What It Means to be a Gringa



I can pick coffee every day for the rest of my life, but I will never know what it’s like to be a coffee picker.

In response to the Huffpost article Peace Corps Guilt

I am not a Peace Corps Volunteer, and probably never will be. I have a personal aversion to participation in “programs” (and rich experiences around varied domestic and international poverty with and without them), and I feel like even for all the good the Peace Corps does, the motivation for too many participants to join is that they want to earn their suffering stripes. Every single PCV has the possibility to utter “this too shall pass” under his/her breath for 2 years and sweat through the tough stuff knowing that they can reintegrate themselves to the comfort of the first world. Not one person they’re “serving” has that same luxury, and that mental security is the only luxury that matters. Not Coca Cola or Lady Gaga.

I’m familiar with the PC policy of the “teach a man to fish” policy of not giving giving giving as the rich American Aunty, and it seems like choosing how strictly to abide by that policy is a decision heavily informed by personality and circumstance of PCV individuals. But the one intangible luxury you always have is that you can be generous. Even guilt is an emotional luxury. If your stomach were cramped with hunger and you were shivering with cold you wouldn’t have the energy to feel guilty.

I understand your hesitation to feed Maria because then what about her friends, family, neighbors, future children when you leave, but you don’t have to change the world. You can make one person less hungry for one day, and that is something. Maybe because you help her make it through this one really tough week she’ll have the endurance for the next tough one, even without you. Sharing is not just tangible; it’s emotional. Sometimes just being on the receiving end and knowing that someone gives a hoot enough to give you something is almost as valuable as the item given.

The worst thing anyone can do is pretend to understand what it’s like to live someone else’s life. Playing along with poverty and forcing yourself to do away with luxuries seems to be exactly the opposite goal of the PC. It seems like it varies site to site, but I thought one of the goals of the program was that all volunteers would actually live the lives others live, rather than living separate but not equal ones like missionaries of not so long ago. I’ve worked in NYC’s urban schools, and the worst thing I can do is pretend to understand what it’s like to be a 15 year old drug addicted gang member and tell a student “I get you.” I need to be very clear that I don’t understand, I never will understand, and that is why I need him/her to teach ME what it’s like to be them. In turn I’ll tell them honestly what it’s like to grow up in a town with both mansions and trailers, go to college, work 2 jobs, and eat mostly vegetarian food. I won’t pretend that I haven’t had it easier than them, and the absence of facade and the presence of a genuinely interested ear are the most meaningful things I’ll ever have to give.

The PC seems like the most invaluable opportunity to, as you said at the end, learn what it’s like for the people you’re working with and then share what you learn. No one’s going to give up his ipod until he has a real human picture of who he’s giving it up for. Since the whole reason I uprooted myself from my first world life was to collect first person accounts with the goal of sharing them, that’s what I’d do with my PC time.

At the end of the day any reason for pulling a drowning girl from a lake that results in that her life being saved seems like reason enough, but somehow jumping in so you can have you picture in the paper for saving her and jumping in because cosmically, morally she shouldn’t die and you should help her live are fundamentally different. Sometimes it’s tricky to tell them apart. Anytime people volunteer because they want to feel good, that’s exactly the moment they should go buy a box of imported chocolates and watch a movie. Volunteering because you want to get something out of it is as selfish as treating your good fortune as a burden. Anytime people volunteer because even though they don’t want to and don’t feel like, but know it’s humanely unjust for members of our human race to be gravely suffering parallel to our comfortable bliss, that’s when they should keep volunteering.



    1. Hello Estee,

      Just read your response; I’m sure Maria and her friend enjoyed the pancakes! I’m sure you also saw my longer response to someone’s longer response to my response (whew!).

      I applaud you for starting an incredibly fascinating and important discussion with your article. Relevant writing doesn’t say things that makes everyone feel warm and fuzzy; it makes bold statements that make people uncomfortable enough to say something back.

      You certainly put some sand in everyone’s bathing suits.

      The volume of responses and the thoughtfulness and/or intensity of most attest to the urgency with which people want and need to have an involved discussion about the topics of poverty, wealth, aid, fairness, duty, privilege, and the nuances surrounding them.

      Maybe you just reminded people of the sand that was already there, sand they were trying really hard not to think about.

      I think there is serious potential for curating this extensive discussion thread into some kind of stand alone site that pulls in all the threads that have spiraled (knotted? woven? unfurled?) off your original article.

      Keep up the hard work, and keep doing and saying things that people disagree with.

  1. Additionally, you say: “Anytime people volunteer because even though they don’t want to and don’t feel like, but know it’s humanely unjust for members of our human race to be gravely suffering parallel to our comfortable bliss, that’s when they should keep volunteering.”

    This statement presents a strange dichotomy: “grave suffering” and “comfortable bliss”. It might be an effective rhetorical tool but it only serves to perpetuate the structures of oppression that have existed for centuries between the “developing” and “undeveloped” countries. It’s not as if you cross some political boundary and life turns to suffering.

