Diversity and cross-cultural issues in Honduras

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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 community. 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 welcomed 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, it poses challenges. In Honduras, as in other Peace Corps host countries, Volunteers’ behavior, lifestyle, background, and beliefs are judged in a cultural context very different from their own. Certain personal perspectives or characteristics commonly accepted in the United States may be quite uncommon, unacceptable, or even repressed in Honduras.

Outside of Honduras’ capital and other large cities, residents of rural communities have had relatively little direct exposure to other cultures, races, religions, and lifestyles. What is viewed as typical American behavior or norms may be a misconception, such as the belief in some countries that all Americans are rich and have blond hair and blue eyes. The people of Honduras 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 cultural differences that you present.

To ease the transition and adapt to life in Honduras, you may need to make some temporary, yet fundamental compromises in how you present yourself 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 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 limitations. The Peace Corps staff will lead diversity and sensitivity discussions during pre-service training and will be on call to provide support, but the challenge ultimately will be your own.

Overview of Diversity in Honduras[edit]

One aspect of cultural adaptation is being sensitive to the diversity among the Volunteer population. The Peace Corps staff in Honduras recognizes 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 races, ethnic groups, ages, religions, and sexual orientations, and hope that you will become part of a diverse group of Americans who take pride in supporting one another and demonstrating the richness of American culture.

In addition to the support provided to Volunteers by Peace Corps/Honduras staff, several peer support groups exist to help Volunteers serve effectively. COLORS is an organization of Volunteers whose vision is to create an environment where diversity is respected and celebrated in fulfillment of the Peace Corps’ goal of intercultural exchange. The Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual Experience (GLOBE) was formed in 1998 to promote the health and well-being of gay, lesbian, and bisexual Volunteers by providing direct support and by educating the Peace Corps community. The Volunteers Offering Support group (VOS) is available to any Volunteer or trainee who needs a supportive network of concerned Volunteers trained in active listening. VOS members are strategically located throughout Honduras and can be contacted via e-mail at smembers@hn.peacecorps.gov. OAKS (Older and Knowing Souls) is a support group formed in 2003 to support the needs of older Volunteers in Honduras, and in 2007 Volunteers started MARV (MARried Volunteers) to address and discuss the unique challenges and joys of serving with one's spouse.

What Might a Volunteer Face?[edit]

Possible Issues for Female Volunteers[edit]

You should be prepared for unwanted attention from Honduran men simply because you are an American woman. American women are sometimes perceived as being “easy” because of stereotypes portrayed on American TV shows and movies aired on Honduran television. It is very common to receive stares, comments, or requests for dates or sex on the street and in other situations. In addition, women often are not taken as seriously as men in their jobs and may not receive the respect that is readily given to both American and Honduran men. In Honduran culture, a woman is viewed as either a “mother” or a “daughter.” Therefore, if you are not married, you may be treated like a daughter or a child instead of a grown woman.

Honduran women have very specific, traditional roles (i.e., they generally do not work outside of the home), which some Hondurans may think female Volunteers should adopt.

Working with men can be difficult if they refuse to believe a woman is capable of work other than cleaning the house or raising children. Working with women can be difficult when they cannot understand why a woman would want to do anything that is not “women’s work.” Honduran men also have specific roles, and machismo, or manliness, is considered very important. Men are expected to be dominant in almost all aspects of society; they are expected to smoke, drink, pursue women, be strong, and be willing to discipline their wife and children. Thus male Volunteers who do not drink, smoke, or like to pursue women openly may get teased or chided for not being manly enough. Both female and male Volunteers will learn strategies to handle these situations during pre-service training.

Possible Issues for Volunteers of Color[edit]

African-American Volunteers may be viewed as less professionally competent than white Volunteers. They may be called negrita, trigueña, or other words that distinguish them as dark-skinned. Although these terms are not necessarily derogatory, Volunteers may initially feel demeaned by them. In addition, Hondurans may not believe you are an American, thinking you must come from the north coast of Honduras or the Bay Islands, which have a heavy concentration of Garifuna or black Caribs.

Hondurans may expect Hispanic Americans to interact socially with more ease. Likewise, Volunteers with Latino surnames may be expected to speak Spanish fluently and may not be perceived as being North American.

