Every year on the first midnight of January, Ecuador celebrates La Quema del Año Viejo (the burning of the old year). My father used to build our family’s monigote — also referred to as the “old man” — using his old clothes. At the waist, he would stitch a shirt and a pair of pants together. Later, he would fill it with sawdust and old newspapers. He would then close the legs and arms with stitches. We would purchase a prefabricated paper mache head with a painted face of an "old man" as the finishing touch.
We would bring our monigote to the middle of the street, where our neighbours would come out with theirs and we’d pile them all together. Everyone would buy gasoline and explosives to set them on fire, we would jump over the burning pile while laughing and hollering. Granted, these were not commercial fireworks, and all I can recall was staring out the window from the safety of a car, entranced.
This old Latin American celebration started as a way of purging the clothing of victims of yellow fever, and today it serves as a symbolic cleansing ceremony to start the year, as a way to repel bad luck. We write notes which we place inside the monigote with all the bad things that happened during the year, in addition to our dreams and desires. This ritual of purification by fire, which clears the way for grieving, is the doorway to hope.
In 2022, I travelled to Ecuador for the first time in five years. On May 26, at 9:27 am, I was seated aboard flight AV8385 landing in Guayaquil. I was feeling weary after travelling for over 24 hours from Halifax and I was waiting for my row to be called to disembark. When my row got called, I stood up too fast and ended up pushing a man standing on the aisle. I apologized to him but he was not having it, and said to his friend very loudly, “I think that one is bitter.” That one being me.
The expectation of respectability is something that haunts me. The labels of bitter and aggressive have been following me around for a long time. Disagreeing with others, being blunt, and expressing needs are always interpreted as hostility. In Ecuador, I’m perceived as a capital W Woman — more idea than person — which encompasses a specific series of behaviours enforced by others around me. If I get out of line, I will be put back in my place.
During the trip, I was at a family lunch where parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins gathered. My father offered me his favourite drink, carbonated apple juice, and even though I don't often enjoy sweet things I tried it. After taking a sip, I mentioned it was too sweet for my taste, and immediately one of my cousins chimed in, saying “is that because you are bitter?”
It may seem like a little inconsequential thing, but nevertheless, it was the second time in less than a week a man had referred to me as bitter. This kind of behaviour is a continuation of an unspoken belief that every non-man person is merely an appendage and not a fully formed human.
It always starts small with malicious comments disguised as jokes and looks of disdain, only to escalate to full-blown hatred. Since femicides became a felony under Ecuador's Código Orgánico Integral Penal (COIP) in 2014, 2022 was the year with the most fatalities.
This year is already expected to be the most violent year in Ecuadorian history with jail massacres, organized crime, drug trafficking, sicariatos, kidnapping, and what the government refers to as the “war against the State.” The COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated problems that were already under everyone's noses. I have heard the vilest things spill from the mouths of my family members, as it is easy to judge how others try to survive. There is a lack of acknowledgement on their part of how state-generated poverty traps communities in cycles of violence. There is an avoidance of reality which ignores enduring issues like unfettered corruption, economic inequality, and unemployment.
Fear is in our veins and it is not something that can be purged. I’ve lived away for almost ten years now and I can still feel it. We wait all year in hopes of shedding the nightmares that torment us and finding solace in the mischief of the end-of-year effigy.
By the end of 2021, the COVID-19 Omicron variant came in swinging and once again it uncovered how only some people are worth protecting. The so-called Freedom Convoy claimed initially to be looking after the interest of cross-border truckers coming from the US before becoming a catch-all for every conspiracy theorist under the sun. They drove with Canadian flags all over their pompous trucks through multiple cities across the country, only serving as a distraction by making the loudest noise to instill fear. Their sense of “national duty” exposes the foundation of this country, built on entitlement, contempt and faux civility.
Nationalism is not encouraged in Ecuador and I’ll argue that it’s frowned upon. There is an admiration reserved for North America that was impossible to escape, now that I’m faced with the reality of living here, it’s not as shiny.
I barely left my apartment all year to minimize COVID risk due to a lack of government guidance. Boredom has been an everlasting feeling coating every moment, and I’ve found companionship by consuming an excessive amount of films and television. I don’t believe the over 300 films I’ve watched this year have alleviated my boredom but they have soothed my desire to engage with the world. I organized the movies based on themes: obsessive behaviour, idealized women, sad men, and blood floods, just to name a few. These lists made it seem like my monotonous viewing added up to something. Under The Skin (2013) and Barbarian (2022) fed my interest in perceptions and depictions of monstrosity. Movies like Pearl (2022) and The Banshees of Inisherin (2022) opened up conversations about entitlement and politeness. In an effort to sit with the discomfort of boredom, I watched movies that I thought to be excruciatingly dull, in a way that made me feel part of something noteworthy.
During this period of time, I rewatched Severance multiple times. The tv show introduces Lumon Industries, a biotechnology company, which utilizes a "severance" medical procedure to divide some of its workers' non-work memories from their work memories. In a scene, Harmony Cobel (Patricia Arquette), one of Lumon's top managers, is in her home and has a cross stitch hanging on the wall that reads, "WE MUST BE CUT TO HEAL." Those words seem to suggest a rite of passage that, like the effigy, must be earned through hardship.
“Hay que reventarlo bien!” my mother would say with a huge grin every December 31. I knew from her tone we couldn't just passively light the effigy on fire, we had to watch it burn. We had to blow up the monigote and get it right, to make sure next year would be filled with blessings. My parents and I share a similar sadness, I catch them reluctantly going along with North American traditions that are unsatisfying to them. We miss La Quema del Año Viejo and New Year’s doesn’t feel the same, there is no sense of anticipation, no comradery. Thinking back, it’s the silliness and levity that I yearn for the most.
Perhaps it’s the seriousness of silliness that unlocks the door to hope.