Janitor Sweeps, Cracks Books

At the Farside dormitories on the campus of Purchase College SUNY, words like "constitution" and "independence" echo across the halls, resonate from inside bathrooms and end inside a small, dusty closet filled with mop buckets.

The man inside is Jaime E. Jaramillo. He is a janitor and is studying for a test, the naturalization test that will make him a citizen of the country he has lived in for more than two decades.

"The town where I come from is a balmy place," he said, smiling in reminiscence. "The people are cordial, amiable and humble."

Born in Milagros, Ecuador, Jaramillo, the father of four, is a retired sergeant from the Ecuadorean army who came to the United States in 1988. He is one of many immigrants who work in maintenance at the college in Purchase, a suburb in New York's Westchester County.

'He Works Hard'

"Jaramillo collaborates," said his supervisor Lexer Bedom. "He works hard."

So do most of the people in Milagros. According to Jaramillo, many of them work in the pineapple industry. But there are few jobs in town, so he enlisted in the military in 1966, at the age of 20. There, he benefited from the decent pay of the military.

But after serving for 22 years, including during a war, the worn-out Jaramillo retired. That same year, unable to find work in Ecuador, he applied for a visa and came to America.

"It was easy to get a visa," Jaramillo said, dipping a mop in the brown water of his squeeze bucket. "It's hard for other people to get one, yes, but the consulate knows that a veteran won't stay abroad for too long."

An economic crises in Ecuador in 2000 led the country to abandon the sucre and adopt the U.S. dollar as its official currency. Because the poverty level remains at a high 36 percent, almost everyone there wants to emigrate, and, Jaramillo says, many aim for Europe or the United States.

So, with a five-year visa, Jaramillo left his family and arrived in the frizzling summer heat of Miami.

Solitude and Heat

"The intensity of the humidity was the first thing I hated," he said. "Then came the solitude." Family life is close knit in Ecuador, he says, but here in the United States, it was one of the first things he lost.

Nonetheless, America had jobs, and Jaramillo wasted no time. Within two weeks, he moved in with a sister in New Jersey and began working as a house painter.

"Mother of God! I was making $10 an hour, $400 a week," he said. "With one dollar I had 125 sucres."

Yet, to Jaramillo, a veteran accustomed to holding a FAL 7.62 rifle, the feel of a paint roller was both new and "unforgettable." After years of handling guns and grenades, he had to learn to handle a wooden paint brush.

But war memories stay fresh in Jaramillo's mind, and he remembers those "45 days of stress and tension," when Ecuador fought neighboring Peru, in the Paquisha War of 1981.

"We feared they had an alliance," he said, "and we slept three hours every night."

Still, the conflict didn't follow Jaramillo to America. When he was hired at Purchase, he met Luis Cossio, an immigrant from Peru who became his closest friend.

"He's a great friend and we got along as soon as I met him," said Cossio.

María Cecilia Seja, another immigrant worker and a friend of Jaramillo, says Jaramillo is also a good cook. She says he brings her food from home.

"Since we're both from the same country, you know, we have the same sazón," she said, describing the native flavor they both share.

Memorable Moments on Campus

Jaramillo says he enjoys working at Purchase, where students are as jovial as the people of Milagros. He recounts memorable moments on campus, and times when his job has called for action, including an early Sunday morning when he arrived at work and found two students sprawled over on a grass lawn, semiconscious and inebriated.

"I was trying to ask them if they had their keys," he said, shaking his head and chuckling, "but they were trying to ask me if I had their keys." He assisted both students inside their dormitories before calling for help.

Talking to students on campus every day, Jaramillo is reminded of his youth and of the happiest moment he has lived here in America.

"I brought my kids here in 2003," he said, with a smile across his face. Now, "if God permits it," he said, "I want to retire in two years" and return to Ecuador.

But he wants to accomplish something else before that, too.

After squeezing the dirty mop inside the bucket, he reaches over a shelf in his closet, grabs a wrinkled sheet of paper and slowly begins to read, "What are the colors of our flag?" Then, more carefully, he answers the question. "Red, white and blue."