By Conor Sanchez
There’s a young university student in my community named Alvaro who loves practicing English with me every chance he gets. On campus, in the park, on the street corner – wherever. As soon as he spots me, he makes a b-line in my direction to chat.
His English is decent but he sometimes says things that are awkward. I remember feeling uncomfortable our first few interactions, but as I got used to him, I realized he was merely exploring the boundaries of the language by practicing the edgier phrases he had learned in American films.
There was one day recently, however, where his thoughts carried a lot more weight than our usual banter about English grammar rules. This time we were talking mostly in Spanish, having a conversation about travel. He said he wanted to go to the United States. New York, maybe, or Chicago…whatever. He said it didn’t matter. He said he also wanted to go to Europe and naturally I asked what part? Again, it didn’t matter. I pressed him by saying every country is super different from one another. “Which one do you want to visit?”
He shook his head. “No, no, no, Conor. You still don’t get it,” he said to me. “When we talk about going to Europe or the United States, it doesn’t matter what part. All that matters is that we get there.”
I suddenly knew what he was talking about. He continued, “In a few months, you’ll leave from here and start your life. Whatever you came here to accomplish, you did it. Now you’ll go home, study, become a doctor, lawyer, whatever, and raise a family. I have to stay and the opportunities here just aren’t the same.”
I should clarify that his tone wasn’t resentful. It was simply a matter of fact. As much as my life has been transformed to live here, there will always be at least one glaring discrepancy in our situations: after two years, I go home and return to a standard of living that exists for a very small percentage of the world. Or as he said it, vos podes salir del clavo (roughly translated as “you can escape the problem”).
The list of privileges I enjoy in terms of citizenship, class, gender, and race is enormous, but my privileged mobility in particular is something I’ve devoted a lot of thought to in my time abroad. What complex configurations have deemed it ok for me to live here for a given amount of time, but simultaneously set strict rules for when and for what purposes Nicaraguans can live in the United States?
The lines drawn by “first world privilege” is something every Peace Corps Volunteer hopes to at least blur in their two years of service. We integrate into a community. We work alongside local leaders to solve issues. We earn a local salary. Inevitably, however, we come to accept the fact that there is only so much blurring one can do. The fact is, we come from two very different worlds. This acknowledgement has been expressed by Peace Corps Volunteers since the agency’s foundation.
In 1969, Moritz Thomson published a memoir describing his experience living as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ecuador. He called it Living Poor: a Peace Corps Chronicle. To this day, it is considered one of the best memoirs on the Peace Corps experience. In the end, Thomson describes his realization that despite his best efforts, he would never be accepted as a true member of his community, where most people sustain themselves on rice and plantains, while he could hop on a bus to the capital to get his fill of gourmet meats and foreign delicacies.
Michaela and I felt the same way when we escaped to catch a movie at a fancy shopping mall where prices are so high, they’re listed in American dollars. Or when our parents visited us. Or the fact that if one of us had a medical emergency, we would be taken to a state-of-the-art hospital in Managua. But it is especially poignant now as we enter the last few weeks of our service.
My take away from his book, and from my own experience here, is that we simply can’t flee the privileges we were born with – nor should we. We are who we are and there is no point in feeling shame or guilt for things we can’t control. Besides, doing that only prevents us from engaging in productive dialogue. What is important, however, is that we approach others with humility and recognize that the world treats everyone differently. These unique experiences matter if we want to help address systemic issues, both large and small.
I have leapt further outside of my shoes than I ever have before in my life, while simultaneously realizing the extent to which I can do that. I have gained a perspective that I hope will better guide the way I understand those who grew up different from me, even within my own country where skin color, gender, and other non-merit based factors continue to play a role in determining one’s success. I’ve learned that to have an impact, you have to be willing to give up at least some of your privilege and in my time here that ended up being an American salary (with a college degree), many first-world amenities, as well as the luxury of being able to travel around whenever and however I wished.
Today, I am probably the closest I’ll ever be to seeing the United States as an outsider from the “Global South.” Despite its imperfections and ongoing efforts to live up to the ideals it set out to espouse in 1776, I see the hope it represents for the rest of the world. I see a place where cultures mix and intertwine to create a truly unique national identity that is based not on one’s ethnicity, race, religion, or language, but rather on one’s values, ideals, and work-ethic. Like my friend Alvaro, I see a place where people can get ahead. I see John Winthrop’s ‘shining city upon a hill.’
I see these things and I wish they weren’t confined to national borders.
The truth is, I don’t want my friend to “make it” to the United States. Not because I don’t empathize with his motivations or that we wouldn’t benefit from having him; making it to the United States has been a ticket out of poverty for millions who work hard and the U.S. owes much of its greatness to immigrants. He knows it. I know it. But what he doesn’t know is how challenging that journey would be. Assuming he would immigrate without proper documentation or financial resources, the trip northward would be extremely dangerous. And as much as I wish things were different, he would likely face prejudice and even exploitation for his origin, skin color, and language level depending on where he ended up.
For many Latin Americans, such risks far outweigh the costs of staying put (e.g. refugees from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala), but my friend isn’t one of those people. Nicaragua is a stable country. It’s a safe country. Alternatives do exist and the progress being made economically is undeniable. As a teacher, I have seen students study hard to achieve scholarship opportunities. I’ve seen fellow teachers work weekends and evenings to earn promotions and professional development opportunities. For smart, talented people like these individuals to start leaving would be detrimental to their community’s progress.
