Open Borders

United States- East:
The Ecuadorians of Upper Darby


Marta has not seen her children—now 13 and 17—for ten years. As she edits her interview from 37 minutes down to 5 minutes, the focus narrows down to her grief of being separated from her children, of her  guilt and pride and dreams for them.  Her story tells of the day she left home, her desperation to find ways to communicate with her children, her hopes for reuniting with them.   As we listen to her story on the final day of our workshop, all crying, Martha says, “This is the first time I’ve been able to say this to anyone since coming north.” [Listen to Marta’s Story, in English or Spanish: 5:45.] 

A large community of Ecuadorians has recently settled in Upper Darby, a working-class community on the edge of Philadelphia. Several of these immigrants come from the village of Sidcay, in the Ecuadorian highlands; most of them have made the trip north alone and left family and children behind. Because of their undocumented immigration status they have not been able to return home for five, even ten years.  

On ten Saturday mornings we met in the basement of Sarbelia C., set up laptop computers and held a digital storytelling workshop. First, participants talked about what it meant to be an immigrant and developed a list of themes that would help them focus their stories.  Their list was like a table of contents for the diaspora occurring all over the world, of people moving from poor countries to richer countries, from the country to the city, to survive: life at home and the decision to leave, the pain of leaving and separation from family and children, the dreams that brought them to El Norte, life in the United States, the dream versus the reality.  After much discussion, the group decided to focus on the theme of leaving home. We then held a mini-workshop on how to do a good interview—asking open-ended questions, putting the narrator in a scene and asking her to fill in the details, listening actively and going where the conversation leads. The group then developed a set of open-ended and scene-creating questions to explore the theme of leaving home, and          interviewed each other.  

Sarbelia C.. is one of the workshop leaders. Sarbelia came north seven years ago and has not seen her son, Jonathan, or her parents since. She supports three families: her parents and her ex-husband’s parents who take care of Jonathan in Sidcay; and her second son, Chris, who was born in the U.S. and lives with her in Philadelphia.  Three years ago, Sarbelia came to the Open Borders Project office to enroll in our GED class. However, the class was full, so she enrolled in a basic computer class. She had not touched a computer before. A year later, she had taken all of the computer courses, including A+ Certification—an advanced technical course focused on building and repairing computers. She is now the director of instruction at Open Borders, and teaches several computer classes.  All of this, because the GED class was full. Recently, Sarbelia has become a leader in the New Sanctuary Movement, an organization that trains immigrant communities about their rights when an immigration raid occurs. They do trainings in churches and community centers, using role-playing and storytelling. Often more than 100 people attend. [Listen to Sarbelia’s story, in Spanish or English: 6:22.] 

Luis’ story describes his harrowing five-day storm-ravaged voyage from Ecuador to Guatemala on a fishing boat loaded with sixty passengers, all of whom had to stay below deck all day to hide from the helicopters.  His  description of being crammed below deck in the fish holds lying head-to-toe with no toilets sounds like historical descriptions of slave ships. His fellow Ecuadorians recount their stories of paying $14,000 for a “guide,” getting to Guatemala or Mexico by boat, and trekking north. People become very animated as they re-tell their stories, as they realize that they are in a sense heroes who had embarked on a dangerous voyage, all for their families.


Many  of the participants had never used computers.  From the initial meeting we learned computer basics, including navigation and file creation. As the workshops progressed, participants mastered basic recording techniques and how to mix their voice and music in an open source program called Audacity.  By the end of the workshop participants had recorded and edited their stories to three to six minutes in length, added music and created a mix.   

Finally, our stories are completed and we celebrate, eating Chinese and listening to each other’s stories, talking late into the night, reflecting, crying.  We talk about what it means to finally share our grief and frustrations, how we have not felt safe to tell our stories—especially within our own community where we were all in the same boat.  Sharing our stories affirms our risks and sacrifices, the dreams we have, validates our lives. We talk about how our relationships with each other changed through listening and reflection.  Hey, we are no longer so intimidated by computers— through producing our stories we’ve started to feel comfortable with technology, we have learned these new tools. 

