Review by Brenda Brown Schoonover, President of American Diplomacy Publishers
The Barrios of Manta by Rhoda and Earle Brooks, Amazon Digital Services, 2013, ASIN: B008KPZQRO, 324 pp., $4.99 (Kindle); originally published by New American Library, 1965, ISBN-13: 978-9997555700.
In September 2011, the United States Peace Corps celebrated its 50th anniversary. The main events were held in Washington, D.C. with an array of activities organized by the National Peace Corps Association plus individual group gatherings according to volunteers’ host countries. There were also celebrations throughout the U.S. and in nations where volunteers had served or were currently serving.
One of the fruits of the 50th anniversary has been an outpouring of Peace Corps memoirs and commentaries. In September 2011, the U.S. Library of Congress honored the Peace Corps’ landmark anniversary by creating an annotated bibliography of 247 selected books limited to authors who were Returned Volunteers and overseas staff.
Among the Special Collection is The Barrios of Manta. A Personal Account of the Peace Corps in Ecuador written by Rhoda and Earle Brooks. First published in 1965, it was the first book by Returned Peace Corps Volunteers. It sold over 60,000 copies. In Barrios, Rhoda and Earle Brooks vividly share their experiences in Ecuador from 1962 to 1964. The couple joined the Peace Corps for the challenge and adventure, the chance to learn Spanish; however, mainly to give something of themselves to others.
In recognition of the 50th anniversary, Rhoda Brooks has published a new edition of The Barrios of Manta in e-book form with a revised foreword and afterword.
Many of the earlier volunteers were just out of college and single. Rhoda and Earle were slightly older: Rhoda 26, Earle 28. They left substantial jobs, Earle, a sales engineer and Rhoda a teacher. Plus they had an established household to deal with before embarking on their new adventure. The couple underwent Peace Corps training, including an outward-bound course in Puerto Rico, described as “extremely rigorous”. Only 61 of the original 100 candidates in their group made it through the whole assessment process.
Earle and Rhoda’s memoir is a thoughtful and insightful account of their existence in a poor Ecuadorian fishing village on the Pacific Coast. There, they developed meaningful relationships with members of the community. Both managed to avoid being judgmental and showed amazing resilience and talent for accomplishing a great deal in community development and education. Naturally, along the way, they encountered their share of hurdles and setbacks. The couple found great solace in working together on projects and having each other to lean on when needed.
Most importantly, they possessed cultural sensitivity and patience. This is not a romantic rendering of life in the Peace Corps. They take us through the trying periods and frustrations and tediousness of getting projects off the ground—much less completed. Initially they struggle with Spanish. But through it all, they connect with the community they come to love.
Earle Brooks’ realistic approach was revealed when he said, “Our perceived ideas about the meaning of words like, poor, uneducated, poverty-stricken, underprivileged, or disadvantaged were being destroyed…. But these adjectives were only the backdrop for the human beings with we were now face to face. How can you change people if you can’t accept who they are?”
Rhoda’s thoughts were similar. She gave the example of the villagers’ nightly use of the ocean as a community commode, which she noted was at least washed away by the tides. She and Earle didn’t accept “these habits as unchangeable—we just accept them for now…our philosophy is to accept …their way of life—to appreciate and understand why they are done this way and to try to influence for change only when it seems necessary for increased health and well-being for a man and his family. Above all it is important not to judge the right or wrong because in order to judge, one needs a standard of reference against which to do the judging—and it is not fair to use a standard alien to these people.”
About half way through their assignment, Earle experienced real misgivings about his own cross-cultural identity. While attending a lively raucous gathering after a soccer match, he began to struggle with his own personal contradictions—trying to relate to his hosts and his own beliefs. His self-searching is not unlike the moments of questioning, doubts and discouragement many other volunteers have experienced over the fifty years and will continue to experience as long as the Peace Corps exists.
Earle revealed how overwhelming volunteer life can be. “Under the gaiety of the loud jukebox music, the close fellowship with my friends and their tribute to me, there seem to be a feeling of hopelessness. Although I was having a good time, I could not suppress a feeling of depression. Everything, the filth, the squalor, the feces of both pigs and humans in the street, the ragged children, the dying babies, the choking color of urine, the utter despair of earning too little with no hope of a future opportunity for generations to come—paraded before me and I wondered if I were doing anything to help… I thought of Rhoda and myself, identifying with these people, living in their environment, taking on their values. Were we, too going native… accepting their way of life — or was it so foreign to us that we were forcing our involvement, knowing it was only two years? Were we changing or living simultaneously from two opposing frames of reference? I wondered what was happening to us.” When he returned home, Earle unloaded his thoughts to Rhoda who listened with her head on his shoulder. “We realized in that moment that although we had been in the Peace Corps for over a year, the impact of what was happening to us had just begun to hit us; we were finally experiencing the ‘cultural shock’ they had told us about during training.”
It was obvious they needed a break. Using their accrued leave, they visited Peru and Chile, a grassroots vacation, the couple encountered 25 or so volunteers experiencing successes and failures much like theirs. Earle and Rhoda returned to Manta with renewed vitality and determination. They were met with open arms.
The Barrios of Manta is a well-written account seen through the eyes of two Peace Corps Volunteers in the early days of the agency’s existence. The authors are to be applauded for their wisdom, courage, imagination and creativity; but, most of all, for their keen cross-cultural sensitivity and realistic approach, key factors in building trust and understanding.
In the Foreword and Afterwordof her new edition,Rhoda provides an update of the Brooks family since 1964. She and Earle adopted two Ecuadorian children, Ricardo and Carmen, ages three and four, and brought them home at the same time Rhoda was pregnant with biological baby, Ned. Later they adopted a bi-racial child, Josie. In 1977, the whole family visited Manta so the Ecuadorian-born children could meet their biological relatives. From 1980 to1982, the couple served as co-directors of the Peace Corps program in Chile. Regrettably, Earle died in1989 and daughter, Josie in 1992.*
In her Afterword in the new edition of The Barrios of Manta, Rhoda observes that since 1961, the world has become more complex and volatile with more than double the population. She believes that “ultimately our best defense and offense will be found through mutual trust, enhanced communication and stronger relationships.”
Fortunately, The Barrios of Manta has resurfaced in celebration of the Peace Corps’ golden anniversary. It is an enduring portrayal of the Peace Corps experience still relevant today and well-worth reading or rereading.
*See also Rhoda Brooks’ 2011 article in American Diplomacy entitled, “How the Peace Corps Changed My Life.”