And The Winner Of The Best Memoir From Latin America Is!

While the Peace Corps writers from Africa have produced many memoirs from their experiences overseas, RPCV writers from Latin America are sadly far behind. 

Nevertheless, some great memoirs were written by Latin American Vols. While I have to eliminate Green Fires: Assault on Eden, A Novel of the Ecuadorian Rain-Forest, written by Marnie Mueller (Ecuador 1963-65), I would have to say there is a lot of memories of her tour are in this novel.  Another very fine book, and a memoir, and one of the very first books on the Peace Corps by PCVs, was The Barrios of Manta: A Personal Account of the Peace Corps in Ecuador published in 1965 and written by Rhoda & Earle Brooke (Ecuador 1962-64). Early PCV, Paul Cowen (Ecuador 1966-67), did write his memoir The Making Of An Un-American: A Dialogue with Experience. It was published in 1970. There is some claim to being a Peace Corps Memoir in Craig Carozzi (Colombia 1978-80) Wedding of the Waters, published in ’88. It is his story of traveling overland from Bogota to Manaus during his Peace Corps years.

 Tom Scanlon (Chile 1961-63) wrote Waiting for the Snow: The Peace Corps Papers of a Charter Volunteer  that he self-published in 1997. There is a famous story about Scanlon (and I’ll tell it again) that President Kennedy told summer interns in June of 1962 when he welcomed these college kids to Washington, D.C..

Kennedy told the Interns, “Recently I heard a story of a  young Peace Corpsman named Tom Scanlon, who is working in Chile. He works in a village about forty miles from an Indian village which prides itself on being Communist. The village is up a long, winding road which Scanlon had taken on many occasions to see the chief. Each time the chief avoided seeing him. Finally he saw him and said, “You are not going to talk us out of being Communists.” Scanlon said, “I am not trying to do that, only to talk to you about how I can help.” The chief looked at him and replied, “In a fe weeks the snow will come. Then you will have to park your jeep twenty miles from her and come through five feet of snow on foot. the Communists are willing to do that. Are you?” When a friend [Father Theodore Hesburgh] saw Scanlon recently and asked him what he was doing, he said, “I am waiting for snow.”

More recently we have Barbara Joe (Honduras 2000-03) book Triumph & Hope: Golden Years With the Peace Corps in Honduras that won our first Peace Corps Writers Memoir Award. Also published recently is another self-published account of life in the Peace Corps by Paul Arfin (Colombia 1963-65) Portrait of a Peace Corps Gringo. This story of Paul’s life covers many years before and after his two brief years in Colombia, so the title is a bit misleading.

Finally, we return, as we always do when talking of Peace Corps writers in Latin America, to Moritz Thomsen (Ecuador 1965-67) and his Living Poor: A Peace Corps Chronicle, that was published in 1969 and is still available from the University of Washington Press. This was the first of three books that Thomsen wrote that focused on Latin America. The Farm on the River of Emeralds published by Random House came out in 1978, and The Saddest Pleasure: A Journey on Two Rivers was published in ’91.

Thomsen went into the Peace Corps at the age of 44. He had been working as a farmer in California at the time. He came from a wealthy Seattle, Washington family. His father was a multi-millionaire, a man who Thomsen did not like. During WW II, Thomsen was a bombardier on a B-17 Flying Fortress. He writes about his relationship with his father, and World War II,  in My Two Wars published posthumously in 1998 by Steerforth Press. (There is still, I’m told, another book waiting to be published entitled, Bad News From the Black Coast.)

Tom Miller, a writer himself, who got to know Thomsen through his own writings, said Moritz “was one of the great American expatriate writers of the twentieth century.” Indeed he was, and he left us, and the world, the best memoir of Peace Corps life in Latin America, Living Poor: A Peace Corps Chronicle.

Thomsen died in Ecuador in 1991 of cholera, but his books live on for every new generaton of Peace Corps Volunteers to Latin America.

16 Comments

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  • I would like to add two more books to the list of Latin American Peace Corps memoirs and a novel, which I hope is not autobiographical. These are good books, none would compete with “Living Poor,” but all deserve to be noted.

    “Mud Stoves and Strawberry Jam” by Sally Morrissey, (Cortez, Colo: Roy Paul Press c. 1994) is the memoir of a retired nurse and journalist who served two years in Guatemala.

