My Cuerpo de Paz Service Reflections

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.

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Our Peace Corps site placement in Dibulla, La Guajira

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.

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A bird friend in Montes de María, Colombia

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.

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The view on Santa Marta and the Caribbean sea from Minca, Colombia

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.

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A coffee farm outside of Salento, Colombia

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.

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Trekking to a cacao chocolate farm in Montes de María, Colombia

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.

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My altar honoring my ancestral roots in Colombia

 

I’m as Migratory as a Monarch Butterfly

Dear friends,

I wanted to share a journal entry I wrote in 2011 during a family visit to Morelia and Leon, Mexico. While I’m a little late, the message of migration still rings true, and most importantly, of embracing change. I’ve been back to Mexico a few times since, and one of the things I look forward to the most is staying with my grandma and enjoying her company and the delicious tacos, menudo, and pastries of León, Guanajuato.

When I think of my top ten favorite places in the world, I think of her kitchen. It’s a place where we can sit and peruse her family albums. It’s during one of our memory recovery sessions that I found one of my favorite pictures of my family (the cover photo). Having albums is a tradition I wish my generation continued with as well, but with facebook, we’re leaving our memories online, and who is to say they will be preserved there forever?

 

 

 

 

I’m dedicating this post to the Monarch butterflies which I was lucky enough to see in the state of Michoacan in November 2016. I was born in Morelia, Michoacan, but it wasn’t until I finished my Peace Corps Nicaragua service at age 26 that I ventured by land up to Mexico to finally witness the millions of butterflies swarming around and coating the trees in what at first glance looked like leaves–but no, they were butterflies.

 

 

 

Change has always been a part of my life. At three, I emigrated to Washington State. At 17, I moved across the country to Boston because that’s where it was the cheapest place for me to go to college. At 18, I came out as a lesbian. At 21, I became a U.S. citizen. At 24, I moved to Nicaragua. At 27, I swam at the edge of Victoria Falls, hiked Table Mountain in South Africa, and finally ran on Ipanema Beach in Brazil. I underwent top surgery due to gender dysphoria and am exploring the fluidity of my gender identity.  2017 was scary, but it taught me so much and I learned that I have much to look forward to. This month, I just took the GRE (after 6 years of self-doubt) and am considering getting an MBA.

 

This year will be just as stressful as it is exciting. I know it. The butterflies remind me of how easily they accept change and migrate with this intense, innate sense of purpose that I like to think that I share with them. My goal is to just accept things for how they are, and not as they should be, just as the Monarch butterflies do.

Enjoy!


December, 2011

I flew to Mexico and arrived in Morelia, Michoacan my birth town, at about midnight. Finally. It had been two years and I’m always restless to go back to Mexico. I stayed there for about 4 days and saw family, hiked, and basked in the sun that I missed so much. It was hard to believe that the beating, hot sun down here is the same one that teases us in Boston, where it begins to set at 3:30 pm.

One restaurant that stuck out to me was the San Miguelito, where my aunt and cousin went. It’s famous for basically being a museum to San Antonio, the saint that women turn over so that they can find boyfriends. There was even a life-sized one there, turned on its head, accompanied by several advertisements of women seeking good men to marry. All of my photos of the place seem annoyingly upside down. I looked at the menu and decided to try Huitlacoche, which is the cooked fungus that grows on corn. It’s a delicacy there, but after a bite of some in my quesadilla, it tasted and looked just like cooked spinach.

The day before I left, I took a stroll past the huge aqueduct through the historic downtown, which has been around since the 1500s. I really missed the concept of a town plaza where people go to sit and relax, as they listen to the constant flow of water ebbing from the fountains-or children crying loudly, asking their parents to buy them that unnecessarily large sized tweetie balloon. I was basking in the 70 degree weather, and everyone could tell I was not from there because I was making a conscious effort to sit in the sun while they wore their hats and long sleeved shirts. “No, I’m not cold,” I’d say to them. “Your winter is my summer!”

Then came the bus ride to Leon. I thought I loved to recline in my seat but these Mexicans had me beat. Halfway there, I turned and saw half of them knocked out, reclining one after another like dominos. There was a movie about a cave playing (the only actor I recognized was the man who blew the whistle at the end of Titanic in search of survivors) but I lost interest after the only female lead died. How Wellesley (my women’s college) of me.

My favorite part of the 2.5 hour long journey to León is the ride over Lake Cuitzeo. It’s this large expanse of grayish blueish water teeming with white herons all over it, and the road glides right through the middle of it. The environmental studies side of me wonders how badly contaminated it is at this point, as there weren’t many fishermen out there at all.

