A Call from Ecuador
My brother in prison.
A country I no longer considered home.
A people I thought I’d never understand.
This is my story. By Denise Garcia
March 2, 2016 | Photos by Dominique Pagan & Tony Yang
My brother Cesar was almost killed at the end of 2012. The way I heard the story, he laughed in the face of a man to whom he owed twenty dollars. Later the man came back and beat my brother with the rest of his crew until they thought he was dead. It happened in La Penitenciaria de Guayaquil Ecuador, where he was incarcerated for two years for drug possession. When my Ecuadorian relatives visited him in the hospital, he was unrecognizable.
Several months earlier I woke up at four in the morning. My heart was beating fast, and I called my mom. As soon as she picked up the phone, I asked, “Are you okay?”
She said that she was, and then I asked if she’d spoken to my brother Marlon that day.
“Yes, what happened?” she responded. “Why are you calling me at this hour?”
“What about Cesar? Is he okay?”
“I spoke to him earlier today, he went to see Grandma,” she said.
“I’ve had a bad presentimiento. I can’t go to sleep.”
She assured me that everything was fine, and we hung up. Two days later she called to tell me that Cesar had been arrested for possession of heroin at José Joaquín de Olmedo International Airport.
A Ten-Second Call
I was born in Brooklyn, but when I was three years old my mother took Marlon and me to her family in Ecuador to escape my father’s abuse. There I met my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins for the first time. We stayed nearly a year, but we had to return to the U.S. so my mom would not lose her green card.
Cesar is fourteen years older than me, and he was already in Ecuador with our grandparents when we got there. My father was in and out of my life, in and out of jail and battling his own mental illness, so Cesar was the one who looked out for me from the moment I was born. When we moved back to New York, Cesar came with us and started working and helping my mom. He took me to school and took care of me when our mom was at work. He was the one who had checked my report cards and gave me five dollars if I did well. He was patient with me throughout my teen years. He made jokes about everything, and he was always getting our mom the best presents for Mother’s Day, birthday, and Christmas. He had all types of jobs—from selling cars to working with nonprofits—and he sacrificed much of his youth to be a provider for us.
Before he was arrested, he had a young family, a good-paying job in Virginia, a current-model car, and a house. When he talked about his daughter growing up in a home—his own home—he was the happiest man in the world. I lived with him for a while, and I even had my own room. He had achieved the American dream in a sense.
Unfortunately, all that changed. He lost his job and soon he couldn’t make the mortgage payments. He lost his car and eventually his house. He and his girlfriend and their daughter moved to a project building on Staten Island where they stayed with his girlfriend’s family. He didn’t allow me to see his struggles or his pain, or the challenges he faced. So when I got the phone call saying he was in prison, I was stunned.
When, several months later, I heard about the beating, I started having dreams of Ecuador. I sensed that God was calling me to fast for Cesar for twenty-one days. I didn’t tell anybody what I was doing. I ate only fruits and vegetables, and only drank water. On the twentieth day Cesar called me. I had not spoken to him in a very long time.
That phone call seemed to be God telling me that he heard my prayers. The call lasted about ten seconds before it dropped, but it was all I needed to fill me with hope. I knew I needed to go to Ecuador to see my brother.
“Yo, Where’s Cesar?”
Six months later, on a Saturday morning in June, I walked into La Penitenciaria de Guayaquil Ecuador—La Peni. I had been back to Ecuador a couple times as a child to visit my family, but it had been nine years since I was there last. I was now twenty-one years old.
I had quit my job coaching structured recess games for elementary school kids in public schools in Brooklyn and the Bronx, and I’d taken the plane from New York where my whole congregation at Fellowship Covenant Church in the Bronx was praying for me. Their prayers lifted me up, and their support and encouragement gave me strength.
To get inside the penitentiary I waited in the all-women’s line for at least two hours. I watched correction officers flirt with prisoners’ wives and mothers pulling along crying children dressed in their best church outfits. Grandmothers wobbled down a line designated for elderly visitors, sweet-talking the guards as if they were their own sons. Young children sold candy, nuts, and water to the visitors. Some had no shoes. Some were dirty, but they were smiling, playing together, and eager to serve anyone willing to buy their wares for twenty-five cents. I thought about my own childhood in America and the kids I knew there. The contrast was stark.
Finally I made it past the last security check.
In the Ecuadorian prison, there are no designated visiting areas, so visitors spilled out into the courtyard, units, and cells. Because there was not enough food to go around, the residents were hungry, and I saw grown men begging for food. I did not know what crimes they had committed or how long their sentences were. But I saw their scars, their burns and bruises. They looked raw, needy, and helpless.
