Why should Orange County Community College initiate a yearlong academic focus on Latin America? There are arguably many reasons which justify such a focus and hopefully, at the end of this year, you will be able to come up with a list of reasons for yourself. I would like to elaborate on one of the main reasons that I justify a focus on Latin America for myself:

I should study Latin America for purely selfish reasons.

country side

(you can click on images to enlarge them)

I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the country of Paraguay from 1990 to 1992. When I first arrived in Paraguay, I experienced culture shock, as would most people who experience a new culture. After all, there was a great deal about Paraguay-especially Santani, the small city where I was stationed--that took getting used to. For example, I was not accustomed to horsedrawn carts sharing the road with cars and trucks.

horse on road

My outdoor latrine, the less than sanitary well, bouts of giardia which sometimes required a roll of toilet paper a day, and intestinal worms took some getting used to.


Buses took me everywhere,


including rickety wooden bridges I was never sure could support their weight (like the one next to the house I lived where a truck once broke through).

truck through bridge


Erosion sometimes made walking to work adventurous.


I swam in a river while women on the shore did their laundry.


At times, I had to travel behind cattle.

cattle in road

I sometimes took rides in vehicles which had to be pushed in order to start, needed the regular addition of fluids while driving, or which occasionally started to smoke.


Finding my way through red clay streets, none of which had any name, was difficult and often included stepping over cow skulls strategically placed in muddy patches.

streets streets

cow skulls

Chickens, pigs, and packs of semi-domesticated dogs walked freely, all going about their own personal business. I learned that one can survive on a diet consisting only of the small selection of ingredients found in the local store (although I was grateful not to live in the rural site where a friend lived who once found only the green tea yerba mate and whiskey on the store shelves).



I didn't know what to make of the tradition of walking barefoot over hot coals on the feast of St. John. Some of my friends received second degree burns by trying to imitate it.

hot coals

At times, it seemed that the school where I taught celebrated more holidays (like Friendship Day, Day of the Worker, the feast days of various saints, etc.) than actual school days. Since the roads could become impassable after heavy rain (as the wooden bars which could be lowered to close the road in the following picture indicate), classes could be canceled because of rain. A friend of mine worked in a school where they once cancelled class because of clouds.

bars to close road

There were occasional accidental shots fired from the teenage soldiers guarding the bank outside my school. My students, who were training to be teachers, insisted on telling me how tasty wild animals were, no matter how many lessons on endangered species we covered.


Eventually, I not only got over my culture shock and learned to tolerate Latin American culture, I actually began to grow very fond of it. I liked the constant social interaction and the importance given to celebrating family and friends.


I grew to love the leisure time, hammocks, and whiskey made from sugarcane.


I watched children growing up before my eyes.


I learned to appreciate new foods.


Not only did I learn to appreciate new music, I also admired how music could be incorporated into daily life.


I had adventures with friends and a new family.


I saw some of the most beautiful wildlife and wild places that I had ever seen.



As I learned the guarani language, I caught glimpses of an ancient culture which predated the colonization of the Americas.

native sculpture


I had gone to South America expecting it to be different and expecting to experience culture shock. What I did not expect was the culture shock that I experienced when I returned to the U.S. All of a sudden, I found myself surrounded by North Americans who knew very little about any country other than their own. They produced more trash in a day than I had left in my trash pit after two years. They earned more in an hour than many people I had known earned in a month and still it wasn't enough to buy what they wanted. They had so many time-saving devices in their houses (washing machines, dishwashers, vacuums, etc.) but they never had any time to spare. They moved so often that they found typically found themselves alone, living far from families and friends. They could live in a house for years and not be able to recognize their neighbors. No one ever played music at the parties they went to. They were working so hard to save the money they needed to enjoy their retirement that they were under constant stress during the primes of their lives.

My time in Latin America had changed me. I had gone there thinking only of what I, the North American, had to offer others in that strange country so that their lives could be richer. I hope I succeeded to some extent. But I realized that I had profoundly underestimated what Latin America had to offer me. As a result of my experiences in Latin America, my life was richer. My appreciation of many aspects of North American society and culture was also enhanced in many ways after I discovered how many wonderful things which are often taken for granted.

You should study another culture because of the great potential it holds for enriching your own life. I hope that you choose to participate in the college's Latin America focus and that together we can make this experience rewarding.