About Maria Virginia Farinango

photo credit ken burgess

Maria Virginia Farinango was born in a small Quichua community near the town of Otavalo in the Ecuadorian Andes. The Queen of Water, a novel she co-wrote with Laura Resau, is closely based on the true story of her girlhood-- a moving tale of struggling to find her place between two cultures. Maria Virginia is now working toward a degree in psychology after many years of running her own Andean crafts business and traveling internationally with her husband, Tino, a musician and composer. Pursuing her interests in holistic health and beauty, she has recently opened a small day spa in Otavalo, where she lives with her husband and her son.

Interview with Maria Virginia

[translated by Laura Resau]

How has Ecuadorian society changed since your childhood ?

MV: There have been many positive changes. Today in Ecuador, in general, indigenous people are able to get an education. Otavaleno (Quichua) indigenous people have become more famous in the world. Through playing music and selling crafts, they have become very successful, financially speaking. There are even indigenous doctors and lawyers now, too. There are still some indigenous girl servants, but far fewer, and they are paid better and treated better now. They are considered more human.

What changes still need to be made in Ecuadorian society?

MV: There should be better educational opportunities and a wider, more open-minded perspective. I'm able to get a different perspective during my travels in Colorado. Sometimes, when I meet people who learn that I'm indigenous, they say something like, "Me too, I'm indigenous! My great-great grandmother was Native American!" I see that they greatly value being indigenous. Through education and travel, we open our minds and learn to value other people, especially indigenous people.

What messages do you hope people will take from your story?

MV: The idea that you have your life or situation because you decided to be there-- you can decide: Today is a new day, yesterday has passed. Today I'll beging anew. God gave us the power to choose, good or bad, and to overcome obstacles.

What happened after the story ends?

MV: I became involved in social and academic activities, and community development work in my village. I won more competitions similar to the Queen competition in the book, and I was voted class president. I also competed in running events, and did public speaking on topics like education. I dabbled in TV and radio programs, too. Then I got married to my husband Tino, who is also indigenous-- he's an Andean musician. I began college, then had a baby and devoted time to my family and craft shows. Now, after the long break, I'm completing my degree in psychology.

Tell us about your life now, 20 years after the book ends.

MV: I feel very happy! I have a wonderful life. Although I don't have many material possessions, I have the love of my husband, my child, and God. We have a good relationship, which is a treasure to me. I love traveling and learning. I'm grateful that I've had many successes in my life. I live in Otavalo now, where I study and work, and I try to come to Colorado every fall.

Tell us about your experiences being a mother. How did your childhood experiences affect your relationship with your son and husband?

MV: Being a mother and wife is wonderful. I feel I can say thank you after all the difficult things I've experienced that make me appreciate my life now. I was unhappy during the hard times, but that was how I learned to appreciate what I have now.

Can you update us on your relationship with the Doctorita and Carlitos?

MV: I forgave the Doctorita and Carlitos before I got married. For years we kept in touch every once in a while. More recently, the Doctorita and her children and I have been getting together because we share the same faith now. We're not very close, but the boys do call me "sister." I choose not to spend too much time with the Doctorita and Carlitos-- I prefer to be with more upbeat and positive people.

Do you have advice to offer people who are struggling to overcome obstacles?

MV: Never sleep! (Hahaha!) Just get up and do it! Use all your resources. If you really want something, you can do it. I feel that in some sense, I chose to live the life I did. I feel that the power in my heart came from God. My faith has helped me be grateful for what I have, and to ultimately forgive those who have wronged me. Years ago [after the book ends], at the hotel where I worked, I crossed paths with a psychologist who helped me understand that it was necessary to forgive in order to feel happy with my life.

Is that a photo of you on the cover of the book?

MV: Yes, it is. Laura's friend, Ken Burgess, took the photo a few years ago.

How can people contact you?

MV: Please send an email to with the subject heading "Maria Virginia Mail." (It's best if you can write your email in Spanish!) I will try my best to respond within a few weeks.

If people are planning a trip to Otavalo, can they make an appointment for a treatment at your spa?