    “Safe House: Compelling Memoris of the Only CIA Spy to seek asylum in Russia,” by Edward Lee Howard. Howard was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Colombia in the mid-sixties. He writes of this time and in so doing shed s some light on the mythology which has Peace Corps responsible for bringing cocaine cultivation and markieting to Colombia.

    That myth was the focus of a very popular Colombia movie, “El Rey.” In his book, Howard describes living in a house overlooking Cali. One of his roommates is a PCV who is heavily into drug use. The other roommate is a Colombia lawyer. The lawyer specialized in helping small scale cocaine producers when they ran afoul of the law.
    Evidently, there was a steady stream of these Colombians to the house, which may have helped give rise to the myth. Howard joined the CIA after the legal interval between Peace Corps service and CIA
    employment.

    The final book I would like to add to the list is “Ultimate Excursions,” by Alan Gottlieb (RPCV Ecuador). This is a first novel which deals with Peace Corps, drugs, post tramatic stress and conspiracy plots.

  • I didn’t know there was an escape clause which permitted RPCVs or staff to join the CIA after a period of time (5 years?). That sounds like a bad idea to me! I sure hope it doesn’t work the other way round (i.e., ex-CIA folks into Peace Corps).

  • The website of record is peacecorpsonline.org. If you google CIA or
    Edward Lee Howard on that site, you should get at least one book review outlining his life. i read the book many years ago and he does describe his Peace Corps service and then his subsequent employment with the CIA. I have never seen it disputed.

    I believe that there are many RPCVs working for the CIA. I don’t believe it goes the other way around.

    Please post if you find out anything which would make this not possible.

  • Having run the New York Regional Office for 5 years in the mid-90s, I know that an applicant for Volunteer service or employment who was EVER working for the CIA is ineligible to be a PCV or an employee.
    John

  • WOW!! Can this (RPCVs working at CIA) be true? If so I’ll have to get down off my high horse when challenged about Peace Corps and intelligence activities and revert to weaseling my way out by saying the answer is a bit complicated. The Peace Corps as training ground for CIA! Horrors!

  • Your statement, John, that CIA employment is an absolute barrier to working for the Peace Corps or serving as a Volunteer is what I had always understood. Thank you for restating it.

    I believe that the issue here is: Can a RPCV obtain employment with the CIA if a certain number of years separates the Peace Corps service and the CIA employment? Does anyone have a legal source? It is not my intent to contribute to confusion on this issue.

    Edward Lee Howard certainly talks about his Peace Corps service in his book, the book review cited mentions it again. I took it at face value.
    Edward Lee Howard is deceased, I believe.

  • Joey–to clear up any misunderstanding about the agency and the CIA. The official position is that five years AFTER working for Peace Corps or being a PCV, someone may apply to CIA for a position.
    John

  • Does any one have an idea of how common it is for RPCVs to join the CIA? I looked at the CIA recruitment page and it sets a high priority on things like a college degree, overseas travel, language capability, knowledge of other cultures, flexibility, etc. Guess who the computer would select for a second look?

  • I would like to make a personal request, David. I am uneasy with a lot of discussion about CIA; because, it can be so easily be misunderstood. Could we drop this discussion, please.

    I did have something else I wanted to discuss with you. Your observation of the woman in Afghanistan who gave her child a pacifier. I would love to know what you think was happening in that scenario. I went back in time to what I think my reaction would have been, in 1965. I think my first thought would have been: “Where in the world did she get that?” Then, I would have thought something along the lines that here was a woman who was open to change, who may even have been a candidate for a “change agent” in her community; and by not immediately offering the breast to her child, which would have been very traditional, she was perhaps training the chlld in “delayed gradification” which is an essential cultural trait to cultivate in order to begin to build a middle clase. (All of this, of course, with apologies for my spelling.)

  • My thought at the moment (1974) was that the world is a hell of a lot smaller than I would have imagined. I wondered how in the world she got it. From one of the W.T.s making the rounds in those days; from the local medical clinic; from a Peace Corps volunteer; where? I also thought that life’s outward trappings (e.g., living in a cave) masked a great deal of ‘sameness’ in the human condition. The net result was that she lost – for me – some of her ‘foreigness.’ I have used the story countless times to underline my belief that we human beings have some commonalities we can build on.

