At age 19, Ecuador native Esther Cuesta Santana ’02, G’15 told her parents she was going on vacation to Mexico. She did, and then crossed the border into the United States. “I was ignorant to the great risks of crossing the Mexican border,” recalls Cuesta Santana. “I would never do that again, and I now actively discourage others from attempting it.”
She found her way to New York City, then Amherst, and on to Genoa, Italy, before returning to Ecuador. Today, this scholar and diplomat applies the totality of that 21-year journey to serve citizens and migrants in her native country.
Economic and political instability during the 1990s led to the emigration of over one million people from Ecuador. Cuesta Santana, like many of her fellow citizens at that time, did not see a promising future for herself there. In the United States she worked, took English lessons, obtained permanent residency, and applied to colleges. She was accepted to UMass Amherst and the (then) Honors Program. “The idea of studying at a public research university was compelling to me. I believe that public institutions are the engines of social mobility,” says Cuesta Santana.
Being in a community of honors students inspired her ambitions. Cuesta Santana pushed herself to study Latin and Italian and take courses in sociology, anthropology, and economics—education that serves her well now. For her honors thesis Cuesta Santana translated the novel of a writer of Ecuadorian and Puerto Rican descent. “Translating language is not just about the words,” she explains. “It’s also about translating cultural perspectives. An immigrant is constantly in the process of translating.” The honors thesis experience deepened her interest in research, leading her to pursue a master’s degree and doctorate in comparative literature.
As part of her doctoral research she conducted ethnographic and archival research in a region of Italy that shares centuries of cross-migration history with Ecuador. The Ecuadorian government offered her a position as consul in the Consulate of Ecuador in Genoa; two years later, she became consul general. Cuesta Santana recalls, “They appreciated that I had linguistic and cultural skills, as well as a migrant’s perspective and the historical and analytical background of that migrant experience in Italy that would be useful in serving the local Ecuadorian population.”
After six years, Cuesta Santana completed her dissertation and accepted the invitation to return to Ecuador to serve as the vice minister of human mobility. She made her decision with confidence: “I should return to contribute to my country in protecting the rights of migrants.” In her current role she is challenged to manage the country’s migrant populations through policy decisions. She explains, “I know from my own experience how dangerous crossing the Mexican border into the United States can be. I am looking at ways to stop irregular migration to protect the rights and integrity of people: to protect their lives.”
Cuesta Santana’s approach to helping create policy is grounded in her academic background and her capacity to listen to people. “Studying literature gives you the capacity to analyze deeply, and to see historical and social context. Unlike a politician, who has to be ready with an answer, academics from the humanities are aware of how little they may know, and how valuable a variety of perspectives can be. This is why I am more interested in listening to people, to understand how, from politics, we can improve the quality of people's lives.”