Encountering Cuenca

Cuenca, a city in the middle of the Ecuadorean Andes, is a place with a complex history that now embodies this past with very specific local aesthetic, political, cultural and social presences.  As Fikile Nxumalo (2016) reminds us, place is not a physical backdrop to human activity; rather it is an active “‘gathering’ of human and more-than-human bodies and stories that require attention beyond the individual child’s experiences” (p. 644). In this way, we view Cuenca as a place that is not only composed of pure or ‘natural’ elements, nor is it made of a collection of paralleling, self-contained parts. Cuenca is porous, leaky and fundamentally contingent upon what Anna Tsing (2015) calls ‘contaminated diversity’, whereby cross-boundary pollution, both materially and discursively, transforms this place in new, often uneasy directions.  

The Spanish translation of ‘Cuenca’ literally means ‘basin’. Nestled in a small valley of the Andean mountains, Cuenca is a meeting place of four great rivers: Machangra, Tomebamba, Yanuncay and Tarqui. These rivers trickle from high altitude lakes whose waters sustain life in the region. Running through the central areas of the city, Cuenca’s rivers frame not only the physical geography of the place and its architecture, they are integral to the histories and cultural fibers of Cuencan identity. It is often said that Cuencanos live with the river’s waters as their blood. One educator has told us, ‘We are the river.’

In Cuenca, Spanish is spoken in the language of the river, sung with tones that dance like currents from high to low. On Sunday afternoons when the city stores are closed and the cobbled streets of downtown are quiet, the river becomes a gathering place for leisurely readers, knitters and families with young children. Sporadic collections of large stones around its banks are hiding places for lovers young and old, and the rigidity of its banks become washing frames where women and children wash clothing for the week. Families of the city’s largest rats also gather about the river, a species that fulsomely thrives in this place by the remnants of human waste. The river is undeniably a meeting place of multiple storylines that are told in the encounters this place facilitates and, in many ways, the river can be read as an archive of rich memory.

Prior to colonization by the Incas in the 1400’s and Spanish conquistadores in the 1500’s, this land originally belonged to the Cañari peoples, yet was also a cosmopolitan space comprised of several other Indigenous groups (Gonzales Suarez, 1965; Pita 2015). These layers of colonization in Cuenca continue to produce complex, overlapping hybridities between both peoples and place. For example, in the forest beside the school, Eucalyptus trees, which arrived from Australia in the early 1800’s, are an imperious invasive species that rely on clay soil for water (Flores Cota, 2009). Clay has a significant socio-cultural history here and is used abundantly in the making of local homes, roofs, pottery and various other artisanal crafts. Eucalyptus forests have become prominent in Ecuador’s geo-ecological landscape, however the proliferation of this water guzzling, desert species destroys neighbouring farmlands and creates precarious socio-ecological conditions as it threatens the biodiversity of plants and animal species, as well as Indigenous peoples connections to their traditional lands through agricultural cultivation.

Santana’s early childhood campus is surrounded not only by the expansive Eucalyptus forests of the Cabogana, but also by a community of farmers and brickmakers, people who hold immense knowledges of the lands and the ways in which they can be cultivated. The long road to Santana from Cuenca’s centre is lined with the brickmakers’ houses and stacks of clay bricks, shingles and pottery, punctuated with small cattle farms and mini-markets with tables of vibrant vegetables whose colours are echoed in the textiles that accompany them.

While children at Santana are physically close to the place that surrounds them, everyday pedagogical practices are not necessarily attentive with place and the contentious, interdeterminate relations that are so active here. It is in this stark division between nature and culture where our project begins. In the initial months of our project, it became visible that in order to forge relations with plastics, it was first necessary to create relations with place.

This piece is borrowed from a paper by Alex Berry, Cristina Delgado Vintimilla and Veronica Pacini-Ketchabaw (2020), ‘Interrupting purity in Andean early childhood education: Documenting the impurities of a river’