May 15, 1997 Leave a comment
– by Steven J, Baines, RPCV
Before the thrill of receiving my invitation to Bolivia, I knew very little about the country – alright I confess, I knew nothing about Bolivia. Now I’ve seen more of Bolivia, the size of Texas and California combined, than most of the seven million Bolivians. And there is plenty to see.
Bolivia is a beautiful country with breathtaking landscapes, mountains of every hue of green, crystal blue skies, and a vast variety of climates. It was the climate in Bolivia that was my main concern, not the weather, but rather the climate for black people and gays. This was macho, Catholic, Latin America I was off to for two years.
Out of 130 or so PCVs only two of us are African American, and we’re in the same group. There has only been one other African American volunteer (also a man) since Peace Corps returned to Bolivia in 1990. The first African American woman volunteer will swear in this month. There are no African Americans on the staff. As far as I know, there are three gay male volunteers who are out, no out lesbians, and a few bisexuals who aren’t very out.
I made the conscious decision not to come out to my group or staff during the first twelve weeks of training. Training can be stressful enough on its own, with all the challenges coping with the new environment, culture and language. Nor did my “gaydar” detect any gay men or lesbians out of the 30 in our group. I decided being black and also the oldest volunteer (at 29) was enough to deal with at the time. One trainee even told me I was his first black friend. I felt our one diversity session the day we arrived in country was done more out of necessity to follow PC guidelines, than a strong commitment to diversity issues. If your staff isn’t diverse, no matter how open-minded and liberal they profess to be, some things won’t ever occur to them, nor will they ever be called to directly face them.
Naturally my race is always “out” to see. A black person is rare in Bolivia, even though Bolivia borders Brazil where there are a lot of people of African descent. So rare, that Bolivians consider it “lucky” to see a black person. They’ve pinched one another when they’ve seen me and said “un negrito, un negrito, buena suerte!” (a black man, a black man, good luck!) It does get old after awhile.
The town I live in has 3000 people, and is six to eight hours by bus from the two closest large cities. Once I got to my site, I came out almost immediately to Ian and John, the PCVs already here. Both of them accepted me instantly with no problem at all, and me them, and we’ve been good friends since. They told me that a PCV who had served there in the past was gay. I wrote to him in the States and he wrote me right back with the advice not to come out to any Bolivians in the community. Advice I have followed. I also came out to my project director, Shiela. She was great. She just worried that maybe she should have given me a city site so I could have had more friends. I waited until after site selection to tell her, because I didn’t want it to have any bearing on my assignment. My town is an excellent site. I’m very immersed in the community. My main project is youth business development at the local high school. The students I work with are entrepreneurs, recycling paper by hand with the help of a blender, and making writing paper and envelops and selling them. Before I arrived this project was a dormant hobby. Now its a money-generating business.
In the school I suspect there are a few gay teen-agers, but none of them are my students. I don’t think it would be prudent to bring the issue up. Bolivia is like most traditional Latin American countries. The custom is to live with your parents until you get married, and you are expected to get married. Since I’m now 31, it seems odd to some Bolivians that I’m not already married, and I’m constantly asked about a girlfriend. The Bolivian gay men I’ve talked to are not out to their families. It just isn’t a topic of conversation. I haven’t met any out lesbian or bisexual Bolivians.
Bolivians in general look upon North Americans and anyone who speaks English as an upper class trait, yet black is a lower class trait. The media feeds this stereotype. TV adds and programs have few dark skinned people, except as servants. I confuse people. I’m North American and speak English, yet since I’m a black man they have difficulty categorizing me. Usually I’m asked where I’m from. People expect me to say Brazil, so when I say I’m from the States they usually say with a surprised look on their faces, “so you speak English?” Only then, do I get all the questions others from the States get asked.
Life as a PCV is a lot different than in the States as you might imagine. I was in radio sales and promotions of air time and wore a suit and tie every day. In Bolivia, I’ve worn a suit and tie only twice in two years. Now I’m looking ahead to getting a master’s degree and working in customer service and diversity training issues. Every experience prepares you for the next step in life.
So, if you are interested in the Peace Corps, come prepared for all sorts of climates. Some days you’ll need your boots becuase you never know what you’re going to step into; and other days you might need your raincoat after a long dry spell. Yet, no matter what the climate, be prepared for an experience of a lifetime in the Peace Corps. Keep in touch, I’d love to hear from you, be it directly, or next time reading your story in these pages. Paz (Peace).