One of the proudest moments in my life was when I began Peace Corps training in August of 2016. I was still working on Travel Latina, however difficult it was to access the internet. I was ecstatic to share a very special article by Danica Liriano called My Narrative as an Afro-Latina Peace Corps Volunteer. Nothing could make me happier to publish and share this article on our blog and Instagram account. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately), I ran head-first into an unexpected comment made on her article that made me question everything I was doing. Name is changed to initials in order to protect identity:
“[DFV]: thanks for sharing this piece! i definitely validate the authors experiences, but i think their critique is incomplete, since they ultimately place faith and believe in the peace corps’ agenda. peace corps was a geopolitical tool designed by JFK and part of his alliance for progress to stifle anti-colonial revolution (following success of the cuban revolution) through reform that masked foreign, largely US, penetration of national economies and cultures across the third world, especially in latin america. i expect more of the author frankly. nameley, i expect them to expand their critique in order to indict the peace corps as a neocolonial, humanitarian, white saviour institution that inflicts violence on the countries and communities it interacts with. i believe we need to be more mindful of the need to center subaltern voices and stop believing the west can provide the answers, since it has only played, and continues to play, oppressor!”
I was floored. Not even 1 month into my service training, I questioned everything that I thought about my international development career, and everything that I thought about the Peace Corps (PC) ever since my Dad inspired me to do it. I began obsessing about the Saviour Complex, and how I could avoid any imperialistic, white supremacist, and/or neocolonial practices. I decided that I needed to try harder. To make sure to community organize and perform my work with integrity, with full support or in collaboration with the community, and with sustainability in mind. In international development, I truly believe that Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) is the best, most sustainable way to work with communities. The ABCD approach “builds on the assets that are found in the community and mobilizes individuals, associations, and institutions to come together to realize and develop their strengths. This makes it different to a Deficit-Based approach that focuses on identifying and servicing needs” (Nurture Development 1). In addition to that, it’s necessary to implement effective impact evaluation to see if an international development service or aid is actually working, or in order to look at ways to improve it.
Moreover, there were even more problematic PC stereotypes to work through. There was a comment made when I announced on Facebook that I was about to leave the country to begin the PC:
“AJ: Felicitaciones! Sabes que lo dicen Cuerpo de Pasear ”
Translation: “Congratulations! You know they call it Travel Corps ”
Peace Corps in Spanish is Cuerpo de Paz. Pasear means “to travel or take a promenade out on the town”, so the play on words turns Paz, or “Peace”, into Pasear. In other words, my FB friend was poking fun at the infamous way that PC volunteers use their time in their assigned host-country to travel rather than actually do work.
I’m not going to lie, some of the most necessary trips I took out of my site placement was our official PC “Weekend Aways” to the nearby cities once a month. Never have I stared my privilege so closely in the face, and been so ruefully aware of my U.S. born & raised, U.S. passport-holding, light-skin Latinx, privileged self. Never had I felt so disgustingly and embarrassingly fragile, with my time in the PC having the worst impact on my mental health, which I believe had a direct negative impact on my immune system. I am wary to admit that my trips away were not only to “pasear”, rather to attend to my mental health. So much so, that I didn’t even realize the extent of my poor mental health state until PC doctors demanded that I pack up and leave site on an official ‘Medical Evacuation’ just two months shy of finishing my 27 month service.
Don’t get me wrong, I got to know my motherland in a way that was unforgettable, especially when visiting other volunteers in their assigned sites, and visiting my family in Bogotá. Unlike most other volunteers, I did not have the budget to visit the USA as often as they did (read: once in 2 years, while most PCVs visited 2-3 times), which did not bother me too much except for being 30 meant I missed a lot of weddings. Unfortunately, I did observe that many fellow People of Color in the program struggled with not being able to visit their family as often as non-POC. WOC, in my cohort particularly, dropped out more often than everyone else, which I think is a sad, yet clear, sign at how difficult it is to complete service with little means or support, along with poor treatment. At the end of the day, most locals at my site did not have the resources to travel in-country the way we did, or even access to certain medical or psychological treatment that we had, and many times I allowed it to eat me up inside. On the other hand, I had to remind myself that I was a volunteer with no real income, and furthermore, that I could not have the pretentious saviour complex.
I’m far from perfect, the Peace Corps is far from perfect, the United States is far from perfect, no one is perfect and EVERYONE is problematic. I’m willing to get called out, receive constructive criticism, and become a better volunteer and overall person. I needed to make sure to work in the best way that *I* could in order to avoid the aforementioned issues. At the end of the day, I taught, I had important conversations, I facilitated, I empowered, I led, and I did everything I could to share what I hope is beneficial knowledge in Dibulla, La Guajira with the utmost mindfulness. There is no true way to measure whether I was successful in any way, or whether I was *woke* enough. However, I feel satisfied when I observe the way people in Dibulla talk about race more positively, seeing past stereotypes (i.e. how US citizens are supposed to be), increasing savings and personal money management awareness, less bullying among students, and overall more interest in entrepreneurship. If I did anything at all, at least I am satisfied to know that I created connections that will last a lifetime.
Do I recommend the PC? It’s not for everyone, in fact I wonder if it’s best for those who have money or their families have it. Perhaps, it’s better for the fresh college grad who’s use to living on a very meagre budget. I was neither of these, but the reality is that I want an international development career, and the jobs I desired weren’t hiring me because I needed at least 2 years of fieldwork experience. It was my only option, even if I had giant student loans to attend to, even if I put my physical and mental health at risk. I was determined to struggle through it all, while trying my hardest to stay “woke”. The BEST part of it all? I got to explore my ancestral roots in a way even my family couldn’t guide me through.