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International Studios

iTown Studio: Ecuador

Article written by Saray Argumedo, student participant in the iTown Studio

 “I have been waiting for this day for a long time, I knew that someday our Indigenous brothers and sisters from all directions would come together,” expressed Jacinto Aguiaza Quizhpilema. In the Summer of 2015, the University of New Mexico, the School of Architecture and Planning (SAP), the Indigenous Planning Institute (iD+Pi) and the Latin American Iberian Institute offered an 8-week studio course. Called iTown Ecuador, it was a learning study abroad course designed to experience the social, cultural, political and economic forces that shape the Indigenous built environment in Ecuador

The journey began on June 17th, 2015, when a group of 8 students, 3 staff and 4 faculty members from the University of New Mexico arrived to Quito, Ecuador: Angelina Grey, Marissa Joe, Thelma Antonio, Justin Milburn, Waylon Ballew, Leonard Bonarek, Numir Latif, Saray Argumedo, Michaela Shirley (iD+Pi), Amanda Montoya (iD+Pi), Manon Robyn Côté (LAII), and Drs. Levi Romero, Theodore Jojola, Adelamar Alcántara and Laura Harjo.

A few hours after their arrival to Ecuador’s capital, the group took a flight to Cuenca where they spent one day learning about the colonial city. The following day they took a 2 hour drive to Cañar where they had the opportunity to appreciate first-hand the endless green lands of the Cañari community. The welcoming began with opened arms, the Cañaris offered food, their home and prayers. They took a moment to express their gratitude and appreciation for sharing the skills and guidance to help develop their community.

The door of opportunity had been opened for iDPi as well as for the people in Ecuador. A long-lasting friendship evolved from this encounter, iTown Ecuador had made history. It all evolved in the Spring of 2014when SAP faculty Drs. Theodore Jojola, Laura Harjo and Adelamar Alcántara had joined the Director of the Latin American and Iberian Institute (LAII) Dr. Susan Tiano and LAII Program Manager Manon Robyn Côté on a trip to Ecuador. The purpose of that trip was to meet with various universities and individuals about research and academic opportunities that focused on Indigenous community development. The group was also hosted by several Andean communities, among them being the Quilloac Kichwa village in the Cañar province, located a few hours outside of the city of Cuenca. A Cañari delegation came to UNM in the Fall of that year to explore the possibility of getting assistance from iD+Pi on an ecotourism plan they were developing.

Thus began the building of a cultural bridge between the peoples in the South and iDPi. iTown Ecuador wasn’t just any studio course for the School of Architecture and Planning, and for iD+Pi, it was a life- changing experience for the students, faculty and staff that were a part of it. The diversity of the group helped establish the foundation of the project, each having different areas of expertise to offer. This also allowed the Cañaris to express themselves freely, each community member having one area they were passionate about. “The beautiful Cañari culture and the exquisite landscape instituted a new meaning of community and tradition,” expressed Angelina Grey a Diné graduate student in the Community and Regional Planning program, “The reality of it all is both distressing and sanguine for this is the place in which I have recovered the true meaning of being Indigenous and being unapologetic for it.” Without any remorse or fear, the Cañaris opened the doors to their sacred land. They shared the stories and meanings of all that surrounds them, from the highest most sacred mountains to smallest and minimal attributes. “The mountains resonated so powerfully with me because my intuition signaled to me that I have seen this before,” shared Michaela Shirley Diné (iD+Pi) alumn and staff, “Perhaps through my ancestors who traversed through this same territory long ago. The Equator is a very special place and it is where I left prayers for my loved ones.”

This place and its inhabitants sparked memories and spiritual connections for iD+Pi. Some of the students that traveled had never before been out of the country, nor had they ever imagined having similarities with peoples who live across the world. But the feeling and connection between the two was reciprocal, “Perhaps if I should have opened my eyes sooner I would have seen the value of my culture,” expressed Luz Pichasaca, Cañari woman that currently works in the Department of Tourism in Cuenca. Pichasaca carried an emotional hurt when sharing her story to the group, yet she expressed how grateful she was to be amongst other indigenous peoples that also appreciated her culture, “We still have so much to accomplish as indigenous peoples.” This is true for all humanity; there is so much work that needs to be done now for our future generations. The Cañaris as any other indigenous community have also witnessed the loss of identity, language and values amongst the youth. As the group maneuvered through the hallways of the Andes, the conversations about local issues emerged, from the educational system to environmental issues and politics.