I should stop here in order to describe León in its deserved detail, but I’ll leave with one thought. This morning I heated up my egg, tortilla and salsa and broke my fast with abuelita (grandma). Somehow the topic of the monarch butterflies emerged, and she marveled at the way in which four generations of them migrate each year from Canada to Michoacan (the state I was just in).

She lamented at the fact that deforestation is leaving them with less places to land, and how blood has been lost over the land that these creatures deserve to call home. On a brighter note, she asked me “¿Como deben saber a donde ir, año tras año, desde Canada hasta aqui?¿Que maravilloso, no?” (“How do they know where to go, year after year, from Canada all the way here? Isn’t it marvelous?”).

Well, the monarch butterlfies are just like me, I thought. They always just want to come back to Mexico.

I don’t know why, but I’m as restless as any one of those Monarch butterflies to leave the North for a while and join family here and there, and ultimately to stay at my grandma’s house for a while. I thought by now this urge would die down, but it seems just as strong as ever.

 

 

Pre-Carnavales Under the Mango Tree

One of the most famous carnivals in the world is in Barranquilla, Colombia. The secret I have to offer is that Colombia’s Carnival celebrations span anywhere along the Caribbean coastal region near the cities of Cartagena, Barranquilla, Santa Marta, and Riohacha. I happen to be living in Dibulla, La Guajira, a coastal pueblo near Riohacha for my Peace Corps service. Never did I think I would be enjoying the charm of Colombian carnival season for longer than a month starting with the weekend after Three Kings Day, and every weekend leading up to Mardi Gras.

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Casetas
Every Saturday during this season, people go out to celebrate “pre-carnavales” in a “caseta”, which are enclosed spaces used to celebrate during carnival season. These spaces could be a bar, discoteca, or an empty lot that is only used for carnival alone (like where I live in Dibulla). Each city has many of them, and each pueblo might have one or two. My pueblo has one that just happens to be next door to me, called KZ Lesvia. This venue is in my neighbor’s back yard, where it was used to screen movies back in the day. Considering the fact that there is a mango tree that looks over the entire venue, and the screen-turned-stage is perfect for the DJ to do their thing, it is an enchanting carnival experience. The best part of attending this venue every Saturday night is seeing how people dressed up more and more as time went by, including more bright colors.

 

If you ever attend a caseta (aka in Spanish “KZ” for short), there are a few things you need to prepare for before you arrive. Colombians celebrate any party by throwing flour or baby powder, foam, or water. Many women wear hats in order to protect their hair from most of these elements, but there is no getting away from the amount that gets on your face and clothing, so come prepared knowing you can’t do anything about it. It’s all in good fun, and there is no point in getting upset if you know what to expect.

 

Parades
I was surprised to see a parade on a random Friday, three weeks before actual carnival. The mayor’s office organized a small parade with their office workers and some mobile speakers. They walked down my street, and I was more than happy to join in on the dancing and celebrating for what I thought was a random surprise. Apparently, there is a parade every Friday a couple of weeks before carnival. The week later, the parade grew to include at least 5 “comparsas”, or parade groups, that comprised of the hospital, the mayor’s office, the school, and a couple of other groups. To top it all off, there just happens to be mango trees that line the streets and met us every step of the way we paraded, no more than 2 miles around the small pueblo.

 

I had the distinct honor of parading with girls that I have been giving dance classes to. I was even more excited that they decided to make red leotards that matched mine. It made me super happy to see them organize, sell desserts, fundraise, and have their new dance outfits made all within one week and with barely any of my help or council. They also made sure to place me right next to their comparsa.

 

Music
Growing up with a Colombian Mami, Checo Acosta was well known in my household for the song Ché Mapalé, which always got everyone who is anyone up off their seat to dance. This is still a largely favorite song to play during Colombian carnival, but there are many more classics as well as new songs that everyone listens to in the Casetas. If you want to listen to some of the music, click on the links for the playlist created for the Carnaval de Barranquilla, and El Heraldo’s song competition for the 2017 Carnaval song. The music spans from traditional Cumbia, Puya, Mapalé, and Vallenato to more modern sounds like Champeta, Reggaeton, Tropi-pop, and more.

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The Caseta when it’s empty and quiet, being set-up with the huge “Picó” speakers. Notice the mango tree in the venue, and behind the tall white wall (that’s our patio mango tree!).

