Luis Eduardo Pérez Murcia: “An ordinary family… extraordinary human beings”

‘An ordinary family… extraordinary human beings’

by Luis Eduardo Pérez Murcia

I still remember the first time I mentioned to the research participants I have been working with in Manchester, London, and Madrid my plans to visit their families and friends in their places of origin. Some of them could not believe my plans and just said things such as ‘are you kidding me?’ or ‘I cannot remember the last time I visited my family and now you are saying that you can do that?’. Others showed excitement and started to bring me all their support to contact their relatives. Paola said ‘that is wonderful. My family will welcome you and show you everything. The place I was born, the place I used to live with my grandmother, our house, my school, and so forth’.

After nearly eight months I had met Paola and her family in Manchester, I found myself in Esmeraldas, Ecuador. Paola’s family was waiting for me in the airport and ready to show me everything, as she anticipated. The family gave me a warm welcome and expressed gratitude for me being there. Paola’s cousin, Andres, recalled: ‘when Paola told us that a person was traveling from Italy to Ecuador just to follow her life history I said, ‘yes of course. I know you are such an important person that a researcher will travel to Esmeraldas just to meet your family. Don’t worry, we will wait for him’. We found ourselves face-to-face, but Andres could not believe my only reason to visit Esmeraldas was talking with him and his family. Because the local beaches are so popular among tourists, he asked me a couple of times are you sure you do not want to go to the beach?

The sense of being welcomed by this family was overwhelming. They devoted three days of their time to my visit and gave all of themselves to make me feel at ‘home’ in their ‘houses’. After spending three days with them, I was more confident to label those places as ‘homes’. Paola’s aunt, Ruth, cooked a special recipe for me and blew up the dust of their photo albums to show me what she described as Paola’s memories in Esmeraldas. Ruth explained to me in detail the meaning and context of every photo. While showing me the photo album, Ruth mentioned that Paola used to have a very strong relationship with her grandmother and stressed Paola’s suffering when she could not attend her funeral. ‘She did all she could but it was impossible to attend the funeral. It was such a devastating moment for her. As soon as she could, she travelled to visit her grave’. At this point of the conversation, I just recalled how often Paola had mentioned her grandmother in our conversations. She stressed how her grandmother was not only the person who raised her, but also the person who used to make her feel at home back in Esmeraldas.

Photo 1

Photo 1: Paola’s memories of Esmeraldas

While talking about Paola’s memories of home in Esmeraldas, Ruth reflected on the impact of migration on one’s sense of family and home. She said that Ecuadorians often migrate in the search for economic betterment and stressed that some of them improve their financial situation but often find their sense of family and home [hogar] being disrupted. She stressed ‘I do believe we must stay in our country; our country is our home. I cannot understand why people want to risk their families, their homes when they can even die in the journey’. Then, she added: ‘The bible clearly states that we need to be patient because ‘after a storm, comes a calm’. We cannot just go when in need, we just need to wait in our land. I want that people become aware that migration is not the only way to move forward’.

The attitudes towards migration in this family could not be more diverse. While Ruth showed her disagreement with migration because of its negative effect on people’s sense of family and home, other members of the family stressed their regret for going back to Ecuador after living years in Spain or just shared with me their migratory ambitions. Paola’s sister, Vanesa, left Ecuador to join her partner but struggled to feel at home in Spain. She missed family and friends and living in a warm weather all year round. ‘Every winter in Spain I felt so much away from home. I could not bear with very low temperatures. Every winter, I wanted to go back home’.

Vanesa capitalised on the Spanish government’s policy to encourage migrants to go back ‘home’. When the policy was launched, she just discussed the issue with her partner and submitted an application. ‘From one day to another we sold all our belongings and found ourselves back in Esmeraldas. I remember Paola told me: ‘wait Vanesa, wait for your Spanish passport. Then, you can go back and forth as you wish’. After a couple of years back in Ecuador, Vanesa started to regret about her decision. ‘At the beginning everything was great. People welcomed us and we invested our money in a dreamed house. Since the very first time I saw that house, I thought it would become our home’. Sadly, and because of financial mistakes, Vanesa and her family lost the house they used to call home. Since then, Vanesa stressed, her family is trying to find its way back to Spain. ‘I see Esmeraldas as home because I live here with my family, but I believe our home for the future is Spain. We are willing to go back there soon and this time we do not expect to return to Ecuador. We cannot make the same mistake twice. We love our country, but our future is there’.

Paola’s cousin, aunt, and mother-in-law, Andres, Jiny, and Mary, respectively, are just looking for opportunities to migrate. Andres said, ‘you work hard in this country, but you do not see any opportunities to move forward. Sometimes, I think the only way to move forward in this city is migrating’. Andres is so inspired by Paola’s migratory experience. He explained to me that despite all the odds, Paola and her partner have achieved something that only few people can achieve in Esmeraldas: buying a house. ‘They worked hard for years in Spain, but you see the outcome of their work. Now, they have a live full of opportunities in the UK and a house for the family in Ecuador’. Andres has relatives in Spain, Switzerland, and the UK and is looking forward to getting some support from his family to migrate. ‘I have not a clear plan of where and when to migrate, but I see myself, my wife, and my children living abroad. Our children will have much more opportunities abroad. Look at Paola’s children, they speak English very well and will go to a British University. They will have a very bright future. We want this kind of future for our children. Hopefully, we can migrate soon and, after a few years, buy our house here, in Esmeraldas, in this neighbourhood’.

Photos 2 and 3: Photo on the left: the house Paola used to live with her grandmother; Photo on the right: the house Paola and Douglas bought after their return from Spain. 

Jiny explained to me that she had been looking for opportunities to migrate for over a decade. She recalled that she had had the opportunity to migrate to Spain once, but she could not take the chance. Instead, she said, ‘I asked Paola if she wanted to migrate. I did not expect she was willing to take the risk, she was always a bit ill and so fragile. But look at her now, she is such a great source of inspiration for all of us. I wish I could join her in Manchester. I am sure we will cook together and make a living selling our Ecuadorian food for the British. Oh, I see, we will have a great time together; we truly love each other’.

Mary’s partner, sons, and several siblings live abroad. ‘I am the only one here, I expected to migrate long time ago, but I could not. Now, there are two years left for my retirement. As soon as I got my pension, I will join my son in the UK. I love Esmeraldas, but my family is there’. She recalled ‘when Paola and Douglas (his son) were living here, I felt at home. Every day, after work, I had a place to go, people to share with. I was always welcome there. Paola always told me ‘Mary does not cook in your house; your dinner is waiting for you here. It was not for the food itself, it was my time to feel at home, sharing with them. I cannot wait to experience this feeling again’.

As I have tried to explain in the previous paragraphs, my ethnographic engagement with this family in Esmeraldas was a significant opportunity for understanding the diverse attitudes towards home and migration that can be found in a single family. While some see home only in the place of origin, others are still looking for a place to make a home abroad.

Finally, I want to highlight that working with this family was a hugely rewarding experience. They did not only their best to make me feel comfortable in their homes but also showed great interest in our research. The ethnographic engagement with this family has reinforced my conviction that our research genuinely matters for many research participants. The time they devoted to stay with me in the field showed me that they put our research amongst their priorities. I cannot thank you this family enough for being so welcoming and supportive with our research but only say that now I can really make sense of Caroline Moser’s title for her research with Ecuadorians: Ordinary Families, Extraordinary Lives… For this blog, I would rephrase it as ‘an ordinary family, extraordinary human beings’.

Photos 4, 5 & 6: ‘The extraordinary human beings I met in Esmeraldas’: Andres, Jiny, Ruth, Vanesa & Mary