“No es que usemos la ciencia técnica como una solución para nuestra tierra, sino cambiando el Yo, el ser Primero, antes de intentar algo más” –Jacinto

“We can’t use and/or rely on advance technology to save our Earth, we should begin by changing the Self, the First Being, before attempting to change anything else.” –Jacinto

All entities had something to express about their own communities and this created a greater bond between the North and the South. “My community was erased by "progress," i.e., gentrification. It no longer exists, as in not one family remains from when I was a child. This type of "progress" is happening in Cañar right now,” expressed Leonard Bonarek, a graduate student in the Community and Regional Planning program at Temple University in Philadelphia.

In every encounter with community members, the students had the opportunity to collect the necessary information that would be needed to develop a thorough analysis on how to guide the Cañaris in preserving their culture and identity in the 21st century. “I want to give credit to Professor Ted Jojola, for his intellectual leadership, wisdom, and guidance to the UNM field team,” expressed Numair Latif from Kashmir, India. Latif had also developed a deeper bond with the Cañaris, he shared he felt as if he was home and he definitely envisions returning to Ecuador in the future.

The story doesn’t end here for iTown Ecuador, the communication between the Cañaris and iD+Pi has grown fonder and deeper as the days come. The development of the cultural preservation project is undergoing and plans on continuing in the summer of 2016, “The land and the people made a lasting impression on me and I hope to return one day to see them again. When we left, my heart sank as if I were leaving family behind,” expressed Thelma Antonio, a UNM Historical Preservation graduate student from Laguna Pueblo.

Regardless of the distances between us, the strength and the struggles of our people will always continue to reunite us. “It is important for iD+Pi to return to Cañar because we made a connection with the people, we are their family, and in a family, we have to help each other realize and actualize our hopes, dreams, and plans for a better community together,” shared Michaela Shirley.  As Shirley mentioned, the family continued to grow once they arrived to La Universidad San Francisco in Quito. Both USFQ and iD+Pi organized a two-day Indigenous Planning Workshop where they invited students and staff from USFQ to participate. The workshop had a diverse set of presenters and activities, the Indigenous Design Planning Institute faculty, staff and students presented both days. The workshops varied from USFQ to iD+Pi, Dr. Jojola kicked off the presentations with his 7 generation Indigenous planning paradigm, Dr. Alcántara moved the audience with the statistics she found on Ecuador, gasps and questions arose from her presentation, and iD+Pi staff Amanda Montoya and Michaela Shirley presented on the projects they worked on that involved their own communities.

As a part of the iTown Ecuador studio, students had to create a brief presentation on who they are and where they are from. Each of the students had the opportunity to share their own story.

The days were filled with emotion, the students bonded more each time they spent time together and everything fell into place with Dr. Romero’s poetry and Dr. Harjo’s indigenous mapping assignment. So much hurt and passion was shared that day, “During the Indigenous Planning workshop in Quito there was an upwelling of an emotion as individuals shared stories of land and place, and this is a form of knowledge production. In the spirit of the work of Indigenous scholars Dian Million and Linda Tuhiwai-Smith, this particular action of mapping is decolonizing, but is a form of “felt knowledge production”, which demonstrates a moment of beginning and ending that we were privileged to witness—the beginning of sharing untold stories about place and an ending to damaging actions within the communities,” expressed Dr. Laura Harjo.

The migration of this reunion went from North to South, once meeting and bringing Indian Country together the similarities emerged, from culture, food, values, land and the sharing of knowledge. This encounter turned into stories, hopes and dreams of establishing an international indigenous force all for the rehabilitation of our identity, our languages, our traditions and our Mother Earth or as the Cañaris call her, Pachamama.

“This is what this event was all about—starting the circle. We are bringing aspiring students from each part of the globe to reimagine their communities. It’s more than study abroad. It’s life-long motivation to make our Indigenous values matter as we continue to build the collective path for our people’s rounded future,” said Dr. Jojola.

The time has come. Indigenous brothers and sisters of the world are rising to continue the fight of our ancestors. As our leaders that paved the way for us in the 60’s and the 70’s get older, our youth are becoming wiser. Most importantly, it is they who are inspiring the unity between humanity, where we are reconnecting with those who share the same love for the land. This summer our story as indigenous peoples was recreated.