For the 60,000 residents of this rural county of green hills and small villages, migration is something of a rite of passage. The share of Cañar’s people leaving the country is greater than that of any other district in Ecuador. More than 70 percent of its households receive remittances every month, and rely on them to cover basic necessities.
The costs can be great, especially on children, who are left behind by their parents or also embark on the perilous treks, sometimes alone. And the economic effects are sometimes perverse: In Cañar, big houses built with money from abroad stand unfinished or abandoned as more residents leave.
But beyond the cautionary tales, Cañar also stands for one of the great overlooked benefits of migration: unprecedented access to education and jobs, freedom of movement and financial independence for women, especially indigenous women, whether they left and returned, or never left.
Emigration from Cañar started in the 1960s, after a drop in the export price of locally produced straw hats pushed local men to move to Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city. Falling oil prices gave way to debt and inflation in the 1980s, and by the 1990s, many peasants had lost both their meager savings and their livelihoods. Over the next 15 years, about half of Cañar’s population, mostly men, went abroad, especially to the United States and Spain, looking for jobs.
I met Barbarita Pichasaca, an indigenous Cañari woman and mother of four in her early forties, in August. Soon after her husband left for Brooklyn in 2001, he asked her to join him. Ms. Pichasaca borrowed money from a local loan shark and embarked on a dangerous journey from the highlands to Ecuador’s coast, north to Central America by boat, and then through Mexico by train, bus and on foot. After less than a year of doing cleaning jobs in New York, Ms. Pichasaca could afford to send money home for her children’s food and clothing. “But they suffered too much,” she said. “So I told my husband: ‘You’re a big boy, but my kids are not; they need me.”’ She came back to Cañar in 2006.
Ms. Pichasaca’s choice would spell the end of her marriage. But it would also mark the beginning of her freedom and personal success. Within a couple of years of her return, she became the first woman to open up a bank specifically for and by migrants. Taking advantage of a 2002 Ecuadorean law meant to alleviate migrant debt and generate local investment, Ms. Pichasaca’s Cooperativa de Ahorro y Crédito Del Migrante gives out low-interest loans between just a few hundred dollars and up to $5,000, mostly to women who want to start small businesses, but also to others who want to be smuggled out of Ecuador. Ms. Pichasaca has also purchased land and built homes for family members, and is raising cattle to make artisanal cheese.
Ms. Pichasaca was a traditional housewife, observant of both indigenous Cañari customs and Christian faith, and for some her evolution amounted to a form of treachery. She told me she had faced scorn for leaving her kids behind, and then condemnation after coming back without her husband. But her stint abroad gave her a taste, she said, for the American spirit of “working hard to fix your own situation.”
Today, women account for over 53 percent of the population of Cañar and surroundings, the largest such share in the country. Between 31 percent and 48 percent of households are run by women. Women often do the work traditionally handled by men — plowing land, weeding, gathering wood for charcoal — and they often manage and invest remittances from abroad: some $197 million in 2013 alone. Increasingly, too, they pool their resources into small business groups and associations.
Within just a generation or two migration has irrevocably transformed this remote place and its people through economic development, especially the emancipation of women. The social scientists Luis Guarnizo and Michael Smith have called this process “transnationalism from below.”
The effects extend even to women who never leave Cañar. Rosa Quizpe lives a few miles down the road from Ms. Pichasaca’s home. Her parents migrated to New York when she was 18 and left her with relatives. Today, she’s the single mother of a 12-year-old girl. I met Ms. Quizpe at the Unidad Educativa del Juncal, a school built by migrant families who want to keep their kids from having to travel far to get a basic education. Wearing a traditional pollera skirt, a round-brimmed hat made from sheep’s wool, and with a perfect braid that went down her back, Ms. Quizpe, 32, looked youthful enough to belong in this elementary and high school crowd.
“I used to complain to my parents because they didn’t support me in my education early enough, when I was little and before they went abroad,” Ms. Quizpe told me, bursting into tears. Before her parents moved to New York, she worked as a seamstress to help support her family. Now her parents pay for all of her and her daughter’s living expenses, making it possible for both of them to focus solely on their education. Next year, Ms. Quizpe will graduate from high school and go on to a university a few hours away to study medicine, she said. She will be the first in her family to attend college.
Ms. Quizpe never seriously considered leaving Cañar to join her parents: Why put her daughter through what she endured? But her daughter, Nancy, is thinking about emigrating. And Nancy’s grandparents have already promised, when the time comes, to send the first payment for her smuggler.
Ruxandra Guidi is a freelance journalist based in Quito, Ecuador. Reporting for this story was made possible by a grant from the International Reporting Project.