by Rhoda Brooks
The Peace Corps is fifty years old; an anniversary that dazzles me! I was just 26 years old and my husband, Earle, 28, when we joined fifty years ago. Now I am in my seventies and Earle is gone; yet to me the experience is still just as vivid and meaningful as it was the day we first walked the dusty streets of the barrios of Manta in Ecuador. What we learned could scarcely be measured. What we shared in skills and understanding has never been quantified, but the impact of those two years on our lives was monumental.
In 1961, when we volunteered for the Peace Corps’ inaugural group, some of our friends and acquaintances chided us: “Why are you doing this? It’s just a ‘Kennedy Kiddie Korps’.” Our families and close friends were supportive, so we went. We joined because we felt drawn by the idealistic goal of giving something of ourselves for others. We joined because we needed to live this goal in a practical way—immersing ourselves in a totally new culture, and sharing what skills and knowledge we could each day. We joined because we wished to make the alluring Spanish language our own and because we wanted the personal experience of life in South America. Yes, we also went for challenge and adventure.
Did we gain what we had hoped? The hardships of living a simple life among our fishermen neighbors were tougher than we expected, the linguistic challenges more difficult, and the initial lack of response to our effort was disheartening. Two years is a long time to be away from family and friends—and from the cultural conveniences we’d known our whole lives. Our Peace Corps assignment was “to work with a host-country counterpart in community development.” We had little understanding of what this meant other than “to help the people help themselves.” We soon learned that we would work side by side with our Ecuadorian counterpart, a teacher who had begun to develop a community center called “La Casa del Obrero” (The House of the Worker). He visualized our teaching a full schedule of classes in carpentry, mechanics, sewing, nutrition and other useful skills, using a dusty little rented building in the poorest part of town as a center. At first it was a struggle to translate this goal into action, especially since the people in the barrio where we lived had no context in which to understand why we were there.
Our four months of training in Puerto Rico helped us with survival skills for a rain forest, so the initial shock of adjusting to life in a village where it never rains was immense. We could not imagine existing for two years without a modern bathroom. To top it all off, we’d originally anticipated Africa, based on our recruiter’s recommendation, but the Peace Corps switched the continent out from under us in order to match my skills as a teacher and Earle’s technical skills with the request from Ecuador. We needed to adapt our expectations, but were eager to do so.
We often wondered, “Just what are we doing here?” People skeptical of our decision had warned us that we would be losing two years of prime time in our lives for enhancing our careers and earning money. Others had cautioned that it would be hard to find a job when we returned. How wise was it to leave our productive professional lives for two years of volunteer service, earning only a subsistence “living allowance”?
Now, looking back on the past fifty years, I realize that this choice set in motion events and experiences that have enhanced our careers rather than diminished them. We did not miss the two years of achievement in careers that staying in the United States would have given us. Instead, we found opportunities to use our newly honed awareness of life beyond our home state, Minnesota. More important than professional advancement, it heightened our empathy for and understanding of others; and gave us greater insight into South American worldviews, which often includes regarding North Americans as dominant and demanding hemispheric partners. It set us in side-by-side, living with a people whose resourcefulness, generosity and fun-loving humor helped us appreciate their way of life and make it part of our own.
In 1962, Earle and I were in the initial group of volunteers to go to Ecuador and among the first 700 worldwide. The Peace Corps experience has had a significant influence on us, as it has on the more than 200,000 who have served since. These “Returned Peace Corps Volunteers” permeate every level of society and bring a unique perspective to the workings of our nation. Those remarkable two years impacted us in ways that are difficult to completely explain.
When we departed from Ecuador in 1964, we left with more than just memories. We returned to the United States with two Ecuadorian youngsters, adopted from the barrios of Manta as well as a biological baby on the way.
In 1977 Earle and I returned to Manta, this time with our family of four children, to visit the families from which our two adopted children, Ricardo and Carmen, had sprung. It was an emotional experience for both the Ecuadorian families and ours, and the resulting insights were profound. I suppose that we were looking for some tangible evidence that our work might have had some ongoing impact. More personally, however, we were searching for the results of relationships forged a generation before. From this visit emerged the desire to return regularly, the foundation of a truly lasting bond.
