One should be thankful for being able to participate in any culture, but I have a special liking for my Latin side. When I am being Ecuadorian, I feel tender towards others, more willing to laugh, more light spirited. It’s a joyful and liberating feeling, one that does not come so readily to people of the North. How did this come to me?
I stood a head taller and was lighter skinned than most of the kids in my classes. I was promptly labeled “El Gringo” because, unlike purists in the use of the term, average Ecuadorians did not distinguish between Americans and Europeans, Jewish or otherwise. All were gringos, folks who were different and who could be made fun of because they appeared to be slow-witted. There was merit in this assessment because in general gringos were not necessarily street wise and they seemed to take every statement literally. To Ecuadorians, whose survival often depended on some measure of cunning, my fellow refugees and I must have seemed naïve indeed. There is absurdity in this, given that leaving Europe had often demanded considerable ingenuity. Jokes that reflected these paradoxes circulated within the Jewish community. This one is a true story. A gringa went to the market to buy oranges and was told that they were ten for a sucre. Remembering that she should always bargain down, she said, “No, no, nine is as far as I’ll go.” What soon surprised the Ecuadorians was that these odd people, having arrived nearly penniless, managed to make money, some eventually becoming quite wealthy. An easy interpretation was that they must have done this by stealing.
The language problem only helped to reinforce the impression that the refugees weren’t all there. The local people weren’t much used to foreigners and strange accents and can’t be blamed for being mystified. Speaking Spanish without an accent was limited to the immigrants who arrived before puberty. Many of the rest massacred the language, at least initially. Being totally fluent in Spanish was not seen as a particular mark of honor in the Jewish community where German, Czech, and Yiddish held sway. It seems sad and wasteful that not many took the trouble of learning that language well and taking pleasure in its richness. But, as I said elsewhere, this was part of the cultural hardening that had taken place among the refugees. This was recognized, not without amusement, and the way the refugees were butchering Spanish became a source of humor during the cultural evenings at the Jewish club.
Getting used to school, learning Spanish, adapting to life in Quito were, of course, imperceptibly gradual processes that left only general memories. I vaguely recall the jostling around, the name-calling, the bravado, all the things one expects of teenage boys. None of this was out the ordinary. Our classmates once goaded another Jewish boy and me, and to save our honor we challenged each other to a fight behind the school building. Other than some flailing of arms in the air, this great encounter went nowhere, because both of us were pretty scared. In my early days in school, I was sometimes called a dirty Jew or something like it, but this was a result of propaganda emanating from the German embassy. Once those people left, so did most anti-Semitic utterances and attitudes. In time, I felt that I was accepted by my classmates and no longer stuck out. Part of me became Ecuadorian. I could react, behave, even joke like a native. This was just one part of me, but I could produce it on demand. I was aware of being compartmentalized, but passing for a Quiteño was something I did spontaneously and it felt good. Surely I had to thank my Italian, hence Latin, background for this relatively easy adaptation.
Paradoxically, getting used to living in Quito was less of a problem for other refugees than for me. Many of them had no intention of assimilating into the Ecuadorian community. Quite the contrary, most denied their circumstances and acted as if they had never left Europe. I, on the other hand, felt a greater urge to become integrated into the culture of Quito, while being pulled at least as strongly in the direction of affirming my European and Jewish identity. This theme of a cultural and emotional split did not end here, but accompanied me into another stage of my life, when I later went to the U.S.
I had one Ecuadorian friend, Galo, whereas my closest Jewish friends had none. Galo became like a brother to me and helped me to cross over some of the barriers to a normal life in Quito. I did not have other intimate friends among the Ecuadorians, but my feelings towards Galo made up for it. He was not a garrulous person but we managed to have intense conversations with me doing most of the talking. We used to sit at night on the steps of our high school, by the light of a lamppost, reciting Hamlet in English, a language neither of us knew. Later on, we went along different paths, he to France and Canada to become a pathologist before returning to Quito, me to the U.S. Galo became a leading light in Latin American pathology and was revered as a teacher and a scientist. Some eighteen years after I had last seen him, he heard that I had a heart attack and within a couple of weeks traveled from Quito to Boston to see me. We both thought that our conversation resumed where we had left off years before. What a gift, this friendship!
I started my schooling in Quito in the 7th grade, which was already high school. Colegio Nacional Mejía, or “El Mejia” as the school was known, was one of the imposing buildings of my youth. It was only a few blocks downhill from my house, and in time I got to know every pebble on the road. It was a neo-classic building with large columns in front, and it extended for a couple of city blocks. It was about four stories high, made of brick that did not get stuccoed over until many years later. In the earlier version of my youth, it had a pleasingly unfinished look. Here were taught some 3000 students in six grades, all male. It was modeled after the grand European gymnasium and lycée, and succeeded reasonably well in its mission. Everything about it, from the building itself to what went on inside, spoke of substance. As a "national" high school, it received the support and encouragement of political and business leaders, many of whom had graduated from it. It was considered the academic jewel of the nation. It is a source of enormous pride to be an alumnus of El Mejia; to be able to carry the lofty appellation of "mejia" is a state of near grace that I relish to this day.
I was not so competitive that I had to get top grades consistently, but I wanted to pass my courses comfortably. The knowledge of history and geography I had acquired by reading the children’s encyclopedia from start to finish made my studying easy. I had also had a couple of years of Latin in Italy, which gave me a leg up on my classmates. Once in a while, I cheated on exams, but kept it to a minimum partly because I was scared of being caught, partly because usually I had studied enough to know most of the answers. On the other hand, I didn’t want to be one of the rare few who never cheated. That would have been some form of moral ostentation, as if I wanted to place myself above the rest. I liked special projects and, as soon as there were some to be done, I eagerly jumped in. One of my first was making a poster on which I had traced drawings of four skulls of different human ancestors, and then explaining it to all who came by. Another time I made a display of a dissected mouse pickled in alcohol with its innards prominently shown. After I started to work summers in a lab, I grew increasingly wed to the idea that what I really wanted to do were things other than schoolwork. Since then, I have tended to respond better to challenges that arise sideways rather than to the frontal ones.