Asian Americans, too, are often identified more by their cultural heritage than by their American citizenship. Hondurans may expect you to be a kung fu expert because of stereotypes based on behavior observed in films. Many Asians are labeled as Chinese, regardless of their actual ethnic background. Honduras’ current or historical involvement with certain Asian countries, or the presence of Asian merchants in the community, may also have an impact on how Asian-American Volunteers are perceived.

Possible Issues for Senior Volunteers[edit]

Senior Volunteers often receive more respect from Hondurans than younger Volunteers do. But seniors need to be aware of possible issues of inclusion and acceptance by fellow Volunteers. Others in the Peace Corps community may have little understanding of the lives and experiences of seniors, and seniors may not receive the personal support they desire from younger Volunteers. Nor may senior Volunteers feel comfortable sharing personal, sexual, or health concerns with younger members of the Peace Corps staff. On the other hand, seniors may find that younger Volunteers look to them for advice and support. While some seniors find this a very enjoyable part of their experience, others choose not to fill this role.

Older trainees sometimes encounter a lack of attention to their particular needs for an effective learning environment and may need to be assertive in developing an individual approach to language learning, for instance. Senior Volunteers should consider designating a power of attorney for management of their financial affairs during service.

Possible Issues for Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual Volunteers[edit]

Homosexuality is not illegal in Honduras; however, it is met with varying degrees of acceptance by Hondurans, one’s community, and other Volunteers. Volunteers generally choose not to be open about their sexual orientation in their communities, but often do reveal it to individuals with whom they have built a trusting relationship. You will have to decide for yourself how open to be.

Like most Volunteers, you may have difficulties with the machismo in Honduras. 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 in which men brag about sexual conquests or objectify women. You will have to develop personal strategies to deal with such situations.

Peace Corps staff are committed to supporting gay and bisexual Volunteers, but they may not always know how best to do so. You will need to be patient and willing to educate staff and other Volunteers about your needs. Peace Corps/Honduras has a Volunteer support group called GLOBE (for Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Experience) that meets quarterly and maintains an e-mail address. If you would like to contact GLOBE before your departure, send an e-mail to globehonduras@gmail.com.

Possible Religious Issues for Volunteers[edit]

Honduras is a predominantly Christian country, with the vast majority affiliated with either the Roman Catholic church or one of many Evangelical denominations. The Episcopal (Anglican) Church has a presence on the North Coast, the Bay Islands and some other cities, and there are synagogues in Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula.

In many areas, though, there is little knowledge among Hondurans of other world religions, and Volunteers of non-Christian faiths may experience stereotyping or misinformation about their religion. Volunteers should be prepared to be challenged by local people when they express or practice their own beliefs, but this is primarily the result of curiosity or ignorance. Many Volunteers choose not to draw attention to their own religion to avoid awkward or sensitive situations. This is a very personal choice that can only be made on an individual basis.

There is a strong Jewish community in Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula that has been very welcoming to Jewish Volunteers. Those who want more information about religious challenges in Honduras are encouraged to contact the COLORS support group.

Possible Issues for Volunteers With Disabilities[edit]

There is little consciousness of the needs of the physically challenged in Honduras. Volunteers with physical disabilities may find mobility difficult because the infrastructure does not make many accommodations for disabled people.

Nevertheless, as part of the medical clearance process, the Peace Corps Office of Medical Services determined that you were physically and emotionally capable, with or without reasonable accommodations, to perform a full tour of Volunteer service in Honduras without unreasonable risk of harm to yourself or interruption of your service. The Peace Corps/Honduras staff will work with disabled Volunteers to make reasonable accommodations in training, housing, job sites, and other areas to enable them to serve safely and effectively.

Possible Issues for Married Volunteers[edit]

Being a married couple in the Peace Corps has its advantages and its challenges. It helps to have someone by your side to share your experience with, but there are also cultural expectations that can cause stress in a marriage. It is important to remember that you are in a foreign country with new rules and you need to be open-minded about cultural differences. A couple may have to take on some new roles. A married man may be encouraged by Hondurans to be the more dominant member in the relationship, be encouraged to make decisions independently of his spouse, or be ridiculed when he performs domestic tasks. A married woman may find herself in a less independent role than she is accustomed to or may be expected to perform “traditional” domestic chores such as cooking or cleaning. Other issues may also arise: One spouse may be more enthusiastic about Peace Corps service, be better able to adapt to the new environment, or be less homesick than the other. Competition may arise if one spouse learns the language or other skills faster than the other.