I entered the wards with my cousin Mariela. It felt like all eyes were on me, and I wondered if they could sense that I was a foreigner. I could feel my heart thumping against my chest; I knew I would see Cesar soon. I had heard rumors about him using heroin, and I was afraid I would see him half-dead or malnourished. I wondered if he would be angry that I had left the States to come see him. I hoped he would be happy to see me.
My mother was counting on me to give Cesar advice on her behalf: stay out of fights, start seeking God, think about your daughter. All of a sudden, I was overwhelmed by the expectations people had placed on me. I didn’t always have my own life together—how could I be of any significance in this place? What could I do for my brother?
As we walked toward Cesar’s unit, men clung to the metal railings of the doors, looking for a familiar face among the visitors. A man with one long braid greeted us and pulled the door open. The prisoners who clung to the railings parted like a sea to make room for us.
The first thing I noticed was the volleyball court. It wasn’t like the one I played on back in New York. It was an Ecua-volley court, a national sport similar to American volleyball but played with a soccer ball and three people on each side of the court. The net was higher than I was used to, and on each side of it children were mimicking the game with empty plastic bottles. They tried to pass, set, and hit the bottles to each other.
Entering the pavilion, I could hear the echoes of men selling candy, chicken and rice, water, even hammocks and artwork they had made. Salsa music was blasting from every corner, and the congo drums had no rest. It was as if the residents were celebrating the outside world by welcoming us with a party.
“Chupetes, chupetes! Five for twenty-five cents!”
“Se vende arroz con menestra y pollo!”
“Compre su Agua, compre su cola!”
A resident who was about five foot ten with brown skin looked at Mariela—whom he recognized—then at me. He was confident, had a thick voice, and was built like a football player. He turned his back and started walking away, indicating that we should follow him. He hollered in English, “Yo! Where’s Cesar?” He led us past the Ecua-volley court, past the hammocks and paintings, past the cement soccer field, past some men praying outside until we stopped at a staircase. “Yo, where’s Cesar? His cousin’s here,” he told the man sitting on the stairs.
The man on the stairs was light-skinned with a teardrop tattooed below his left eye. “He’s in his cell,” he answered. Later, I found out his name was Norman and he was from Brooklyn, like me.
When Mariela and I came to Cesar’s cell we knocked on his stained, chipped metal door. The sun was beaming, and between the Ecuadorian heat and my anxiety, I was drenched. I fanned myself with both my hands as I waited.
When Cesar came out, he looked thinner than I remembered, but the wide smile on his face was welcoming. His time in prison had given him wrinkles. His normally pale complexion was now salmon-colored from the sun, and he had lost more hair than he should have at his age. Tears welled up in my eyes as I embraced him. We didn’t speak for what felt like forever. Mariela broke the ice by asking him, “Comistes algo?” “Did you eat?”
All of a sudden, I was overwhelmed by the expectations people had placed on me. I didn’t always have my own life together—how could I be of any significance in this place?
Over the next two months, I saw Cesar at least twice a week, sometimes three times. The drive to La Peni from my cousin’s house took about an hour, and it was common for us to wait two hours to get inside. Visiting hours were from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., and sometimes people would be there waiting as early as five in the morning. The lines were ridiculously long.
Those first couple of visits, Cesar and I stayed silent for long periods. A sea of emotions was exchanged between us as we sat on the hard cement benches, dwelling on unspoken questions that had no answers. Where would we be if Cesar had not been found with six kilos of heroin in the airport? What would have happened if he had been caught in New York instead of Ecuador? What would his daughter think of him when she was old enough to understand? Would Mom be able to survive having her oldest son behind bars? I felt claustrophobic despite the open space where both visitors and prisoners mingled.
Cesar looked at his hands while I observed our surroundings. If we had a place to sit, he would often get up and get a cigarette. He walked with confidence, but I knew he only wanted to be home. What separated us were the blue stamp on my upper right arm and the black stamp on my right wrist proving I belonged to the outside world.
If we’d had been at Riker’s Island or a prison in upstate New York, our visits would have been limited to forty-five minutes. Cesar would have been in uniform, and I would not have been able to hug him. I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to listen to stories, observe faces, relate to families, or empathize with the other prisoners. La Peni gave me a chance to explore humanity in a different way.
Still, Mom and I wondered if being arrested in New York would have been better for him and us. She wouldn’t have had to borrow thousands of dollars to pay corrupt lawyers who ended up stealing from her. If Cesar had been in the States, his sanitary conditions would probably have been better. And of course we would have been closer to him.