MV: I'd be happy to do this if I'm available at the time of your trip. My spa treatments (facials, massage, skin treatments, etc.) are given in my modest home, and are informal and personal. In addition, my husband and I rent rooms in our home to travelers. We would love to welcome you into our family and show you around Otavalo and the surrounding communities. We can give you tours of indigenous villages and natural points of interest (sacred lakes, waterfalls, and mountains), teach you to cook Ecuadorian food, play Andean music, and tell you about Quichua culture. We are comfortable speaking in English. Just contact me [at the email address above], and we can work out details and reasonable payment.

photo credit ken burgess

Are you available for speaking engagements in the U.S.?

MV: Yes, if it fits into my academic schedule. I usually come to Colorado for a month or so in the fall. That would be the best time for me to do events in the U.S. I'm most comfortable presenting in Spanish. Please contact me if you're interested.

Is The Queen of Water available in Spanish?

MV: Our agent is working on it! We hope it will be.

Fictional Elements of the Story

The Queen of Water follows the actual events of Maria Virginia's life very closely. When we began this project in 2004, we intended for it to be a 100% true memoir. During the first few years of working on the book, I approached the project with the same rigor I'd used in my graduate research in cultural anthropology. When we started getting feedback on early drafts, it became clear we'd produced an academic work that didn't engage your average reader.

Yet Maria and I both had the goal of reaching a wide audience of teens and adults - not just academics. She agreed to give me liberty to tweak her story, which involved shaping the narrative by cutting out extraneous scenes that didn't relate to the book's themes, expanding dialogue and descriptions of people and places, distilling series of events into single scenes, and using my imagination to flesh out certain elements of the story. In our revisions, all of the major scenes in the story are still very close to reality, simply elaborated on.

Many other writers doing collaborative memoir projects have encountered similar problems and recognized the need to fictionalize elements of the story in order to engage readers. Dave Eggers, author of What is the What, succinctly explains here why he and Valentino Achak Deng (former Sudanese lost boy) decided to fictionalize his memoir - reasons similar to Maria Virginia's and my own.

Here are some specifics, in case you're curious:

  • People's names: We changed most of the names for privacy protection. Obviously, we kept Maria Virginia's name (as a girl, people called her Virginia; now most of her American friends call her Maria.) We also kept the real names of her brother and sisters and parents, as well as some of her friends and coworkers.
  • Place names: All of the place names are real except for Kunu Yaku (the small town where Maria Virginia lived with the Doctorita and Nino Carlitos) and Yana Urku (the village where Maria Virginia was born.) Since these communities are very small, we wanted to take this extra precaution to protect people's privacy.
  • Events: All of the events are very close to reality (simply embellished) except for a few small scenes toward the end: the scene where Maria Virginia is in the park overhearing two men making offensive jokes about indigenas; the scene where Maria Virginia doesn't go to the birthday party because of the rule that no indigenas are allowed at the pool; the scene where Maria Virginia feels uncomfortable that the young indigenous maid is serving her and her friends lemonade. I based these three scenes on real events that have happened (based on events I witnessed or heard about), but not specifically to Maria Virginia (although similar things did happen to her). I added these minor scenes in response to early reader feedback requesting more tangible scenes that give socio-cultural context for indigenous-mestizo relations in Ecuador. I felt that instead of summarizing this social dynamic, it would be more powerful to illustrate it through short scenes that would have more of an immediate emotional impact on readers.

If you have any more questions about what's true and what's fictionalized, feel free to email me!

Links to Photos

  • Here you can get a behind-the-scenes look at cover art for The Queen of Water.
  • You can read more about The Queen of Water here.
  • You can see photos from Maria Virginia's childhood on Laura's blog post here.
  • You can see photos of Maria Virginia dancing here.
  • You can see photos of Maria Virginia with her Colorado friends here.
  • You can see photos of Maria Virginia and Laura's trip to NYC to visit Random House here.
  • You can find links to photos of the Otavalo region, taken by Laura during research trips, here.
  • Here you can read about how Laura used her cultural anthropology background in writing The Queen of Water.
  • Here you can read a deleted scene from The Queen of Water.

Page last updated: November 20, 2011