Lives of Cañari girls and women

Dear Friends: While I was in Mexico last month, several of you sent me the link to the tragic story in the New York Times of the 12-year old Cañari girl, Noemi Álvarez Quillay, who hung herself in a children’s shelter in Juarez, Mexico, after being caught trying to migrate to the U.S. ( Her parents, undocumented immigrants living in the Bronx, migrated north when Noemi was a three, leaving her to be raised by her maternal grandparents, along with four young cousins left by other family members. A few months ago, Noemi’s parents arranged with “coyotes” to bring their daughter to the U.S, paying from 15-20 thousand dollars. These arrangements were made from New York through a vast human smuggling network that begins in the village where Noemi lived and extends through Central America, Mexico and the border city of Juarez where she died. Little is known about how she traveled – some deals involve flights to Mexico from Ecuador with false papers; others begin in Guayaquil on rickety fishing boats that arrive 5-8-days later off the coast of Guatemala, and migrants go overland from there, traveling by bus, truck and on foot through Central America and Mexico.


Noemi had been sent once before, a year ago, and – as she wrote in a school report – a school report! – she was detained in Nicaragua for two months before being sent back. She was only 11 then. Although I know many migration stories, I simply cannot imagine this girl – or my 11-year- old grandson, Cosmo, for that matter – leaving home alone on a dangerous journey, with strangers, detained for two months in a strange country, and sent back home.
From this creased photo published in the Times, I’d guess Noemi was seven or eight when it was taken, as a school ID photo. The article included a quote by her grandmother when Noemi’s mother told her she was sending for her daughter: “I said to her, ‘Why take her away? She’s studying here, she’s doing well.’ But my daughter says education in Ecuador is no good and it’s better for her to study there. And she took my Noemi away, only for this to happen.”

One month and 4000 miles later, Noemi was picked up in Juarez and taken to the shelter, Casa de la Esperanza and interrogated by a prosecutor, who was probably going after the coyote (in whose truck she was found). Noemi was reported to be terrified and crying inconsolably for a few days before she locked herself in the bathroom and hung herself with the shower curtain. An autopsy report showed she had not been sexually abused – an all too common crime against migrants that thankfully she was spared.

I suspected when I first read the article, and confirmed once home in Cañar, that Noemi was from a village I know well, not far from where I live (I don’t know the family, though their name is a common one). This past week I visited the country school where Noemi might have been an 8th grade student next year. I went to talk to the junior and senior girls about our scholarship program that sends low-income Cañari girls to university. “Ninety percent of our students are affected by migration,” Principal María Juana Alulema told me beforehand. “One or both parents are gone, and they are left in the care of grandparents, aunts and uncles, or others. As our students get close to graduation, all they can think about is migrating north. They do not concentrate on their studies.”

Below: Sisíd bilingual secondary school (Spanish/Quichua), for 9th -12th sisidPrincipal María Juana Alulema and the senior girls.girls sisidStill, in my talk with the girls I tried to present an option to migration – showing them photos of our present scholarship women and graduates, saying they were also poor and from similar communities, describing their determination and difficulties in getting through university, some while marrying and having children. I listed their professions: Pacha, dentist; María Esthela, Transito and Marta, nurses; Mercedes, lawyer; Carmen, economist; Juana, veterinarian; Luisa, physician.becarias 2013I also mentioned to these high school girls what they already know well: their jobs in the U.S. would most likely be limited to hair or nail salons (like Noemi’s mother), cleaning hotel rooms, working in restaurant kitchens, stitching clothing, and so on. Migrating, in almost every case, means the end of educations.

It was hard to read their responses (as you can see from the photo). But I gave the girls application forms and invited them to come see me and learn more. And I’ll go again next year, and the next, until we have a scholarship woman from this village.

In the week after Noemi’s death, 370 foreign child migrants were detained across Mexico, according to the national immigration agency. Nearly half were traveling alone. From the article: The number of unaccompanied minors caught entering the United States…is expected to reach 60,000 in the 12 months ending Sept. 30, an increase from 6,560 in 2011. 

But to return the the theme of education, I’d like to end with the story of another Noemi, the daughter of one of our scholarship graduates – Pacha Pichisaca, now a dentist with her own practice in Cañar. In the photo below, Noemi is the little girl on far right, looking straight at the camera, playing with other “scholarship kids” in the patio while their parents met in my studio. (“Keep ’em out of the fountain,” I can hear Michael saying. Impossible!)kids in patioNoemi is six or seven now. Her parents came from poor indigenous families that chose not to emigrate. Her father, Juan Carlos, a professional musician and teacher, and her mother Pacha married during high school and lost their first baby. But they persisted in getting through university, taking 5 or 6 years and having Noemi along the way. She is a bright healthy kid who loves school and her ballet lessons, living in a close family and village milieu with cousins, aunts and uncles, and grandparents, far from the hard reality of the Cañari diaspora in Queens, Newark, Minneapolis of the Bronx. With two professional parents, there is no question this Noemi will go to university, and she surely won’t need one of our scholarships. In only one or two generations, with educational opportunities, the lives of Cañari girls and women can be turned around.

I only wish the other Noemi had been given that chance.