    I learned a powerful lesson over two years in Guatemala: it is possible to be happy with little, or unhappy with a lot. The people I met in Guatemala honestly were not much less happy than most of my friends and family in the US, including my Guatemalan husband living in the US — despite the political instability and high rates of violent crime. People – brown, white, yellow, poor, rich, and middle-class – largely adapt to the challenges in front of them as they can, and make smaller challenges bigger than they need to be. I’d like to know where all the “comfortable bliss” is, if that applies to all of us in the United States.

    I won’t argue that there aren’t some people deeply suffering in the world, many of whom are outside the “industrialized” nations, but a 20-something from the US with a college degree is hardly in a place to directly help those most in need — in fact, who is? 30 years of failed development has taught us a few things about our assumptions.

    My point is, we primarily think of the “poor” in the world as suffering because that is our own instinct. Everyone has a different idea of the “good life”. It is human nature, for some more than others, to “help” people by imposing your own value system on them. We judge their situation, often times using our deepest sympathy, based on our own needs, habits, and feelings. What makes toilet paper better than corncobs? A composting latrine better than a flush toilet? Diarrhea worse than diabetes? In judging people in “poverty” as suffering, we are imposing our own cultural framework and often times doing harm to others, at worst, and at best, acting ineffectively by misidentifying their needs and wants.

  2. It seems that you and Esther are addressing many of the same points in different words. First, international volunteers have privileges; second, they ought to be aware of it; third, that understanding other people’s experience is crucial to achieving any sort of real human development. I would argue that is true no matter where we are on the globe.

    You’re right that some Peace Corps Volunteers are unaware of their privilege: they may suffer, but they can bear it and in two years be home in the comfort of “the first world”. Many others are aware of this, but it simply contributes to the guilt they feel, their urge for “moral masturbation” (as Esther herself puts it). You say: ““The worst thing anyone can do is pretend to understand what it’s like to live someone else’s life.” One of the real benefits of Peace Corps is that it creates global citizens who understand that very idea.

    [As an aside, we could ask what you mean by “first world”, since the phrase in itself is full of hidden values, power structures, and ignorance of the problems in our own societies. We should all be aware that running water, electricity, heat, and snack food are artificial distinctions between first and third world these days, including in places volunteers serve.]

    While in the first part of Esther’s article we observe the slimy guts of Poverty Guilt laid out and stinking, I think she speaks to a reality that many volunteers face. You say: “Volunteering because you want to get something out of it is as selfish as treating your good fortune as a burden.”

    Do you really think it’s possible to do something for others without any selfish motivation? On a biological level, empathy and altruism themselves evolved because it conveyed some benefit to the reproduction of the organism. Many volunteers suffer precisely because they come to realize they have so little to offer. This is human nature. Call it selfish or not, it is what it is. It serves a purpose, if it causes a volunteer to reach out to others from her own culture about a foreign culture.

    The issue with Maria is not WHY you jump in to save someone but recognizing that you can’t save her, because she’s just not in reach. If you fed Maria, would you do so purely out her suffering? I don’t think so. You would probably feel joy in watching her eat. You might feel guilt in not feeding her, like Esther.

    You would feed her because it would make you feel good, even if subconsciously, even if it might create issues for her later. I feel Esther made a brave choice: she chose to face the guilt and do what she felt was better for Maria over the long term.

    Maybe Esther’s wrong, and she could save Maria, but we don’t know Maria and her family, so we can’t really say. You say, “The worst thing anyone can do is pretend to understand what it’s like to live someone else’s life.” What puts us, here, behind our computer screens, in a position to understand Maria’s situation better than Esther does?

    Is her experience negated because Esther is ostensibly wealthy and from our culture? I don’t see the value in that distinction. Putting “the poor” on a pedestal does little for anyone.

    I would argue that a great deal of good comes out of the world because people have the need to serve others, because they have the desire to do something to better themselves and make something of their lives – through serving others. Again, can we possibly do much of anything in the world without some benefit? In truth, we are all co-dependent on one another. It is neither wrong nor right. It is.

    Activist Lilla Watson expresses it perfectly: “If you have come here to help me, then you are wasting your time. But if you have come here because your liberation is bound up in mine, then let us work together.”

  3. Sounds like a great adventure. I guess the same goes for me as a reader. I can read about pickiing coffee beans but I will never be able to fully understand what it is like. To be a coffee picker All I can do is try to understand. Thanks for sharing.

  4. I am so glad that things are turning up for you during your research and connection with the farmers/working class in LatAm.
    Keep us posted on these adventures…

    with love, your dearest friend


      1. It’s my understanding that the majority of Peace Corps volunteers return to the USA, and their previous first world lives of running water, electricity, heat and snack food, after their 2 years of service rather than remaining in the countries where they serve.

      2. “…their previous first world lives of running water, electricity, heat and snack food, after their 2 years of service rather than remaining in the countries where they serve.”

        I see. Thanks for the clarification.

What are you thinking?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s