Student Blogger Study Abroad

Mi Sueña Suela: Rap and Reflection on the Quito bus

Quito's Trolleybus BRT system

Each semester, one student from each HECUA program abroad takes on the role of student blogger, sending regular dispatches from the field. Emily Bruell will be HECUA’s student blogger for the Community Internships in Latin America program this fall semester. Emily is a junior at Carleton College, majoring in English Literature and minoring in Spanish. Click here for Emily’s second post: Love Among the Mangroves.

After one of our first days in Quito, our professor Martha Moscoso asked us what we’d noticed about the city, and one of our first answers was los vendedores en los buses: the people who ride the buses with a big plastic sack of chocolates in one hand, a backpack full of plastic wallets, or a pile of USB chargers draped around their neck like a strange scarf, hoping to sell their wares to the passengers. More often than not, they’d begin with a small speech to  apologize for the disruption and share a bit of their personal history, so we knew that the majority were Venezuelan immigrants fleeing their country’s financial crisis and unable to find more reliable work in Ecuador.

These little speeches fascinated me, both from a practical perspective (imagine spending your day going from bus to bus, each time asking forgiveness for the bother and briefly recounting a painful situation, never losing your courteous tone, for the hope of selling a few snacks or gadgets for 50 cents or a dollar) and also an English major-y one. The scraps of history they’d tell about their life before the crisis or their journey to Ecuador weren’t just an explanation for their current occupation, they were a shared story. And often, the more detailed the story, the more the passengers would engage with the seller, as if sharing even this short narrative brought the sellers from the general, amorphous category of Venezolanos (Venezuelans) to the closer, clearer category of person in need.

So I was interested in the bus-riders even before I met Miguel Acosta and his friends. And while I could try to describe the space they created — how the trolley fell silent when Erwin started to play the violin, how passengers were steadily drawn in when the others started to rap, marking the rhythm with heads or feet or fingers — I couldn’t capture it quite as much as this video:

“Mi sueña suela,” they sing, “se encuentra devastada. Bien por el gobierno justo a las fuerzas armadas –– y para ellos es como si no pasara nada.” My old dream is found devastated. It’s due to the government and the armed forces — and for them, it’s like nothing even happened.

The song is political —“tan solo protestas, si no te gusta, te callas.” You just protest, and if they don’t like you, they silence you. And it’s personal too. It touches on the specific weight of being in a situation with plenty of determination to escape but no clear way out: “seguimos más fuerte, que en la lucha estamos –– pero primero hay que decidir a qué país nos vamos.” We’ll keep going, stronger, in this struggle —  but first we have to figure out what country to go to; and on the pain of being far from home and family: “Mi madre vive, y no la puede ver. No la puedo abrazar, no la puedo atender.” My mother’s still alive, and I can’t see her. I can’t hug her. I can’t take care of her.

Although the song is interrupted by the flow of passengers on and off the trolley, there was still a strong sense of engagement and appreciation in both performances I witnessed. “I’ve seen many rappers on these buses,” one audience member later told me in Spanish, “but these boys — there’s nothing like them.”

I had to agree, and even more so after hearing their stories. Miguel and Francisco (the two rappers) had grown up listening to rap, and (along with Miguel’s brother) would perform their own raps occasionally as a hobby while they studied in college. But when the economic crisis hit, and their families could no longer financially sustain themselves, the three made a new plan: to turn this hobby into a means of scraping together a living and sending what they can home to their families. In search of a place with enough economic strength to support them and a political landscape safe to speak out in, they travelled to Bogotá. There, they met violinist Erwin, who accompanies their rap in the video, performing as a street musician after having been a part of the National Philharmonic Orchestra of Venezuela. The four joined forces and travelled to Quito, where they’ll stay until they have sufficient resources to travel further south to Buenos Aires.

It was truly an honor to see these people perform, and — as border security and immigration crackdowns are increasingly pressing topics in our political reality — an important reminder of the strength and talent present in the immigrant community, and how much a country can be enriched by the influx of culture if it opens its doors to those in need.

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