Receive our free lesson plan of the week, stories, and more straight to your inbox.
"You have to meet this woman," said Juan Alfonso Pena, our friend and host in Quito who was helping us during our trip to Ecuador. "She is quite remarkable and is transforming the kids and barrios of Guayaquil." Although we had not originally planned to visit Guayaquil, upon hearing Juan describe Nelsa Curbelo and her work, we were intrigued enough to make our way south to learn more.
We arrived late in the day and grabbed a taxi from the airport, just managing to squeeze our gear in, before heading to our hotel. "You have to be careful in Guayaquil," Juan had warned us. "It's not like Quito or other cities in Ecuador; there is a lot of violence and crime there, so watch yourself on the streets." After finally convincing the taxi driver that we didn't want to stay in his "cousin's" hotel, he dropped us at a hotel Juan had recommended.
With a population of 3 million, Guayaquil is Ecuador's largest city, the center of it's fishing and manufacturing industries, but also its most crime-ridden and violent, home to more than 200 gangs, of which 60,000 members are youth. It was upon these youth gang members that Nelsa and her organization, Ser Paz (Being Peace), focused their efforts, trying to build peace in their communities. From the little we'd heard, it seemed that she was making great strides. She was helping to form truces among rival gangs who, in a show of commitment, had recently piled all their weapons into the street and driven over them with a steam roller.
That night in the hotel room, googling Nelsa brought few results. It seemed there wasn't much press about this former nun who had committed her life to working for peace.
At first sight, Nelsa looked more like a friendly grandmother than a pioneer of social change. Sitting around the kitchen table in her modest home over a cup of coffee, Denise, the videographer, translated (Nelsa didn't speak English) as I explained our project and asked her about her work.
"Better we go and see it, rather than sitting around here," she said, and we were soon driving across town to one of the barrios in which she worked. In the car, Nelsa began talking about the gang youth, the struggle she has faced during her last seven years of work, and the dramatic changes she has witnessed in recent months.
Soon, we pulled up to a graffiti-covered store front of a print shop, run by some of the gang members Nelsa works with. "Let me introduce you," she says, "and show you what's going on here."
As soon as the kids saw Nelsa step out of the car, they lit up and immediately began arguing over who could carry Nelsa's handbag for her. Their genuine love and respect was obvious and impressive.
Nelsa introduced us to the crew of boys and young men who had all gathered round to see the visitors, explaining that the print shop was collectively run by members of rival gangs. Angelo, who we later learned was the leader of the Latin Kings, was now proudly wearing Nelsa's purse over his shoulder and showing us the t-shirts, hats, posters, and flyers they produced in the shop.
"Not long ago these kids were fighting each other, but now they are working together to try and rebuild this community, creating a "Barrio de Paz" (Peace Town) that can be an example to the whole city," explained Nelsa.
"We seem to want to ignore the real issues affecting the youth in this city," she continued, "instead blaming and punishing them for their actions, rather than trying to find the root of the problem and addressing that. If we want to see real change, we can't ignore these roots anymore."
After hanging around the print shop for an hour or so, Nelsa said, "Let me leave you with the guys for the rest of the day. They can show you around and you can talk to them about what's happening. We can connect again tomorrow morning, and talk more about the work then."
We spent the next few hours walking around the neighborhood with the gang members, hearing their stories of growing up in the barrio and how Nelsa changed their lives. Throughout the afternoon they constantly joked with us, remarking how without their presence we and our gear wouldn't last long in their neighborhood.
The next morning, we met up with Nelsa and some of the kids at the print shop and got a chance to hear Nelsa's own story. The more I heard Nelsa talk, the more I realized just how remarkable and powerful she really was. Each of these kids had changed so much after meeting her; they were living examples of her profound wisdom. Many of Nelsa's words struck me that day, but one statement continues to stand out in my mind:
"Flowers don't grow from diamonds, they grow from the mud. And from these kids, who are considered the scum of humanity, the mud, the best things can be born."