The costumes, colors, colors and more colors
There are particular Carnival costumes that are popular in Colombia, but here are some more that were found particularly in Dibulla:

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I attended the 2017 Carnaval de Barranquilla starting on February 25th, so click on the link to explore the largest most famous Carnival of Colombia.

WEPA CARNAVAL – QUIEN LO VIVE ES QUIEN LO GOZA

 

 

My Narrative as an Afro-Latina Peace Corps Volunteer

After only being back in the States for a few weeks, I was planning on writing something nostalgic to express what my Peace Corps service has done for me and what it symbolizes in my life because it has truly been a life-changing, and eye-opening experience that I will never forget. I’ve made the most amazing friends and long lasting relationships with Nicaraguans and Americans. Sadly, however, the first thing that I’m going to write about is the present, heartbreaking reality that is weighing on me: our society needs a huge change.

I recently posted a picture of some friends and I standing in solidarity in response to the violence and systematic-mass killings that have taken place against people of color in the United States. For Peace Corps Volunteers (PCV’s) of color worldwide, it is painful to watch what is happening from abroad, and frustrating because we feel so helpless; we watch from afar as countless numbers of our people are murdered.  The picture was our way of standing strong together and showing solidarity for all Peace Corps Volunteers of color all over the globe, as well as fellow our Americans back home.

You see, while serving in the Peace Corps, we deal with racism and prejudice due to a lack of understanding of diversity. This is something we feel on two levels: in our communities and in our PCV cohorts. In our communities, on a daily basis, we are having conversations and interacting with others to try to dispel myths and stereotypes of Black people that we know aren’t true. We are the living, walking examples that these negative stereotypes are false and upsetting. Every day we are confronted with the reality of defending our livelihood and educating the communities we serve, and every day, although we smile, it hurts. Deeply. A cab driver once said to me, “Isn’t New York City dangerous because of all those black people? They’re always killing and stealing!” My heart still sinks when I think about those words. I know that it has to do with the media and how it portrays Blacks and Latinos, but it aches when people feel that they can open up to me about their beliefs because they don’t think I identify as black; I am on the lighter side, and my Afro-Latina roots aren’t very physically visible. I always have to explain that not only did I grow up with Black people, but some of my best friends are Black, and I am also Black. My father, grandfather, uncles and aunts, cousins are Black, and none of them steal or kill.

Then we are confronted with the other reality; the reality of being with other volunteers that don’t understand our culture, our plight, or the history of our country; sadly, our fellow PCVs aren’t always that much more aware or appreciative of U.S. diversity than our host country nationals. As PCVs, when we are together, we should feel safe to be ourselves and put our guard down. However, that is not the case. Too often we find ourselves still wearing a “mask” to accommodate our peer so they don’t feel uncomfortable or wrongly judge us. We never really feel free to be our true selves or have the ability to express our grievances. It’s like we’re considered “other” because we’re the Americans in our communities, and yet, still the “other” even when among other white, Americans Peace Corps Volunteers.

I know for myself, sometimes I’m afraid to be me around other’s who don’t know me because I am afraid they will judge me for being different instead of wanting to learning and celebrating the diversity that exist in the nation that we serve as Peace Corps Volunteers. I had one experience when we had just finished working a camp and a group of us were together celebrating and hanging out with a few fellas of color we had met. We danced to a few dancehall songs, some bachata and some salsa, nothing crazy. But, by the morning, it had gotten around that we had been dancing FOR these guys and not WITH them. What seemed like a harmless and fun night of dancing with dudes that actually know how to get down was suddenly misconstrued and interpreted as the Black Peace Corps volunteers dancing like hoes for the attention of men because they were “shaking their butts”.

This experience taught me that, even though volunteers are taught to be open-minded about the culture we are living in, some volunteers fail to acknowledge the importance of being just as open-minded of the cultures of their PCV peers. After this incident, I realized I wasn’t free to be myself; this is just a little taste of what it’s like to be a volunteer of color.

The recent incidents that have been going on just add to it. So you can imagine how it feels when I post a picture of myself and other PCVs showing black solidarity in a Facebook group for PCVs and RPCVs and suddenly there is backlash of negative comments that make it seem as though what we feel is nothing and that we are only seeking to pursue a “political movement.” Fortunately, many RPCVs and PCVs supported us through their comments and responses to the antagonistic comments. Despite the previous pain, intentionally or unintentionally caused by my PCV peers because of identity, it was very powerful to see other volunteers sympathize with our pain and suffering.

