Orphanhoods in the Ecuadorian Andes

Many children of Ecuadorian migrants are de facto orphans, growing up with their parents physically absent, while others lost their parents on the journey to the United States.

December 11, 2020

Children of migrants and their caretakers in the Ecuadorian Andes. (Soledad Álvarez Velasco)

This is the sixth and final article in a series on child migration from the Infancias y Migración Working Group. Para leer la versión en español, haz clic aquí.

“I didn’t grow up with my mom or my dad,” says Janine. She was born in 2005, and that same year, her mother and father migrated with a coyote as their guide. They crossed six of the seven borders that separate Ecuador and the United States. “Sometimes I think about their trip and I imagine where they crossed,” she continues. “Sometimes images of what happened to them also come to me, but I don’t like that.”

Her parents reached southern Mexico. They still needed to cross the Río Grande when the truck they were crammed into tipped, and they both died. Janine was left orphaned, a life experience she shares with hundreds of other children and teens who are children of migrants.

Different kinds of orphanhood are part of Ecuadorian migratory history. Some, like Janine, are orphans because they lost one or both of their parents when they undertook the journey to the United States. Others are de facto orphans, like Janine’s friends, who grow up with their parents physically absent as they practice motherhood or fatherhood remotely through digital space.

This 14-year-old has never left her birthplace of Girón, a small community in the Ecuadorian Andes. However, she is very familiar with how her fellow Ecuadorians travel without papers to the United States and what their lives are like in that country. Janine grew up with the stories of her aunts and uncles, cousins, and neighbors who migrated and have lived in New York for many years. Moreover, migration left an indelible mark in her life: she must grapple with the pain of being an orphan.

Janine’s grandmother Doña Julia, a 60-year-old campesina woman who sustains the family by selling in the market while taking care of her granddaughters, says: “Here, there isn’t a home that doesn’t have someone far away who left por la chacra.” In the Ecuadorian Andes, la chacra describes a plot of land for growing crops—the land. “Irse por la chacra,” has two interconnected meanings. It can mean going by land to the United States, guided by coyotes along irregular routes, and it can imply leaving because the chacra, the land, no longer produces enough to eat.

The phrase “irse por la chacra” tells the story of Girón and many other rural Ecuadorian communities that, due to the unresolved problem of land tenure and land systems, are marked by the violence of poverty and inequality. This partly explains why more than two million people—12 percent of Ecuador’s population—have migrated. Historically, the United States has been the top destination. The number of Ecuadorians in the United States increased at the end of the 1960s and has continued ever since: close to 738,000 Ecuadorians live in the United States, where they are the 10th largest Latinx population.

In addition to unresolved poverty, another factor in this incessant migration is the United States’ need for exploitable undocumented labor and the power that the “American Dream” has had for decades in the Ecuadorian consciousness. This promising imaginary is so strong that Ecuadorians not only begin thinking as children about migrating, but they effectively are willing to risk their lives to do so.

With her voice breaking, her deep pain casting a shadow over her gaze, and tears in her eyes, Doña Julia continues her story: “My daughter left por la chacra, but she never returned. She left me and my granddaughters ended up without parents.”

Migration to the United States has inevitably impacted Ecuadorian children and adolescents who, like Janine, grow up as orphans. According to the 2010 census, 37 percent of Ecuadorians who migrate leave children behind in Ecuador. That means that more than 200,000 children and teens have one or both parents abroad. Although thousands of children of migrants have grown up with their parents absent, it is not known how many of those parents died “en route” like Janine’s.

These different experiences of orphanhood are a direct consequence of the border control regime imposed by the United States and exported to Mexico and Central America. This system blocks the regularized movement of migrants from Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East and confines them to taking routes where they could easily die. Additionally, this system has imposed legal obstacles that hinder regular reunification processes for parents and children, especially if the parents are undocumented in the United States. These obstacles dispossess children and adolescents of the fundamental right to live as a family, multiplying the numbers of de facto orphans.

Such de facto orphans are stuck in Ecuador until their parents find ways to reunite with them. Since at least the 1990s, irregular movement of children and teens with the help and services of coyotes has been one way. “My friends and I talk about things. Many of their parents are in the United States,” says Janine. “Irene, she’s my best friend, told me that soon she is leaving because her parents told her that after Christmas she would go to where they are. I think she is going to go.” Like Irene, migrant children “are sent for” (son mandados a buscar), as irregular family reunification via the service of coyotes is colloquially known. Children grow up waiting “to be sent for” or to “grow older,” as Janine said, waiting for at least their 18th birthday before migrating. “People go with a coyote. That’s how my parents went,” Janine adds. “My grandma says that they didn’t have luck because the path is very difficult. I am going to migrate, but I have to wait, I have to grow up.”

