JULY 2002
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Subway Reflection

From Ecuador News
June 4-10
By Carlos Delgado Centeno

I arrived in New York with a heavy weight on my shoulders, full of dreams and with expectations as big as this country. Brooklyn was daring and dynamic, and everyone’s aggressive walk indicated that those who come here do so to triumph and conquer this city and the country. That is how I felt, and I disguised myself as a New Yorker to walk the eight blocks to Graham station.

When you enter the train, 1,000 ideas converge. In a car you hear more than one language and you see, in people’s reading material, words in Chinese, Russian or Polish. You are so absorbed into this new world that you don’t have time to listen to yourself or your own reality, because you are also worried about the moment in which you will have to exit the train. These are the moments where you feel as though you own the world and your surroundings. You have an inner voice telling you that everything you see around you is normal and natural. For this reason, when I left the car, after the sound of the train passed, a sweet melody took its place that both comforted and woke me from a dream… They were musical notes that grabbed me and took me by the hand to show me the tapestry of our Andean geography: I felt the smell of the country sides, the plazas, the marketplaces, the look in my people’s eyes that is at once happy and sad. It was something like opening a book and flipping quickly through to the last page, when you are filled with the chapters’ sensations, images and life.

All of this made me feel strange in New York. I couldn’t tell where these familiar sounds were coming from, moving me in time and space to the Ecuador that I had left behind just a few months ago. I decided to look for their source. He was leaning against a wall in the stairwell, with a pan flute balanced on the microphone stand, a guitar in hand. He had long hair and was wearing a hat with an Equadorian cloth. Manuel (for afterwards I learned his name) played a melody that captivated the crowd gathered around him. He was so energetic, playing our music in such a passionate way, that it gave me goose bumps. He was the king of this small underground world, the train station converted into a concert stage. I thought myself a worldly person, and so the first thought that crossed my mind was, "This is a compatriot and artist, he is working for a living and it is important to reward him with more than applause."

I walked up to the empty guitar case with a complicit smile, and paid for the show. But when Manuel’s eyes met mine his expression was so tender but firm, that it broke me. I got a lump in my throat, and he, noticing my weakness, thanked me by playing a song that was more Ecuadorian than the Chimborazo. It was that precise moment that I realized that the only true thing I had in the middle of this solitude was my identity, the country I had left behind, my people, my customs, the geography that Manuel’s music made me travel inside my head. The music brought back our history and our political situation to my mind. The rhythm of the songs, coupled with the movement of his feet made me think of the suffering that our people have gone through in search of a better future for our families. My eyes filled with pride thinking of Manuel, and all of the Manuels who are proud and brave enough to leave their country, the place where they were born, because they just cannot continue, because they are betrayed day after day by false promises.

Manuel kept playing, and I stepped back, looking at each passerby for compassion, someone who would tell me, "I understand, I know your country and your people: they are honest, sincere, hospitable, proud…" But no, there was only Manuel’s music that understood me, keeping me from moving on my way. I heard the sound of the next train arriving, and didn’t have any other option besides taking refuge in the group of people entering the train, leaving Manuel in the station, with our music and our memories…

Translated from Spanish by Erica Pearson

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