When I was four we flew to Quito. Me and my sister wore the navy blue crushed leather jackets my mother made special for the trip. We both threw up in the aisle, dizzy from the swirls and swooshes that carried our plane to the ground.
Single file behind my parents we stumbled off the plane, slapped awake by the cold morning air. Standing at the top of the portable stairs we tipped our heads back to see the enormous grey sky, bigger than I thought skies could be, thick with clouds towering like giant palaces of fluff.
The Andes stood in a silent circle around us. Big dark patches floated across the mountains, cloud shadows that moved like cows grazing in the deep green and black slopes.
Inside my lungs, the mountain air felt clean and thin, smelling like soil from the day the earth was born.
On that first trip we stayed with my cousins, near the old part of Quito, where my father and his sister had lived as kids. There, ancient apartment buildings hovered over the narrow sidewalk with huge wooden doors that swung inward from the thick stream of people passing by. Sometimes I walked past just as a door opened, catching a glimpse of shirts and underwear hanging on clotheslines, hearing the clang of pots in a kitchen I couldn’t see.
In my cousins’ old house we piled into the dining room everyday at 1pm: my grandmother, aunt, uncle, cousins, and us. Fat bottles of Coca Cola stood on the table next to a wheel of white cheese on a round plastic plate. Lunch looked like dinner, with a thin, tough piece of meat next to a pile of white rice guarding the insides of two baked red bananas.
The table was balanced by my uncle on one end and my aunt on the other. At the head of the table my tiny uncle sat, smiling and leaning forward to pronounce a phrase in English he hoped we’d understand. Across from him was my aunt with her perfect posture, nodding thoughtfully to whoever was talking. My grandmother had a chair but she didn’t sit down much, shuffling back and forth from the kitchen making sure everything was okay.
My grandmother was almost deaf and only recognized what she’d known for a long time. “Quien son estos ninos?!” she’d scream as we ran past with our cousins. Sometimes she glared at us like we were criminals; other times she smiled shyly, like we were people she’d seen at mass. I hated meeting her alone in the early morning as we walked our separate routes to the same bathroom.
My grandmother was very thin, her hair still black and sleek with wiry white squiggles that seemed to sprout from a different person. I loved the gold teardrop earrings she never took off, a part of her body like a nail or a tooth. When I was born my grandmother sent a pair of earrings for me, small blood colored stones hanging in gold settings. The back of the earrings terrified me: a pointy notch had to pass through the pierced hole, followed by metal zig zag teeth meant to stop an earring from ever falling out. In Ecuador, earrings were a lifelong commitment.
My cousins left the old city in 1970, moving to a bigger place on a wider street, out where the houses hid behind tall concrete walls. On top of the walls broken bottle pieces stuck out, forming a jagged line of amber, green, and clear glass, interrupted by sickly but threatening cactuses.
Driving out from the old city I saw abandoned projects everywhere. On both sides of a road the forgotten beginnings of an overpass stood on enormous concrete blocks with giant metal tentacles breaking through the top, gnarled up and out in all directions. “They start something but run out of money,” my father told me when I asked.
In the new house we kids ran up and down the stairs or up to the roof, excited by the wide open space protected by a thick ledge. We’d go up there during the sunny part of the day, between the morning clouds and the late afternoon rain, before we put on our scratchy wool sweaters for the coldness that came at night. From the roof we looked out across the city to the edges of the mountains, or down to the dirt alleyway where a family lived in a hut they built against the wall.
Downstairs on the dark wood squares of the living room floor we played circle games, clapping together in rhythm, taking turns making creatures with our hands. The rules weren’t written down but we knew them by heart: which snake could live, which bird would die.
We stayed inside a lot because grown ups were fighting over who was in charge of the country. Me and my sisters didn’t mind being indoors: we’d already been hit with teargas, walking near the university when students ran past us down the block, chased by soldiers yelling and pointing their rifles.
I was scared of the soldiers, who looked like the uniformed men I’d seen on TV back home. The National Guard has been called in to Detroit I heard once, then again about some city I didn’t know. Tanks, I learned, were everywhere.
Once, during one of the Ecuadorian coups, we stayed at Residencial Americana instead of with our cousins. Residencial Americana was a short-term apartment building mostly rented out by US military families. My father was back in the US so it was just us and our mom in that small room: no cousins around and no place to play. For hours we kids lay together on one queen bed, bored, thumbing through Babar en Espanol. My mother napped a lot, or stood by the screened window, looking out at nothing, lifting a thin white cigarette up to the O of her lips.
Residencial Americana’s lobby felt like an old lady’s living room, with stuffed couches, fake plants, and white quartz ashtrays. There was a hair salon next to the lobby which was the only part of Residencial Americana that felt alive. Inside the salon the women laughed and talked as they combed up shiny strands of hair to snip. They always talked nice to us kids, so we knew they were mommies with children waiting for them at home.