Both living with our two adopted Ecuadorian children and 47 years of ongoing communication with their families in Manta have been momentous. The birth of our biological son and the adoption of another bi-racial child three years later, added another dimension to our growing international family. Our service in Ecuador and the precious children we brought home with us deeply expanded our horizons. We became part of the process of enfolding the rich cultural heritage of the Latinos into the customs of our own country. We are proud of the contributions that Spanish-speaking immigrants have made to our society. We have spent many years enjoying the use of the Spanish language and the resulting three-generations of Brooks’ endeavor to become a Spanish-speaking family. There are now seven Brooks grandchildren to carry on that tradition.
In 1980, Earle surprised me: “What would you think of going back again? There is a need for former volunteers to serve as country directors. Jimmy Carter is looking for couples to head up Peace Corps programs.” And so, almost twenty years after our first Peace Corps experience, punctuated by several spirited family discussions, we finally reached a consensus. Earle and I resigned from our jobs as Vice President of Public Affairs for the Pillsbury Company and teacher of special education in a suburban Minneapolis school district, rented out our house, and once again offered ourselves for Peace Corps service. President Carter appointed us as Co-Directors of the Peace Corps in Chile.
Our second period of Peace Corps service was a completely different experience than that of 1962; this time we went with four children ages 13, 16, 19 and 20. The children were uprooted from friends and schools and embarked on this new challenge with a willing good-natured air of: “O.K., let’s give it a try.”
After a year, Ricardo, age 21 by now, decided to apply for the Peace Corps himself, and was invited to serve in Ecuador, the land of his birth. He was the first second-generation Peace Corps volunteer in the world! He met Nuria, a young teacher living near his training camp in Costa Rica; and following his two years of service, he returned to Costa Rica for an intercultural marriage. In Chile, Carmen met David, an agricultural Peace Corps volunteer from Iowa, and after a Chilean courtship they decided to marry in Santiago. When the Peace Corps program suddenly ended in Chile, they asked for a transfer to Honduras to complete their service.
Though there were many differences between the Ecuadorian experience as volunteers and the Chilean one as administrators, a common thread prevails. I continue to be awed by the tremendous depth of resourcefulness, courage and optimism that bolsters the spirit of our South American neighbors, no matter how difficult their lives may be. From their example Earle and I drew our own inspiration; although what we gained was perhaps our own enthusiasm reflected back to us in newly crafted ways. People from the poverty-washed beaches of Ecuador and Chile drew upon a depth of inner strength gained from meeting every day challenges, and acted upon it in their living. Learning to recognize and fully appreciate these values taught us more than Peace Corps training could have ever instilled. Certainly resourcefulness, courage and optimism are qualities that we deeply need today in the United States, as we face many new obstacles in pursuing our ideals of making this country a better place in which to live and work
As their own children reached their teens, Carmen and Ricardo began exploring the idea of taking them back to Manta to meet their Ecuadorian families. Thus in 2005, with eight World Perks tickets in hand, I boarded a flight for Quito with my oldest son and daughter and five grandchildren. I will never forget the most vivid moment from that trip:
On a street in Manta, my grandson, Michael, could not contain his amazement. “I met my cousin and he looks just like me!” We had returned to Manta with apprehension and anticipation, but Michael’s joyful discovery that there were more kids who looked like him was surprising to a boy used to interacting with mainly Caucasian school peers in his hometown of Northfield, Minnesota. “And our mom laughs just like Abuela (grandmother) Marlene,” chimed in Liz, Michael’s sister. Their sister Katie replied, “our cousin dances just like Mom does too.” These personal characteristics were just some of many shared qualities my grandchildren were delighted to find. Personality traits such as the Latino zest for life and playful exuberance were all recognizable to the children as parts of their own characters. Rico’s son, Matthew, saw his Ecuadorian grandfather walking along the beach, and laughed, “I would know that walk anywhere!” Brenda, Rico’s daughter, found a cousin her age with whom she now exchanges emails. New discoveries and new understandings were revealed by the hour in an amazing array of serendipities.
Growing up adopted and Hispanic in a mostly white suburb of Minneapolis obviously had its challenges and frustrations for Carmen and Rico. Coming back to Manta was fraught with suspense and anxiety as well as new insights. At ages three and four, children of two Ecuadorian fishing families, they had been too young to have a choice in their families’ decisions. These humble families, motivated by a deeply sacrificial desire to somehow provide for their children a better life, had offered them for adoption to two young Peace Corps Volunteers living in their midst. Returning to Manta as adults, with children of their own, Ricardo and Carmen could realize the momentous impact of that decision. It had completely changed their lives and the direction of our lives as well. Had they remained living in the barrios of Manta, they would most likely have not completed more than a primary school education, had minimal access to health care and few opportunities for employment.
