on the beach: some place in Manabí, as remote as possible, without a phone, no internet, and even better, without accessible roads.

This is how we spent our first idyllic summer in Don Juan, a village in Jama county, at the 70 km mark on the Spondylus route. Indeed the little town (or bus stop, to be frank) lacked all forms of communication: the phone signal was very spotty, the little house we rented had no internet and the road was a dusty stretch where roadwork trucks would go to and fro without any promise of completing their task. The place was ideal for us to concentrate in reading and writing our articles. Then, one afternoon while we were at it, someone knocked on our door. We opened it to a young gringo with a wide smile, the kind of smile only cool gringos have, he introduced himself in perfect Spanish: “I’m James Madden, I live here in Don Juan, and I know you are literature professors”. I was quite surprised that he knew about us. We had just arrived a few days before and we had only gone to the corner store next to the bridge to purchase the basics. We had yet to make friends, how did he know our profession? Such is the nature of a small town: everything is known, even though we may never know how it was known to begin with… Anyway, after telling us that he had to leave for Quito the next day and asking us to come down to Don Juan to open a small library that he had organized, James stayed all afternoon telling us about his life, his commitment to the Don Juan community, and Tabuga, where he worked as a biologist and coordinator of student trips with Ceiba Foundation. His enthusiasm for the country, it’s plants, it’s geography, and the people from this province was truly moving. He told us, among other things, that he felt more freedom, more alive and owner of his life since he had been living in Don Juan, where he had built his house, next to the fishermen’s houses. His house was paid for, he had no mortgage -a token of adulthood in american culture- and that he thought people in the US were crazy since they spent their entire lives working to bestow their children with the mortgages that had tied them to servitude their whole lives. James is that type of person that exudes enthusiasm for what he does and his arguments, though a bit extreme, were irrefutably transparent.

After the conversation and immediate friendship, we saw James a few times during that summer but, what happened to us in the little library in Don Juan, was what changed our lives. The next day after James’ visit we headed down at the agreed time, since we were in vacation we headed down very relaxed without noting the exact time. When we arrived to the small building where the library was located, we encountered more than 15 children waiting at the door! This was simply unheard of. In a community of about 100 people, 15 children were waiting for the library doors to be opened. It was then that we re-evaluated what we were doing, working in the US and that same afternoon we decided to return to Ecuador and do everything possible to work again at James’ library in Don Juan.

A new life and an earthquake

This is how a long process of moves and letting go started: we left our tenure positions at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise of, we requested scholarships as researchers for Prometeo-SENESCYT in Ecuador, which we obtained in order to train professors for humanities research at ULEAM in Manta, where we arrived in the middle of June in 2013. We looked for a small plot of land in Don Juan where we could build our house, we delayed in starting construction and our dream of working in Don Juan was postponed until 2016. We were almost 2 years in Manta and later one year in Guayaquil at the University of the Arts. During that time we built a bamboo cabin and later a brick home where we also housed our books and documents. Once it was finished we had to decide between continuing to work in the marvelous project of the University of the Arts or to move forward with our dream of doing something very close to the people of Manabí, their fishermen and montubios in Don Juan. We quit our full time positions in Guayaquil on march 15th, and that same day a truck took all our belongings from Guayaquil to Don Juan.

A month and a day later after moving, when we were just celebrating what seemed the completion of the arrangement of our belongings in our house and that we could start to organize our projects in Don Juan, at 6:50 in the afternoon, a 7.8 earthquake destroyed the house which we had been eagerly building for 3 years. It plummeted in front of our eyes while we struggled to keep balance on our feet. The house fell with more than 85 per cent of houses in the Don Juan community, which were left completely destroyed. Luckily, as with the majority of the population of this village, our lives were saved, though we continued (and continue) to face the sequels brought by the forces of nature.


Nacimiento de la Fundación A mano Manaba (FAMM)

A few days after the earthquake, in the middle of the rubble, the stubbornness of moving forward and the need to open up spaces that would rescue us from sadness and the loss of enthusiasm, together with another unconditional friend, Aleja Cusme, we loaded a few books on the back of our small donkey Domingo (whose full name is Domingo Faustino Sarmiento) and headed down with a bell calling for the kids to come read. Domingo, the librarian donkey, pulled a large gathering and quickly the kids joined to the books’ call. That afternoon,  more than 3 years later, we read once again with the children  Don Juan. This time in the middle of the disaster that the earthquake had left on it’s way.

During those days James, who now lived in California but had returned to Don Juan bringing help to the victims of the earthquake, visited, once again Sitting on the rubble of what had been his house, we came up with the idea of opening an intercultural center that would have as a central force a children’s library. This time James provided to the emerging organization the property and whatever was left of his house to erect the intercultural center and the library. On top of what was left of James Madden’s house we held the first meeting of what today is A mano Manaba Foundation. In that same house we gathered neighbors for meetings and children for reading, painting, reconstructing the present and imagining a future for Don Juan. In that little house, semi-dilapidated, we decided the first steps to create FAMM, and there also we met the first friends and external sponsors: María Espinosa from Ayuda Directa, later we were visited by Susan Poats from Grupo Randi Randi Corporation; friends from La Rana Sabia; the Art for Life Caravan from Manta’s La Trinchera; the collectives De la Floresta and Pic Nic de Palabras from Quito and many others that have joined the dream of creating a library and a center that will push dreams and realities for Don Juan and Jama. In that same place we now have a little Caemba hut donated by the CENIT foundation that houses the library which is visited each day by more children, young people, and adult neighbors that want to dream and build this community of dreamers.