Daniella is a Community Economic Development (CED) volunteer serving in a pueblo in Bolívar, Colombia.
When I think of diversity in the Peace Corps and my experience serving in Colombia as a first generation Latina I automatically reflect on my own identity. Growing up in Los Angeles with immigrant parents from El Salvador, who migrated in the 80’s in an effort to escape the civil war that was devastating their home country, was a challenge in itself. There was no roadmap of what to do to gain access to a higher education, and I didn’t have friends or relatives who had joined an organization like the Peace Corps. It is hard for anyone in my family to fathom why I would voluntarily give up two years of my life to live in a humble pueblo in Latin America and give back to a rural community. In their eyes, I’m regressing to the life my parents worked so hard for me not to have to struggle through.
Being the first in my family to have an experience like this comes with the territory of being a first generation Latina, and this is a part of my identity that I carry with me everywhere. When I identify myself to Colombians I always make it a point to include that I am Salvadorian. I don’t identify as a “gringa” specifically because I’ve never felt like one in the U.S. I’ve endured discrimination my entire life because of the color of my skin. Even here in Colombia where I seem to blend in much easier I still get comments like “tú no eres gringa de verdad” — and I must agree, I’m not “full gringa.” Because to me the term “gringa” directly correlates with privilege. Although I know and understand that compared to the average Colombian I did grow up with privileges that were never afforded to them, these privileges were given to me due to the hard work of my parents, who constantly battle discrimination in their workplace and community. How could I ever fully identify with a society that has constantly made me feel like an outsider, one who does not belong? Edward James Olmos said it best in the Selena movie: “Being first generation is exhausting, you’re never Latino enough and you’re never American enough. You have to work twice as hard to fit in with either group.”
However, there are perks to being a first generation Latina and serving in a Latin American country. The history of many Colombian families reflects my own — my parents migrated to the U.S. due to a civil war very similar to the one here in Colombia. I frequently visited El Salvador for the majority of my life, every two to three years since I was born. This experience made my transition into the pueblo life a bit easier. It hasn’t been difficult for me to get used to the “hovering” Colombian host mom because I’ve dealt with my own “hovering” Latina mom for the past 28 years of my life. Dealing with the backhanded compliments and passive aggressive hints has always been a natural part of my life. Visiting my family in El Salvador also has guided me in how to be respectful in someone’s home, as well as in how to deal with not having running water, power outages and the heat and humidity that can be unbearable at times.
My identity and experience here in Colombia represent a very slim percentage of Peace Corps Volunteers. My service brings some much needed diversity into the Peace Corps, and sets an example for the future generations in my family of all the possibilities there are for personal and professional growth. Very few minorities serve in the Peace Corps and the unique experiences we have endured our entire lives bleeds into our service constantly. I think it’s important to be aware of the struggles PCVs like myself have had to face and to not automatically assume that service comes easy for me because I’m Latina.