Making a Difference: One Life at a Time
by Nancy and Joel Meister (Peru 1964-65)
This is another chapter in the early history of the agency. We published this essay several years ago in www.peacecorpswriters.org.[While serving overseas, many PCVs take a host-country national youth under their wings. Many even provide these girls and boys help in school within their own country, and on occasion arrange scholarships for them to study in the U.S. Often this “adopting” of a young girl or boy is the first building block of life-long friendships and successful lives for these children. While often the “Peace Corps kids” of Volunteers go on to have productive lives within their own country, few of them become presidents of their nations.
At the NPCA’s 40+1 celebration of the Peace Corps, Joel and Nancy Deeds Meister (Peru 1964-65) were scheduled to introduce the keynote speaker at the Opening Session of the Conference – their student who did become president: Alejandro Toledo Manrique of Peru.
Because of sudden unrest within Peru, President Toledo could not attend the Conference, but spoke to the gathering by telephone. However, Nancy and Joel were on stage and in their introduction told the moving story of how they first met the teenage Alejandro in Chimbote, Peru, and how this chance meeting changed Alejandro’s life and their own.
With the Meister’s permission, we are reprinting the introduction of their “adopted” son, the President of Peru.]
JOEL: (President Toledo), Senator Dodd, Ambassador Wagner, Peace Corps Director Vasquez, National Peace Corps Association Chair Reilly, NPCA President Smith, Founding Director Shriver, members of the Ruppe family, distinguished guests and fellow Peace Corps volunteers:
Less than a year ago, Nancy and I were in Peru, celebrating the inauguration of our dear friend, Alejandro Toledo Manrique, as president. Peru was then – and still is – recovering from the corruption, abuse and neglect – on a grand scale – of the ten year regime of Alberto Fujimori.
We were elated by our friend’s triumph, but we were sobered by what we encountered in Peru – extreme poverty, every institution of Peruvian society (all the branches of government, the legal system, the military, the press, education, health care – Peru’s infrastructure) had been undermined, with very little social capital left to support the new government.
President Toledo is faced with an enormous challenge – to rebuild trust and hope and stability while caught between the demands of an angry and frustrated people for jobs and a better life, and the pressures of skeptical foreign investors and the surrealism of the free market, the neo-liberal version of globalization.
The violence this week in Arequipa, Peru’s second city, is but one consequence of this dilemma in which Peru and its president are caught. President Toledo is trying to do the right thing, and that is why he cannot be with us today.
And I’m afraid we helped get our friend into this fix.
NANCY: It was 38 years ago, in 1964, that 17 year-old Alejandro Toledo encountered us – two brand new Peace Corps Volunteers who were looking for a place for me to live. Alejandro’s parents, Don Anatolio and Dona Margarita, were very skeptical – the house was small and full of family, and they were poor – when Alejandro diplomatically intervened, and they offered me a small room in the front of their house that was being used as a tienda, a small store. The Toledos became our family. When Joel and I were married a year later, Alejandro’s mother and father stood in for our own parents.
And what a joy it was, last July, to see Don Anatolio, a brick mason all his working life and frail but still vibrant at 89, seated in the front row of Peru’s Palacio del Congreso as Alejandro took the presidential oath of office. Don Anatolio turns 90 in two weeks, and we send him an abrazo muy fuerte. We also want to congratulate Primera Dama Eliane Karp de Toledo on becoming a Peruvian citizen.
JOEL: No sooner had Nancy moved in than Alejandro quickly recruited us to be the advisors to the Club Social y Deportivo Olimpo, which he had founded with a friend, and we recruited him to help us with a summer camp, Campamento Atahualpa, and many other community development activities. In the process we became close friends.
At one point Alejandro invited us to make a great journey up to the Andes to meet his grandfather. We left Chimbote by train and arrived, finally, two days later, on horseback at 10,000 feet, in the village of Ferrer, where Alejandro was born. On that trip, we all slept in the attic of a bakery and on the dirt floor of the unfinished city hall in Cabana, the nearby district capital.
Thirty-three years later, in 1997, we accompanied Alejandro on the same sentimental journey, but this time with the leaders of his party, Peru Posible. We arrived in Cabana late at night to a hero’s welcome for Alejandro, bands playing in the plaza, fireworks exploding and a reception and dance at the long since finished city hall.
NANCY: In between those years, as many of you know, Alejandro came to the United States to study, starting with English at an ESL program at the University of San Francisco and ending with a Ph.D. in economic development and education at Stanford. Yes, it is true that we and other Chimbote Volunteers who are here today helped him in many ways, but we know that he is the one who made it all happen. And the rest is . . . well, the rest is history in the making.
President Toledo’s remarkable career has included the World Bank, visiting professorships in Japan and at Harvard’s Kennedy School, a position in Fernando Belaunde’s government and a professorship at the Graduate School of Business in Lima.
An outsider in Peruvian politics, founder of a new political party, a key actor in bringing to an end the abusive Fujimori government; elected President in an election that most likely would not have taken place without his efforts, and now faced with the challenge of recreating a democracy and promoting development, justice and equity in an astonishingly beautiful and culturally rich land.
Friends and compadres, the President of the Republic of Peru – Alejandro Toledo!