And yet, I am not blind to how comparatively more difficult it is for many Nicaraguans to transcend their social and geographic isolation without risking their lives. As an educator here, one of my biggest challenges has been balancing the impulse to keep my expectations high while also acknowledging that, as a foreigner, I really have no idea what it is like to grow up in this environment. No matter how long I stay here, I will never be able to fully speak to that experience because it hasn’t been my own.
When I came to Nicaragua, I had no delusions of solving big issues. On the contrary, I expected to learn a lot about why the field of development is so challenging. I wanted to contribute to their nationwide effort to become bilingual because if you can speak English here, you can get a solid middle-class job. I hoped, at a minimum, that I would meet individuals with strong roots in the community, who had a desire to change lives and could use some help in that endeavor.
Those individuals ended up being local teachers with whom I work closely on various projects and who understand the experience of getting ahead here better than any outsider ever could. One of them, Bayron, grew up in a small village 7 hours from the capital, learned English despite missing two years of school as a teenager working on coffee farms in Costa Rica, and hasn’t left the country since. He now teaches English at a secondary school during the week and a university on the weekend.
Early on, I wanted to throw all my support behind this person, do all that I could to help him achieve his goals. One day, he told me he would like to do what I’m doing, only in the United States. He could improve his English, gain invaluable experience teaching in an American classroom, and come back to Nicaragua with a wealth of knowledge to share. To do that, only a few hyper-selective programs exist, most of which are run through the U.S. Embassy. I promised to do everything I could to help.
In 2015, Bayron got an interview, a huge achievement in and of itself, to be considered for a Fulbright scholarship to pursue his masters in the States but in the end he wasn’t chosen. “I’ll try again next year,” he said. This year, he has an opportunity to present in El Salvador at an English teachers conference. It will be his first time out of the country since he worked on a coffee farm in Costa Rica and this alone sets him apart from teachers in our region. A few months ago, he was 1 of 15 picked out 150 applicants to take the TOEFL exam, again to be considered for the Fulbright. As he left the testing center, he texted me, “Will try next year if I can’t get it now. At least I have the experience of the TOEFL.”
If it’s not clear already, Bayron is incredibly motivated to study overseas and I have no doubt that, if his determination persists, he’ll get to go. But the point I’m trying to make is that this is how I want Nicaraguans to travel to other nations. Not to “make it” as in the case of Alvaro, but rather, to meet it on equal footing, where they can expand their worldview, learn about a different culture, and return to their country to put their knowledge into action. This is the kind of movement I hope to see occur more often between our countries.
I want Bayron to reap the professional benefits of living and working in a foreign country for the same reasons I hope more Americans do it; to gain the dividends of being able to make connections among seemingly disparate ideas – an ability that multicultural engagement has been shown to cultivate. This not only empowers us individually, and not merely monetarily (although that may very well be an outcome), but it also ends up helping our home communities by adding a more open-minded and sophisticated voice to public discourse. In short, Bayron’s experiences abroad would be a significant net gain for his community as a whole.
One day, while enjoying a late morning snack of tajadas and queso fresco at the school cafetín, I tried to explain all of this to Bayron, expressing my frustration that the present system doesn’t allow him to get out more. He nodded and thought in silence. After a while he said, “That’s the dream. But for now, you and Michaela are here and that’s good.”
We’re here and that’s good. I let that sink in for a while before deciding, it is good. Michaela and I have made life-long friends here, from colleagues to neighbors, from students to parents – many of whom had never met an American before, much less Jewish and half-Irish, half-Latino ones. We have contributed to their efforts to improve their community’s education by securing resources from the States to build a computer lab and develop an existing library. We’ve painted two world map murals. We’ve trained dozens of teachers in making their classrooms more communicative and their students to be better critical thinkers. We’ve organized camps and other programs for youth that focused on leadership, gender equality, and diversity.
At some point, I have to take a step back from examining the discrepancies that have filled my head throughout my service and instead, just be grateful for the opportunity to meet and work with people I wouldn’t otherwise encounter. For that, I owe a great deal of gratitude to the people of Nicaragua, who accept us into their homes on a daily basis, as well as to the American people whose tax dollars sent us to work here. I had traveled a fair amount before working in Nicaragua, but I had never been introduced to the world quite like this.
Which brings me to my final realization: we’re lucky to have an agency like the U.S. Peace Corps. America’s national parks may have been the “best idea we ever had,” but the Peace Corps is a close second in my mind. Wallace Stegner, who coined that phrase in regards to our decision to preserve land and make it open to the public, could have just as easily been talking about volunteers: “Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.” That’s especially true in light of the U.S. swimming team’s nightmarish behavior during the Rio Olympics.
Peace Corps fights exclusion by bringing Americans to remote, isolated corners of the planet. It shows others a side of the U.S. they don’t see often enough and yet, to me, are things that define us – diversity, ingenuity, and empathy. At the same time, we get a chance to see some of the very same qualities in other nations.
In trying to explain our mission, Sargent Shriver, the agency’s founder and first director, once said,
“It goes beyond politics and national rivalries to reach the deepest hopes of man. It is a working model, a microcosm, a small society representing the kind of world we want our children to live in.”
This microcosm takes people from vastly different cultures and brings them face to face in a dramatic, sometimes jarring, experience. As a result, you don’t end up seeing the world in the Peace Corps. You don’t visit the world. You don’t travel the world. And you definitely don’t save it.
You meet the world. And against all odds, it takes you in.