    You may be right in imagining her as a real or potential ‘change agent.’ The fact that she looked us in the eye indicates that she was not overly bound by the local traditions that kept women out of sight. The fact that she was bare-faced (as opposed to veiled) suggests the same. We will never know, but I’d like to join you in thinking of her as the one that brought schools, co-ops, small business enterprises, electricity, etc. to this far-away outpost.

    Damn reality! I was just reminded that she lives (or lived) in a country that has had hardly a moment’s peace in the 35 years since we saw each other. She and the baby may well not have survived, just as the huge Buddah statues that were once in her back yard haven’t survived.

  • Thank you, David. Your observation shows an empathy that I didn’t have back in 1965.
    That woman is iconic because the mother/child relationship is so basic and how change, so much of it promoted by Peace Corps, impacted that relationship is critical to understanding the moral responsibility of intervention as well as the history of Peace Corps, (IMHO, as the kids would say)!

    My reaction, today, to that woman is totally different than what I remember it would have been in 1965. “We” (being modern medicine) have learned so much more about the importance of that relationship. Today, when I read your description, my first thought was: The child is hungry and the mother has no food for him/her. That makes my 1965 sophomoric comment about “delayed gratification” so much more cruel. (I didn’t use those comments with the women with whom I worked, but my site reports were full of such nonsense).

    Today, my other thoughts were: The suckling reflex is critical to the production of breast milk and may even have a contraceptive effect allowing mothers to space their children. (Dr. Nancie Gonzalez first documented this in her study of Highland Indians in Guatemala, reported in the American Anthropologist in 1966). Had the mother been encouraged to stop nursing and use infant formula and was she now unable to get the formula and now had no breast milk because the use of formula had interrupted the production of milk? Had she become pregnant because she lost the contraceptive effect afforded by nursing and was she in the process of weaning the child. Weaning is one of the most dangerous times for young children in a subsistence culture because the mother may not have food to offer. Was the mother educated about all of this when she decided to use the pacifier? Of course, it may have been that the mother and child were both healthy, and had adequate food and the woman also had access to modern birth control. I still think that she would be identified as a “change agent.” But, I fear that she was an example of intervention that proved dangerous to both mother and child. My Peace Corps cohorts and were an essential part of that intervention.

    I was assigned to Public Health clinic and supervised by a Colombian doctor. We followed what was thought to be best practices of the day. We discouraged breast feeding, encouraged early introduction of solid food, and introduced the use of powdered CARE milk (to a lactose intolerant population) and a food supplement called Incaperina.
    Later, it became apparent that the use of formula was toxic in the developing countries. Now, Peace Corps promotes breastfeeding without supplementation for six months. This practice was precisely the traditional practice in my site, before we intervened.

    I believe it is critically important and morally imperative that Peace Corps document what we are doing, provide a systematic, objective, and technically competent, ongoing review of projects to identify as soon as possible, the unforeseen consequences.

    I agree with you about the importance of the incountry administrative staff. I think this kind of review should be the responsibility of that staff. Only the incountry staff can provide continuity for projects. Volunteers’ short-term tenure makes it impossible for them to do this kind of essential follow up. Nor is there currently anyplace were RPCVs can bring information or insight gained after service. I would welcome your thoughts. I know I am using your comments to piggyback with my own. I hope that you feel that is appropriate because I really I appreciate the opportunity.

  • John: OK, you’ve done Africa and Latin America. How about Europe, Asia, and the Pacific? What are the best PC memoir books for those regions?

  • As the author of Portrait of a Peace Corps Gringo, I want to provide a little clarity to the impression given that my book misleads folks with the title.
    Some seem to feel that, since (just) 91 of 365 pages discuss my work in Colombia during to early 1960s, that the book isn’t worth reading.
    I believe that the title is accurate and honest since the book focuses on the impact PC had on the rest of my life..
    JFK urged us to dedicate our lives to public service. A story about someone who lived such a life may be inspiring to some and reflective to others.
    The book has been very favorably reviewed by BookReview.com. Among the reviewer’s comments: “…the tile perfectly illustrates the duality of (the book’s) purpose. Yes, the book is about being in the Peace Corps, and learning from the experience, but it is also a ‘portrait.’ It is as much about Arfin as it is his experiences in Colombia, and although the most interesting third of book are in those details of life in South America, there is an uplifting fervor that comes from witnessing the veins of that heart spread throughout the rest of Arfin’s life.”

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