The Queen of Water had me hooked from the very beginning. It’s the story of Virginia, a young indígena born into an impoverished family in Ecuador. At the age of six, Virginia is sent away to work for a wealthier mestizo family. Both the reader and Virginia come to realize that this is the beginning of Virginia’s life as a domestic slave. While domestic slavery (especially of a young child) is difficult enough to stomach, what makes it all the more troubling is that it is a true story set in the 1980s. In fact, it is co-written by the ‘real’ Virginia—María Virginia Farinango. For many of us, Virginia’s years as a child slave coincide with our own childhoods. This is not a story from hundreds of years ago. We’re not talking about the early colonization of the Americas. We’re talking about child slavery in contemporary times. While the 1980s may seem like a distant past to many of our students, they will be able to identify with a protagonist who’s about their same age.
The reader follows Virginia as she grows up in the Doctorita’s household, cooking, cleaning, and caring for the young children. What we find in Virginia is a spirit of resistance. From her very first day in the Doctorita’s home she refused to be what the Doctorita wanted—a docile, ignorant servant. Yet what we realize is that resistance is never a simple concept—it’s not black and white. It’s complicated. In resisting the mental and emotional abuse of the Doctorita and the mestizo class, Virginia also ends up rejecting her indígena roots. She finds she has turned into a mestiza in more ways than she could have imagined. While she may have escaped the Doctorita’s home with significant pieces of her selfhood intact, she lost others, namely her ability to speak Quichua, the language of her family. When finally seeing her parents again after years of separation, Virginia finds she can no longer communicate with them.
Students often resist things they find dehumanizing or oppressing in our classrooms, and while their need to resist is valid, often times their resistance is done in a manner that is self-defeating. But the power of Virginia’s story is that it forces us all to think much deeper about the things we resist and the effectiveness of our resistance. Not all resistance is equal, not all resistance gets us where we want to be, and sometimes it costs us more than we are willing to pay.
Virginia also offers us a valuable perspective on schooling and education, one that I think many of our students need to hear. Here in the United States education is mandatory, because of that the privilege involved in being able to go to school is often overlooked or unrecognized. Virginia must fight to learn to read. She must sneak around to read books or write poetry; she calls herself a secret-agent student. The parallels to what it was like to be a slave in early American history are obvious, but, again, we must remind ourselves that this took place in the 1980s.
Virginia’s story is heartbreaking and inspiring. It’s a novel that most students will engage with early on as they become easily attached to the independent, strong, and vulnerable Virginia. The Queen of Water has received great reviews and critical acclaim for good reason. It’s the highlighted novel for our September meeting of the Vamos a Leer Book Group. While it wasn’t planned, the timing couldn’t be better. Columbus Day is October 8th. I know many teachers who struggle with what to do with Columbus Day—Do we ignore it? Do we teach about it? How do we teach about it in a manner that encourages a multicultural and socially just understanding of knowledge and history? I believe this novel would be an excellent way to broach the topic of Columbus Day with students. It shows that indigenous rights issues are not just something of the past, but in fact are very much relevant today. And, hopefully, it will help our students to realize that history really does continue to impact the present.
Be sure to check out our Educator’s Guide that accompanies the book and our two other posts on the novel: Resources for teaching The Queen of Water and The Fulbright-Hays teacher created curriculum on Ecuador!