Cuenca may be the number one destination for North Americans retiring overseas, but the one woman responsible for facilitating more of those relocations than any other is Maité Durán. Along with her company, Gringo Visas (formerly Ecuador Movers), Maité has become, in less than half a decade, the most sought-out visa facilitator in Ecuador.
Yet, that’s only part of the story. The real value Maité offers all of us is, not just her service, but also the story behind that success, one that can be instructive to any of us not wanting to stumble in Ecuador. On the surface, a rags-to-riches tale, Durán’s is also a story about family, a portrait in courage. For, yes, Maité triumphed over adversity, but she worked hard for years, earning the bulk of her wealth in the US. And she did this, not so she herself could gain, but so her siblings could be educated and her mother could live more comfortably.
Maité’s father died when she was five-years-old, leaving her to work on the streets of Ecuador’s Santa Isabel by the time she was seven. Her first job was selling water balloons during Carnival, work that was followed by the peddling of home-made Popsicles, the kind sold in parks and buses everywhere in the country. Durán soon discovered she could also sell coconuts in her school, dividing them into individual servings to maximize profit. She eventually landed work at a Western Union, where she honed the money management skills she’d developed on the streets as a small child—all this by the age of fifteen, when she informed her mother she was going to the US. She had noticed while working for Western Union that all the money transferred to Ecuador from the US came by way of Danbury, Connecticut. Maité was determined to go there, though it took two more years before her mother would allow that to happen.
In 2000, Durán flew to the US with only the clothes on her back and not even a dollar in her pocket. She may have been a beauty queen in Santa Isabel, but what she found upon landing in Connecticut was less than lovely. She lived in a small room with eight girls, even sharing a bed. One acquaintance loaned her the dollar she needed to take the bus to her initial interview, and another, the funds to purchase the non-slip shoes she wore for her first job at McDonald’s, working the drive-through window and scrubbing floors.
After a year, Maité was earning enough to support herself and attend high school. She went to class during the day, worked afternoons and nights, and studied English during spare moments, anything to minimize her language anxiety. In only two years she graduated with honors, going on to do a myriad of jobs, everything from factory work to bussing tables, from bagging groceries to, eventually, managing the other employees in that same super-market checkout.
Maité learned a third language, when renting from a Portuguese landlady. So, when hired by a mortgage company, she was able to translate for both Spanish and Portuguese-speaking clients. Soon she went on to become a loan officer herself, in fact, the most successful in the region. Because of this, Durán was asked to host a Comcast television show, on which she helped Hispanic immigrants understand the US homeowner experience, interviewing insurance companies and real estate attorneys.
Eventually, she met and married a Cuencano, who had also come to Connecticut, and three years later son David was born. By this time, Maité was able to purchase a home for her family in the US and put her siblings through college and graduate school. One has already finished medical school; two more will soon become doctors!
In 2011, Durán and her husband decided to return, with their son, to Ecuador. Maité had earned enough in Connecticut that she no longer needed to work outside the home. Still, her entrepreneurial spirit would not allow her to spend the rest of her life as a house-wife. So, in Cuenca, a visa-facilitating business hired her to answer emails and schedule appointments, and when the staff didn’t perform efficiently, Durán pitched in, becoming the most popular facilitator in the company. Soon after this, she broke her foot, and while laid up, had potential clients calling and visiting, asking HER to facilitate their visa application process. When this happened, Maité started her own business.
Eventually, Durán renamed her company “Gringo Visas” out of love for her Canadian niece, the first in the family to be born in North America and whom Maité affectionately calls “my little Gringita.” Since son David also identifies as “Gringito,” it seemed fitting the name should honor these “gringo” cousins.
Durán’s company now has a staff of nearly a dozen in Ecuador and the US. When praised for her work, however, Maité won’t accept that accolade for herself, only. Rather, she credits the team of professionals with whom she collaborates. The value she places on family has helped her understand teamwork and appreciate what each of her colleagues contributes to the success of Gringo Visas.
However, the emphasis Maité places on family is even more evident when she talks about her mother, a life-long mentor, who modeled a strong work ethic. When Durán was a child, her mother served roast pig along the side of the street. But this was never as simple as serving up food to hungry “almuerzo” eaters. Rather, it involved finding the animal, buying it at a reasonable price, taking it home, figuring out how, as a young mother, to kill the creature on her own, then transporting it once more, so it could be roasted and sold. It’s from her mother that Maité learned to leverage limited funds, to serve clients efficiently, giving them the most pork for their “gringo” dollar.
Durán’s story is many-sided, an Ecuadorian tale about business success motivated, not by a desire to get, but by a passion to give. Hers is a savvy, not rooted in greed, but in gratitude. Maité’s work may connect continents, but she does more than straddle the cultural divide between North and South America. She transforms an experience of need into a legacy of service. She bridges the larger divide between those of us who take to Cuenca’s streets with the best in high-tech backpacks, and the aging indigenous women, hunched under massive bundles, and struggling past San Francisco Plaza. In short, Durán offers her clients an invaluable service, but she should earn from all of us is, not only her fee, but also our respect.
Yet this is an American story, as well, a story about courage, the tale of anyone who has overcome adversity. Durán may remember a past when neighbors helped feed her, but she knows now what it means to be rich in insight that is, at once, deeply personal and intensely global. Her tale, because it is rooted in family, is able to transcend location—bringing people and places together. Because she lived this rite of passage, Maité is uniquely equipped to serve the international community, helping clients acquire the visa’s right TO passage, the right to a good life on a new continent. In short, Durán can ground us “gringos” in a country that is rich in its love of family and the value it places on hospitality, its welcoming of strangers, serving them, as Maité’s mother had, plates of pork in a new land.
Maité Durán: A Portrait in Courage was Zero Magazine’s premier issue cover story, click here to read the online premier issue.