J. Grigsby Crawford (Ecuador 2009-11) Publishes His Peace Corps Memoir
J. Grigsby Crawford (Ecuador 2009-11) is the author of The Gringo: A Memoir, which tells the story of his two years as a PCV. He served in Peace Corps Ecuador’s Natural Resource Conservation program, and ultimately wrote a successful grant to help build a greenhouse at the local high school in his Amazonian community. But Grigsby writes: The Gringo tells a different Peace Corps tale than one is used to hearing.
In Ecuador, Crawford was originally sent to the coast, where after just a few months he narrowly escaped an abduction attempt and was pulled out by security and forced to change sites. From there–as the synopsis of The Gringo states–he undertakes “a savage journey of danger, drugs, sex, and alarming illness.” It is a PCV story that is both tragic and sharply humorous.
The Gringo was published in December 2012 and, he says, “immediately met national attention,” getting excerpted in the Huffington Post and earning Crawford an appearance on the CBS News program Author Talk. Critics and celebrities such as Chevy Chase and RPCV author Josh Swiller (Zambia 1994-96) have lauded The Gringo. One or two RPCVs have already compared it to the “classics” Peace Corps book, Living Poor by Moritz Thomsen (Ecuador 1965-67). ( That might be a stretch, but they both did serve in Ecuador.)
Crawford grew up in Colorado and graduated from the George Washington University with a degree in Political Science & English. As a journalist and writer, he has covered everything from presidential primaries and politics to murder and local mosquito populations.
His writing has appeared in Congressional Quarterly, the Colorado Daily newspaper, Mile High Sports Magazine, and various blogs, ranging in topics from sports to men’s fashion.
Today he works for a boutique PR firm in D.C. and lives, he says, “somewhat peacefully” in Northwest Washington. The “publisher’ of The Gringo is himself, and he has produced, to his credit, an attractive ‘package’ of a book calling it Wild Elephant Press. Having a background in public relations, this is a RPCV who knows what to do when it comes to getting the word out about his Peace Corps story.
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Sounds like a 1960’s volunteer experience and I look forward to reading it and swapping “Tall Tale Peace Corps” stories with Crawford!!!
This sounds like a good book. Ecuador is one of those countries that produces good Peace Corps literature.
I did check the book reviews on Amazon and was discouraged by two comments. One reviewer alluded to the “dozens” of Peace Corps memoirs! Another comment was that most of the Peace Corps books were “rah rah” about Peace Corps.
In my day, EVERYONE was “rah rah” about the Peace Corps.
I served during your day, Rowland. No, not everyone was “rah rah” about the Peace Corps. Many of us knew that working in a developing country was hard work and many times, our efforts were not successful because our training was inadequate or we did not have the resources necessary. It really saddens me to read your comment.
To be realistic about Peace Corps service is NOT to disparage the efforts. It is to say that we must learn from our mistakes. That was true in 1963 and is true today.
I worked with midwives and the women whom they delivered. Those women counted their families by naming children living and children dead. Nothing “rah rah” about that.
Ironically, there was a photographer coming through our part of Colombia and my PCVL came out to view my site. He concluded that my projects were not “photogenic.” That may well be the title of a memoir, that I would like to attempt.
May I use your quote in an article I am struggling to write about how cultural filters hindered the Peace Corps?
“Forced to change sites” after a failed abduction and “savage journey of danger, drugs, sex and alarming illness,” sounds like sensational journalism. But then I too have PR experience and recognize “spin” when I see it. Not on my book list.
Richard Starr was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Colombia and was kidnapped by FARC and held captive for three years..1977 to 1980.
Even earlier, Peace Corps Volunteers in Colombia would be warned to leave a site because of kidnapping threats. Some did and some did not. Peace Corps pulled out of Colombia in 1981 precisely because of the threat of violence towards Volunteers, specifically kidnapping which was to become almost an institution in the next twenty years.
Ecuador is next door to this violent country and so I would certainly not dismiss or patronize this RPCV’s account of his service. Crawford would not have been protected by the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act of 2011. That act mandates, however, if a Volunteer does not feel safe in a site, he/she has the right to request a transfer and the Country Director must honor it.