Children of migrants grow up between forced immobility and an uncertain promise of future mobility. In this time of waiting, the caregivers in their lives are a defining presence. Like Doña Julia, grandmothers become responsible for children and become grandmother-mothers, or both grandmother-mothers and fathers at the same time. They are the caretakers who, in their private spaces, offer their daily love and work to provide emotional and material sustenance to the children of migrants.

In the public sphere, on the other hand, there has not been a response. In Ecuador, there are no special protection policies for the children of migrants nor specific educational programs. Janine herself said that in the time she’s been in school, she had never encountered any material about the issue of migration, nor had she received any kind of emotional support from her school. Growing up as an orphan in the Ecuadorian Andes seems to be a strictly private issue, far removed from the history of a country of migrants.

Caregivers somewhat relieve the absence of parental figures. But growing up without parents has irreversible effects in the lives of the children of migrants. In the case of those who grow up as de facto orphans, children do not perceive themselves as orphans: their remote mothers and fathers make up in some way for their physical absence. The voices of migrant mothers and fathers activate a future—and always uncertain—promise of possibly meeting physically in real life, something that is impossible for the children of deceased migrants.

This shows in Janine when she tells her story. The impossibility of feeling, even if remotely, her parents’ corporeal love exacerbates the pain she carries in her life. Her pauses, her tone of voice, her gaze, and her nonverbal expression offer a glimpse of this pain. In the face of this impossibility, however, her imagination takes over as a strategy to give another meaning to her life as an orphan. “Although I didn’t know them,” says Janine, “because of my grandma’s photos, I know what they [looked] like. I like to look at those photos because I see myself in my head with them. I imagine that I am with them in the United States. I like to do that. Imagining that makes me happy.”

Drawing up mental images, she gives life to her deceased parents and invents get-togethers with them that fill the emptiness inside her. In her imagination, she puts in motion plans to migrate with her parents to the United States. She activates her imaginary mobility to recreate different life circumstances that revolve around the possibility of “being happy,” as she puts it, and soothes, albeit temporarily, her orphanhood. This get-together doesn’t happen in real time. Nor can it happen in the future, because death is unforgiving. It is, rather, an imaginary sense of time that is unreal, not based on the calendar, but possible through her mental constructions. In this imaginary time, Janine also creates a space to reunite in a real physical place: New York, her deceased parents’ intended destination. Through her imagination, Janine consciously creates other senses of time and space that only exist when she puts them in imaginary motion to help withstand her pain.

Being 14 years old doesn’t mean Janine doesn’t think about her future. At this age, she has outlined a potential migration strategy. This is part of what she has in mind: “I think that at 20 years old I will be old enough to go. If I get a visa, I’ll go by plane, and if not, I’ll go with a coyote. It will be hard to leave my grandma, she is everything to me. But I want to go.” Imagining being far from her grandmother transforms her gestures and her gaze. I ask her: And what would you do to not have to separate from your grandmother? She responds: “I’ll speak English in the United States, so with my good job I will pay for a visa for my grandma, because she can’t go with a coyote; she’ll come with me in a plane, because that’s not dangerous, and the two of us will stay together, I’m going to take care of her forever.”

In her imagination, Janine travels the map that separates Ecuador from the United States. She crosses the borders, physical and legal, that dot the route. She has a clear awareness of how to care for herself and for her caregiver. She envisions migrating with her caregiver, not with a coyote, but by plane with a visa, and she imagines taking care of the one who cared for her as an orphan.

Today, lost lives, like those of Janine’s parents, would be incomprehensible if not for the lethal effects of border hyper-surveillance and the confinement of migrants to highly dangerous journeys through the Americas. The different forms of orphanhood experienced by the children of migrants also cannot be understood without these fatal policies. That’s why from a very young age, the children of migrants, like Janine, know based on their lived experiences that migrant lives are at risk and must be cared for. In the face of their orphanhood, these children activate imaginary forms of mobility, and in the face of having to risk their lives, they deploy their own knowledge of taking care of themselves and others while growing up in the Ecuadorian Andes, always in uncertain anticipation of future mobility.


Soledad Álvarez Velasco is a post-doctoral fellow researcher at the University of Houston. She is a human geographer whose research has focused on global south-north transit undocumented migrations and migratory corridors across the Americas.

About the Working Group: In July 2020, the authors convened the Infancias y Migración Working Group, consisting of 10 colleagues in five countries from a variety of disciplines. This series of articles for NACLA is the group’s first publication project. The previous articles are: Exiliados, Refugiados, Desplazados: Children and Migration Across the Americas, The Orgins of an Early School-to-Deportation Pipeline, Guatemalan Child Refugees, Then and Now, Children who Come from Afar, and Euphemisms of Violence: Child Migrants and the Mexican State.

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