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.

IMG_8893

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.

IMG_3476

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.

IMG_0691

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.

IMG_9567

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.

IMG_3477

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.

IMG_9348

My altar honoring my ancestral roots in Colombia

 

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.

Advantages Latinas Have When They Travel Abroad

To my Latinx brothers and sisters, this message is for you. Honestly this message can apply to any minority living in the US, but it’s crafted through the eyes of my experience as a Latina traveling abroad.

Especially if you are a university student, please consider studying abroad. Leaving the US will open your eyes to systems, characteristics, and a multitude of other things you might have not seen before. Why am I telling this message to just Latinxs when really all students should study abroad? Well, some things will be easier for you than it is for a white US American.

Reason #1: Ambiguity of nationality

Most people you meet abroad won’t guess where you are from. Unless you are wearing a shirt with Obama’s face and US American flag print shorts, most people will think you are from somewhere else. The majority of

IMG_2310


Looking mysterious in Quito

people in other countries still hold on to the stereotype that US Americans are white with blond hair and blue eyes. Just look at Hollywood, which is where people abroad receive images of US American culture and Latinxs are vastly underrepresented. If you are a brown or an Afro Latinx, people you meet won’t be able to guess where your roots are. While I was in India most people wouldn’t believe that I was from the US because I was brown (I was even called Chocolaty-brownie once!) because people can be unaware of how diverse the US is. I always explained that my parents were Salvadoran, however I didn’t meet one person who had heard of El Salvador. After three months of explaining where El Salvador was I gave up and told people my background was Mexican because it was quicker. Although it is frustrating at times, this can really be a positive thing, especially if you choose a country where US Americans aren’t typically adored or are just seen as a piggy bank. People stereotype nationalities quickly while traveling so that fact that people didn’t really know where I was from allowed me to craft my identity or remain more mysterious. It’s a shallow benefit but it has really helped me abroad and leads into reason #2.

Reason #2: Higher chances of blending in

If you happen to choose a country that has a population with similar facial features as you, then you are in luck! This saved me in India countless times. I was usually confused for

New Years


Attempting to blend in in India

an Indian-American or the tour guide for my group of friends. Also, I’m not proud to say that I paid the Indian price at entrances for several museums. I could blend in and wasn’t a target for as many stares or beggars as my classmates received. Also, I made friends easily and one Indian friend attributed it to me not looking as intimidating as a 5’11’’ blond girl. This has helped me in other countries I’ve visited/lived in like Morocco, Mexico, and Ecuador. If you are a lighter skinned Latinx these first two reasons might not apply to you so much, but the next one will.

Reason #3: Past experiences of being a minority

You know what it’s like to be in a group of people and realize that you are the only minority. If you are in college, chances are that you really

25727_528294981055_2732275_n

Surprise, the only brown girl

know what this is like. You’ve grown used to it and even though it still bothers you, it doesn’t stop you from being social. Well, when you are in a different country, you will go through this but in a more extreme fashion. However, you are used to feeling like an outsider. For a white US American, it’s harder for them because they might have never been in a position to feel that way. Many other exchange students in my program struggled with the feeling of being an outsider.

When I studied abroad in India, my US American classmates were homesick so to alleviate their pain they would often reminisce about things they missed in the US. One day they were sharing stories about their childhood memories at Disneyworld or Disneyland, and I simply couldn’t relate. I’m not even sure if I knew where those places were as a kid. After commenting several times that I hadn’t done most of the things that they were missing, one classmate told me that I wasn’t even US American. These types of things happen to us all the time. We feel like foreigners in our own country and with our own people. Actually being a foreigner isn’t too far from that feeling.

Reason #4: Visits abroad to the motherland

You’ve probably already been abroad and know that the US American way of life isn’t the only way. Many students abroad experience culture shock or are simply surprised by many of the smaller details to living abroad. Although you might get homesick, you have already seen how other cultures meet the demands of daily living. You probably won’t be surprised to see milk or juice sold in plastic bags and you’ve probably already cultivated a love for street food. Another great thing is that since you’ve already been to another country, you can compare your study abroad country with the US and your motherland. I was surprised to see the same frituras that are sold in Mexico and Central America also sold in India. These types of similarities are comforting and also help give you an understanding of how similar we all are.

I hope these four reasons motivate you to study abroad. I know that there might be other factors working against you and your dreams to go abroad. Some of those may be financial worries. There are many scholarships for minority students and if you go to a non-traditional study abroad destination (e.g. Asia, Middle East), you have a higher chance at getting a scholarship. One really great one is the Gilman Scholarship (if you are a US citizen) which is the one that allowed me to study in India.

Another factor that might hold you back are the opinions of your family.

France

Southern France

They might not like the idea of you being so far away. You could use the strategy I used; just fill out all the paper work and once everything is confirmed, let them know you are leaving and that you’ll bring them lots of souvenirs when you get back.

I hope you will see that the positives really outweigh the negatives. For once you are at an advantage for being Latinx because of your looks and background. And like Sandra Cisneros said, “You can never have too much sky”, so go on and see the world, take photos, and share them with others so we can be a more internationally minded community.

*This perspective of traveling is from a brown Latina who was born and raised in the US with Salvadoran heritage. Although “Latinx” is a broad term, the reality is that we are diverse and can have very different experiences while traveling. 

The Young People’s Project – A Step Towards Education Reform

I’ve been working at Cesar Chavez Academy High School in Southwest Detroit since September 2009, I am a College Math Literacy Worker (CMLW) for The Young People’s Project (YPP) in Michigan.

I am proud to work for this grassroots, non-profit organization. The YPP mission states:

 

“The Mission of The Young People’s Project to use Math Literacy as a tool to develop young leaders and organizers who radically change the quality of education and life in their communities so that all children have the opportunity to reach their full human potential.