Something I am learning, at my advanced age, and I would recommend that you consider this also, and that is one’s service in one country at one time does NOT necessarily mean that one knows all about everyone’s service in every country and every time. You are missing a lot with your patronizing attitude.
The older I get, the less I know. At this rate, I expect wisdom in about fifty years.
Joey. My point is that this PCV was “forced” by the Peace Corps and/or the host government to move to a safer site. This suggests that he wanted to stay where he courted danger. “Savage” journey of danger, drugs, sex and alarming illnesses. Two out of four were his own chosing and the others were present for most, if not all, PCVs. I still recognize “spin” or, more the case here, hype, when I see it. Perhaps you might wish to explore the mysteries of the PR business.
Here is a thought, Leo. Why don’t we both read the book before we
either laud it or dismiss it.
My copy should arrive this weekend. I have read an excerpt on-line and it is well written.
I read the book! J. Grigsby Crawford’s book titled The Gringo: A Memoir is a taut, well-written Peace Corps book that not only describes his very recent experiences in Ecuador (2008-2010) but poses serious questions about the future of the agency. He includes all relevant information: application, reporting, staging, training, and the Peace Corps experience without needless sentimentality or romance. He successfully uses transitions to avoid tedious repetition and more importantly, has also written an often painfully honest account of his service.
Pioneer volunteers beware: this book does not speak kindly about “generalists.” However, for those like me with less hair, teeth and a wider middle, reading this book will be enlightening. If the Peace Corps is to have a second half, we must take off our rose colored glasses during the half-time discussion.
Crawford approached a campus recruiter while still working on his bachelor’s degree. Apparently the recruitment process has been streamlined compared to just a few years ago. Whereas it took 15.1 months from application to reporting to staging, Crawford only took 12. He reported for “staging” in Washington D.C. during which further pruning was made before 44 Peace Corps Trainees flew to Quito, Ecuador, then shuttled several hours by bus to Olmedo, a tiny Andean village where they would learn Spanish in 10 weeks, about one third less time than past generations of volunteers enjoyed.
Trainees also participated in technical training. Crawford’s agricultural group raked leaves in the morning and assisted tree grafting class in the afternoon. The class was given by a volunteer finishing his service who admitted that he had learned this skill that very morning by using the internet.
Throughout training, the potential volunteers were threatened with “Administrative Separation” which is bureaucratic gobbly-gook for firing as in “We will fire you!” This was invented in 1963 (Just Termination) because of military conscription (the draft) and was used against male trainees with deferments who dared to question Peace Corps Training. Offending members had a note slipped into their permanent record that read “Unfit for Overseas Duty,” were fired, sent home to be processed by their Draft Board, and sent to war. This was revised in 1969 by Joseph Blanchford as part of his New Directions but it has evolved considerably. The revised version permitted a Country Director to fire trainees and volunteers who thought service as an extended college spring break. It was instituted in reaction to complaints by host nations. As the agency surpassed 10,000 volunteers, the number without real jobs had increased exponentially and with too much time on their hands, some volunteers became more tourists than workers. Most of the reasons cited by Crawford have been standard since 1969 but a few are most definitely new. In 2008, Peace Corps volunteers in Ecuador who swam at certain beaches, visited certain tourist spots, stayed past two in the morning in the capital city’s tourist zone or even those rumored to use drugs were all fired.
During training, potential volunteers were instructed in the bureaucratic art of the quarterly report to be prepared on a computer and sent electronically to the main office. This sure sounds like insulting busy work and reminded me of J. Larry Brown’s recent staff memoir (Peasants Come Last) within which he reported how the “Washington bureaucracy was voracious: non-stop reports, updates, analyses, surveys, budgets and quarterly planning.” Apparently the appetite now has increased to include volunteers in this paper morass.
