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
(you can click on images to enlarge
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
As I learned the guarani language, I caught glimpses of an ancient culture
which predated the colonization of the Americas.
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.