However, the negative comments and criticisms reveal the real issues of our society, that, to some, our voice doesn’t matter. It’s the lack of respect for our feelings and our anguish, as if we have no right to express it, or to demand equality, that is disheartening. We, as volunteers, are expected to share our American values and cultures as if it is perfect, yet how can we do that when our people are being systematically killed and when I’m being silenced? How can I be expected to represent a country that lawfully doesn’t want to acknowledge my rights or my voice? I am and always will be a proud RPCV, but as an agent of the United States of America, I deserve to stand for something better.

Peace Corps Colombia Bebé

The following does not represent the views or opinions of the Peace Corps

A small-city Ohio man and a big-city Colombian woman, both fresh out of college. Both were ready for adventure. This is the story of my parents and how the Peace Corps brought them together. Since I will be following in my Dad’s footsteps to join the Peace Corps – Colombia with my significant other, I thought it was a perfect time to share my Dad’s story that influenced me since I was a little girl.  What was most interesting to me was how the PC brought him to meet the woman of his dreams, what his job duties were while serving there, and how he was part of the second to the last PC group to go to Colombia before their almost 30 year hiatus.

Another personal connection of mine to the PC is President JFK’s historical speech on the steps of the University of Michigan student union introducing the idea in 1960, at my alma mater. PC Colombia was one of the first sites inaugurated in 1961.  It was postponed in 1981 due to violence and unrest. PC was brought back in 2010, after an almost 30 year hiatus, with the focus now being on the Caribbean coast. I interviewed my dad about his time in the Peace Corps (June 1978 to August 1980), working primarily in the small town of Tumaco on the Pacific coast of Colombia. 

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Tumaco was the site my dad worked at on the Pacific coast, when the PC headquarters were in Bogotá. Barranquilla is where the headquarters are now, and where I will be living for the 3 month training. I still don’t know what pueblo or village I will be staying at for the full 2 years, but it will be somewhere 3-5 hours inland along the Caribbean coast.

The following are 12 questions I was dying to ask him in order to share with all of you:

1) Why did you decide to join the Peace Corps?
I had studied Spanish in college but I wanted to improve my conversational skills. It was also very hard for a liberal arts college grad to find work at the time.

2) What was going on the year leading up to joining the Peace Corps (pop culture, current events, politics, etc)?
Jimmy Carter had beaten Gerald Ford in the presidential election of 1976. There was an administration change in the Peace Corps. The ex-Governor of Ohio was named Peace Corps Director. He came to Bogotá to meet the volunteers. There was a Peace Corps volunteer kidnapped in Colombia the year before I arrived. My group was one of the last few before the government discontinued Peace Corps there.

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Peace Corps Volunteers in training: at the top of Monserrate over-looking Bogotá

3) When and how did you meet Mami with respect to your PC timeline?
I arrived in Colombia June of 1978 for the training. They placed us with local families during our training in Bogotá first, where they placed me with Martha’s (Mami’s) Tia Iñez. We met at your great-grandmother Maria Helena’s birthday gathering.

4) What was training like for the PC?
Intensive language training took three months. Malaria Control training took another three months. Training was conducted by the World Health Organization and officials of the Servicio de Erradicación de Malaria del Ministerio de Salud.

5) What was your assignment and what did you spend most of your time working on for the full 2 years?
We were employees of the Colombian Ministry of Health. I spent four months in Caquetá, South of Florencia, in the high malaria transmission zone. We caught anopheles mosquitos and took blood samples in several high transmission locations. They moved me to Tumaco, Nariño on the Pacific coast when the US State Department identified Caquetá as a high risk area for left wing guerrillas.

6) I remember you saying that most of the PC Volunteers in Colombia you started with dropped out. How many and why did they drop out? What helped you stay?
Out of twenty volunteers who started in the malaria control program, I was the only one to complete two years of service. Living conditions were very tough: sleeping in the countryside in a hammock, no bathrooms, and no showers. I would have quit if I had not met someone in Bogotá (your Mami).

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Richard with other PC volunteers

7) What happened when you heard the horrible news that Grandpa had passed away?
I had a premonition the day he died. I was in Bocachica (gold country) doing a special project. My friends at Planned Parenthood (Brazilian and Swiss couple) looked for me when I got back to Tumaco. My PC supervisor called me from Bogotá. Uncle Dennis raised holy hell with the US government to reach me. He called our Congressman, the Ohio Senators, and the State Department. Communication was very difficult in Nariño at the time.

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Marilyn & Lawrence. Grandpa Lawrence passed away at the age of 55 while Richard was in the Peace Corps

 

8) What were the biggest challenges you had to overcome while in the Peace Corps?
Health, homesickness, and culture shock. I lost 30 pounds. I contracted malaria and intestinal parasites. No bathrooms. Eating rice, lentils, and sardines for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Tumaco was a nightmare economically, socially, and politically. I saw two men fight, then one pulled out a machete and cleaved his face and forehead in two.

