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Director of Publications
Email: lwcapristo@smcm.edu
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Anne Arundel 100

Troubled Teens in Ecuador -- I've Looked at Clouds from Both Sides Now

Written by Monica Frantz '09, English Major

The home for girls, including "Gabriela and Alicia," is "on the other side of the tracks" in south Quito. In the cityscape, far right, the monument of el Virgen de Quito opens her arms to the north with its new malls and high-rises. But the beauty of the clouds is for everyone.





A clear day in Quito, Ecuador, makes me believe in God. From some spots in the valley, you can see three snow-capped mountains: Chimborazo, Cotopaxi, and Cayambe jut into the solid blue sky, up past the low-lying clouds, changing from deep green at their bases to glowing white at their tops.

Most days I focus only on crumbling sidewalks, stray dogs, trash in gutters, homeless mothers sitting on curbs, and little girls selling tangerines in traffic. But then as if by accident, my eyes lift to the ever-present mountains and the sky that, at 10,000 feet above sea level, presses close. Quito is a city of extremes. Atop a round hill a statue of el Virgen de Quito opens her arms to north Quito, to the new malls and high-rises, and turns her back on el Sur, the south part of Quito. It seems like the mother of Jesus has abandoned her children.

It is another Tuesday at the group home for adolescent girls in el Sur, a 30-minute bus ride south of el Virgen, where I spend two hours a week remembering how to be a teenager under the guise of teaching English. The name of this home, Talita Kumi, is what Jesus said to a dead girl in the New Testament: "Little girl, get up." The crowd is astonished at her resurrection, but Jesus claims she was only sleeping.

There are 15 girls between the ages of 12 and 18 who live here. They are energetic and moody, fast-talking and expressive. Innocent and experienced, their contradictions intimidate me. I don't know whether to treat them as peers or as children. At most, they will live here for three months and have come either voluntarily or at the request of a social worker or a judge. They're free to leave whenever they choose.

When I meet Alicia (all names have been changed) in June, she has been living here for a month. Her baby is due in September. When she smiles, Alicia doesn't like to show her teeth, but her cheeks, plump with pregnancy, overwhelm her eyes. WheGabrielan she sees pictures of herself smiling, she thinks she looks Chinese. The girls and I spend some afternoons dancing. They teach me dances to popular songs and I teach them salsa. Alicia watches from the sofa. She never rushes to me when I arrive at the house, but once she works her way over to me, she presses her great belly against mine in a hug. I am drawn to her shyness, her childlike imagination, and her grace. I see myself in her-not in her circumstances, but in her quiet observance of the world around her.

Spend a day with these girls, spend an entire summer with them, and you still might never nd out that Julia's younger sister is desperate for her to come home even though their father abuses Julia. She is the oldest girl at the home, but her dimples and short stature make her look like a child. It's not obvious that in Ana's village there are no opportunities for education or work; she has come to Quito to learn a trade. Or that Cristina is trying to decide what to do with her 16-month-old daughter. She con des that she wants to be a good mother to her child, but she wants to be a kid, too. During classes at Talita Kumi, her child plays at your feet, wandering from one lap to the next. You also won't nd out easily that Gabriela is pregnant after having been raped, and Alicia won't tell you about her first baby, who is living with her mother.

AliciaInstead, these girls implore you to sing the "Titanic" theme song over and over in English. Off-key and unsure of the lyrics, I repeat, "My heart will go on and on." They giggle like girls at summer camp, giddy after receiving care packages from home. They talk about boys and puppies. They are obsessed with rock stars, and know more about American boy bands than I do. "Do you know the Backstreet Boys?" Maria asks before starting to sing in broken English, "Baby, bye bye bye."

In the house, secrets abound. The girls tell me that sharing too much about yourself invites others to betray your trust. Alicia doesn't even tell me when it's her birthday. We're sitting on the sidelines of a soccer game and I happen to ask about her weekend. She tells me that the girls had a birthday party for her. I'm surprised. "How old are you now?" I ask.

With a shy smile, she says, "Fifteen."

I'm 20. My 15th birthday consisted of pizza and movies and sleeping bags on the living-room floor. My biggest worries were about when I could get my learner's permit, and if the cute boy in my history class would ever talk to me. I knew of only one girl in my class who got pregnant during junior year.

However, though all statistics say that I'm the one with potential and privilege, I'm shy around these girls, afraid I won't measure up, that they'll see through me. They've known experiences that I've never had. They're unashamed. I don't think I can connect with them; I know nothing of their world-not even the Backstreet Boys.

I do manage to teach them the game "Never have I ever," where one girl stands in the middle and has to say something she has never done. Everyone in the group who has done that thing has to stand up and change seats. The girl says, laughing, "Nunca he besado a ningún hombre," claiming she had never kissed a man. All of the other girls accuse her of lying-"eso no es verdad," "que mentira"-as they rush to nd a new seat. I don't move, so they turn their attention to me. I think I have lost all credibility with them.

Sometimes, I'm almost convinced they are as naive as I was at their ages. Then, from windows in the house, they start to tease the boys who loiter outside, hiding behind the drapes and emerging for only a moment, ashing their bodies and their faces, advertising their assets. Alicia watches, amused. The way she walks, waddling smooth with a heavy belly, gives her the character of a much older woman. She is composed. Her acceptance of her reality is bold. She is wisdom-reserved and exquisite.

I wonder if Alicia ever thinks about the men who fathered her children. Or if she wishes she could go to high school. Or if she imagines getting a job. Does she daydream about her wedding? Will Alicia ever leave Quito, ever go to the beach, ever see New York City? In my own passport, I already have seven stamps.

Alicia lies in the grass and tells me to lie down with her. There is trash everywhere. Brown-green mountains tower on the horizon. It is cool, but the lateafternoon sun is strong. The ground is cool enough to seem damp. The air smells faintly of diesel and burning plastic.

The sky is full of marshmallowlike clouds. These are the kind I grew up with in autumns in Maryland. In elementary school, we used to watch such clouds during recess and tell each other the outlandish things we saw in them. Alicia's bump pushes skyward, like the mountains in the distance, and I imagine my own womb-empty because I want to finish college, because I'm not ready. I find myself jealous. Her story is one of resurrection. Uneducated and poor, Alicia has new life growing inside of her. I envy her with foolish intensity. It's easy for me to resent my life-I don't have a story.

Alicia tells me that she sees an ice cream cone.

"An ice cream cone? Where?"

She points to a triangular cloud, stretching long across the southern sky. What could be "un helado" on its side also looks like the lower half of a dragon. A wisp of cloud extends from the fluffy white head.

"No," I tell her, "it's the tail of a dragon. Do you see its head there? And the flames coming from its mouth?"

We scan the sky from the right to the left, nding a boat and a house and a candle. I wonder if Alicia can feel the baby move. By the time we work our way across, the wind has changed. A stray dog curls up beside us for a nap in the sun.

******

Monica Frantz, 21, of Reisterstown, Maryland, graduated this spring from St. Mary's College with a major in English. As part of her coursework, she traveled to Alba, Italy. She also traveled to Romania and Quito, Ecuador, to work in an orphanage and a home for troubled teens. This is a selection from her St. Mary's Project, "Foreign Images." Asked why she picked this chapter, she responded: "I love its imagery and symbolism and the way its ‘message' is neither preachy nor heavyhanded." Frantz, below in the photo with "Gabriela ," returns to South America in February as a Peace Corps volunteer.

Monica with GabrielaAliciatroubled teens