Young Ecuadorian Prepares to Be Leader of His People

The subject of a new documentary, Hugo Lucitante was sent to the U.S. at age 10 to ultimately help his oil-ravaged village.

Hugo Lucitante had never been so tired. He was 10, and on an epic journey that started in a remote village in Ecuador’s rain forest, where he lived with his family and other members of the indigenous Cofán people. He had traveled 12 hours in a motorized canoe to the nearest town, then hopped on a bus for another 12 hours, sitting between his parents as they wound through the Andes to Quito.

“It was freezing cold,” he remembers of the moment he finally got to Ecuador’s capital city. He put on an uncomfortable red coat his parents told him he had to wear. Tired and miserable as he was, his journey was just beginning.

Despite his youth, Lucitante was on a mission to become a leader of his people—a mission that would bring him to Seattle, where he lived off and on for the next 17 years. His parents had entrusted him to a 22-year-old University of Washington student they had met while she was studying in Ecuador. “I was the very first one of my tribe to leave,” he says.

The Cofán had been devastated by Ecuador’s rapacious oil industry, which had pushed the tribe off their lands and into deep reaches of the rain forest. The government had aided this process but given little thought to what this meant for schooling, which in Lucitante’s village ran only through fifth grade.

On top of that, oil spills polluted many of the region’s rivers, an environmental problem compounded by the companies’ foolish practices. “They decided it would be a wonderful idea to pour crude oil [on the streets] to keep dust down,” says Lucitante, who remembers thinking it was fun to draw with the dark sludge. “People were even told to smear themselves with oil to protect themselves from the sun.”

Even as a 10-year-old, Lucitante says, he knew he was going to the U.S. to get a Western education that would allow him to speak up for his people. But, he says, “I didn’t know what I was getting into.”

Lucitante’s attempt to figure it out is chronicled in a documentary, Oil & Water, that premieres at the Seattle International Film Festival tonight and screens again tomorrow. The film, by local directors Francine Strickwerda and Laurel Spellman Smith, picks up as Lucitante is graduating from Seattle’s Bishop Blanchet High School and follows him for eight years as he goes back and forth between his native and adopted homes. Along the way he meets American David Poritz, a kind of environmental prodigy, who while still a child devoted himself to fighting oil pollution in Ecuador and who is now immersed in a movement to certify ethically produced “fair trade” oil, similar to what has been done in the coffee and chocolate industries.

Poritz’s precocious self-assurance and accomplishments are awesome to behold, but there is something particularly affecting about Lucitante’s struggle to navigate two very different worlds and stay true to a fight he is not entirely equipped to wage. We see Lucitante trying to earn money for college—unsuccessfully by the movie’s end, which has him returning to the U.S. after a spell spent living in Ecuador with the American wife he met at Blanchet.

They now live with their 7-month-old daughter in a Seattle neighborhood he asks not be named, in part to allow his family some privacy. Also, he says, “it’s cultural.” His people have experienced too much intrusion already.

Apart from that, Lucitante, now 27, is open about his life. One morning, while his wife is out working as a preschool teacher, he walks with his daughter to a nearby park. Bouncing the baby in his arms, he relates that his tribe wants him to be its leader already; he has more education than most. After high school, he returned to Ecuador and spent a couple of years at a university in Quito, but quit when he couldn’t support himself while attending classes.

“I personally feel like I need to finish college to be more confident in myself,” he says. And so while working as a shopping-mall valet, he is applying to schools again in the U.S., hoping to get the financial aid that would make enrollment possible.

He says it is his dream to study environmental science at UW, but his application for a coveted “Husky Promise” scholarship has so far been met with silence. He has turned to community colleges, with an eye toward starting in the fall.

Meanwhile, he is pondering what he can do for his community. “I don’t necessarily like the word ‘leader,’ ” he says. “But I have a lot of ideas.” With the film coming out this week, he talks about setting up a website for all who might ask how they can help. It would coordinate volunteer efforts aimed at protecting the Ecuadorian environment, like collecting the turtle eggs that locals use for food. Having been exposed to a Western diet, he’d also like to introduce new foods to his people—namely, vegetables. The Cofán subsist largely by hunting and fishing.

Eventually, he says he’d like to nurture the eco-tourism industry that serves as an economic alternative to oil production. The latter is still encroaching on the rain forest, having recently come to a village just upriver from his. Later this month, Lucitante plans to travel to the Ecuador/Colombia border to participate in a historical mapping project, supported by The Nature Conservancy, intended to allow the Cofán to lay claim to their ancestral lands.

Before that, however, he has someone to meet. Portiz is coming to Seattle for the film premiere, and Lucitante wants to see if he can be of use in the fair-trade effort. At the same time, Lucitante is reserving judgment until he sees the outcome of that effort—both for the oil industry and for his old friend. He says he hopes Portiz “stays close to the indigenous people” and doesn’t get “off track by becoming too involved with these corporations.”

Lucitante himself is on a slower track, and one senses there might be another film to be made 10 years down the road.

Oil & Water screens Tuesday-Wednesday, June 3-4, at AMP Pacific Place 11. See here for details.

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