Diversity and cross-cultural issues in Guatemala
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 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, our diversity poses challenges. In Guatemala, 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 Guatemala’s capital, residents of rural communities have had relatively little direct exposure to other cultures, races, religions, and lifestyles. What is advertised as “typical” cultural behavior or norms may also be a narrow and selective interpretation, such as the perception in some countries that all Americans are rich and have blond hair and blue eyes. The people of Guatemala 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 Guatemala, 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. 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.
- 1 Overview of Diversity in Guatemala
- 2 What Might A Volunteer Face?
Overview of Diversity in Guatemala
Peace Corps staff in Guatemala 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.
Peace Corps/Guatemala has an active Diversity Network. This is a Volunteer committee with several goals, including instituting a “buddy system” to match new Volunteers who may have some very specific concerns or questions they would like to discuss with an experienced Volunteer. The Diversity Network also assists with training and has a direct liaison with Peace Corps staff to discuss issues related to improving staff support to Volunteers.
What Might A Volunteer Face?
Possible Issues for Female Volunteers
In rural Guatemala, there is a genuine division between the roles of women and those of men. The degree of separation frequently leads people to rely on stereotypical beliefs about people of the opposite sex—men, with respect to women and vice versa. This dependence upon stereotypical images lends itself to the dehumanization of relations between men and women and to a situation in which people are viewed as objects. Unfortunately, the image of American women portrayed in popular television programs suggests that they are sexually available. Additionally, in some regions of Guatemala, male virility is identified with power and social dominance. Some female Volunteers find the numerous sexually explicit invitations they receive to be intolerably offensive. However, during Pre-Service Training Peace Corps/ Guatemala staff and Volunteers will help trainees develop strategies to deal with these issues.
Possible Issues for Volunteers of Color
The dynamic of racism does not play out in Guatemala in quite the same way as it does in the United States. The first identification of the Volunteer is as a gringo, an identification that is a mixture of proportions of admiration and resentment that vary from person to person. Gringos are typically thought of as being of Caucasian descent, rich, and sometimes overbearing. Therefore, Volunteers of color are often not initially viewed as gringos or even American. Stereotypically, all Asian Americans are described as chino and sometimes are assumed to be associated with the Korean clothing industry present in Guatemala. African Americans are called moreno or negro and often are thought to be Garifuna, a Guatemalan ethnic group primarily populating the Caribbean coast.
Volunteers of Latin and Southeast Asian descent are often assumed to be Guatemalan. Conversations with Guatemalans regarding one’s ethnicity and heritage are numerous, sometimes to the point of being annoying. However, this allows Volunteers the opportunity to educate host country nationals about the true nature of American diversity. Without a doubt, Volunteers of color have positive, rich and successful Peace Corps experiences in Guatemala.
Possible Issues for Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual Volunteers
In Guatemala, the common conception of homosexuality is different than that in the United States. Homosexuals are commonly thought to be gay men (not women) who dress in women’s clothes and are often prostitutes. If one doesn’t fit into this category, they are generally assumed to be heterosexual. However, homosexual relationships are considered by many to be taboo and could provoke serious reactions in rural communities. For Volunteers, there may be pressure to live more “in” than “out,” especially in rural communities, despite having been “out” in the United States.
Lesbians will have to deal with constant questions about boyfriends, marriage, and sex (as do all women). Wearing an “engagement ring” may help. Gay men must deal with machismo: talk of conquest(s), girl watching, and dirty jokes.
Most tourist destinations have a more relaxed attitude, and discrete homosexuality is less likely to provoke as severe a reaction as in village communities.
Despite generally negative perceptions of homosexuality within Guatemala, there are openly gay Guatemalans, as well as numerous gay organizations and businesses that cater to the gay population, especially in the capital. In addition, Peace Corps/Guatemala has as part of the Diversity Network an affinity group called Cuates (friends) that periodically organizes social outings for gay, lesbian, and bisexual Volunteers and friends.
Possible Religious Issues for Volunteers
Guatemala is a profoundly religious country where religion is public and emotional. For Volunteers used to a more contemplative or low-key religious tradition, it may be a challenge to identify other people who can support your faith.
Although Guatemala’s Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, almost all churches are either Roman Catholic or Christian Fundamentalist. In the tension between Catholics and Fundamentalists, there is little recognition of other faith communities, including Mayan religious practices. Many Guatemalans remain uninformed about Judaism and may have negative attitudes. Managing a conversation can be delicate and some Volunteers have had difficulty being open about their Jewish ethnicity. There is, however, a rich history of Jews in Guatemala and an active Jewish community that welcomes foreigners. There are also Hindu and Muslim communities in Guatemala. Peace Corps/Guatemala staff can provide information to Volunteers who are interested in connecting to various communities of faith.
Possible Issues for Volunteers with Disabilities
In the wake of 36 years of civil war, there are a number of people with permanent disabilities. However, there is virtually no consideration for handicap access in public transportation or in public buildings.
The Peace Corps Office of Medical Services, as part of the medical clearance process, determined that you were physically and emotionally capable, with or without reasonable accommodations, of performing a full tour of Volunteer service in Guatemala without unreasonable risk to yourself or interruption of your service. Peace Corps/Guatemala staff 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
Married couples may face unique challenges in Guatemala. For instance, a married man may be encouraged to be the more dominant member in the relationship. He may also be encouraged by the local culture to make decisions independent of his spouse’s views and to have his wife serve him. He may be ridiculed if he performs domestic tasks. On the other hand, a married woman may find herself in a less independent role than that to which she has been accustomed. She may also experience a more limited social life in the community than single Volunteers (since it may be assumed that she will be busy taking care of her husband). Additionally, she may be expected by the local culture to perform “traditional” domestic chores such as cooking or cleaning. Competition between a couple may become a difficulty, especially if one spouse learns faster than the other (e.g., language skills, job skills). There also may be differences in job satisfaction and/or different needs between spouses. Younger Volunteers may look to couples for advice and support. Married couples also are likely to be treated with more respect because the community sees marriage as a responsibility. They may be asked when they will have children.
PLEASE NOTE: Married couples will most likely NOT live together during pre-service training to allow them to develop their language skills, but there will be chances to spend time together.