Study of racial inequality is personal for student from Ecuador

March 2, 2012
Contact: Office of Communications

With graduation nearing, Maryville College senior Santiago Correa will soon begin a new chapter in his life, but he hasn’t forgotten the struggles of his childhood and adolescence – and the struggles his family and other black Ecuadorians continue to face in his native land.

Correa, 34, grew up in Ecuador but moved to the United States about 10 years ago in search of opportunities that weren’t available back home because he is black, and Afro-Ecuadorians still face racial inequities.

“Black people don’t have the same opportunities as the mestizos [mixed race] or white people,” he explained. “This problem is not just in Ecuador, but in every Latin American country. Colombia, Peru, Bolivia – they are still facing those problems.”

Correa, who’s majoring in Spanish with teacher licensure, decided to explore this issue in his Senior Study, expanding his own personal knowledge. One of the distinctive features of a Maryville education, the Senior Study requirement calls for students to complete a two-semester research and writing project that is guided by a faculty supervisor. According to the College’s catalog, the Senior Study program “facilitates the scholarship of discovery within the major field and integrates those methods with the educational goals fostered through the Maryville Curriculum.”

Titled “Realities of Afro-Ecuador,” Correa’s Senior Study explores the historical contributions of Africans in the South American country and Ecuadorians’ unfamiliarity with that history. Correa’s completed study is expected to include a pedagogy for how the African diaspora should be taught in public schools and how mestizos and others in the population could be made aware.

Correa’s advisor, Associate Professor of Spanish Dr. Geoff Mitchell, said the idea came from an independent study that Correa did after the pair discussed his interests and some of his experiences.

“I didn’t know very much about the topic at all,” Mitchell said, adding that it stimulated his interest in black communities in other Latin American countries and the racial issues that are still present.

In beginning the project, the two realized that very few resources existed. Dr. Michael Handelsman, a professor in the University of Tennessee’s Modern Foreign Languages and Literature division who is knowledgeable about the topic, has provided some assistance.

Visiting Ecuador last summer, Correa interviewed friends, family members and other residents. He asked them what they’d been taught in school about the history and contributions of blacks in the country, and what they believed their futures held in terms of livelihoods.

“Black history is not taught. You don’t learn those things in school,” he said. “We study all the Incas, Indians and everything. We [Afro-Ecuadorians] are part of the history, too.”

Research is personal

For his study, Correa is also drawing on his own experiences as a young man after graduating from high school, when he discovered firsthand how black citizens are discriminated against. He was interested in joining a branch of the Ecuadorian Armed Forces and knew that he would have to pass a test, a psychological assessment and a physical.

Correa called an armed forces recruiting office about purchasing a copy of the study book and was told that they had some available. However, when he arrived at the office, the story changed, and he was told they didn’t have any. Correa sensed something was wrong and hid himself in such a way as to view the office and watched as another person walked out with the book.

He didn’t let that deter him, however, and he bought the book elsewhere. After being accepted into the program, he started the four-year Marine Corps school, which is equivalent to college, and was the only black person in his unit.

Blacks are allowed to join the military, but they aren’t able to advance up the ranks, he said.

“Everybody has a chance to go serve, but you don’t have a chance to be an officer – if you are black.”

Correa said the officers made it clear he wasn’t welcome by giving him a double workload and continually telling him that he was doing something wrong. After more than two months, he decided he’d had enough and didn’t go back after suffering an injury.

“I knew I was kind of wasting my time. My dream was to be part of the marines,” Correa said. “That was a dream that never came true for me.”

As with the military, businesses will not promote Afro-Ecuadorians, he said, adding that the black population considers becoming a professional soccer player the only avenue to opportunities in Ecuador.

“You’ll not see a black doctor,” he said of the larger cities. “You’ll not see a black person working in a bank.”

When his mother came to the United States, Correa said, she met a black doctor for the first time and was in tears.

The indigenous Indians also face discrimination, but it’s not quite as bad, he said.

