Reviewed by Barbara E. Joe (Honduras 2000-03)
In 1964, after college graduation, newlyweds David and Inga Randle, both from Indiana farming families, find themselves far from home in the Peace Corps in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso, “bigger than Texas,” a region sharing traits with the American Wild West . . . with disagreements being settled through the barrel of a gun. Also, a military coup has just occurred in Brazil, but is little felt in that remote world.
Neighbors call the author “Dr. David,” — as, indeed, Hondurans still call me “Doctora Bárbara” on my annual visits there. He is permitted to drive a Peace Corps 4 x 4 Willy’s station wagon, and often gives people a lift — who are helpful when the vehicle gets stuck. He works on a project where Volunteers rig up a “magic sheet” on which to project educational films using a generator, and attract children and their families to view films for a vaccination campaign.
Beyond recounting the couple’s experiences during the Peace Corps’ early years, Finding Neguinho offers an overview of Brazilian history and geography. Photos, maps, and drawings by an artist friend add an enriching visual dimension. Interspersed are portraits of memorable individuals, including Osmar, a local guy, who adds his own chronicles to this book, both at the beginning and about the author’s return trip in 1999. But the unifying personality throughout is the title character, Neguinho, first encountered when he is only four. Young Neguinho makes himself immediately useful to the Randles by deftly lighting a fire in a wood burning stove, correcting the couple’s Portuguese, running errands, and bringing them gifts of lemons and eggs.
Other personalities include Eloy, an uncharacteristic loner who neither smokes, drinks, nor consorts with women and also cannot read, but is a master builder and carpenter. A man, called Polaco because of his Polish ancestry, is another loner, with a mental handicap, who ends up dying in a charity hospital where the author takes him in a small plane.
Neguinho pops up often throughout the book, next when the author returns on a Peace Corps staff assignment in 1967, the year the couple’s first child is born in Sao Paulo.
When David and Inga’s baby is circumcised, their pediatrician, Dr. Hitler, thinks the parents must be Jewish. When I was a health Volunteer in Honduras, male babies, often delivered by midwives, were not circumcised, thank goodness, preventing that opportunity for infection.
In 1972, Neguinho, now 12, returns to Indiana with the Randle family, but he becomes homesick during the long winter and flies home all by himself. On another trip to Brazil, the author finds the boy, now age 18, outside smoking a cigarette, and going by the name Nego, discarding his diminutive childhood name. When the author returns to Brazil once again, in 1988, Nego has separated from his first wife and married a 16-year-old. In 1999 Nego is still married and now the father of two sons. The last time Nego and the author are together is apparently in 2009, as Nego is approaching 50.
It was surprising to see the Peace Corps logo prominently displayed on this book’s cover, emblematic of the author’s long experience as both Volunteer and staff member. When I’d asked permission to show the logo inside my own memoir, I was told absolutely not on anything not issued officially by the organization itself.
This is a satisfying read, full of information and variety, though a table of contents would have been helpful. The dialogue is credible and descriptions of the author’s early service sound fresh, indicating good notes or a diary. The ongoing relationship with Neguinho makes this more than a conventional Peace Corps memoir. The book shows how much and yet how little the Peace Corps experience has changed over the years.
Reviewer Barbara E. Joe is the author of Triumph & Hope: Golden Years with the Peace Corps in Honduras, declared “Best Peace Corps Memoir of 2009” by Peace Corps Writers, and Confessions of a Secret Latina: How I Fell Out of Love with Castro & In Love with the Cuban People (2014).
She works as a Spanish interpreter in Washington, DC, and has returned 10 times to Honduras to volunteer with medical brigades and other humanitarian projects, with the 11th return trip scheduled for February 2015.
In a recent article for the Huffington Post Barbara proposed a Peace Corps role in a future Cuba.