By KELLEN BROWNING —
CLAREMONT, Calif. — Valentina Emanuel doesn’t think of herself as a typical Ecuadorian.
The 18-year-old Pomona College first-year student was born and raised in Quito, and says her community is as close-knit as can be.
“The idea that a lot of people have of Latin families, which are big and have all those family reunions every week and every month; it’s very much like that,” she says.
What sets the amiable and talkative Emanuel apart, however, is her acknowledgement that her country is far from perfect.
About 80 percent of the population is considered lower-class, both economically and ethnically, Emanuel says. Since the Spanish colonization of Ecuador in the 1500s, the country has been divided between those of European heritage, considered upper-class, and those with indigenous roots, thought of as inferior.
“So if I were to marry someone who had darker skin color, who didn’t come from a known family or a family that comes from the families who were the landlords and the Spanish colonizers in that time, I can’t,” Emanuel says. “I wouldn’t be able to do that. My family would not approve of that.”
Emanuel, who also credits Ecuador’s predominant Catholicism with contributing to widespread conservatism and closed-mindedness, says the class system is something that she “completely despise(s).”
Though she considers herself Catholic, Emanuel is also part of a younger generation of progressive, open-minded Ecuadorians, spurred on in part by current President Rafael Correa, whom she describes as a revolutionary.
Correa “tried to have more of an inclusion between both classes, which I think kind of happened,” Emanuel says, pointing to her school — a small, elite private institution called Albert Einstein School — as an example.
“You could see that now, in comparison to previous years, a lot more people who were not born into the higher society at first, but who worked their way up, are going to this school,” she says.
Emanuel considers herself privileged to have forward-thinking parents as well; her mother, Maria Jose Jervis, owns a progressive nursery school that is “not as structured and academia-minded” as many others.
Emanuel says the culture in Ecuador is such that children essentially start school when they are 3 years old. “So my mother wanted to break this stereotype and just do her own thing, which I am very, very proud of,” she says.
Emanuel’s father, Javier, lives in New York, and Emanuel had the opportunity to attend public high school in New York City for a semester during her sophomore year of high school; she describes the experience as transformative.
“I was literally — as everyone else — living inside a bubble,” Emanuel says. “Going to New York definitely opened my eyes to what was out there.
“I had friends who were rich and I had friends who lived in a ghetto in Harlem. That just made me realize that the world is giant, is immense. People have all these different realities, but when it comes to education and opportunity, everyone should have the same opportunity.”
Emanuel wants to bring ideals of individualism, openness and inclusivity back to Ecuador, where she says people have more cookie-cutter outlooks.
“They want to be a housewife, marry this rich guy who inherits their family’s business or farm,” she says, “and then just move to the suburbs, have this nice house, have the kids, go to the gym. That’s basically what a lot of my friends dream of.”
Emanuel wants more than that from her life.
In New York, “I was literally given the opportunity to be myself and just do whatever I wanted to do,” she says, “because no one else cared what I did, which was different than Ecuador, essentially, because everyone is trying to be the same person.”
At home, Emanuel says, she is under a lot of pressure from relatives to “follow these certain stereotypes and achieve this ‘success.’” In the United States, she feels freer.
Don’t get her wrong — Emanuel loves her country, and her genuine affection for her family, friends and home is apparent in each word she speaks.
“The only reason why I left,” she explains, “is because I really want to get out of my comfort zone, grow as a person outside of that closed and bubbled society.”
Emanuel’s love for her country is evident in her mission, as well. She says some of her friends have progressive thoughts, but simply want to leave Ecuador and never return.
Emanuel, however, is “thinking about how to make it better and how to … bring back all of that knowledge and experience home.”
(Written by Kellen Browning; Feb. 10, 2017)