After a drought devastated La Cienga, Ecuador, every working family packed up and left. Just twelve somber senior citizens linger with the ghosts of their former lives.
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It’s dusk now, the light fading across a distant hilltop, sweeping over the cemetery’s weathered wooden crosses and crumbling mausoleums. Save for the swish-swish of the goats wending through the dry brush of the Ecuadorian countryside, all is silent atop the hill.
Tonight, the shadows grow longer and longer until darkness finally comes to La Cienega. Darkness and a deathly quiet.
Once, years ago, the laughter of children ricocheted through the valley below, echoing through the village streets, between the stilted homes, carrying all the way up the hill, to the rows and rows of wooden crosses.
Back then, children filled the schoolhouse, now just a pile of rotting wooden beams. Before the church was emptied and padlocked, children filled the aisles of plastic chairs, listening to messages about how God will provide. Now, the Virgin Mary statue is covered in cobwebs in a dark concrete building with barred windows. Some villagers still hang rosaries on a nail in their bedrooms, but those too are rusting and dirty.
Once upon a time, on those warm, still nights, even after it grew dark, children’s voices tumbled out of the open windows.
“We do not hear kids anymore because there are no kids,” says Lucas Evangelista Avelino Quimí, a 95-year-old farmer. The sun has darkened his skin, deepened the lines on his face. His eyes are sunken, his lips thin, his teeth mostly gone. But the muscles still ripple in his arms and back. He still wakes at dawn to haul wood up the steep hills and walk his donkey down to the well.
The few children who visit their grandparents here skip by the 60 dilapidated homes — made of the same guasango wood as the crosses on the hillside graves — and peek into the eight that remain inhabited.
The census data prove what the villagers already know: La Cienega is the only town in Ecuador with no children.
Avelino Quimí’s voice grows soft, yet insistent.
The dozen residents who remain, ages 64 to 95, have an obligation, he says — a solemn duty to the names on the crosses and the crumbling mausoleums on the hillside.
“If we are healthy, here is where we should be, in the village, until we die.”
Tonight, the first light to go on in La Cienega is a single yellow bulb under the village’s only painted house, a half-pink, half-purple home stilted above an orange concrete room scattered with beer bottles and cigarettes.
Here, a 70-year-old man lies in a hammock beneath a painting of a woman in a red bikini, thick dark hair thrown over her shoulder. She stands with a cocked hip and a seductive smile. Bolivar Quimí Avelino puts his hand on the wall near her shiny black heels and pushes himself into a gentle rock. His eyes are closed, his hands folded on his chest. He’s smiling, shy and embarrassed — not wanting to tell me why he needs a painted woman beside him where he naps.
He pushes his Angry Birds hat higher up on his bald head and his eyes crinkle, hinting at the coming punch line. “It’s common that someone coming from another town checks out the girl and asks me, ‘Does she work here?’ I say, ‘Yes, but on weekends only.’”
He seldom sees his 14 grandchildren, his seven children or his wife. They all live 65 kilometers away in Guayaquil, the country’s largest city, where the people talk fast and dance even faster. Quimí Avelino couldn’t keep up. He says his mumbled jokes and slow sway to staticky Latin tunes fit better here, where even the occasional passing car drives slowly. His wife, who moved to the city more than three decades ago, comes to visit or sends sausage every week. They love each other a lot, he says. But she loves the city life. And they both know he can never join her in the city.
Who would feed his chickens?
Who would look out the window at the grazing cattle and the day-old goat with wobbly legs?
Who else would carry these images just as his ancestors did before him?
Who would visit his parents’ coffins in the crumbling mausoleum on the hill?
This town used to be so alive, Quimí Avelino says, taking a long drag on a cigarette, holding the smoke in his cheeks. Every day of the week, “we used to dance.”
Nestled in southwest Ecuador, La Cienega was once a town with 300 homes scattered among the hills. Though there’s no record of the town’s peak population, some remember families that crowded more than 20 children under one roof.
The women would carry water from the nearby spring, the town’s namesake. But in 1974, the cienega dried up. A seven-year drought stripped the hillside of color. The ribs of livestock began to show. The ranchers who depended on taking the cows, goats and pigs to nearby markets were forced to trade all their starving animals. Before long the men started chopping trees and burning the wood to make charcoal, which they’d bag up and barter on street corners in surrounding towns. But then the trees thinned, and soon no one in the neighboring towns needed charcoal.
So families started packing. They took horse-drawn carts or hopped in the back of a pickup and left La Cienega for the biggest city, Guayaquil.
Then the teachers moved away. And soon, the mothers and fathers followed, taking the children with them.
It’s mid-afternoon and Solano Quimí Quimí slides onto his donkey, an ancient rifle slung between two protruding shoulder blades. With handmade bullets and a whistle to call deer, he heads into the hills. But he hasn’t seen a deer in two years, except in his dreams.
