When I submitted my application to serve in the Peace Corps my expectation was to be placed in any Community Economic Development (CED) sector in Africa or Eastern Europe. When the Peace Corps invited me to the Caribbean Coast of Colombia I was hesitant to accept given the fact that my Colombian mother had immigrated to the U.S. from Barranquilla when she was 18 years old. As a first generation citizen raised in the U.S., I knew this was not the time to be picky, and that completing service would open many doors that otherwise would’ve never been presented to me. I accepted my invitation the second it arrived and packed my bags ready to start this chapter of my life where I would be considered a “real American,” for once!
My great grandparents moved from Bethlehem, a town in Palestine, to Barranquilla to evade conflict in the Middle East. Many Arab immigrants used Turkish passports to get into Colombia, hence the reason Colombians tend to call all Arabic people “turcos”. My family settled into their new home and not before long were notorious for various chocolate, candy and bakery shops throughout Barranquilla. Margarita Saieh de Jassir, a popular bakery you can still see throughout major cities along the coast, is still owned by some of my cousins. Decades of escalated violence in Colombia caused much of my family, including my mother, to immigrate to Los Angeles and later settle down in Miami.
My mother took me back to the coast of Colombia to visit often as a child and throughout my adolescence. Being from Miami enabled her to provide me with the most traditional Costeño upbringing. I wasn’t even aware that English existed until my first day of kindergarten. She made me bollo, arepas and salchichas for breakfast. I can sing along to most vallenato songs naturally because I’ve heard these regional anthems since birth.
As a first generation U.S citizen, I invested (financially and mentally) essentially all of my late teens and early twenties in school and work, grinding my way through my business degree and gaining relevant job experience. I was the first in my family to attend college and have American culture influence my life decisions. While many peers were studying abroad or vacationing for spring break, I was working 3 jobs and taking night classes. My family still struggles to come to terms with my personal and professional aspirations. In other words, very few family members see the benefit in my Peace Corps service. They ask themselves: why would it make sense to work for free after she has nearly nearly killed herself to become a business professional?
It’s not all bad. As a Barranquillera, I get charged fair local prices, am able to naturally partake in local slang and have little to no difficulty understanding locals (even the ones without teeth). When I’m feeling homesick, I can use my monthly rest days to visit my abuelo who resides in Barranquilla. On the downside, I endure copious amounts of complaints and venting from fellow Peace Corps Volunteer’s (PCV) regarding my own country. My largest personal challenge has been coming to terms with my service in a country so close to my heart, where the line between host country and home country is overwhelmingly blurred. I feel isolated and unable to integrate when I am around my fellow PCVs.
One of the things I frequently hear fellow PCVs discuss in their down-time is how loud and terrible vallenato music is. I know to many this seems like an easy target, but to this Costeñita vallenato means so much more. My childhood videos are compiled of my siblings and I prancing around our backyard singing El Santo Cachon by Los Embajadores Vallenatos in unison. Another sacred costeño tradition that gets plenty of attention is bollo limpio. I get that it’s not the most flavorful dish. But when I bite into a bollo limpio, I transport back to Saturday mornings as a late teen when my mother used to offer it as a breakfast peace treaty for the many fights we had over my “unrealistic” ambitions. There are only so many superficial jabs I can withstand before I feel the tapestry of my own culture begin to unravel and mentally check out of whatever relationship I am expected to have with my fellow PCVs.
Perhaps, if I was a volunteer serving in Africa or Eastern Europe I would be provided with the luxury to blend in seamlessly with the rest of the English-speaking volunteers. After all, my expectation was that my Peace Corps service would be my first time feeling like a “real American.” The reality is that 71%* of all current PCVs identify as white leaving much diversity to be desired amongst volunteers. Celebrating and encouraging diversity starts with what we choose to say and share behind closed doors.The spiral of silence theory states there is a tendency for people to remain silent when they feel that their views are in opposition to the majority view on a subject. The reality for many minorities in the Peace Corps is that it can be awkward to have our voices heard or understood and often leads to being drowned out by the 71%. I hope my experience as a Costeña-Americana PCV will continue to bring light to some grey areas resulting from the lack of diversity among volunteer groups and inspire PCVs to recognize that you don’t always have to submerge yourself into a new culture to seek diversity.
*Based off Peace Corps Volunteer Demographic Data as of September 20, 2016