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Really really skinny Richard with Martha

9) How was dating Mami during the PC? When did the engagement and wedding happen with respect to your PC timeline?
Since my time in Bogotá was limited, I had to rush things along a little. When I finished the training in Bogota, I worked in Caquetá until the Christmas and New Year holidays. I rushed the proposal so much, we do not even remember where and when I proposed to her but it was during that holiday visit. We got married in January of 1980 during the holidays, a little over a year later.

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Martha & Richard: wedding in Bogotá January 1980

10) Since you lived there before the internet, how was your means of communication?
I went to Telecom on weekends in Tumaco to call your Mami. The PC sent us issues of Time and Newsweek every week, but mail was not dependable. I devoured those magazines from cover to cover. I also had a short-wave radio until it was stolen. I used to listen to the Detroit Tigers on short wave.

11) What advice do you have for your Colombian-American daughter who is now following in your footsteps and serving in the now reinstated Peace Corps – Colombia?
Take care of your health. You are more at risk than you have ever experienced before. Bottled or boiled water only. You have Kyle (significant other) so you will not have the same homesickness that I had. Focus on building relationships. Do not let frustration affect your relationship with other people. (You are my daughter. You are exactly like your father. I know you more than you know yourself.)

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Me with my parents at my 2010 graduation at University of Michigan

12) What are your thoughts about the Peace Corps in present day?
Thank you Peace Corps for bringing me the three people I love more than anyone or anything including the Toledo Rockets, the Michigan Wolverines, chocolate, arepas de choclo, Scottish Ale, a beautiful morning at the lake, the list goes on and on forever. Amen.

I’m excited to embark on my new adventure in Colombia as a millennial, with more advanced technology, with my significant other Kyle, proud daughter of a PC-Colombia returned volunteer, and proud Colombian-American. My dad was my biggest influence and inspiration! Please follow our joint blog Kronicles of Kalexandra or my IG @aletracy for my periodic updates about my S.O. and I’s experience as Peace Corps Volunteers, specifically in Community Economic Development for the next 27 months starting this August 2016 somewhere along the Caribbean coast of Colombia.

Click on the link see more photos about my dad Richard in the PC, and the PC at University of Michigan.

Are you interested in doing the Peace Corps? Did your parent or someone you know do the Peace Corps? Comment below!

The Nicaraguan Cigar Tour that Rekindled my Mexican Memories

I left Boston Logan Airport on a humid August afternoon to board a shuttle for Wellesley College. I was 17, alone, and lugged two suitcases full of clothes that wouldn’t be warm enough for the frigid Northeast winter. I sat next to a young woman named Erica, who was from Ontario, California. Her parents were pleasantly surprised to find out that I was from Michoacan, Mexico, which is where they visit family sometimes.

I didn’t have many Latina friends in college, but meeting Erica was a sign. I was destined to latch onto the Latin@ community for the first time in my life because they understood what it was like to figure out the intricacies and politics of being a first-generation student at the country’s most challenging women’s college.

I asked Erica what she wanted to study, as first years do. “Economics, and maybe concentrate in international relations,” she replied confidently. My high school didn’t offer either of those fields, so I was lost. She seemed so much more prepared than I. I just thought I was going to study history because history was my favorite subject and AP History the only class I was able to get a 107% in.

During our junior year, I was 30 pounds heavier than I am now from drinking regrettable amounts of Bailey’s and having an unlimited supply of blondies (why white people need white versions of brownies, I’ll never know). I had awkwardly grown out my short hair to a chin-length, massive mane. I dyed a streak of hair behind my neck a bright red.

One night, some friends and I drunkenly walked me home after a party to Mcafee, the farthest dungeon—I mean dorm, of all. They lived on the opposite side of campus, so they gladly handed me off to Erica, who had just gotten off the bus back from Boston. Erica grabbed me and walked me up to my room, and I blurted out “Erica, you’re my Mexican sister!” before she helped me take off my shoes and tucked me in bed. We’ve had our ups and downs like sisters, but I’m so happy we’re friends—and that I no longer dye my hair bright-red-skunk-style.

This Spring Break, Erica took time off from her PhD in literacy program at Penn State to visit me. I was thrilled to fill her in on my life here after two years apart! I took her to the warm, clean waters of the Apoyo Lagoon, where she treated me to a massage. I enjoyed swimming in my favorite crater lake, but I wanted to see something new as well.

