Justo Santos
A shirt designed and worn by Justo Santos Justo Santos

Justo Santos remembers that as a child he played on his knees so much that he ended up with holes in the knees of his pants. To fix them, he would take older items of clothing that were not of much use, and choose the best part of the fabric as a patch to cover the holes. In those times, due to poverty, it was common. But now a pair of pants with patches can cost more than $300.

"Those pants were already in style when I was a child, but it wasn't by creation, rather you don't have money to buy new pants," said Justo.

The first garment that Santos made was a skirt for his sister. He cut up all the old clothes he had, used bits of everything and sewed them together piece by piece. The skirt was of multiple colors and textiles. At first his sister didn't want to wear it but she ended up liking it.

At age 17, Justo decided to migrate to New York. At that time, many people from his neighborhood in Azogues began to leave for the United States. His parents asked him if he wanted to go to New York and he said yes. Two weeks later he began his trip.

"No other area of the United States was known, when asked where they were going, they did not say the United States but New York so I followed in their steps and came," said Santos.

He took a plane in Quito with a layover in Guayaquil to the final destination, Mexico City. Once arriving in the capital, he rested for a couple of hours in a hotel. Then he took another plane to Tijuana. At night he crossed the border between Tijuana and San Diego. He doesn't remember how long it took him to cross, but he does remember a house on the edge of the highway that divided Mexico and the United States.

Santos arrived in New York on December 28, 1988. Going from the countryside to the big city was a drastic change for him. He remembers thinking that he had landed on another planet.

No one to talk to

Santos was used to the countryside, where a bus would usually make a single trip in the morning and another in the afternoon to pick up people and take them to the city. He arrived at an uncle's house and lived with him for 6 months. He later went to live with a cousin but didn't expect to end up sharing a room with four other people but stayed.

His first job was difficult, he said that he was 17 years old but with the physique of a thirteen-year-old boy, he was very thin but tall.

"Nobody hired minors, so I was practically begging to be hired," Santos said.

Surviving the situation was very difficult, until he met a Polish businessman and got a job in a garment factory. Then he met with the harsh reality of his life, knowing no one and struggling with the language. In those days there were not many people who spoke Spanish in the city. There was a person available to translate between employees and employers. Factories were in Queens, Brooklyn, and Manhattan. He worked for 17 years in the factory.

But everything changed when President Bill Clinton signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994. Many factories began to close and moved to Mexico. Santos became unemployed but was able to find another job at a commercial light company and began delivery throughout the five boroughs making deliveries. With a consistent job from 7 a.m to 3:30 p.m in the afternoon, Monday through Friday, and on weekends he washed clothes, he remained in the same routine as always for years.

Help on the way

He was 36 years old when he met a community leader. That experience changed his perspective on life. Through Walter Zinche, he found out about the Alianza Ecuatoriana Internacional organization and started volunteering. There he met Esau Chauca and Jose Rivera.

The three of them founded the Ecuadorian American Cultural Center, originally the Ayazamana Dance Group. This center focuses on representing Ecuadorian and Ecuadorian American culture through different forms of art in New York City.

"Most of the new kids who join are born here but with Ecuadorian roots and our culture is simply fermenting, our way of dancing and that they feel a little more, so they don't lose our roots," said Rivera.

A clear example of the organization's work are dancers Ashley Zubmana, 20, and her niece Shelyne Acosta, 19. Zubmana's parents are originally from Ambato, Ecuador. When asked if she remembers how she started in the organization, she comments that it all started with Justo giving out flyers at her sister's workplace. Ashley grew up in Jackson Heights, Queens and even though she's in college she still goes to rehearsals and still finds time to practice with the dance group despite going to college.

"I thought about leaving the group, but this is my home and I have spent a lot of time with Justo and Don Pepe. It is so strange to have or live a life without them in some way... we are a family" said Zumbana.

Acosta also attends John Jay College, majoring in criminal justice. She and her aunt are the last of her family in the group. For Acosta, being part of this dance group has helped her become more sociable. This group is her second family and it is important to her parents that she is connected to her culture.

"As children of immigrants there wasn't a community at that time where we could've talk about our experiences and this group is really a nice touch of home."

The girls practice various types of traditional Ecuadorian dances. They practice dances from the coast, the highlands (la sierra) or the Amazon. They also learn about the materials from which the traditional costumes are made, such as sheep wool or alpaca, most likely from the highlands (La sierra). While those from the Amazon area use very little, such as women can wear a light one-sleeved dress.

"Being part of the group has opened many doors for me in different branches of art such as fashion design, plays, short films, and becoming the leader of cultural events," Santos said.

Dance meets fashion

Santos is in charge of the costumes for the dance group. Based on his experience costume designing for the cultural center, he now has his own business in Allentown, Pennsylvania. When he started, he didn't do it professionally but just for the passion he had for being creative. One day Walter Sinche told him to design his own brand. He had 3 months to prepare a collection to present at a fashion show at a restaurant called Sabor Latino in Queens. Later, he met Leonor Torres, an Ecuadorian from Cuenca and recommended that he take courses at FIT (The Fashion Institute of Technology) and since then he has not stopped dedicating himself to the arts. Usually when he participates in fashion shows he uses traditional Ecuadorian music on the runway.

On weekends he comes to New York to participate in the cultural center and when he is not in New York he is in Pennsylvania with his family. Of his nine siblings, only one lives in Ecuador. And although he has lived in the United States for more than three decades, he takes comfort in the fact that he can always call his only remaining sister back home as he awaits his green card to hopefully visit his country again.

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