When the coup started, the US government ordered American military personnel to stay off the street. “Why do American soldiers need to stay inside?” I asked my mother. “When they’re shooting at each other,” she said, “they might decide to shoot at an American.” Was that true? I thought. Were we just in the wrong place at the wrong time?
We loved Residencial Americana during the coup and were excited to watch the Americans gather in the lobby with baseball caps over their buzz cuts, wearing jeans and t-shirts laminated with logos of the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. Some of them had wives, thin women with blond hair teased up, then smoothed into bouncy plateaus above their heads. The Americans closed the lobby curtains and pushed a table up against the wall, setting out bowls of popcorn and bottles of whiskey. A soldier from North Dakota strummed Hey Jude on the guitar while my older sister and I learned to play poker using match sticks for chips. A line of men stacked crates of bottled water against another wall in case one side of the military or the other cut off the city water supply.
The coups ended by the time I was a teenager lying in my cousin’s bedroom listening to Supertramp. Quito moved faster then, with sparkling new hotels rising downtown and a thickening layer of smog leaving black speckles on windows and cars. “Really nice” I told my cousins when they took me to see La Favorita, the first supermarket to open in Quito.
I didn’t know then how Texaco was bulldozing through the Ecuadorian Amazon, spraying carcinogenic crude oil on dirt roads to keep the dust down, making lakes of toxic waste and paying the military to point guns at mothers refusing to abandon their homes.
I didn’t even know where my father was from. I always thought he was born in Quito, and everyone acted like that was true, until we were grownups and my cousin told me the story.
My father was born in a train stop town called Alausí. The train ran, my cousin told me, from the hot crowded streets of Guayaquil past groves of banana trees, high up the Andes to Quito’s hushed stillness, ten thousand feet above sea level.
Passengers stopped in the town of Alausí for an hour or a day, on their way to the cold vast skies of the capital city. Sometimes years would pass as a father tucked money into a wooden drawer, a mother pulled a scarf over her nursing baby, or a toddler took his first wobbly steps.
I saw the coast once with my family, where we stayed in a painted cinderblock “studio” rented out by a thin woman holding a baby on her hip. I found out later how she and most everyone on the coast were the great grandchildren of African people who escaped the cargo holds of ships owned by rich men in Europe.
My mother told me later that my grandmother was born in Yaguachi, across the river from Guayaquil, and that my great aunts lived in a hut on stilts with a hole in the floor for a toilet. I learned that my great grandmother had a name too, not just my great grandfather, the famous German who mapped the Ecuadorian coast. His was the only photo on my grandmother’s bedroom wall, next to a wooden cross and a painting of a Jesus with blue eyes.
Decades passed before I thought to wonder how long the German had been in Ecuador and how many children he’d left behind; before I knew that the faint hiss in my grandmother’s Spanish was an echo; before I realized that the cooked bananas on my plate were foreign in the mountains I thought we were from.
Decades passed before I thought to wonder how many of our Residencial Americana friends were CIA. Not all of them, maybe, since the CIA swarmed the country a whole decade before that, going in after Ecuador’s president refused to cut off relations with Cuba or put Ecuadorian communists in prison. The CIA had a field day, sending agents into every political organization in Ecuador, egging on the most violent fringe groups, staging riots, and planting bombs they blamed on someone else. By 1963 the CIA had helped with two coups that brought a military junta to power. The US put things into motion, but it was the Ecuadorian military who outlawed communism, rounded up leftists (using the CIA list) and threw them in jail, suspended civil liberties, and canceled the national elections.
I never heard anyone talk about what happened, about how they felt, about how hard it was for them. Had they known someone—a university professor who lost his job, a friend’s daughter arrested at a student meeting, a distant cousin beaten by police?
Years later I sat on the pavement at the CIA headquarters outside Washington, my arms linked with other protesters as we awaited arrest. By then I knew about the atrocities in El Salvador and Guatemala, but not the story I had lived in.
History was hidden for me as a kid, flying back and forth across the continents, landing and taking off, peering out through the yellow tint of a plexiglass window.
Each time I left Quito, my family drove me to the tiny airport in the old station wagon they called El Burro. In the airport, stone-faced military police nodded me past security into the waiting room, the only public place in Quito where no one sold food. There I sat with the other passengers on plastic yellow chairs bolted into the grey linoleum floor.
When it was time I walked out onto the runway and up the shaky metal stairs to the airplane, looking back at the silhouettes in the tall glass windows. I could always make out my aunt in the crowd, the black halo of her hair above the other heads, her hand rising gently to wave goodbye.
At the top of the stairs I stopped, breathing in the ancient soil’s thinning smell, then boarded the plane to go home.
Julie Quiroz lives in Michigan and works in California. She edits a social justice blog called Let’s Talk and frequently posts her own writing there. She’s a 2013 and 2014 VONA Writer in fiction. “American Residence” is her first published story, adapted from her forthcoming novel, Tangerine Winter.