We went to the northern city of Esteli, which is a jumping-off point for the Miraflor Nature Reserve. I’d hear great things about Miraflor’s clean air, hiking paths, and haunted swamps. Esteli is a clean, shiny city with a horrific history. Since it was a hotbed of Sandinista activity in the 1970’s, Somoza (Nicaragua’s former dictator) carpet-bombed the city. Thousands of civilians were killed or injured in Somoza’s desperate attempt to maintain his chokehold on the country. In Nahuatl, Estelí means “river of blood,” which was an unfortunately accurate way of describing the city. Somoza fled for Miami with his family and the remains of his murdered father in July of 1979.

Today, Esteli is a more relaxed, commercial city off of the Pan American highway. It’s one of only a handful of Nicaraguan cities with a cinema. It’s also nestled in the middle of tobacco country. After the Cuban Revolution in 1959, wealthy tobacco growers fled Cuba and relocated to the fertile soils here and now tourists from all over come to visit the factories and take home high-quality cigars that would cost five times as much back home. I had no interest in touring a cigar factory, since I was set on seeing the Miraflor.

Erica and I went to the tourism office by our hostel, Hostal Luna ($9 a night for dorm beds), and found out from a tall, curly-haired guide that we wouldn’t make it in time to Miraflor. Erica had a flight to catch the next day and I had to teach English classes to Nicaraguan English teachers the next day. I was frustrated with the situation, but living here has taught me to get over my impatience and to be flexible. The guide offered an artistic alternative: “If you sign up for the cigar factory tour, then I’ll show you on a map where the murals are so you won’t have to do the mural tour.” We agreed to see the murals ourselves and take the cigar tour at 2 PM.

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Interacting with the murals in Esteli, Nicaragua.

I’m a painter, and I haven’t found much of an artist community at all in this country, so I was eager to see the murals along the streets. We didn’t go hiking, but we still enjoyed the urban outdoors by snapping photos with and of the murals. Some paintings were confusing in the most thought-provoking ways. Other murals had Mesoamerican warriors painted in bright blues and with gold jewelry.

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Conceptually, this was my favorite mural. How much more metaphysical can you get?

I felt more at ease walking with Erica than I would have felt alone. The people assumed Erica was from there, so they didn’t approach us as much and men didn’t harass much at all that day. When I’m walking alone there, I face a lot comments, whistles, and hisses there, just like most women do here. I was reluctant to do the mural tour because of this harassment, but exploring the city on foot ended up being fine for once.

At 2 PM, we paid $8 for our cigar tour and took a taxi with our guide, Julio, a friendly, short man with a black Nike baseball cap and long, black eyelashes. We got out at the Santiago Cigar Factory. The thought of entering a factory made me nervous to see people toiling away miserably for hours on end. I felt guilty for supporting this sort of labor. We entered a room where men crafted the wooden boxes for the cigars. Julio had worked her before, and they smiled as we walked in. The smell of sawdust hit us. We saw the screen-printing process for making the labels for the boxes, then we moved on.

Next was the tobacco fermentation room. I couldn’t stand the smell at first—it was putrid and incredibly strong. Erica chatted with Julio about the months it takes to ferment the leaves while I coughed, covered my mouth, and stepped outside. Before I knew it, I had gotten used to the smell and felt light-headed. Shirtless Nicaraguan men in aprons swept the floor and gently moved the leaves from the shelves.

We moved on to where the women were—in the leaf selection room. Since the cigars are made completely from the tobacco leaves, the women worked under bright lights to calmly clean the leaves up and remove the main vein from them. The women smiled politely at us. One of them played ranchera music from her cell phone. They worked at a leisurely yet effective pace, and didn’t seem as miserable as I’d anticipated. It was just another day at work for them. I wondered what the health effects of the smell of tobacco leaves were on them, though.

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Rollin’.

Next were the cigar rolling stations. Rollers, both men and women, sat at their desks, rolling away. Some of the men smoked as they rolled, while a female secretary sat at her desk on the phone while she “tested” a cigar out. I don’t think this would be allowed in the states, but we weren’t in the states. One woman showed us how she took a leaf, cut it with an exacto knife, then rolled it into a perfect cigar. She helped Erica and I roll our own. I took about a minute longer than the woman did, but it was all in fun. I thought I’d let her take a break and laugh at my sub-par cigar rolling skills.