During this period Manuel Portillo, Director of Open Borders Project, visited Sidcay.  He was able to set upcomputer and webcam and create a real-time face-to-face on-line meeting between families there and their relatives in Upper Darby. In Sidcay, everyone was taking bets—who was this Guatemalan from Philadelphia , this pied piper telling us that we would be able to chat with our families while watching them on the computer?  Clearly a huckster.  Manuel clicked on the computer as everybody watched skeptically.  Nothing at first, then the screen lights up. Who’s that? My daughter! My son! Tears and shouts in Sidcay and Upper Darby.  

Sarbelia and Marta pulled together a group of fellow Ecuadorians in Upper Darby to explore the possibility contributing to the development of their home in Ecuador by creating a permanent DSL-based capacity to have real-time video conferences between  Sidcay and Upper Darby.  How about a kind of internet webcam café, where families can sign up and talk with each other?  Sarbelia suggested  creating an after-school computer program for their children and other students in Sidcay.  A café by night and on weekends, a classroom by day. They decided to identify and contact leaders in Sidcay to determine if there was interest in such a project back home. A phone conference was held, committees were formed in Upper Darby and Sidcay, plans made to pursue the vision of connecting the two communities and using technology to break down the barriers which separate family and friends, while contributing to the education of their children back home.  Then—as often happens in communities in which many often work 60-70 hours and at night or on weekends –the vision stalled, and is on hold.   

Where do the stories of Sarbelia and Martha fit into the Great Immigration Debate?  One of the great cruelties of all diasporas is the separation of families, parents having to make unbearably painful choices between survival and being with one’s children and parents.  Any just immigration reform must include the possibility for families to re-unify, to live together again as they pursue their dreams.

Listen to Sarbelia’s and Marta’s stories: their strength, their grief of being separated from their children and parents, their sense of how they have grown, their dreams for the future, their challenge to Americans to spend one month living in Sidcay, their request for their families to be given the opportunity to participate in the American Dream.  Their stories, originally produced in Spanish, have been translated and re-recorded in English.  Pick your language, listen.


Black & White Photos by Gabriel Amadeus Cooney

Mark Lyons

Mark Lyons is co-director of the Philadelphia Storytelling Project, which uses digital storytelling in their work with teens and adult learners in summer workshops, computer courses and ESL classes. Participants write stories or interview others about their immigrant experience, record, edit and mix their stories, and create short audio stories. He also does workshops with teachers on doing community oral histories. He is the co-editor of Espejos y Ventanas / Mirrors and Windows, Oral Histories of Mexican Farmworkers and Their Families, which is published in Spanish and English. He developed a theater piece from the stories in the book, which was performed by local people at the Border Book Festival in New Mexico.

He has worked in the Latino community for the last twenty five years, as a health worker and community organizer. For eight years he was the director of the Farmworkers Health and Safety Institute, a consortium of grass-roots organizations in the U.S. and the Caribbean. The Institute trained farmworkers to use theater and other popular education methods to train other farmworkers concerning health and safety  issues such as pesticides, field sanitation, housing, drinking water, HIV/AIDS and workers’ rights. He also worked for several years in a community health center, as a provider and health planner.

Mark’s collection of short stories, Brief Eulogies at Roadside Shrines, was published by Wild River Books in 2014. It was chosen as a Kirkus Reviews Book of the Year. He has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, is a recipient of Pennsylvania Council of the Arts fellowships for 2003 and 2009, and the J.P. McGrath Memorial Award from Whetstone Magazine. In addition, one of Mark’s stories was performed at the Writing Aloud Literary Series at the Interact Theater in Philadelphia.

Manuel Portillo


Manuel Portillo

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Manuel Portillo is originally from Guatemala and came to the USA as a refugee during the Central American wars of the ‘80s.  Under the protection of The Sanctuary Movement, he traveled extensively speaking publicly about the atrocities being committed by the military governments of the time.

He is a former community organizer with the Eastern Pennsylvania Organizing Project, a grassroots organization based in Philadelphia that works with faith-based groups, where he worked on issues of public safety, education and city services.

For the last eight years  Manuel was the Executive Director of Open Borders Project, a non-profit organization that provides language and technology programs to newly-arrived immigrant communities. He is currently co-director of the Philadelphia Storytelling Project.