The Infamous Peace Corps Streaking Incident (Costa Rica)

 

Recounted by D.W. Jefferson (El Salvador & Costa Rica 1974–77)

The following qualifies as hearsay, though I did hear it from a person directly involved, Skip Baker, a former Colombia PCV (Peace Corps Volunteer) and co–owner of Basico, the company in charge of my Peace Corps group’s training in Costa Rica in the fall of 1974.

It seems that about six months prior (say February 1974) there was a training group which, on their last day as trainees, was giving a presentation (possibly in the form of a play) to their host families at the Basico training center. Some or all of the trainees got the idea of ending the presentation by streaking across the stage.

An example of streaking

Explanatory Note: Streaking had become popular on US college campuses a few years earlier. The practice consisted of taking off all of one’s clothes, except for shoes (typically tennis shoes) and running to a destination where there would be a crowd of people. It often was done with the intention of disrupting a serious occasion. To the best of my recollection, streaking was mostly a fad of and an activity engaged in by white male college students.

Of course, the Costarican families knew nothing about streaking and were totally shocked by this inexplicable indecent behavior, especially those who had brought young children to the presentation.

The training company and Peace Corps personnel on-site sprung into action. They summarily terminated all of the trainees involved and got them out of the country posthaste! According to Skip, the greatest fear of those in charge was that some of the Costaricans would get local police involved and potentially get some of the trainees thrown in jail where they would be subject to the country’s laws and judicial process. This would, needless to say, be terrible publicity for the Peace Corps, as well as potentially serious sentences in a foreign prison for the trainees.

They did get all of the trainees on planes and out of the country within two days, and none were arrested by the local authorities. The incident blew over and the company, Basico, was now training my group.

The incident was presumably shared with us as a “word to the wise” about the cultural faux pas. This is all I know, but several questions come to mind:

  1. Was this a single training group and if so, what program were they training for? Or was it trainees from multiple groups?
  2. Was it all women, all men, or both genders?
  3. How many streakers were there?
  4. Did an entire training group participate?
  5. Did any of the participants have second thoughts?

I must say that if a faux pas like this was going to happen, the country where it was most likely to happen would be Costa Rica. Other than speaking Spanish instead of English, Costaricans (even 45 years ago when the described incident happened) dress and behave very much like folks in the US. They are generally well educated and friendly. If Peace Corps trainees were going to forget that they were in a foreign country and a different culture and do something stupid, it would be in Costa Rica.

If you by chance know more about this incident, particularly if you are able to answer any of my questions above, or if you know about another incident that you believe tops this one for shear stupidity and complete lack of cultural sensitivity, please tell us about it.

D.W. Jefferson was a Peace Corps agriculture volunteer in El Salvador (1974-76) and Costa Rica (1976-77). A blog about his Peace Corps years is at dwjefferson.blogspot.com.  He is currently retired from a career in computer software engineering.

 

4 Comments

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  • This would have been during Nixon’s regime, Remeber how he tried to defund the Peace Corps and finally buried it in ACTION. In Stanley Meisler’s great book, “When the World Calls” he describes a 1971 memo Buchanan wrote to Nixon proposing “changing its (the Peace Corps’s) nature to a more altruistic outfit than it seems to be today with the young leftist dominant.” (page 108).

    Words fail.

  • I remember hearing about this when I was in Peace Corps El Salvador and I still remember thinking “how could they be that stupid,” I think the streaking group also had volunteers that were in El Salvador originally..

    Dan Campbell, El Salvador, 1974-1977

    • Hi Dan,

      Maybe you heard about the streaking incident from one or more members of my group. We were El Salvador volunteers who trained in Costa Rica. We arrived in El Salvador in October of 1974, so we would have been there when you were, and we all had heard the story.

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