At 81, his sentences are rambling. He talks about God and the devil and the deer that elude him.
Lying in a fishnet hammock in an empty home of creaking wooden slats, he closes his eyes. He runs his fingers through his wild gray hair. Puts his thin, veined hands over his hooked nose. Tugs at his too-big trousers. His voice is pleading, fragile, cracking.
“Houses are lonely here,” he says. Sometimes, when his house is dark and silent, he listens for the spirits that walk in the valley. He has no wife or children. A few relatives in the city, but they don’t visit. He has a television, but it won’t turn on.
“When I talk to somebody dead downstairs, I tell him, ‘I’m alone. I’m alone.’ So they can join me.”
Death is always coming after you, he says. You just learn not to look back.
But sometimes, when he visits his mother and father buried on the hill, Quimí Quimí looks back over the town.
He can’t leave here because he can’t leave them. His faith is God and devils and spirits and his duty is simple:
“I don’t want to leave this town abandoned, because some people say that where you were born….” his voice trails off.
A while later, he looks out the window again and mutters to himself. “It’s because of the dead here,” he says. “That is why I don’t want to go to Guayaquil. That is why.”
Once a month, a truck comes to La Cienega and parks in the main street. Eight of the 12 villagers come to the truck, climbing into the bed for the hour-long ride on windy, gravel roads to the nearby town of Progreso. Then, together, they stand in line and wait for their monthly government stipend of about $50.
There’s the youngest, Francisco Avelino Quimí, the quiet 64-year-old they all call “The Kid.” There’s César Mateo Quimí, the man with the gruff voice who walks down from his home on the highest hill in town, where he cares for his shy sister and, for years, their deaf and mute aunt. Maria died in the spring after a decade of lying on a wood floor in a corner of their home. She was nearly 100 years old.
His sister, Hortencia Mateo Quimí, rarely comes down from the hill. Before Maria’s death, she sat by her aunt and brushed her hair, talked to her and propped pillows behind her back. Now, embarrassed to be a spinster, Hortencia worries she’s too ugly to be seen by the other villagers. She sweeps and cooks and looks out the window on the quiet valley she’s too afraid to visit.
There’s 95-year-old Lucas Evangelista Avelino Quimí, who still spends his days chopping and hauling wood on his parched cropland of dead watermelon vines and rows of tilled dirt waiting for corn seeds and yucca roots. And there’s his wife, Ignacia, who makes rice and fried plantains and washes clothes with water from the well.
There’s Arcadio Avelino Parrales and Rosaura Mateo Quimí, a generous couple that raises goats and herds them in at night with long wooden staffs.
With bags full of plantains and packages of fish from Progreso, the villagers climb back into the truck bed, holding each other’s knees when they start bumping down the road.
Bolivar Quimí Avelino is the only one who talks during the ride. He points out the green cebo tree with the carving on its trunk: “La Cienega” with a heart and an arrow pointing toward the town.
“That’s so more people come and visit us,” he says.
Later, in a pocket of shade in his home, César Mateo Quimí talks about the people who drive through the dusty streets of La Cienega. They almost never stop. His voice is hoarse, weighted with conviction.
“I’d say if in five or 10 years, if people from Guayaquil don’t come, we will all be lost: the people and the town.”
Sometimes, in the quiet moments sitting on his stairs, wiping sweat from his forehead, he thinks about those retirement houses in Guayaquil. He’d be cared for there, he says. But that’s not what he wants.
“We’ve got help from nobody except each other, which is why I’m good here. I’ll wait here for death.”
He gestures at a plain coffin made of thin wood in the corner of the living room. He bought it almost 15 years ago, when Hortencia was sick and he thought she was going to die. It’s been in the corner ever since.
“People from the other towns call us the dancing dead,” he says.
The only time of year La Cienega comes to life is for Día de los Difuntos, “Day of the Deceased.” Each year, entire families who long ago moved away return to pay respect to the dead on the second day of November. They line their cars up on the hills. They place hand-tinted photos and wreaths of colorful cloth flowers on the graves. They sit in between the crosses and share a meal. They celebrate their dead loved ones all weekend long. Into the early hours, the men sit in circles of plastic chairs, passing around bottles of Pilsner, smoking cheap Marlboros. The women bake flatbread in large, round ovens. The men wind electrical wire around the street poles to keep the lights and the dancing going all night.
On the Día de los Difuntos, children play and giggle and run up and down the hills. Some of them find toys from past years — the rusted tricycle, the child’s saddle with the small metal stirrups, the transistor radio that’s coated in mud from the last rain that came months and months ago.
And then the weekend is over. The families drive away. The village returns to normal.
It’s been months now since anyone opened the iron gates and walked among the hundreds of graves. The hand-tinted photos lie wrinkled and yellowed, the colorful fake flowers faded in crumpled heaps.
Tonight, in the fading twilight, a breeze picks up. The leaves rustle for a moment.
And then all is dark again.