Pioneer Peace Corps Writer Rhoda Brooks, co-author of “The Barrios of Manta,” celebrates the agency’s first 50 years

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Caption: Rhoda Brooks holds a photo of herself and her late husband, Earle, as she stands in hallway of her home filled with photos and memories of their years together in the Peace Corps.

Chile RPCV Indy Cruzer says that no Peace Corps booklist is complete without “The Barrios of Manta,” co-authored by the earliest wave of Peace Corps Volunteers to Ecuador, Earle and Rhoda Brooks. “It is a captivating account of fishing life in the humble seaside town outside Guayaquil,” writes Cruzer.

“Though a typical poor village, America loved the personal tales of face to face community development in Manta, bongos and cookouts on the beach, Pacific ocean swim lessons, regattas, school construction, and even adoption of two babies,” writes Cruzer. “Their US book tour of talk and game show appearances did much to charm and endear the Peace Corp, JFK, Sarge and Eunice Shriver to an American decade of vibrant national cultural reinvention.”

Early in 1962, Earle and Rhoda Brooks went to Puerto Rico for four months of “extremely rigorous training,” aimed not only at preparing them for the challenges ahead but also designed to scare away volunteers with less resolve. “People were washing out left and right,” Rhoda says. “They couldn’t handle the cultural changes or the language challenges, or they were there for the wrong reason.”

The Brookses had been warned to expect a major culture shock when they arrived in Manta, but in some ways, it was almost surreal. It didn’t have water or a sewer system, but there was a Chevrolet dealership. “The houses were built on stilts,” Brooks says as she pointed to a photograph in a scrapbook. “It wasn’t because of flooding. It was to keep the thieves out.” They came to love the place, or at least the people who lived there. That influenced their decision to adopt; Rico was 4 and Carmen 2 by the time they returned to the United States. “By then I was also pregnant,” Rhoda  says. “I called it my instant brood.”

David Boyer, a photographer for National Geographic, met the Brookes while he was working on the famous National Geographic “Peace Corps Issue” and urged the Brookses to write a book about their experiences and even sold it to a publisher on spec. The Brookses were reluctant to get involved until they discovered that the publisher was willing to pay them in installments as they did the work. The first payment would come when they submitted an outline.

“There were already several books about the Peace Corps and what it does,” Rhoda says. “But there weren’t any books from the perspective of the volunteers.”

“We didn’t have jobs, we didn’t have any health insurance, and I was about to have a baby,” she says. “I ended up in labor at Methodist Hospital frantically trying to finish the outline so we could pay for the baby.” The book, “The Barrios of Manta,” was published in 1964. It’s being reissued as an e-book this fall. It will be updated to include a return trip the family made to Manta in 1977 and the Brookses’ second Peace Corps assignment in Chile.

This week has been busy for Brooks. She attended a dinner for authors who have written about the Peace Corps. The Ecuador and Chile embassies hosted parties for volunteers who served in those countries. There was a Peace Corps bash and a gala celebration marking the Sept. 22, 1961, passage of the Peace Corps Act by Congress and the parade through Washington, D.C., in which participants carried the flags of the 139 countries in which the volunteers have served. Brooks is thrilled that the Peace Corps will be getting some attention.

Its public profile isn’t as high as it was in the 1960s and ’70s, but with distrust permeating so much of international relations, she is adamant that it is as relevant now as ever. “There is so much intolerance and lack of understanding,” she says. “If we can bring cultures together, we can work through our problems in a peaceful way.”


References:

Minneapolis Start Tribune. “Corps values: Peace builds her life” by Jeff Strickler. September 16, 2011

Peace Corps Polyglot. “Crop of Peace Corps Books for the 50th Anniversary Year” April 1, 2011.


Bonus Question:

What was the first book about the the Peace Corps written by an RPCV?


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