Peace Corps in Panama: Fifty Years, Many Voices
Edited by Meredith W. Cornett (Panama 1991–93)
Peace Corps Writers
Reviewed by Barbara E. Joe (Honduras 2000–03)
This slender volume is a delight, providing stories from the earliest days of Peace Corps Panama right up to 2013. First envisioned during a reunion of Panama RPCVs during the 50th anniversary, the project grew as vignettes, poems, and letters written by those who served through the years were gathered together. They appear in chronological order, with a 20-year break beginning in 1971 when General Omar Torrijos ousted the Peace Corps amid rumors that volunteers were CIA spies. After the signing of the treaty returning the canal to Panama, followed by Torrijos’ death in a plane crash and Manuel Noriega’s arrest, volunteers were invited back again.
Editor Cornett, also a contributor, obviously undertook her task as a labor of love, offering readers a historical panorama of Peace Corps’ evolution over the years. The variety of voices, 30 in all, adds a special richness. Each piece is engaging in its own right and several are quite compelling. Cornett calls the effort a “collective memoir” in which the whole ends up becoming greater than the sum of its parts. A number of contributors not only recount episodes from their Peace Corps experience, but also chronicle their return decades later, finding to their surprise that local people not only recognized and remembered them, but were still using practices they’d developed together many years before. Talk about sustainability!
In 1962, one of the first volunteers to arrive was threatened by anti-American machete-wielding Panamanians, saved by villagers forming a human shield around her house, something fondly recalled by her and her protectors when she visited 45 years later. Two volunteers who met and married while in service in 1967 had a baby in Panama, their service continuing uninterrupted while their daughter slept peacefully under a mosquito net. Years later, she traveled back with her parents to her birthplace, allowing them to proudly introduce local folks to their now grown up “Peace Corps baby.” Another former volunteer recounts his marvel at the exploits of a blind fellow volunteer, undaunted by the challenges of working in their new environment (I’ve met both blind and deaf RPCVs). In 1968, a Peace Corps couple was arrested after a Panamanian coup, choosing to finish out their service in neighboring Colombia instead. Not only does the book show the Peace Corps’ evolution over the years, but also how their service helped shape the future careers of many volunteers, some of whom returned to Panama later to initiate long-term projects.
A map of Panama opens each story, with a star indicating the geographical location of each writer’s site. A helpful initial map pinpointing the locations of all the contributions in numerical (and chronological) order is marred only by a misspelling of neighboring Colombia, also misspelled in the text, a pet peeve of Colombians and Colombia RPCVs alike.
Former volunteers, regardless of geographical setting will recognize many common experiences, such as deciding what to do with trash, making the adjustment from “American” promptness and deadlines to more a mutable local time frame, living with an utter lack of privacy, and doing without such modern amenities as flush toilets and hot showers. These many stories evoked my nostalgia for the Peace Corps, arousing my serious thoughts of joining Peace Corps Response for another go-around.
This book holds special meaning for me, reminding me of my first visit to Panama as a young teenager, not returning until 2010, more than 60 years later, when Panama volunteers invited me to discuss my Honduras memoir on my way to my annual humanitarian visit to that country. I was blown away by the many changes Panama had undergone in the interim and its relative modernity and development compared to Honduras. I met some enthusiastic former volunteers who had returned to start tourist-related businesses, beguiled by the opportunity to live with many of the comforts of home at a fraction of the cost in a lovely tropical setting-and Panama’s currency is the American dollar, another convenience. They had fallen completely in love with Panama during their Peace Corps service.
With this book, Panama volunteers have set an enviable example for the rest of us, pioneering a new way to chronicle the Peace Corps experience in any given country, beginning at the very beginning and extending right up to the present day. Bravo!
Barbara E. Joe (Honduras 2000-03) is a native of Boston, graduate of the University of California, Berkeley (BA, MA), and mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. From her century-old house on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, she works as a freelance writer, Spanish interpreter, and translator. She wrote an award-winning memoir, Triumph & Hope: Golden Years in the Peace Corps in Honduras, and has returned to Honduras nine times for ongoing humanitarian projects, most recently in February and March 2013. She is now finishing a book about her experiences in Cuba and other Latin American countries, beginning back in 1941 when she was only 3.