Once assigned to a town or village, they were instructed to immediately begin interviewing as many residents as possible about their wants and needs (the Community Assessment Tool). This was also to be included in a report and later presented in a group setting with an electronic slide show (much like the military loves). A local Ecuadorian was supposed to accompany the volunteer to this presentation. Although used in the early Peace Corps years, given the agency’s historic susceptibility to charges of espionage (which would endanger all volunteers), this particular assignment is almost inconceivably stupid.
Following his successful completion of training and swearing-in, Crawford was sent to the Chone region located about seven to ten hours by bus west of the national capital, Quito. He was assigned to the tiny village of La Segua which included about 150 inhabitants in a low-lying marsh region prone to flooding and also known for incredible violence. This is an agricultural zone with the cultivation of cocoa, coffee, bananas, cassava, maize and recently coca for the production of cocaine.
His Ecuadorian counterpart (the one he was supposed to teach) was twenty years old “but looked no more than 15…five foot six and 120 pounds.” For the next eight weeks, Crawford lived with Juan, his counterpart, and 19 other people in a ramshackle farm house. His room was “a ten-by-fifteen foot space enclosed by dungeon-like bricks. The only window looked out to one of the puddles of chicken shit. The door was made of scrap plywood…(which) I could have punched through.” There was no indoor plumbing.
Juan’s idea was to create a new local industry- ecotourism, much like in Costa Rica. Rich Americans were expected to fly to La Segua, Ecuador to bird watch. Crawford quickly assessed a basic problem. Unlike the well educated Costa Ricans who enjoy a fine standard of living and a national highway system as well as airports, the Chone region of Ecuador is populated by starving, illiterate, and violent farmers. Rape and murder are commonplace. Worse yet, his counterpart began their relationship with lies and extortion.
Crawford’s experience in western Ecuador ended abruptly following strange visits by a mysterious white truck. “A couple of guys in black ski masks, carrying weapons whispered as they tip-toed around the farmhouse.” His Peace Corps Program Manager did not like the idea of resettling Crawford in a new town but he was over-ruled by the Peace Corps Security Agent and the Country Director. The Security Agent is a position I had never heard of. In this case, she was assisted by a man she only identified as the “colonel,” a man who like her, had been trained in the United States and had formally been part of the national police force. They arrived in La Segua, interrogated people, then took Crawford away. Aside from the cost, the use of paramilitary forces with the Peace Corps gives the impression that the two are synonymous. This could be very dangerous.
Crawford was reassigned to a Zumbi, small village on the eastern Andean slopes near the disputed Ecuadorian/Peruvian border. When I read this, I wondered aloud what moron is in charge of assignments? They sent him from an area known for drug trafficking to an area which has had armed border disputes since 1945! Crawford proves his mettle by completing his assignment despite our ever-lurking shadows of loneliness and disease. In his case, he contracted some sort of bacteria which affected his prostate and testicles resulting in “debilitating and gut-clenching lightning bolts of pain.” He helped his community build a greenhouse with the use of a grant. The locals appreciated his efforts and before leaving, gave him a farewell party attended by “every student, teacher, faculty member, the mayor, and city council members.” He was given a huge commemorative plaque and the opportunity of giving his farewell speech in Spanish.
J. Grigsby Crawford was a success. One of 28 out of 44 in his group to complete service, he actually supplied something the community wanted. Yet, he does not see it quite like that. A generalist, he (and others in his group) thought the Peace Corps should “attract more highly skilled volunteers.” Maybe, he ruminates, we should even consider agency termination. “Like most humans turning fifty, the Peace Corps should begin thinking of retirement. Eventually, people just have to figure it out on their own.”
Very thorough and thought provoking comments, Lorenzo.
I would like to clarify the concept of “termination” or “administrative separation.” Peace Corps Volunteers are not employees and serve at the pleasure of the President. The authority to dismiss at will has been delegated to every Country Director. It was a fact of Volunteer life as early as 1963, when I began my service. It was not designed
to be used exclusively against men with draft deferments; we were all aware that we could be terminated without much recourse.
this threat was particularly destructive to male Volunteers with draft deferments, because termination most likely meant being drafted into military service and sent to Vietnam.