Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas
Photo Essay

Photo Essay: Undocumented in the Galápagos

Fleeing crime on Ecuador’s mainland, one family discovers how even an island paradise can be difficult.

October 17, 2023
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Photographs by Yuri Segalerba

This article is adapted from AQ’s special report on A (Relatively) Bullish Case for Latin America

Ecuador’s Galápagos Islands are a sanctuary for a dizzying array of life. Three ocean currents converge on the isolated volcanic islands 600 miles off the mainland to create a unique refuge for thousands of species. The islands have become a conservation success story, and their biological riches attract over 100,000 tourists every year.

They also draw Ecuadorian families seeking reliable work and refuge from the country’s rising tide of violent crime. But legal status in the Galápagos is difficult to obtain, even for Ecuador’s own citizens; of 30,000 people living there, an estimated 5,000 lack residency permits. Like undocumented migrants throughout the Americas, they live under constant threat of deportation.

Elvia Margarita, 45, has been living without authorization on the islands for 11 years. She arrived as a single mother of four children, hoping to provide them the safety and stability they lacked in Guayaquil. For many Ecuadorians like them, the Galápagos are a complicated sanctuary.

The Batallón del Suburbio neighborhood of Guayaquil, where Elvia grew up. The port city has long been a hotspot for crime, and Ecuador’s murder rate has quadrupled since 2018.

Organized crime has become such a force that a presidential candidate was assassinated just days before an election in August.
Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island, where Elvia now lives, is the largest town in the Galápagos.

As part of the Galápagos Marine Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage site, it is a hub for tourism with a population of around 16,000, many of whom lack legal residency.
Two of Elvia’s children play unsupervised on the shores of Santa Cruz Island.

They enjoy a sense of safety and freedom that would be unthinkable in Guayaquil.
Elvia works several jobs to provide for her family. She leaves the house at 7 a.m., returns briefly to prepare lunch and dinner for her kids, and then works again until 11 p.m. She often goes all day without seeing them.

Here, she advertises fresh catches to passersby at the restaurant where she works as a waitress.
Left: Elvia meets one of her children’s teachers. Any time spent attending to personal matters can mean a loss of income for informal workers like her.

Right: Elvia stands by to attract customers at a travel agency as one of her sons waits inside. She is paid on commission, and sometimes earns nothing during her eight-hour shift. Because she lacks a work permit, she must rely on informal employment without protections.

Inset: Elvia’s eldest child, Karla Pamela, 26, returned to Guayaquil three years ago. Here she videocalls her mother from Guayaquil. Elvia went five years in the Galápagos without a smartphone, and finally purchased one to be able to make these calls, the only way she has seen her mother and grandmother in 11 years.

Center: Elvia’s mother, Herminia, in her home in Guayaquil. Herminia doesn’t own a smartphone and can only see Elvia when Karla comes to visit.
Elvia’s mother and grandmother worry they might never again be together with her. They keep photos of Elvia in a drawer in the home they share. Here, Elvia’s grandmother has scattered the photos across her kitchen table to look through them.
The Galápagos are home to numerous critically endangered species, including giant tortoises. The islands’ unique wildlife changed the history of human thought: Charles Darwin’s 1835 visit was crucial to his development of the theory of evolution.

Though Darwin wrote in his journals about riding—and eating—the tortoises, they and all other Galápagos wildlife are today subject to strict protections.
Elvia walks along a seaside pier. She worries about her grandmother’s health, and wishes she could fly to see her. But she can’t; a flight would mean being identified by authorities.
The threat of deportation is ever-present in Elvia’s life—as is the strain of isolation, and the fear of losing her precarious informal work. But she knows this is where she wants her children to grow up.

Segalerba is an Italian documentary photographer and storyteller focused on Latin America.

Follow Yuri Segalerba:   LinkedIn  
Tags: Ecuador, Galápagos, Migration, Photo Essay
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