We went into the cigar storage room, and by this time, I was more than used to the smell. Julio and Erica laughed at the buzzed look on my face. I had smoked a cigar once before and thought it tasted like a mouthful of dirt, and I certainly didn’t intend to buy one, but once I took a whiff of a vanilla-scented cigar, I changed my mind.The three of us shared an immense cigar on our way to the cashier’s desk.

After having seen the process and stood in a room full of fermenting tobacco leaves, I came to appreciate the earthy, spicy taste of the tobacco. It’s a much more natural taste than the chemical-laden bitterness of a cigarette. Is it healthy? Hell no.

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I wonder if I’ll ever see my grandfather again. This Pearl Harbor veteran-turned Mexican is in his nineties now, but I can still smell the smell of his cigars.

The smell reminded me of the “puros” my witty, tall grandfather Samuel would smoke in his home when my family would visit him in Sherman, Texas, where he would commute from Morelia, Michoacan. The smoke of his cigars is as fleeting as the confusing and distant past I inhabited, especially now that my parents have been divorced for over ten years. I only passively stay in touch with my father’s side of the family through facebook. My cousin, Carol, and aunts Carmen and Monica are the ones I stay in touch with the most.

The last time I visited m father, I ended up staying for one night in his house because he told me that “I needed to focus on my career instead of traveling so much,” among a barrage of other critiques. My aunt Yoyoy picked me up the next morning and took me to her house to stay, kindly reminding me on the way back that the Johnson men have always been critical. “That’s just how they are,” she reminded me. “Don’t take it personally. I’ve learned not to.” As soon as we got to her house, we had a drink together. She opened a bottle of Modelo Especial for me and told me this would help to “olvidar las penas (forget one’s worries).” I squeezed a lime wedge into it and felt resigned yet grateful for her. This was in 2011 and I haven’t been back to Morelia since.

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The sense of smell is the strongest when it comes to provoking memories, and today Esteli stirred up nostalgia for the past that I didn’t even know I’d harbored. I’ve had so much time in the Peace Corps to reflect on my past and present, but I didn’t expect so much from a cigar factory tour I’d been reluctant to take. The factory churned out cigars as much as it rekindled my dormant memories.

No he olvidado las penas, pero no las dejará controlar mi futuro.

I haven’ forgotten my worries, but I won’t let them control my future.  

 

Peace Corps Jamaica Throwback: Finding Love in the ’70s

I want to learn from women who traveled before my millenial generation took the social media world by storm. Women traveled before people announced their engagements on facebook statuses and used selfie sticks to prove where they’ve been. What were their fears? How did they discover the world and themselves?

Here is a “Travelers Before Facebook” interview with Dominican-born Miguelina “Mickie” Cuevas-Post, who served in the Peace Corps in Jamaica from 1976-1978, and in Belize from 2011-2013. Taking the leap of faith and living/traveling to a new country can be scary, but Mickie shows us that Latinxs have been doing this for decades, and that there’s so much to gain from traveling. Enjoy her story!

1. Where are you and your family from originally? Where have they traveled?

I was born in Santo Domingo, The Dominican Republic (D.R.). My mother first visited the U.S. in the 1950’s. From our maternal side, we seem to have inherited wanderlust. My great-grandmother was a Spaniard. My mother referred to her as “Isleña”, which was interpreted to mean she was born in the Canary Islands. We know nothing else about her. My grandmother moved from La Vega, D.R., to Santo Domingo. My mother decided that the family should move to the U.S. and my father reluctantly agreed.

I moved to Central NY; Our family have set roots across the U.S. and various countries: D.R., Chile, Puerto Rico, Bahrain, and Spain.

My mother loved to travel, and visited places like Spain, Czechoslovakia, Israel, and Mexico, but most of her travels occurred in the late 70’s and 80’s. My travels, besides those countries in which I served as a Peace Corps (PC) Volunteer, include western Europe, P.R., Mexico, Canada, U.S. Virgin Islands, and various U.S. states, including Alaska and Hawaii. I taught in NYC before I joined the PC.

I took a leave of absence to serve in Jamaica. However, the course of my life changed in the first 3 months after arriving in country – meeting and marrying another PCV from Scipio, NY.

I went from being city born and bred, to living on a farm. PC service prepared me for that change.

Mickie's Jamaican Wedding Day

Mickie’s Wedding Day. Kingston, Jamaica. 1976. Photo by Mickie Post.

2. Why did you choose to serve in the Peace Corps?

A friend picked up the PC application at my request. The thought of serving was first planted while sitting in a high school English class. Our teacher, Mrs. Bush, invited some young volunteers. What they had to say must have made an impression.

