The Latter-day Saints who moved in caravans toward the Rocky Mountains in the mid-nineteenth century gave everything the Lord demanded of them to establish the Church. Their sacrifices have left an indelible legacy for the whole Church and forever. That same pioneering spirit has spread to the world among those who accept the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. Learning their stories today brings us closer to each other in the modern, multicultural society of the Church.
One such story is that of Virgilio Simarrón Salazar.1 For many years, Simarrón was a leader in the Chachi native community of northern Ecuador. Four hundred years before, the Chachis had left their homes upriver and found a place of refuge in the Guayacana jungle, where they could maintain their community and values. To this day, they still maintain their distinct way of life and their own system of justice with a communal council, governors, and judges. These leadership roles are typically honorary positions that families hold for generations and that are built on a deep foundation of community respect and esteem.2 For Virgilio Simarrón, that respect was a trust to be cared for and passed on to the next generation.
But Virgilio’s plans for his life were changed in 1996, when his son Wilson returned from studies in Quinindé with copies of the Book of Mormon and a firm testimony of his new religion. Filled with the faith and enthusiasm of one who has found the truth, Wilson shared the message of the gospel with his family, and they were soon baptized in the waters of the Canandé River.3
As the Simarróns continued to share the gospel with Chachi friends and neighbors, however, a serious conflict developed. Some Chachis felt that Virgilio Simarrón’s beliefs made him a heretic and even considered violence against him. Others felt that, as a governor, he should not be participating in a new faith that might divide the people. With this concern, they took him to be tried by the communal council. It would be one of the most difficult experiences of Virgilio’s life. His son Wilson related the following:
The council in full assembly told my father, “You will remain as our governor if you renounce the Church of Jesus Christ; you must retract.” My father said, “I made a commitment to God, and when a man makes a commitment to God, it is irretractable. I cannot give up the Church. If you think I'm a governor who has divided the Chachi people, then oh my people, choose you this day another one in my place.” Then I saw the scene of my father crying. The council was in total silence for more than five minutes—nobody said anything. Then someone said, “Then Governor, leave.” Slowly my father stood, so myself, my mom, and sister went down and left the council.4
After Simarrón was removed from his office, difficult days followed for the family. Feeling criticism and contempt from many who had once respected them, they turned to the faith they had embraced and preached the gospel with great fervor. Omar Intriago Cesar, who was then president of the Esmeraldas Stake, stated: "The Guayacana Branch started with Virgilio Simarrón and his son Wilson. The Church was established because of his faith, his strength, and his testimony. They began to preach the gospel from house to house to each family of this community."5
In just a few years, the efforts of the Simarrón family bore great fruit. May 30, 1999, became a day of celebration in Guayacana when a large baptismal service was held. President Intriago recalled that moment: "We arrived with Roberto Garcia, the mission president, and both participated in that glorious day, where on the beaches of the Canandé River, two missionaries baptized 60 people. Then, President Garcia on one side and I on another confirmed as members of the Church all who were baptized. It was a privilege that will never be erased from my life."6
Virgilio had given up his governorship to stay true to his testimony. But he was able to pass on another legacy to the next generation, that of serving the people by establishing the gospel among them. He lived to see his son Wilson serve a full-time mission and then return to Guayacana to marry his wife Ruth and have children. Some years later, Virgilio died faithful to the Church. His wife, Maria Juana Apa, has lived to witness their son’s calling, in 2013, to serve as branch president in Guayacana.
Wilson is very aware of the heritage his father always wanted to give him. "My ancestors have always been governors, heads of soldiers, strong warriors for the lineage of my father,” he said. “I feel that all these ancestral roots still manifest in me. But now that I am a member of the Church, all that strength has become to be a good soldier of Jesus Christ."7
Néstor Curbelo is the Church History area adviser for the South America South Area and an expert in Church history throughout South and Central America. He has published books and produced documentaries on LDS historical topics, including Historia de los Santos de los Ultimos Dias in Uruguay, Historia de los Mormones en Argentina and the documentary Librados del Cautivereo.