Where in Chicago is Ecuador?

I'm taking a look at the presence of Ecuador in Chicago because in less than one month, Ecuador will find a piece of Chicago in it.

That's right, I'm going to miss out on the barbecue and the fireworks (my first 4th of July outside the U.S.) because I'll be traveling to the "Center of the World" with no itinerary and no reservations, just a rumpled piece of paper my aunt gave me last week at a family picnic with some long-lost uncle's email and phone number. And I haven't been there since I was four.

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The plan is to land at Mariscal Sucre International Airport and let my stomach and eyes lead the way to the peaks of the Andes mountains, the monument to the Center of the World - where one can straddle the southern and northern hemispheres at once - and the Galapagos Islands - celebrating the 200 anniversary of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species - in no particular order. In a two-week time period, not including en-route stops to Miami and Panama.

So my first natural instinct (once I realized I'm less than 30 days from this trip I'll literally pack for in twenty minutes time) was to look at my own birth place for insight.

According to the Chicago Community Trust's Latino Landscape 2008, Chicago is home to 18,796 Ecuadorians who make up 1.09% of Chicago's Hispanic community (these numbers are from 2006). We are the fifth largest national-origin group in Chicago behind Mexico, Puerto Rico, Guatemala, and Cuba.

My dad was part of the first wave in 1965-1976 (though he came from Quito via Mexico City where he'd lived for several years) who came and worked mainly in factories, retail and service industries and a second wave arrived in the 1990's, frequently to join family, and to work in the restaurant, hotel, and garment industries.

Like the majority of Ecuadorians in Chicago, my half-Ecuadorian-half-Mexican family lived on the Northwest side - in Logan Square, Albany Park, Uptown, Lakeview, Irving Park, Belmont Cragin, Edgewater, and West Ridge - which, not surprisingly, is where all of the Ecuadorian restaurants in Chicago can be found.

One thing no one will tell you about Ecuadorians is that though they are intelligent, generous, and kind, they are also incredibly flighty! They are internationally-known for their tardiness, and in fact, Ecuador tried a campaign to eradicate "unpunctuality" but it flopped. And their government, well, let's just say their new, University of Illinois-educated president Rafael Correa has now been around longer than many other presidents past.

Just as a quick example, I tried to call the office of the Ecuadorian Consul General in Chicago to verify the stats I cite here and none of the four phone numbers listed on various search engines and Ecuador-centric web pages actually worked. Tsk-tsk.

But we're here, by golly, and in a few weeks I'll be there.

I've already researched the fine points of the bull-penis soup and roasted guinea pig dishes I'll surely confront in the local restaurants (though I'll stop in a McDonald's to see if everyone there eats Big Macs like my cousins do when they visit here: in layers starting from the top down!).

And I logged onto Tu Babel, the on-line regional Spanish dictionary to refresh myself on all the Ecuadorian-specific slang I grew up with in my grandmother's house that I've since forgotten (I still get to hear "achachai!" every once in a while from my dad when he gets cold, but other words - like "canguil" for popcorn and "guagua" for child - will jar me into nostalgia).

President Obama gave me a bit of a lift, as well. He spoke to Correa Wednesday afternoon to congratulate him on his recent reelection and to commend the people of Ecuador for their commitment to democracy, according to the White House:

The President stated his desire to deepen our bilateral relationship and to maintain an ongoing dialogue that can ensure a productive relationship based on mutual respect. President Obama expressed his support for a vibrant democracy in Ecuador that includes a free and independent press as the means of promoting human prosperity, security and dignity, which are important goals for both of our countries and for the people of the Americas

So, I'm pretty much all set. Now all I need is for any of the 18,796 Chicago-dorians to tell me where to go (or where to stay away from) while I find the other half of myself at the center of the world.

Esther J. Cepeda writes about Latin America, Chicago, and much, much more on www.600words.com