1 Church St.

We couldn’t find an Ecuadorian flag outside the consulate.

Which was funny, seeing as this was the Ecuadorian consulate. You wouldn’t know it by looking at the concrete and glass high-rises — drab cousins to the United Nations Headquarters in New York — on the corner of Church and George streets, right across from the new Gateway Community College and only a few blocks from the center of Yale’s campus.

The consulate opened in 2008 to relieve congestion at the Manhattan office, which had been serving all of New England, not to mention the 750,000 Ecuadorians in New York and New Jersey. (There is another consulate in Boston, but it’s more of a consular prosthesis because, unlike the New Haven office, it is run by volunteers.) The main function of the New Haven branch is to act as a liaison between the local Ecuadorian community and Ecuador — work that mostly entails providing identification documents, granting dual American-Ecuadorian citizenship to children with at least one Ecuadorian parent and lending its power of attorney. The consulate also extends services to non-Ecuadorians, offering the usual smorgasbord of (student, work and cultural exchange) visas. (Ecuador doesn’t require a tourist visa for visiting Americans.)

But forget that: This story wasn’t sealed with red tape.

The consul’s real job is to hit the streets and notify expatriate Ecuadorians of their rights. For example, it is obligatory to vote in elections in Ecuador, and failure to comply results in a fine. But Ecuadorian citizens living abroad are exempt from the fine, so one of the consulate’s tasks is to seek out and register local expatriate Ecuadorians so that no one is unduly penalized. This grassroots, mountain-to-Muhammad sort of approach, by which the consulate actively reaches out to its constituency (which effectively comprises Ecuadorians in Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine), means that the office practically needs to sit on wheels. And, in fact, a consulado móvil — mobile consulate — does travel around New England.

The consulate is a resource for the larger Spanish-speaking community. For example, it runs workshops in Spanish on health care and on how to attain an Elm City Resident Card, the innovative, if controversial, ID card available to all New Haven residents that allows illegal immigrants to turn to the police without fear of deportation.

Consul-General Raúl Erazo Velarde can empathize with immigrants. He was one himself, said Yale Spanish lector Margherita Tortora, a family friend. (The consul-general was abroad and unavailable for comment by press time.) In fact, it is the explicit policy of the Ecuadorian government to appoint consuls who can relate to the immigrant experience. According to Tortora, Erazo emigrated to Florida seeking medical treatment for his son, who was diagnosed with leukemia.

No doubt, Erazo’s is not your typical immigrant narrative. According to figures cited by the New Haven Independent, there are an estimated 55,000 Ecuadorians in Connecticut, of whom only about 21,000 were recorded by the U.S census. A large number arrived after 1999, when Ecuador faced a banking crisis that resulted in a 32 percent fall in real per capita income, according to figures marshaled by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Many Ecuadorians fled, mostly to the United States and Spain. In the United States, New Haven seemed like an obvious destination for the large number of folks with family and friends in the Elm City and in nearby Danbury, which have had sizeable Ecuadorian communities since the 1970s.

That could also explain why Ecuador made the rather odd choice of opening a consulate in New Haven as opposed to Hartford, where Peru, Brazil and Italy all have consulates. But we have a hunch — and that’s all it is, a hunch — that other considerations were present. Is it a coincidence that the consulate came to New Haven only a year after the introduction of the Elm City Resident Card? Representatives from the consulate gave us an unequivocal “yes,” saying there was no relation between the two events.

We also wonder whether the consulate might have opened to galvanize the Ecuadorian community in response to rumors that the East Haven police were harrassing Ecuadorian immigrants. The accusations reached a fever pitch in 2009, a year after the consulate’s ribbon-cutting, but the harassment had purportedly been going on for a decade.

The New York Times recently followed up on two separate harassment incidents from the winter of 2009, and reported that the Justice Department was investigating accusations of discrimination. Of those with suspect behavior, four police officers, one of whom was the president of the New Haven Police Union, were arrested by the FBI for assaulting illegal immigrants and covering up the assault with false reports.

Father James Manship of the St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church had set out to document cases of police harassment in East Haven, a flashpoint of ethnic conflict. As reported by the New Haven Independent, a member of the community called Manship to warn him that the police were conducting an illegal search in My Country Store, the last in a long line of events marked by abuse. Manship showed up on the scene wielding his weapon of choice — a video camera — and filmed the incident until the camera was wrangled from his hands, at which point he was arrested. The officers thereafter tried to confiscate the store’s surveillance tapes.

Manship’s charge? “Wielding a shiny metal object that could have been a weapon,” according to the police department’s written report. Just one problem: there was still Manship’s videotape that directly contradicted the written report. With this video, the St. Rose of Lima church had the evidence it needed to submit the formal Justice Department complaint that launched the whole investigation, exposing the police racism and abuse to a national audience. In the wake of the incident, the Connecticut state legislature even passed a bill clarifying that it is legal for citizens to record police officers.

The original complaint was filed by Yale Law School’s Legal Services Organization, which raises another question: Could it be that one of the factors in the consulate’s decision to set up shop in New Haven was the proximity to Yale?

Whatever Ecuador’s original intentions, the consulate and Yale have certainly found common cause. Patricio Brito ’14, Yale’s only Ecuadorian undergraduate student, has been working with Consul-General Erazo to get Yale to invite the president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, to discuss his progressive environmental policies on campus.

Hilary Rogers ’13 and Farrah Khan ’13 co-direct the Yale-Ecuador HIV Clinic Initiative in Manglaralto, where they send students over spring and summer breaks. (Manglaralto, they said, is conveniently located near a surf spot.) Participating students generally receive fellowships from Yale to do research while simultaneously volunteering with the clinic’s HIV education and testing projects. Rogers and Khan said that because the two-year-old initiative is still in its infancy, they have been wary of partnering up with the consulate. “We haven’t reached the step where we want to present ourselves to the consulate,” Khan explained.

Regardless of Yale’s interactions with the consulate, its presence in Ecuador has been marked.

One Yale alum who traveled to Ecuador on a fellowship, Alex Harding ’08, conducted surveys and found that the community of Muisne had no access to potable water, so he founded a nonprofit called Water Ecuador. Water Ecuador has since expanded its operations to four more cities.

In 2011, molecular biophysics and biochemistry students in Scott Strobel’s “Rainforest Expedition and Laboratory” course traveled to the Ecuadorian rainforest, where they discovered a fungus that can sustain itself solely by feeding on polyurethane — a common plastic — even in anaerobic environments. That means the fungus could be used to degrade plastic in landfills. The group’s findings were published in Applied and Environmental Microbiology.

Later that year, the Yale International Relations Association filmed a documentary in Ecuador about the tribal politics of the indigenous Huaorani, who had lived in isolation until a half-century ago.

And in a few weeks, the New England Festival of Ibero American Cinema will feature “Pescador,” Ecuadorian director Sebastián Cordero’s latest production about a love story laced with drugs and death, as its lead off film on Sept. 27 at the Yale University Art Gallery.

While the consul will surely attend the screening — Tortora, who is organizing the event, said the event has the consul’s full attention — we suspect Consul-General Erazo has more on his plate. In a few weeks, the city of New Haven will vote on a motion to adopt Puyo, Ecuador, as a new sister city.

We hope that Yale will take advantage of this opportunity.

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