by Marnie Mueller (Ecuador 1963-65)
When the request to write remembrances of our first in-country Peace Corps Christmases arrived in my email box, I thought, no way am I going to tell mine. \And as the beautiful, joyful, meaningful stories appeared, I was further reluctant to share one of the worst experiences of my young life. As I write this, I can almost hear people saying, oh, here Marnie goes again with her dark twist on the Peace Corps experience. I said as much to Coyne and he said, “just write it.”
The backstory: Soon after I arrived at my site assignment in March of 1964, in the rough and tumble urban barrio of Cerro Santa Ana, Guayaquil, Ecuador, I began to hear neighborhood people call out to me, “Romy, Romy.” I had no idea why because my name was Margarita to most of my neighbors on the Cerro. It turned out that Romy Schneider movies were all the rage in the city, and though I had no idea what she looked like, others did and decided I was a dead ringer for her. At first, I was irritated by the chanting, especially since most of the callers were men and boys, and it felt they carried a certain taunting sexual insinuation, but gradually the calls tapered off and I became inured to the occasional sing-song eruptions.
Then came Christmas Eve. I’d made plans to go with my neighbors over to the companion hill of Cerro del Carmen for midnight services in the church at the base of the hill, which would be followed by entertainment in the tiny cement amphitheater just across the street. By the time we arrived at about 11:30 PM, the outdoor theater was packed as was the plaza in front of the church. Someone in the crowd spotted me and began chanting ‘Romy, Romy, she’s here!” The word went through the crowd like a prairie fire, building in intensity as more people arrived for services, along with, “where is she, I don’t see her?”
Like an avalanche the noise and bodies pressed in, everyone wanting to see and touch me. The people I’d come with and I tried to explain that I wasn’t the movie star, just the local Peace Corps volunteer, but it was too late for that. It had become a dangerous mob, capable of crushing and harming all of us in its physical and emotional intensity. Somehow a group of local people who knew me, fought the onslaught of anger and carried me to safety, as the church bells began to peel distracting the mob. I returned home, indelibly shaken to the core, and remained for days in the safety of my apartment on Cerro Santa Ana.
On a more positive note: I tentatively dared to participate in Santa Ana Barrio on New Year’s Eve, for which I’m grateful because it remains one of the nicest memories of my time there. Built on a hill, with a concrete staircase rising past my building, it was the staging area for homemade, life-sized Año Viejos, or effigies of honored people, such as beloved soccer players or admired political figures, to be set afire at midnight. All the families in my building, including myself, hung far out our windows to watch and cheer the burning, after which we went inside, I to the extended family downstairs, where the radio blasted songs and we danced cumbias until dawn as the building, built of cane swayed with joyful, drunken abandon to the passing of the year and the beginning of the next.
Even with a monumental hangover the next day (remedied somewhat by fiery ceviche de mejillones), I was brimming with happiness, somewhat ameliorating the trauma at the church.
I’m attaching the film documentary, in which I was one of three Guayaquil Volunteers featured, so you can see for yourselves the faux Romy Schneider redux from 1965.
The video is a good example of what life and PCVs were like in the early days of the agency. Norte: JC