Climbing Over The Railing
La Peni held men from all over the world—Dominican Republic, Cuba, Colombia, Spain, Czech Republic, Mexico, Ghana, the United States. Apparently, Ecuador had become a hot spot for the international drug trade. It was often the pit stop before traffickers made it to their final destination, the U.S. There were no stereotypical orange or grey jumpsuits. Instead, preppy boys, gang members, drug addicts, friendless inmates, and prayer warriors all were in one big enclosure. Apart from the dirt ground, the cell blocks, and the metal detectors, the faces I encountered could have easily been those on a college campus.
“When do you graduate?” Cesar asked me.
“I received my associate’s degree from Monroe College, and I transferred to Hunter College in the city. So I’ll get my bachelor’s by 2015.”
“What’s your major now?”
“English, I want to write books. I was in Poetry Idol this year; I made it to the fourth round.”
“Nice, so you’re not playing volleyball no more?”
“No, but I’m coaching and writing. I still work out and all that.”
“Good. So you’re doing good,” he confirmed more than asked. He smiled without looking at me.
“Yeah.” A burst of sadness filled my heart. I wondered if he ever wanted to go to college. I didn’t even know what he had wanted to be when he was a kid.
He introduced me to other people as “the athlete,” “the poet,” “the college student.” I had never heard anyone refer to me in those terms with such pride. I met Norman, another friend of Cesar’s from New Orleans, another from Chicago, and so on. The guys would ask me about the cold weather, which sneakers were in style, what artists were popular.
As my departure date neared, Norman gave me pictures to give his sisters and mother, and a pink bracelet he had made for his daughter in Brooklyn. He had not seen his family in more than three years. I dreaded the fact that I would not be able to visit Cesar again. I dreaded the thought of coming back to the States and not being able to see my cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandmother in Ecuador.
On my last visit, Mariela and I stood outside for four hours in ninety-degree weather, hoping the gates would open. The lines were stopped, and the guards gave no reasons why we were not allowed past the first security post. Our anguish grew as we waited. Women began climbing the railings that separated the visitors’ lines. Humiliated, sweaty, and anxious, we started climbing over the railings too. Angry women in despair surrounded the gates. It was my last Sunday before returning to the States, and I could not stand the thought of leaving Ecuador without getting to see my brother one last time.
“We want justice, we want justice, we want justice!” we began to shout.
We screamed for our rights to visit our loved ones. We chanted and climbed and yelled—yet no one seemed to hear.
And then police and commanding officers suddenly scurried to the scene and before we knew it, they were throwing gas bombs at us. Everyone scattered. Mariela and I ran across the street as smoke stung our eyes, nose, and lips. One woman who had been standing in the line with us fainted, and we hurried onto a bus, crying silently the whole ride back to her house.
As we walked up the rocky hill to my cousin’s home in La Martha de Roldos, I could see white and red balloons. Yellow and blue paint covering the cement walls stood out against the tin rooftop and metal door. My family had planned a going away party for me, but all I could do was find a room and cry myself to sleep. The smell of white rice and roasted plantains woke me up hours later. The sounds of children’s laughter and bare feet against cement and the dirt outdoors filled the air with life. My heart was overwhelmed with the love I had received throughout my stay in Ecuador, along with the prayers lifted up for my brother and me back home.
A New Vision
When I got home, I found a job and planned to return to my regular routine of living day to day—just like before I left. Yet something was different about me. I saw the faces of prisoners in La Peni in my dreams and woke up in the middle of the night to pray for them. I saw visions of myself holding children’s hands in Ecuador. My heart kept being pulled back toward Ecuador.
I began reading missionary blogs and stories, oblivious to what being a missionary meant except to serve God in a different country than the one I was brought up in.
Six months after my return, I met with my pastor, Kanyere Eaton, who told me about Covenant World Mission. If I was at all serious about pursuing missions, she said, our denomination had one of the best missions programs in the country.
Two years later I had completed my bachelor’s degree and was commissioned as a short-term Covenant missionary at the 2015 Annual Meeting. The process has taken me out my comfort zone in significant ways. With the help of partnerships and a support system around the country, I have raised more than half the funds I need. As I approach my goal, I praise God for where he has brought me, how he has called me, and for all the connections and relationships I have developed throughout these last two years. The process has been worth every second, every email, every phone call made to make this dream a reality.
In Ecuador I will be working with Covenant World Mission in sports development, education, and arts within Covenant schools, churches, and in the community. I’m planning to be involved in AVA (Advocacy for Victims of Abuse) and to visit some of the people I met in prison while visiting my brother. My hope is to host clinics where the youth of Guayaquil will have an opportunity to receive free English classes, free soccer and volleyball clinics, and to raise awareness of drug use and its consequences. My hope is that the disheartened, oppressed, and poor in spirit will have hope through this ministry that God has called me to do and be a part of. My prayer is that God will reveal himself and that he will be glorified above all.