More than achieving material stability, their new lives in the United States provided Ricardo and Carmen with opportunities for personal growth and an understanding of their own individual potential. Ricardo went on to become a career military man in the U. S. Marine Corps and is now a federal agent with the U. S. Customs and Immigration service. Carmen graduated from college with a degree in Business and Communications and is now working as director of customer service with a Minnesota business. They have both raised families of outstanding young people, all went on to college and completed meaningful programs of education.
President Barack Obama, in his inaugural speech on January 20, 2009 reflected ideas that inspired the first Peace Corps: “As the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself, and America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.” It was just fifty years ago that President John F. Kennedy implored us to “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Thousands of Americans responded to that call, Earle and I among them. We saw joining the Peace Corps as an opportunity to represent the United States in a positive and personal role, working together with an Ecuadorian counterpart on grass roots projects. This was in stark contrast to the traditional foreign aid approach of sending technical experts, equipment and money. We had none of that to offer, just our selves.
The Peace Corps is still a viable and robust institution. It has weathered ten presidential administrations and multitudes of world issues, and has remained open to a new generation of volunteers. Like those who have gone on before them, Peace Corps Volunteers continue to enhance America’s role in revealing our common humanity and ushering in a new era of peace.
Since we first returned from Ecuador, there have been profound personal changes in our lives. Earle died in 1989 of AIDS-related causes. Our youngest daughter Josie struggled with depression and died tragically in 1992. Both deaths struck us with an unimaginable depth of grief and loss. In the aftermath, our other three children—Ricardo, Carmen, and Ned—were valiantly supportive of me, as they pursued their adult lives, married, divorced and, with new relationships, are raising children of their own. I went into special education, but now have found a new calling—reserve teaching in the Spanish language immersion programs in our community.
Having been a teacher for most of my adult life, I am intrigued by the nature vs. nurture question. Has growing up in the United States had more of an influence on the personalities and values of our adopted children than their genetic heritage? Two generations of anecdotal observations have given me some insights with which to draw my own conclusions. In a nutshell, it seems to me that nature is a very powerful force in determining personality characteristics, while nurture is a strong determinant of how this character is shaped. The basic personality and essence of the child is inherent at birth, yet the nurturing environment nuances these qualities. Nurture seems to help forge these naturally occurring traits into the ultimate adult expression of what actually commenced at birth. With the raising of three adopted children and one biological child simultaneously, we had an opportunity to witness and influence this phenomenon first hand.
Rhoda Brooks, who with her late husband, Earle, served in the first group of Peace Corps Volunteers to go to Ecuador in 1962-64. Eighteen years later they returned to the Peace Corps with their four children, this time as Co-Directors of the Peace Corps program in Chile, from 1980-82. They were among the first 700 volunteers world-wide. Earle and Rhoda adopted two Ecuadorian children, Carmen and Ricardo, when they left the Peace Corps in 1964 and their biological child, Ned, was born upon returning home in 1964. Earle and Rhoda adopted another mixed race child, Jocelyn, in 1967. They together co-authored an article for the National Geographic magazine about their experiences in the Peace Corps, which was published in the September, 1964 issue. Their book, The Barrios of Manta was the first memoir ever to be published by Peace Corps volunteers about their personal experiences, and was brought forth in 1965 by New American Library. In 1981, Ricardo, volunteered for the Peace Corps, becoming the first second- generation volunteer, and was assigned to the land of his birth, Ecuador, where he served a two year term, followed by his marriage to a native Costa Rican he met during Peace Corps training. Carmen married a Peace Corps volunteer from Iowa, and spent another year as a volunteer’s wife in Chile and Honduras. Rhoda’s career in education spanned 43 years, as she served as an elementary teacher in Illinois and Wisconsin and then special education teacher in Minnesota and Iowa. She retired in 2000 and has devoted her professional time since then to teaching Spanish in language immersion programs and directing a residential camp for children with learning disabilities. She now lives in Minnesota and has three children and eight grandchildren.