Fast forward about 10 years, and I found myself as a PCV in Jamaica, where I met my husband. We married and had our first child, Christina. After raising our children, we decided to apply to the PC once again and served in Belize. I remained after Close of Service to work as a PCV Leader. I returned to the U.S. after swearing in of the new group. They just completed service this month!

3. What did your loved ones think of your travels?

Everyone was very supportive. Only silent reluctance was later expressed by the person I was dating at the time. My family was proud when I joined the PC. There was much more concern and disapproval (primarily from my mother ) when I decided to get my own apartment after college, at 24.

In Hispanic families, females did not typically leave the home to live on their own, or go away to attend college.

London. Photo by Mickie Post.

London. Photo by Mickie Post.

4. How do you think your daughter Rachel (Current PC Response Georgia Volunteer) perceives traveling because of you?

Rachel visited us in Belize. Our children have always been aware of service, met other RPCVs, and heard our stories.

Our children know that service is not always what one expects. There could be many frustrating moments-that patience is a must, and that it can be a most rewarding experience!

Jamaica was not easy, but our service experience was such that we were ready to serve again. PC is indeed the toughest job you’d ever love, and it changes our lives (literally and figuratively).

In Jamaica, Waiting for a mini van. Photo by Mickie Post.

In Jamaica, Waiting for a mini van. Photo by Mickie Post.

5. People say we make a bigger deal about travel now than we did back then. How has social media framed how we view travel today?

If by, “back then”, you mean the 70’s and 80’s, the answer is yes! I had travelled to Europe, the Caribbean, and Hawaii before joining PC. We did not have social media to publicize our travels. Traveling “back then” was more related to where people lived.

Economic status and education were also more significant factors in predicting who traveled. During my freshman year at NYU, classmates would talk talk about their trips to Europe and places considered more exotic at the time, such as Russia.

In Jamaica, we could only communicate via telegraph in an emergency- even with the PC office in Kingston. We had no phone (cell phones did not exist, and the public phone, when available, didn’t work). There were no computers, so social media did not exist. Internet was a long way from its creation.

We travelled by mini-van, and either arranged to stay with a volunteer overnight, or had to return before the mini busses stopped running.

Our second tour as PC volunteers was completely different. We all communicated via email and Facebook, so information was shared instantaneously.

Pictures could be shared right away; one’s excitement, disappointments and requests could be disseminated quickly.

We were never too far from home. Our volunteer friends from Belize and Jamaica travelled a great deal, during and following completion of service. By their very nature, PCVs are travelers.

6. Do you remember your first flight?

I was 12 when I flew from Santo Domingo to Puerto Rico, on my way to NYC. I must have been very nervous, and afraid to get sick. I was full of excitement and trepidation. I spoke no English. My sister and I sat next to friends from the neighborhood, but I was not aware (due to nerves) until much later, when I realized they were our traveling companions.

7. Where in the world are you now? Where will you go next?

I’m back in Scipio, hoping to travel to Italy, Spain, and Greece next spring. I still consider applying for a PC response position somewhere in Latin America.

8. Any last thoughts?

Travel light. Keep a journal. Take photos. Be cautious, patient, and open-minded.

Mickie.

Featured image of Mickie in Italy, 1973. 

Mickie and Ken's Peace Corps Wedding in Kingston, Jamaica. Photo by Mickie Post.

Mickie and Ken’s Wedding at the Peace Corps Director’s home in Kingston, Jamaica. Photo by Mickie Post.

My Travel Writing Brand in 40 Seconds

Hey y’all! I’m part of the Go Abroad writer’s academy, which means that I’m part of a group of travel writers who, for six months, publish two guides a month in exchange for feedback and online workshops about travel writing, pitches, SEO, etc.

I love being a part of blogging programs like this one because I learn so much from my assignments.

One of our assignments was to pretend that I’d just met the travel writing love of my life and that they’re interested in working with me. So, I came up with a 30-40 second pitch in order to  convince them to join me on my travel writing escapades!

Assignments like this one help us hone in on exactly what it is our brands are (and aren’t) in a quick elevator speech.

I was also a part of Wanderful’s nine-month-long blogging cohort, during which I learned so much about the importance of having a consistent social media presence. I wrote monthly articles and also received feedback on each post, making me a better writer.

If you’re interested in branding yourself as a better travel writer, definitely look into joining an online academy/cohort!

Are there any blogging programs you’ve worked with? Share in the comments!

Featured image by Peace Corps Panama Staff Member Isabel Bauerlein in Guatape, Colombia. Used with permission.