Afro-Ecuadorians and the Beating Heart of Soccer Culture in El Chota Valley

When filmmaker Betty Bastidas released her critically-acclaimed documentary Dreamtown in 2010, the world had just been introduced to an electrifying Ecuadorian national soccer team known as La Tri, who – for the first time in 68 years – had qualified for both the 2002 and 2006 FIFA World Cup.

Bastida’s film not only captured the social and racial climate that emerged following Ecuador’s rapid success; she also chose to focus on a region in Ecuador known as the Chota Valley, which produced many of the Ecuadorian national team players.

But along with some of the recognition that the Ecuadorian national team had received, according to anthropologist Jean Rahier, their success on the international stage helped spark a critical conversation about race, anti-black racism, and national identity among one of Ecuador’s most aggrieved populations.

Because the Ecuadorian World Cup teams had been comprised of a majority of Afro-Ecuadorian players, sports journalists like Patricio Hidalgo remarked that people tended to mistake Ecuador’s team for African national teams, often asking: “Which African team is this?” But for people living in the Chota Valley, a region located in Northern Ecuador approximately 50 miles from Quito, blackness and Ecuadorianness have always been an integral part of quotidian life, as well as a source of pride.

Blackness has always been an integral part of quotidian life, as well as a source of pride.

That Ecuador’s team has been mistaken for African national teams, however, speaks to how Ecuadorian national identities have been perceived both regionally and globally. By representing a country that has historically been characterized by mestizo and indigenous representations in the media and in popular culture, Afro-Ecuadorians simultaneously complicated the understanding of what an Ecuadorian could and is supposed to look like, and exposed deeply embedded anti-black racism in Ecuador.

But the Afro-Ecuadorian experience long predates Ecuador’s participation in the 2002 World Cup, and is in fact deeply woven into the history of the country.

According to most historians, a large number of El Chota’s residents are the direct descendants of enslaved Africans who were imported to Ecuador by the Jesuits in the 16th century to work on sugar plantations along the coast and in highland regions. Other reports claim that the Chota Valley’s African descendants arrived by way of shipwreck during the late 16th century.

The Afro-Ecuadorian experience long predates Ecuador’s participation in the 2002 World Cup.

While slave trading was officially abolished in 1821, the selling and trading of enslaved Africans continued until 1852, when the government ratified a bill that promised monetary compensation for slave owners who freed their slaves. Following this bill, employment opportunities were scarce, leaving many Afro-Ecuadorians to fend for themselves or work in the local sugar plantations where they were previously enslaved.

Today, the Chota Valley continues to be one of Ecuador’s most marginalized regions. It’s home to communities where residents rely almost entirely on small plot farming and agriculture and crops are sold at small, local markets. Yet the plight of Chota Valley residents is also representative of the circumstances that Afro-Ecuadorians face throughout the country; according to the national census, Afro-Ecuadorians, who make up 5 percent of the total population, have the highest rates of unemployment in the country.

But as the 2002 and 2006 World Cup highlighted, hope in the Chota Valley often comes in the form of a game known as fútbol.

One of the leading stories in Dreamtown was the tale of Ulises De La Cruz, an Afro-Ecuadorian soccer player whose participation in both the 2002 and 2006 World Cup immediately catapulted him into international stardom. But unlike many of the perceived stories of athletic fame, De La Cruz decided to use his influence to give back to his community, which he reflected on during the film.

“I was born in El Chota Valley in a town called Piquiucho, with a lot of difficulties and no basic services,” he poignantly recalled. “Soccer is more than scoring goals and winning trophies. It is my social tool. Success came sooner than expected. It was like reaching something big. Slowly, it gave me a path to find a happy life with much satisfaction. And above all else, the greatest satisfaction is that I can influence injustice.”

To combat many of the inequalities that his community faced, De La Cruz built a hospital, renovated a school, and installed water-cleaning systems.

“Soccer is more than scoring goals and winning trophies. It is my social tool.” -Ulises De La Cruz

But as he would later explain, it was his unwavering dedication to advocacy for the rights of Afro-Ecuadorians that would define his humanitarianism. “What I interpret as discrimination is not someone calling you racial slurs,” he explained, “nor insulting you for the color of your skin. It is the years of neglect and lack of basic necessities in Afro-Ecuadorian communities.”

In spite of the systemic challenges faced by El Chota residents, and some may argue in response to them, the region continues to produce stellar Afro-Ecuadorian players like Enner Valencia, Tin Delgado, and Juan Carlos Paredes, who have played in some of the most competitive leagues in the world.

However, for every Valencia, Delgado, and Paredes, there are thousands of Chota Valley players who will never succeed as professionals and will not become household names, like Carlos Maldonado. As Dreamtown shows, Maldonado’s soccer dreams were cut short because of contract disputes, which forbade him from achieving his dream of becoming a professional soccer player. It was, according to his mother, an injustice that left him “ruined.”

At the same time, the fact that soccer is seen as the only vehicle for social and economic mobility for players like Maldonado indicates that the legacy of anti-black racism in Ecuador has created searing disparities that continue to negatively affect every aspect of Afro-Ecuadorian life.

Still, if the strain of financial burden and limited access to educational opportunities continues to exist in the Chota Valley, it is likely that the Ecuadorian national team will continue to have a roster of talented players from the Chota Valley who will be lionized for their athletic gifts. But there will also be stories of young men like Carlos Maldonado, who will pursue a dream that will never be realized because of forces outside of their control.