Thankful for the opportunities

After Correa moved to the United States, he enrolled at a community college and then decided he wanted to further his education with a four-year degree. He said he was totally surprised to discover that nearly everyone has a chance to apply for scholarships that will help them realize their educational and professional dreams.

“In Ecuador, we’re probably still 30 to 50 years behind in that,” he said. “That’s a lot. That’s a lot.”

Because he is black, Correa said an opportunity like studying at Maryville College would have never happened in Ecuador.

“[At the College] Everybody knows you by your name, and the education there is phenomenal. They help prepare you,” he said. “If you need something, they are there. It’s been great for me. I’m going to be the first one [in my family] to graduate from college.”

Correa said Maryville College is helping him prepare for his professional life after graduation, but it’s also equipping him with the skills he’ll need to push for positive change in Ecuador. After his Senior Study is completed, Correa would like to present his findings and recommendations to other college and university students and, perhaps, government officials.

“I hope that some day the situation will improve in my country,” he said. “Every little bit [of activism] helps, and I hope to have a part in that change. Most of it depends on how much time I can devote to speaking on this topic and traveling around to universities in Ecuador.

“Everybody is capable of doing something good in their lives, and everybody needs the opportunity,” he said.

Role model for youth

Correa, who lives in Loudon, Tenn., with his wife and children, is currently completing his student teaching at Lenoir City High School. He is also a coach for middle school and high school boys' soccer teams. He hopes to teach high school Spanish and coach upon graduation. Married to an American citizen, he holds a Green Card and is in the process of applying for citizenship.

Both Mitchell and Veronica Cordell, chair of Lenoir City High School’s Foreign Language Department, believe Correa is a role model for youth.

“Unlike many younger, more timid interns, he is an experienced father and community coach who came in the first day with a lot of enthusiasm and confidence,” Cordell said. “He is so friendly with the students and the other staff members.

“The students say they really enjoy having him in the classroom because he is a native speaker of Spanish with authentic experience,” she continued. “They really listen to what he has to say. They say they really feel every day like he really wants to help them learn; he is really encouraging and motivating them.”

Mitchell has been impressed with his advisee’s positive attitude despite the obstacles he has had to overcome in life. The senior is persistent in his quest for change but not confrontational, which makes him a good leader, Mitchell explained.

“He has a lot of interesting life experiences,” the professor said. “He’s an excellent role model for kids – not just Hispanic or Latino kids, but for kids in general.”

Educating others

Correa’s Senior Study focus was the catalyst for a Black History Month series offered at the College recently. Mitchell and his colleagues in the College’s Spanish Department decided to screen the PBS documentary series “Black in Latin America” for the public, as well as the campus community.

Produced and hosted by Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the four-part series examines Afro-Latin American communities in other countries, including Mexico, Peru, Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Brazil.

“Many North Americans are unaware of the significant cultural contribution of the African diaspora in Latin America,” Mitchell said. “This documentary series provides a comprehensive look into the various Afro-Latin American communities beyond the borders of the United States.”

As a complement to the series, Dr. Doug Sofer, Maryville College assistant professor of history, made a presentation on Afro-Colombian issues to MC students on Feb. 13. Participating via Skype because of his student teaching schedule, Correa shared his story with those in attendance.

The remaining screening, “Brazil: A Racial Paradise?” is scheduled for noon, March 7 in Lawson Auditorium in Fayerweather Hall. It is free and open to the public.

This story was written by Bonny Millard, a freelance writer for the Office of Communications.

Maryville College is ideally situated in Maryville, Tenn., between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Knoxville, the state's third largest city. Founded in 1819, it is the 12th oldest institution of higher learning in the South and maintains an affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Known for offering its students a rigorous and highly personal experience that includes an undergraduate research requirement, Maryville College is a nationally ranked institution of higher learning that successfully joins the liberal arts and professional preparation. Total enrollment for the fall 2016 semester is 1,198.