Diversity and cross-cultural issues in El Salvador
In fulfilling the Peace Corps’ mandate to share the face of America with our host countries, we are making special efforts to see that all of America’s richness is reflected in the Volunteer corps. More Americans of color are serving in today’s Peace Corps than at any time in recent years. Differences in race, ethnic background, age, religion, and sexual orientation are expected and welcome among our Volunteers. Part of the Peace Corps’ mission is to help dispel any notion that Americans are all of one origin or race, and to establish that each of us is as thoroughly American as the other, despite our many differences. Our diversity helps us accomplish that goal.
In other ways, however, our diversity poses challenges. In El Salvador, as in other Peace Corps host countries, Volunteers’ behavior, lifestyles, background, and beliefs will be judged in a cultural context very different from our own. Certain personal perspectives or characteristics considered familiar and commonly accepted in the United States may be quite uncommon, unacceptable, or even repressed.
Outside of El Salvador’s capital, residents of rural communities have had relatively little direct exposure to other cultures, races, religions, and lifestyles. Typical cultural beliefs held may be as narrow as the perception that all Americans are rich and have blonde hair and blue eyes. The people of El Salvador are justly known for their generous hospitality to foreigners; however, members of the community in which you will live may display a range of reactions to differences that you present. We will ask you to be supportive of one another.
In order to ease the transition and adapt to life in El Salvador, you may need to make some temporary, yet fundamental compromises with who you are as an American and as an individual. For example, female trainees and Volunteers may not be able to exercise the independence available to them in the United States; political discussions will need to be handled with great care; and some of your personal beliefs may best remain undisclosed. You will need to develop techniques and personal strategies for coping with these and other limits. The Peace Corps staff will lead diversity and sensitivity discussions during your pre-service training and will be on call to provide support, but the challenge ultimately will be your own.
Overview of Diversity in El Salvador
Peace Corps staff in El Salvador recognizes the adjustment issues that come with diversity and will endeavor to provide support and guidance. During pre-service training, several sessions will be held to discuss diversity and coping mechanisms. We look forward to having male and female Volunteers from a variety of cultures, backgrounds, religions, ethnic groups, and ages and hope that you will become part of a diverse group of Americans who will take pride in supporting each other and demonstrating the richness of American culture.
What Might A Volunteer Face?
Possible issues for Female Volunteers
Machismo is pervasive throughout El Salvador. Strict gender roles exist, particularly in rural areas. Women frequently receive catcalls, especially in areas where they are not known. The more you are established in your site and known to your community, the less likely you will be hassled.
Traditional roles in rural areas often limit women from doing physical work other than carrying firewood, water, or supplies from the market. Generally, women in El Salvador have attended less formal schooling than men so it is difficult for them to be taken seriously on technical issues. Additionally, Salvadoran women are usually not comfortable in expressing their opinions openly. Decisions are traditionally made by men. Gender roles for outsiders are somewhat less strict, although female Volunteers may find that expressions of independence that may be the norm in the United States are not culturally appropriate in El Salvador.
Possible Issues for Volunteers of Color
As a Volunteer of color, you may be the only non-white Volunteer within a project or training group. As such, it is quite possible that you may be working and living among people with little or no experience or understanding of your culture. You may not receive the level of personal support from other Volunteers that you would like. Likewise, it may be a challenge to find diverse role models among the Peace Corps staff.
In El Salvador, African-American Volunteers may be referred to as negro or other titles considered derogatory in American culture. Negro is the word for black in Spanish and may not be intended as derogatory in El Salvador. Based upon false cultural stereotypes, you may be evaluated as less professionally competent than white Volunteers.
Salvadorans may expect Latin-American Volunteers to automatically assume different role patterns than white Volunteers or to interact socially with more ease. Likewise, Volunteers with Latino surnames may be expected to speak Spanish fluently; language testers may expect Latin-American Volunteers to perform more proficiently on Spanish tests. Latin-American Volunteers may not be considered or perceived as being North American.
Salvadorans may project stereotyped behavior observed in films on Asian-American Volunteers (the “Kung Fu Syndrome”). In El Salvador, Asian Americans are often identified by their cultural heritage, not by their American citizenship. Asians are collectively labeled as chinos regardless of their particular ethnic background. Current or historical host-country involvement with Asian countries, or the presence of Asian merchants in the community, may have an impact on how Asian-American Volunteers are perceived. Asian Americans may not be accepted as North American.
Possible Issues for Senior Volunteers
Senior Volunteers are advised to designate a power of attorney to manage all financial matters during service prior to leaving for El Salvador. It is important that senior Volunteers be aware of possible issues of inclusion and acceptance among Volunteer peers. Others in the Peace Corps community may have little understanding of or respect for the lives and experiences of senior Americans. Seniors may not share social or recreational interests and may not receive the personal support they desire from younger Volunteers. As a result, senior Volunteers may not feel comfortable sharing personal, sexual, or health concerns. On the other hand, they may find that younger Volunteers look to them for advice and support. Some senior Volunteers find this a very enjoyable part of their experience, while others choose not to fill this role. Because of the cultural standards, senior Volunteers may command more respect from Salvadorans than younger Volunteers.
Senior Volunteers may need to be assertive in developing an effective individual approach to language learning. Also, where great variety in site placement exists, Peace Corps staff and senior Volunteers need to collaborate to identify those sites most appropriate for single or married older Volunteers.
Possible Issues for Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual Volunteers
Homosexuality is considered immoral according to local norms in El Salvador. AIDS (SIDA in Spanish) is a critical issue in many countries. Volunteers need to be aware that there has been a backlash against gay American men for supposedly bringing the disease to Latin America. Styles for hair, earrings on men, certain mannerisms, and clothes that are acceptable in the United States may be highly suspect in some communities. In El Salvador, some civil liberties are often nonexistent or ignored; homosexuals may be hassled in bars on in the streets.
Some Volunteers find the Peace Corps to be a “coming out” experience, while others find it a “going back into the closet” one. Volunteers generally choose not to be “out” in their communities, but may be “out” to certain individuals with whom they have built trusting relationships. You may serve for two years without meeting another gay Volunteer. Straight Volunteers and staff may not be able to give needed support. Like most Volunteers, you may have difficulties with the machismo in El Salvador. Lesbian and bisexual women should be prepared to field questions regarding boyfriends, marriage, and sex. Likewise, gay and bisexual men will be asked about girlfriends, and may find themselves in situations where men brag about female conquests, objectify women, and catcall. It is a good idea to start formulating personal strategies to deal with these potentially awkward moments.